By Stephen A. Cooper
If you’re a music lover the only thing better than interviewing Larry McDonald, one of the best percussionists in the world, is interviewing him twice. With more than fifty years of hand-drumming experience – congas primarily – for superstar performers in reggae, jazz, blues, and beyond (including Bob Marley, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Taj Mahal, Gil Scott-Heron, and more), McDonald’s accumulated knowledge, experience, and worldly wisdom are unparalleled.
What follows is a transcription of my second extensive interview of McDonald, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations. It was conducted immediately after his October 17 performance alongside Scratch and Subatomic Sound System at the Dub Club in Los Angeles, and, continued, a few days later, during a very enjoyable phone call.
The topics we discussed included: plans for a sequel to McDonald’s highly acclaimed 2009 album “Drumquestra”; McDonald’s longtime friendship with Steel Pulse keyboardist and producer Sidney Mills; the massive impact of Scratch’s “Blackboard Jungle Dub” album; McDonald’s time playing at Scratch’s Black Ark Studio; Joe Higgs’s influence on reggae and how Higgs doesn’t get enough credit; differences in touring and reggae audiences now that McDonald is in his 80s as compared to when he was in his 30s; changes in McDonald’s style and approach to drumming over the years; and much, much more. Enjoy!
Q: Larry, it’s great to see you. Wicked show tonight, congratulations! It’s almost [been] a full year since I last saw you last, right here, at the Dub Club [in Los Angeles]. How’s this last year been for you? What [was] the best part?
Larry McDonald: Wow, I wasn’t keeping track.
Q: Just off of the top of the dome. What was [a] highlight?
Larry McDonald: Well, a highlight was [the magazine] Modern Drummer called me and did an interview and sent a photographer; the whole nine. I thought that was pretty cool. It hasn’t come out yet. It was recent. Maybe [it’ll be out] in December.
Q: Cool. We’ll [all] be on the lookout for that. Now last time I saw you, you mentioned that in addition to playing with Scratch, you were jamming with the New York City Ska Orchestra, and [also,] that you were seriously considering a [sequel] to your masterpiece debut [album], “Drumquestra.” Is that still the plan?
Larry McDonald: Yes. It’s still the plan. And I’m putting together material. [So] I’m in the process of ignoring [other] sh*t to do the stuff as I see it.
Q: Are you going to work with [veteran producer and longtime keyboardist for Steel Pulse] Sidney Mills again?
Larry McDonald: Probably. Yeah. We go back a [long time]. Sidney is one of my kids.
Q: When you say that, what do you mean?
Larry McDonald: When I met Sidney, he was a young guy, he was with a group called “Calabash,” and he was working out of HC&F Studio in Freeport[, a town just outside of New York City]. Everybody recorded something [at HC&F]. If they didn’t lay tracks there, it was mixed there, it was voiced there, [or] it was overdubbed there. That’s how it was. I think Shaggy’s first hit came out of there. A bunch of people [had hits] they made out there. So Sidney was like one of my kids. I used to do a lot of production work [at HC&F], you know? Sidney was the keyboard player I used. A lot.
Larry McDonald: Yeah. We became tight, you know? And I’d make him play stuff that he wouldn’t necessarily have played if I didn’t want it, you know? (Laughing).
Q: So you’d challenge [Sidney] musically?
Larry McDonald: Yeah. But it was just like expanding his horizon[s], you know? Like if I was doing a tune or something that was out of context, not in the idiom or whatever, I’d get it played [at HC&F Studio with Sidney]. Sidney hadn’t linked up with Steel Pulse yet, you know? So we were all just musicians in the pool. And I was somewhat older than most of them. So, you know, we became pretty close. And because of doing that early work up there, Sidney knows how I think. And pretty much what I’d go for, you know? Like when I was doing [Drumquestra], I needed to be off from time to time dealing with some stuff when I should [have] be[en], strictly speaking, in the studio. But there was other stuff I was contracted to do. And I could leave [Sidney] to do [everything in the studio himself]. [But,] a couple of the tunes I [probably should] have been there for. But they were rescued. Like the tune “Got Jazz.” The one that Bob Andy sang? I wasn’t there that day [in the studio]. But with Bob and Sidney [together], I knew everything would be cool. I mean how far could they go off of the thing, you know? (Laughing). So we did it. And then we came back to New York and Sidney and I listened to it. And I was like, “Where’s the bridge? We can’t put this out without the bridge.” Because originally, I’d written it as an instrumental. So [Sidney] said, “If the bridge is going on it, you’re going to have to sing it, because we can’t bring Bob Andy [to New York] from Jamaica.” (Laughing.) Yeah, so, I did that. And there’s another one that I used my voice –
Q: I didn’t know you could sing, Larry.
