By Stephen A. Cooper
Discussing his partnership with producer Phillip “Winta” James, reggae star Protoje said – in an interview with WaxPoetics, two years before the duo released “A Matter of Time,” one of the most heavily played reggae albums of 2018 – that when they first met, they “bonded on” the period in Jamaican music in the early 1980s, “when producers Junjo Lawes and Linval Thompson had an enduring run of work with the Roots Radics band and the engineer Scientist.”
Describing this same period of time in “Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae,” a seminal book about dub music pioneers such as Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock (1941-1989), Michael E. Veal, an associate professor of ethnomusicology at Yale University writes: “Scientist’s work reflected the harder mood in Kingston during the early 1980s”; Scientist’s unique mixing style “grew to sound harder, more urban, and more electronic than those of the earlier engineers at Tubby’s.”
Protoje said he even told Winta James before they teamed up on Protoje’s 2015 album “Ancient Future”: “That’s where I’m trying to go with the music. [Because] Scientist is who I really got in touch with[.] My favorite dub album ever is ‘Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires.’ That changed my life. I heard that in [the video game] Grand Theft Auto. That’s what opened me to dub music.”
Being a huge fan of the direction Protoje and Winta James have steered reggae music, and, because I too fell in love with dub through music engineered by Scientist, née Hopeton Brown, it was a great honor for me, at the tail end of last year, to not only meet Scientist, but to befriend him, too; we got to know each other and developed a mutual respect over the course of several very interesting and enjoyable phone conversations, and also, a lengthy in-person interview, on December 30, at a Thai restaurant across the street from Los Angeles’s historic Dub Club – a trendy spot for reggae in Los Angeles – a place that wouldn’t even exist without the innovations of Jamaican sound engineers like Scientist.
What follows is a transcription of “Round 1” of what will be a multi-part series encapsulating my extensive conversation with Scientist (“Round 2” will be released several weeks from now); it has been modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Mr. Brown, thanks again for taking the time to do this interview. I understand you just came back from doing a few shows in the U.K. with Winston Williams, also known as “Horseman.” How did that go?
Scientist: It went very well.
Q: Seeing as you were present in mostly all of the top recording studios in Jamaica when roots reggae and dub were born, and when many believe they peaked, in the 1970s into the early 1980s, and, that there’s no question [that] history will record you as [being] one of the greatest innovators and pioneers of the music, I have a lot to ask you today!
Q: As you said when we scheduled this interview, there exist many falsehoods and misconceptions about yourself and your highly distinguished career, many of which I hope we can address.
Q: Just to clear up some basic biographical information, I want to start with your name. Not the title of respect “Scientist,” by which everyone knowledgeable about reggae and dub [music] knows you. The story of how [famous Jamaican music producer] Bunny [“Striker”] Lee, together with King Tubby, christened you “Scientist” because your ideas about mixing and recording music, as well as the technological possibilities of the mixing console (including things like “moving faders”), were more advanced, and more predictive of the future of Jamaican music, and one could argue [by extension], all music, [than anyone else, even though you were but a teenager] – that story has been well told! But, in reading about you, I noticed that journalists and writers alternatively refer to you as “Hopeton Overton Brown,” “Overton Brown,” “Overton H. Brown,” and other similar permutations. What is your full birth name?
Scientist: My full birth name is “Hopeton Brown.” Those who know me from kindergarten know me as “Overton.” My Jamaican side of the family all call me “Overton.”
Q: How come?
Scientist: My grandfather mostly used to call me “Overton.” So anybody who knows me well from short pants-days, they know me as “Overton.”
Q: Now I read that you were raised in a fishing village called Harbour View, near the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston[,] [Jamaica]. Is that accurate?
Scientist: Yes, that’s very accurate.
Q: And is Harbour View also where you were born in 1960? S
Scientist: No, I was born in a more western part of Kingston. My first remembered residence was [on] Waterloo Road.
Q: What was Harbour View like growing up? What are some of your fondest memories of it?
Scientist: Learning how to smoke weed. (Laughing.) [And] I learned about His Majesty, Haile Selassie [I]. [Which] helped me to change some of my ways. Because I was getting ready to be on the wrong side of life. I met a couple of Rasta people out there. And they taught me about colonialism. [About] [h]ow the world is run by certain individuals, and what real Babylon was. So after that, I started to go on the right side of life.
Q: Now in an interview with DJ 745 last month in the U.K., you said you grew up with your grandparents.
Q: Specifically, you said they wanted you to grow up to be one of “those people [wearing] a suit and tie.”
Scientist: Yes. A lot of people grow up with a misconception that everybody in Jamaica smoke[s] weed. My grandfather was a police inspector. I was the embarrassment to the family.
Q: Wow. [You were the] [b]lacksheep?
Scientist: Yeah. They wanted me to take the bar [exam] like you, [become] a lawyer like you. [But] I hate suits. I hate dressing up. I couldn’t wear the uniform every day. I didn’t like going to church [and] dressing up every Sunday, choking [in] a tie. And then I would notice the same pastor pass all of us at the bus stop baking in the sun. Or getting wet in the rain. And he alone [was] driving an expensive car going to church.
Scientist: Hypocrisy! And then he talking about “oneness” and love.
Q: I was curious whether you lived under the same roof with your grandparents –
Q: – and also your father and mother?
Scientist: [Just] [m]y grandparents.
Q: Did there come a [time] where your family saw [that] you were successful in music and accepted what you were doing?
Scientist: Later on in life they started to accept it. Because one of the misconceptions was, whenever you see King Tubby in the newspaper, that he was part of a gang. Because every weekend you’d read in the newspaper [that] King Tubby’s sound [system, Tubby’s “Hometown Hi-Fi”] got shot up; police caught all these people with all kind of weapons. So my grandparents thought that [King Tubby] was influencing me the wrong way. I remember one day my grandmother run up to him and say, “You, you! Stop! Stop giving my grandson that thing to smoke!” Poor Tubby. He [didn’t] even smoke cigarettes.