Jamaican singer-songwriter and producer Prince Buster (1938-2016) died on September 8 in Miami at the age of 78. Born Cecil Bustamente Campbell in a rough neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, he came of age in the early 1960’s, cutting classic Jamaican sides in the Blue Beat and ska styles, precursors of the rocksteady and reggae styles that came a few years later.
I’ve always loved ska, its swinging upbeat, and the solos of ska trombonists like Rico Rodriguez. Ska rocks with a harder energy than reggae, and it’s great dance music. Unfortunately its popularity was eclipsed by reggae, but it never really went away and has become more popular in recent years. A ska enthusiast and collector once gave me a copy of Prince Buster’s 1962 hit “My Sound Goes Around” from his 7″ original side. The copy was loud and scratchy from lots of needle-drops, but I loved it.
Buster was a bit of a social leader. With his persona “Judge Dread,” he railed against “rude boy” lawlessness in Jamaica. In the 1960’s, he scored a string of hits produced by Coxsone Dodd of Studio One, which developed a style based on “sound systems,” portable turntables and DJ mixers with artists “toasting” (talking or chanting) over them. This music exerted a major influence in the early days of hip hop in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Many U.K. groups, such as The Specials, English Beat, and The Selector were influenced by ska. Ditto for U.K. punk bands including The Clash. One popular group, Madness, took its name from a popular Buster song. Prince Buster’s hits include “Al Capone,” “Madness is Gladness,” and “One Step Beyond.” His hit song “Ten Commandments” would probably be considered sexist and chauvinistic today. He also had a top 40 hit in 1998 when a Levi’s commercial used a remake of his song “Whine and Grine.”
He took his name “Prince Buster” when he was a boxer prior to his music career. A boxing fan, Buster met Muhammad Ali in London and was inspired to convert to the Nation of Islam. Buster stopped recording music in the 1970s, feeling that Rastafarian beliefs were incompatible with his newfound Islamic faith. He changed his name to Yusef Muhammad Ali, although he still went by the stage name Prince Buster.
Here are his songs “Judge Dread” and “Hard Man Fe Dead”: