"Reggae music is the soundtrack for me...You can learn everything from Reggae Music. It is a music that is probably the most conscious. Put aside Gospel music, there isn’t really any music that really has that spirituality to it more than Reggae, whether you’re a Rastafarian or not, the spirituality is within the music."A while back, I had the honour of reasoning with Bitty McLean; a man of many talents, and one of the most prominent figures representing the British Reggae scene. In this interview, we get an insight into Bitty’s musical journey, what Reggae music means to him personally, and what we can expect from the new album Taxi Sessions which has just been released.
Firstly, where did the name Bitty derive from?
The name Bitty came from my Grandmother when I was born, because I was very small as a baby. My real name is Delroy McLean but my Grandmother christened me ‘Bitty,’ which was a family name even before I was christened Delroy. The whole family from my grandparents, to my uncles and aunties knew me as Bitty from a small baby, so that’s where the name stems from.
Engineering was your initial profession, what brought you to make such a transition?
I was always interested in the technical side of music. Even though I could sing from the young age of 10, it wasn’t really a career move so to speak, I didn’t really see singing as a career at that age. Like I say, I was always interested in the technical side of music; I used to build my own speaker boxes and stuff because my Dad used to have a little sound system. I was always interested in how you get the sound from the turntable and the mixer to the amps and the speakers, and that just fascinated me. So when I left school at 16, I enrolled in a sound engineering course and I spent two years at college learning sound engineering. I was fortunate enough to be taught by a lecturer who had worked for UB40 so when they were looking for an assistant he said “Yeh Bitty’s the guy; a young kid, he’s really into his music, he really knows his stuff,” and I got the job as an assistant in their studio. I worked there for 3 years, worked through the ranks, done backing vocals, played on some of the UB40 tracks, and that was really the thing that kick-started the singing. I had the opportunity to be in a world class studio with world class equipment, so I just got in and started recording demos. It Keeps Raining and all of my early 90’s recordings came from that era of just getting in the studio and doing little demos, so that’s where it began, that was the real push as to seeing if it could become a career and just really going for it.
You reached #2 in the UK charts with Let It Rain and this really was just the start of your presence in the UK Top 10. How did this feel?
Oh man, like you’re floating in the clouds! Before It Keeps Raining became a chart hit, I pressed 500 white labels. Ali Campbell from UB40 gave me an advance on my wages and I pressed some records. I was out pouting it around in record companies and record shops and nothing really kick started. But I sent one record to a guy called Neil Ferry who ran a plugging company representing people like Prince, Janet Jackson etc, and he heard It Keeps Raining and said “That’s a hit record, we need to do something.” So we got talking and within two months, it was number 2 in the charts. Although I had been on the sound system scene, It Keeps Raining just blew up in such a way that people were thinking “Where did he come from, where did this Bitty McLean come from?” but I’d been around on the underground circuit for some time. So it was It Keeps Raining that really kicked off the door so to speak, and the rest is history…
Despite all of your successes in the 90’s, you went on to record for several recording artists all over the World. Can you elaborate a bit on this for us?
My career went through a quiet spell after the first two albums, then my record company closed down and stuff like that so I went back to producing. It’s really funny because it was very quiet and then I had a call from Hawaii from a label that was searching to licence a couple of my songs. That was really the thing that kick-started me back into singing, and production as well. They invited me to go to Hawaii and produce for one of their artists who had a massive radio record, a big chart hit with what I’d produced, and another artist called Fiji who’s a big artist in Hawaii. It then snowballed from there; I got calls from Holland and the Seychelles islands with people saying “Oh yeh, Bitty, UB40, Bitty McLean, we’d love you to work with us” so that was like another avenue from the singing. It’s really easy to become a casualty in this business; you don’t have much success, people forget you, and if you haven’t got something else to turn to it can be the end for a lot of artists. There are so many artists, even from the 90’s era that have been forgotten. Chart positions were really the way that your career ran, if you didn’t get chart positions - your career was over which is kinda unfair because a chart position doesn’t really justify someone’s talent. Bob Marley never had #1 singles in England, I think he had a Top 10, but it doesn’t mean that Bob Marley wasn’t a great worldwide artist. So chart positions are kinda unfair but that was the way the culture was within the UK and the States. If you didn’t get instant chart hits, you were off the label, you were dropped, and stuff like that. So for me, going back to production work was like going back to square one because that’s where I began as an engineer and production work. It was good to go back to that and do some writing as well; I worked with the UK songwriters who worked for artists like Eternal and loads of the top artists in the 90’s which again was another avenue to develop as a songwriter as well. So there were a lot of things going on in the late 90’s up until maybe 2002, 2003. Then 2003 - 2004 was the Bond Street album where songs like Walk Away From Love came out from so it has been busy, even though not in the limelight, it has still been busy behind the scenes.
Throughout your career you’ve done a substantial amount of work with Sly and Robbie…
I worked with Sly & Robbie back in 1995, but it was again record company politics. We recorded an album that was never released through Virgin Records, but I always kept a link with Sly and we talked from time to time. Then after the success of Walk Away From Love, there’s a guy that I work with now that spoke to Sly and said “Do you know a singer called Bitty McLean and do you fancy getting together and working on a project,” and Sly & Robbie just said “Yeh, of course - anything,” because they’d known me from ’95. It was a great opportunity - I went down to Jamaica in 2006 and we made some riddim tracks, I came back here and voiced in London, and that was the Moving On album which is the current album with songs like The Real Thing…
Yes, that is a personal favourite.