Larry McDonald: I didn’t either. (Laughing.)
Q: (Laughing) That’s hilarious. What track is that again?
Larry McDonald: Got Jazz. And there’s another one, “Mento In 3.” And that’s the track where I used my voice as the bass. And [Sidney] insisted that I do each segment of it, right? I couldn’t do like 16 of them perfect and just fly it in. I had to do every last one of them. Look, I guess that’s why you get a producer, okay? So I’m finished now. So I said to [Sidney], “you sure we’re finished in there?” And he said, “Yeah man, I got everything that I want.” And I said, “I’m glad [because] I’m not going back in there [again].” And he said, “Well that’s really the payback, you know?” I said, “Payback for what!?” He said, “All those nights we were pulling all-nighters at HC&F [Studio], and I had to sleep under the piano because I couldn’t get back to Brooklyn. And I’m tired the next day.” And so he said, “That’s a little bit of payback. Just so you know.” (Laughing.)
Q: (Laughing) I’m glad I asked. Because I thought it was significant when you decided to put out your debut album – after more than four decades – that you chose to work with Sidney [Mills] as your producer; that [struck me] as a significant [decision]. That’s why I wanted to explore your relationship with him a bit more.
Larry McDonald: We’ve got that junior—senior thing going on, you know? He keeps my nose in the stuff that’s happening out there now. And I ground him in the history and the foundation.
Q: Larry, when you and Scratch were last in town with Subatomic Sound System, you were promoting the “Super Ape Returns to Conquer” album. But this tour is focused more on “Blackboard Jungle Dub” [overwhelmingly credited as the first dub album ever]. Now I know you were heavily involved in a lot of the music Scratch made at [his] famous Black Ark Studio; did you also play on the original Blackboard Jungle Dub [in 1973]?
Larry McDonald: See, when I use to go there, I never used to hear who the featured artist was. There was a track, and they wanted me to play on the track. So I played on the track. And it might end up on Max Romeo’s record, [or] it might end up on Bob [Marley]’s record –
Q: Scratch wouldn’t necessarily let you know if your [work] was on [a particular] record?
Larry McDonald: No, well, you weren’t about to ask him [back then] – you’ve got to cut the session, you know? And I’d go in and do some stuff. And I’d leave. I’d get some money the next time I come back. You see, it was at a time when my [percussion] was suspect even to me. I’d get the odd recording session and all of that. But I was just one of the cats trying to make it. I was trying to find out what I wanted to say musically, you know? Because that was still early in my [career]. [And] no matter what I wanted to play, [Scratch] was down with it. Because he liked all that odd stuff. Basically, to this day, producers don’t really know what to do with the percussionist when it comes to reggae. Because they’re not familiar with them like they are with the guitar players. Or the bass players. Or the keyboard players. Or the horn players. And the percussionist has too much autonomy. They really can’t tell you what to play. They can tell you what they’re thinking. And you try to match it. But it’s usually part of something that you just play that they like. And they want to hear more of that, you know? So I learned early to say, “Okay, fine.” And then, pretty much do what the tune needed or wanted, you know? The tune makes me want to do stuff, and then I do it, you know? I do stuff that they want, and then I beg for another track.
Q: But do you know [now] whether any of your drums [can be] heard on [the] Blackboard Jungle Dub [album]? Is it possible and [you] just don’t know?
Larry McDonald: It might not be drums, it might be hand-percussion. The thing is I don’t like to claim stuff. Because there were other percussionists around [the Black Ark at that time too]: There was Sticky [Uziah Thompson]. Scully [Noel Simms]. My partner, Denzel Laing.
Q: Can you say [that last] name again?
Larry McDonald: Laing. L-A-I-N-G. We had a couple of minor hits together. And so, [since] people tend to think I was the only one [playing percussion for Lee Scratch Perry at the Black Ark], I’m not quick to claim stuff.
Q: When you first heard the Blackboard Jungle Dub in 1973, from the first track to the last, what was your reaction to it?
Larry McDonald: It was like all this sh*t together in one place. Nobody had heard anything like that [before] –
Q: When you say that, do you mean it was like a blueprint?
Larry McDonald: It’s like – nobody had heard stuff like that. Neither produced like that, nor presented like that. Okay, there are still Jamaicans today who can’t stand reggae. But I’m saying, forget all that, this was the sh*t when it came out! See, actually, the music gotta fight. People tried to put it down. It was too sadistic –
Q: When you say people were [putting the music down], who in Jamaica was doing that?
Larry McDonald: There was a segment of the population. And I can’t imagine [it], but there are still people in Jamaica who are not too keen on reggae, you know? [But] [t]hey come out of the country and they claim it, you know? Since that’s [one] of the only things people know [about Jamaica and Jamaicans].