Sugar Minott’s role in globalizing reggae and dancehall can’t be understated. At the same time, he never lost his local relevance in Jamaica. Coming up as a selector through Kingston soundsystems and as a singer in the African Brothers group, he built a solid recording catalog through Studio One and other labels before launching his own Black Roots imprint. His first release through VP was the lovers rock single “New Love” in 1980, a strong statement in a reggae subgenre he helped establish. He would have five albums and dozens of singles released through VP before his death in 2010, but the most artistically successful release through VP was the 12-inch single of his production of Tenor Saw’s “Lots Of Sign” in 1985, now an all-time dancehall anthem, including as part of VP’s Down In Jamaica – 40 Years Of VP Records deluxe box set.
Few artists had the impact on Jamaica’s dancehall scene as Sugar Minott. His releases provided the blueprints for the rise of the contemporary dancehall style, he was also equally influential as a producer, and his extraordinarily popular sound system helped launch numerous new DJs into the limelight. Lincoln Barrington Minott was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on May 25, 1956. He began his career in the sound systems while still a child, working as a selector for the Sound of Silence Keystone outfit, before launching his own Gathering of Youth sound system just as he hit his teens. There, too, he carried on merely as the selector. However, in 1969, Minott decided to take the mike himself, not as a DJ, but as a singer, one third of the African Brothers roots trio, alongside Tony Tuff and Derrick Howard. The group initially made its way around the amateur talent show circuit, but eventually linked up with the Micron label. African Brothers released a number of singles over the next few years, including “Party Night,” “Gimme Gimme African Love,” and “A Di System” cut with producer Jah Bunny. The trio also began self-producing (its first attempt was “Torturing”), and then launched its own Ital label. By this time, the trio’s Abyssinians influence was becoming prominent, as can be heard on “Righteous Kingdom,” “Youths of Today,” and “Lead Us Father.”
In 1974, African Brothers cut “Mysterious Nature” with producer Rupie Edwards, which brought them to the attention of Studio One. Their debut song for that label, “No Cup No Broke, was also their last, and the trio split to pursue solo careers. (Tony Tuff would continue his cultural career before switching with great success to dancehall.) In 1987, the Uptempo label gathered up the African Brothers singles for the compilation album Collectors Item, crediting it to Sugar Minott & the African Brothers. Coxsone Dodd was keen to keep Minott, whose talents extended beyond vocals and into session work as both a guitarist and drummer. However, the artist had an even more innovative talent tucked away — an extraordinary ability to compose new lyrics to old songs.
In a scene split between toasters and deep roots, Minott had invented an entirely new style and Dodd was quick to take advantage. It was pure serendipity, or incredible forethought, that the rhythms the pair used were ones that would soon be tearing up the dancehalls. It took a few releases for the Jamaican public to catch on, but by 1978, Minott had his first hit with the single “Vanity.” More quickly followed and before the year was out, he released his debut album, Live Loving, which many credit as the first true dancehall album. It would revolutionize the entire Jamaican musical scene. Minott’s follow-up album, 1979’s Showcase, was equally revolutionary and included not just dub versions, but featured the hip new syndrums that would soon rule the dancehalls. Both albums also doubled as hits collections, and included such smashes as “Wrong Doers,” “Oh Mr. DC,” “House Is Not a Home,” and such Niney Holness-produced chart-busters as “No Vacancy,” “Give Thanks and Praise,” and “Babylon.”
