Wycliffe "Steely" Johnson has passed away.
Keyboardist and producer Wycliffe "Steely" Johnson, half of the production team Steely & Clevie and thus one of the most outstanding and influential producers of dancehall music ever, died on Tuesday morning 1st September 2009 in East Patchogue NY. The cause was a heart attack following pneumonia. Steely had moved to Brooklyn this summer for treatment of kidney problems related to hypertension and diabetes. He died at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital several weeks after surgery for a blood clot in the brain.
A TRUE PIONEER OF DANCEHALL.
There's always been a riddim section that has dominated in reggae. In the 70s it were the Barrett Brothers who drove The Upsetters and Bob Marrley's Wailers, the late 70s/early 80s belonged to Sly & Robbie, but by 1986 reggae required a team fully conversant with computerized music: Wycliffe "Steely" Johnson and Cleveland "Clevie" Browne fulfilled that role. In contrast to previous eras the computerization of the music in the mid-80s made that just two musicians could make a session band, and in the immediate post-"Sleng Teng" period it were the two seasoned professionals Steely & Clevie who became the dominant band.
Steely and Clevie met each other in the early 70s, started jamming together and then were invited to play on an Augustus Pablo session for Hugh Mundell's album "Africa Must Be Free by 1983", their first recording ever. In the late 70s Clevie started to play with the popular show band The In Crowd, while Steely became the original keyboard player with the Roots Radics Band which backed Gregory Isaacs, Bunny Wailer and numerous other artistes both on tour and in the recording studio.
Steely and Clevie came together again as the house riddim section at King Jammy's studio in 1986. Alongside engineer Bobby "Digital" Dixon and arranger Mikey Bennett they rapidly took King Jammy's output to a whole new level, along the way becoming the undisputed masters of the form. The duo built the now-classic digital riddims of the latter half of the 80s largely with two battery-powered mini synths (the digital Yamaha DX100 and Casio CZ101 for melodic and chordal parts, and the analogue Yamaha CS01 for basslines) and an Oberheim DX drum machine. Steely and Clevie maintained a relentless pace, cutting upwards of ten digital sides a week for King Jammy, as well as somehow finding the time to provide the backing for as many as 70% of the singles in the JA hit parade, for labels like Redman International, Penthouse, Music Works, and Techniques. Name brand artists like Cocoa Tea, Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor and Frankie Paul all had a series of massive hits on the duo's riddims. They also launched the new crop of hardcore dancehall artists like Admiral Bailey, Shabba Ranks, Cutty Ranks, Tiger, Johnny P and Ninjaman. By 1988 Bobby Digital, Mikey Bennett and Steely & Clevie had all formed their own labels.
The first release on Steely & Clevie's own imprint was in the newly fashionable 'combination style', bringing together one of the most talented emerging singers and a vintage deejay whose biggest hit had come a decade before. Leroy Gibbons & Dillinger's 'Bruk Camera" confirmed Steely & Clevie's status as the master builders of hard computerized riddims that still retained very musical qualities. Subsequent discs demonstrated that the duo was establishing its own finely crafted sound, with inspired touches in the pared-down mixes and advanced use of sampling. Important local hits like Ninjaman's "Murder Dem", and Cutty Ranks' "Retreat" showed their knack of bringing out the best in the new generation deejays then coming out of the dance halls. The vocal tunes they released alongside them were no less inspired, further showing the duo's respect for tradition. Freddie McGregor's version of Little Roy's "Prophecy" rode the same fresh-sounding cut of the "Peanut Vendor" riddim that supported Foxy Brown's interpretation of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car".
Steely & Clevie also utilized riddims derived from the music associated with the religious cult of Pocomania. Records with a back-to-church feel from various producers appeared in quantity, but few rode as interesting a riddim as Gregory Peck's furiously paced "Pocoman Jam" for Steely & Clevie. In 1990 the duo came up with one of their most successful records ever when they rebuilt Winston Riley´s "Stalag 17" riddim. With Reggie Stepper they recorded "Drum Pan Sound", a lethal soundbwoy boast that became an enormous hit throughout the reggae world. They continued to make hits in the 90s and in the new millenium creating the super popular "Street Sweeper", "Ice Pick", "Bitter Blood", "Bad Weather" and "Sleepy Dog" riddims. Steely & Clevie were the composers of the undeniably most popular dancehall instrumental known as the "Punnany Riddim", which was produced by King Jammy. This instrumental has been sampled and re-used more than any other dancehall track.
With more than three decades of solid hits Steely has an enviable repertoire and is a true legend of Jamaican music.
Sources: "The Rough Guide To Reggae", "The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Reggae", "Pete Murder Tone's aricle "The Other Riddim Twins", and FiWEH.com
Interview with Steely & Clevie, Seattle 2005.