And we didn’t play that tonight!
I know, I was waiting for it in the set…
Oh no! The Real Thing was at the top of the set but sometimes you look at the crowd and think “Let’s move it, let’s shift” and before I knew it we were at Walk Away From Love and I thought “Yeh, let’s keep the vibe going!” But yeh The Real Thing... (Bitty shakes his head) I’m sorry, next time, oh man…
That’s OK, I forgive you.
(Smiles) It always happens like that. I don’t work with the set list, the band hate me for that. I look and think “No, we can’t do that now” “That’s only gonna work there” and just flip the script but next time, I promise.
Alright, this year marks Jamaica’s 50th Independence, and with Reggae Music being a major part of the culture, what does Reggae music mean to you?
Reggae music is the soundtrack for me. It’s funny because you hear a lot of people say we were born and raised in England and we weren’t taught about our tradition and our culture but if you listen to Reggae music; albums like Burning Spear - Marcus Garvey, or Culture - Cumbolo, there’s so much music within the Reggae field which will teach you about your culture, and teach you about people like Marcus Garvey. You can learn everything from Reggae Music. It is a music that is probably the most conscious. Put aside Gospel music, there isn’t really any music that really has that spirituality to it more than Reggae, whether you’re a Rastafarian or not, the spirituality is within the music. Not even just Reggae, but from the days of Ska. You had musicians like Tommy McCook and Don Drummond who would go to the hills of Wareika and jam with people like Count Ossie, so the whole background of people like Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey is relevant to the music. Maybe not now because times have changed and Dancehall is the focal point of where the music is, but when we talk about Reggae music; it is spiritual and conscious. For someone who does not know about their culture, they can go and listen to albums like Burning Spear - Marcus Garvey and that will teach them what Reggae music is about.
Touching on Dancehall, I’d call Dancehall a branch of Reggae, would you say that the music is losing its real essence?
No, I think it’s just developing but not necessarily in a way that someone like me who’s 40 years old can appreciate. I don’t want to be like my parents were when we were listening to Johnny Osbourne singing (Bitty begins to sing Johnny Osbourne - Buddy Bye) saying “Tek off them fool fool music!” So I’m not really going to become like that with the young generation, that’s their thing; the Vybz Kartel, the Mavado etc. It’s like I’m going to be growing into my parents age of “Them music nuh say nothing” so I don’t really want to go down that avenue. I just think it’s a transition, but there are people that appreciate what’s going on in Dancehall nowadays. I kinda go up to the late 80’s so people like Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, Dennis Brown and Johnny Osbourne. Anything up to the late 80’s going right back to RnB and Jazz and Rhythm and Blues. There’s so much music within that era, that’s me. You’re not going to see me on stage doing the Dutty Wine and those things (Laughs.) That’s just not my era. I’m just being honest, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to disrespect artists that are doing their thing. I think it’s a transition and there are young people that appreciate it. Dancehall is dance music, whereas Reggae in the time when we were growing up wasn’t just dance music, it was food for thought, and I don’t think Dancehall music is really food for thought, it’s entertainment, it’s fun. I mean, you go to Europe and you see kids dancing and enjoying themselves to Dancehall music and the same applies all over the World so it isn’t something for me to criticise in that sense. The only thing to criticise is maybe the lyrical content, but then who am I to tell anyone what to write or sing about.
Your new album with Sly & Robbie is expected in the latter stages of the year, what can we expect from this album?
Back to roots. What we done with the new album is went back in the studio as a live band as opposed to just programming riddims and stuff, so it was me, Sly, Robbie, and Robbie Lynn. I just sang, and Sly, Robbie, and Robbie Lynn built riddims around the vocal. We went back to how things used to be in the Studio One days; we would audition the song, and then the musicians would complement the song. So we went right back to how it was done and just captured it, rehearsed the song once and put it to tape. It was a nice way of working, a different way of working, especially in this day and age where there’s so much overdosing done in the studio. You work on the same song for weeks and months. It was just "Let’s capture it," so it’s a different vibe. It’s Rocksteady, it’s Roots, it’s Rub-A-Dub, it’s authentic, it’s nothing out of the mould. Not saying that I’m in the comfort zone, but it’s authentic and staying true to the roots of what we love.
Finally, when you last went to Jamaica, you wrote a song with Beres Hammond…
Yes, that’s correct.
How was that whole experience?
Ah man, amazing. Beres is a gentleman and I respect Beres as someone who is one of the cornerstones where DJ and Dancehall music have been so prevalent. There aren’t many singers coming out of Jamaica anymore, we’ve got Tarrus, Romain Virgo, Etana but you’d say 3 to 6 singers at a time. Whereas when we were growing up, there were singers galore. So for Beres Hammond, I really respect that he has remained staunch; producing good music, exhibiting good songwriting, and delivering good performances. You have to take your hat off to Beres Hammond, so being in Beres’ company was just a very special day. Just hanging out and vybing and saying “Yeh, what do you think about that line?” “Here’s my line, you sing your line.” Overall it was just a great experience and I hope we can do it again real soon.
Well thank you, I hope everything goes well with the forthcoming album, tonight was a great show.
We keep our fingers crossed and just give thanks and praise for life and keep going.
To keep up with the real thing, you can also find Bitty McLean on Facebook and Twitter. The new album entitled The Taxi Sessions is also available now.