In 1983, the Hitbound label gathered up a batch of the Holness-produced hits on With Lots of Extra, making up the numbers with extra songs that were equally good. The singer scored another major hit with “Never Too Young,” produced by Prince Jammy, who also oversaw Minott’s third album, 1979’s Bitter Sweet. But that did little to prepare listeners for Minott’s third full-length release that year, the phenomenal Ghetto-ology, a deeply roots album featuring such tracks as “Dreader Than Dread,” “Never Gonna Give Jah Up,” and “Africa Is the Black Man’s Home.” A superb dub companion remixed by King Tubby in one of his final projects accompanied the album, and in 2000 the Easy Star label appended this to Ghetto-ology’s CD reissue. The album was the beginning of Minott’s move into a dread sound. Black Roots, its follow-up, picked up precisely where its predecessor left off and continued down the deep roots path. However, Roots Lovers, also released in 1980, showed a seismic shift in direction as Minott moved strongly into the lovers rock arena, while still maintaining a roots approach. Minott’s energy and enthusiasm seemed boundless and this year also saw the launch of his own labels, Youth Promotion and Black Roots. He debuted his new labels with the self-produced “Man Hungry” and followed it up with “Hard Time Pressure.” That latter single was Minott’s British debut and went down a storm. That, coupled with the success of Roots Lovers in a U.K. in the feverish grip of lovers rock frenzy, prompted the singer to relocate to London after he played Reggae Sunsplash that same year.
Minott may have been on the other side of the Atlantic but this did not put a dent in his release schedule, and new singles continued to appear with amazing regularity. Alvin Ranglin oversaw “Not for Sale,” there was a clutch cut with Linval Thompson including “Run Come” and “Hold On,” while Ranking Dread oversaw “African Girl,” the title track from Minott’s new album. It was Donovan Germain, however, who helped Minott achieve his first U.K. hit with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Good Thing Going.” This brought a distribution deal with the RCA label for the smash hit follow-up album Good Thing Going. One of the masterpieces of the lovers rock era, Good Thing was to be Minott’s last new album for two years, given that the market was now being glutted by compilations of older material. In the meantime, the singer released a string of seminal singles, “Lover’s Rock,” a cover of David Gates’ “Make It with You” (a duet with Carroll Thompson), “In a Dis Ya Time,” “Africa,” and many more.
Meanwhile, Minott also returned to Jamaica to look after his labels. They were not merely vanity outfits, but real concerns, where the singer nurtured young talent. He financed his efforts by freelancing around the studios, cutting tracks for numerous producers and labels. But in truth, Minott loved the workload and would have inevitably been just as prolific even if he didn’t have a business to support. He celebrated his return home to Jamaica in fine style with a stunning performance at Reggae Sunsplash in 1983; he would appear annually at the festival for the next three years.
Jamaica had undergone a dancehall revolution in his absence and Minott was keen to participate, releasing the Dance Hall Showcase album that same year. The singer was back in top form in 1984, releasing a trio of albums and a string of hit singles. Herbman Hustling was first off the mark and featured a sublime blend of dancehall styles and roots sensibilities, with a touch of lovers rock thrown in for good measure. Slice of the Cake was overshadowed by its predecessor, but was still a stellar dancehall record fired by the Roots Radics, while the Lloyd Barnes-produced Wicked Ago Feel It equally embraced both cultural and lovers themes. A fourth album was actually recorded with Sly & Robbie, although it did not appear until 1986. However, the pairing did produce the single “Rub a Dub Sound Style,” which predated ragga but certainly heralded the new style’s imminent birth. Another trio of albums, Leader of the Pack, Rydim, and Time Longer Than Rope, arrived in 1985, along with a further string of singles. The latter two albums were both produced by George Phang and boasted the unmistakable rhythms of Sly & Robbie. There was also an excellent clash album with Leroy Smart, Award Winners, and a slew of singles. Somehow, Minott also found time to launch his own sound system, Youth Promotion, with Jah Stitch brought in as selector. Like his labels, the Youth Promotion outfit was a hands-on concern. Minott gave a host of hopefuls a crack at the big time, going on to record the best on his own labels. Ranking Joe, Captain Sinbad, and Ranking Dread all got their start there, while Abashanti, another artist mentored by the singer, was even brought to Reggae Sunsplash, where he appeared beside Minott in 1985 and 1986. The British label Uptempo’s Presenting the Posse features a host of the sound system’s talent and even adds some dub mixes from Peter Chemist as an added bonus.
Over the years, Minott’s labels released cuts from the likes of Junior Reid, Tenor Saw, and Barry Brown, and while none would equal Minott’s own, the label head gave as much attention to his artists as to himself. Sugar & Spice, recorded two years previously with Sly & Robbie and featuring the single “Rub a Dub Style,” finally saw release in 1986, as did a number of re-recorded songs from Herbman Hustling. A new album also arrived in the form of the hits-heavy Inna Reggae Dance Hall, a classic record of ragga roots dancehall style. Then it was back to New York and a reunion with Lloyd Barnes for Jamming in the Streets the following year. A pairing with Gregory Isaacs resulted in the Double Dose album from the sweetest and smoothest vocal duo brought together on record.
An entire shelf-full of albums arrived in 1988. Minott recorded Buy Off the Bar with George Phang, and had a major hit with the title track, which boasted a fabulous rhythm courtesy of Sly & Robbie. Sufferer’s Choice also features the duo’s sharp rhythms; it was overseen by Peter Chemist, who created a fabulous mix of cultural cuts and lover’s concerns. Lovers Rock Inna Dance Hall created a similar split of theme and sound, while Ghetto Youth Dem Rising and Sugar Minott & Youth Promotion also kept the singer’s name on the street. Equally of note was that same year was African Soldier, a concept album concerned with the current state of the continent. It contained some of Minott’s most passionate lyrics and emotive vocals, but was mangled by the synth-heavy arrangements and lightweight dancefloor pop production. Around this time, Minott linked with a teenaged hopeful named Frankie Paul on the Joe Gibbs-produced Showdown, Vol. 2, a showcase for both the veteran and the young superstar to be. Meanwhile, Black Roots released the Best Of, Vol. 1 compilation, bundling up a clutch of the label’s releases. (In 1999, the Easy Street label would gather up two volumes’ worth of Black Roots material, boasting both hits and unreleased tracks for the Sugar Minott’s Hidden Treasures collections, albums that for once live up to their advertising.)
But by the end of the ’80s, Black Roots was closed and Minott’s star was starting to fade. The Boss Is Back suggested the opposite was true, while the upbeat Ghetto Child saw the singer flirting with an urban contemporary sound, but in the end, this album too just seems lightweight. Perhaps Minott had simply taken on too much or spread himself too thin, and his work was now suffering in the process. However, he continued to make the studio rounds and released some quite good singles, while a successful appearance at Reggae Sunsplash in 1989 boded well for the future. In the new decade, Minott recorded two albums for Jammys, 1990’s Smile and the following year’s A Touch of Class. While neither were totally disposable, they certainly weren’t his greatest work. Perhaps in an attempt to shake things up, the singer recorded Happy Together, also released in 1991, and arguably his most adventurous album ever. Recorded in New York, London, and Kingston with a variety of musicians, the record is a blossoming of innovative musical hybrids, a true magical mystery tour. Run Things, two years, later was nowhere near as innovative. The following year’s Breaking Free found Minott working with Tapper Zukie and was a strong return to form with some stunning cultural numbers.
Scientist oversaw 1996’s International, an equally strong set, while the next year’s Musical Murder and 1999’s Easy Squeeze found the singer still a force to be reckoned with. In many ways, he was doing his best work on-stage, as proven by his performances at Reggae Sunsplash in 1992, 1995, and 1996. In the studio, meanwhile, he was cutting his best material on singles in collaborations with other artists: 1992’s “Wah Them a Do,” with former protégé Junior Reid, was a crucial cut; equally good was “Chow,” a 1994 single that paired the singer with the gruff-voiced DJ Shaggy, while another notable release, “Wise Up,” partnered him with Mutabaruka. In the 2000s Minott remained a popular live performer, with his studio work largely limited to guest appearances, although he released the occasional album as leader, including 2008’s New Day, featuring appearances by Toots Hibbert, Sly Dunbar, Dwight Pickney, and Andrew Tosh. Sugar Minott had been diagnosed with heart problems in 2009, and died on July 10, 2010 following his admittance to a Kingston hospital after he had complained of feeling poorly. He was 54 years old.