Music legend Chris Blackwell has been on the cutting edge of music and film since he started Island Records in 1959. He turned the world onto reggae through Bob Marley and is considered the “Father of World Music” in the West. He has signed, produced and released albums with an incredible variety of artists from Bob Marley, U2, Tom Waits, Free, and Cat Stevens, to King Sunny Ade and Baaba Maal, to name a few. To top it off, in 2001 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Dr. L: So many of your acts turned into superstars. Why do think you’ve been so successful?
CB: I was in the right place at the right time–England in the early 60’s–when a social revolution was taking place. The creativity was visible in film, music, theater and of course outside the arts as well. I had a small Jamaican record company that was just selling to the large West Indian community in London, Bristol, Birmingham, etc. At the time, rock was taking over from pop. The rock was based on American Black music and my company became attractive to this new group of musicians, since we were just about as far from the pop sensibilities as one could be. Also, most of the things I get involved with I really personally like. When I personally like it, I feel I can get more people to like it. It has nothing to do with airplay or radio, or what exists at the moment: It’s more about personal interests.
Dr. L: Wherever I go in the world now, I hear reggae. It really has become a universal sound. Why do you think that’s so?
CB: Jamaican music has indeed spread all over the world. The beat, the melodies, the lyrics and the images of the artists were totally different from anything before. In fact, the rap movement, which of course has now also enveloped the world, emerged from the Jamaican sound systems in New York.
Dr. L: How was it to work with Bob Marley?
CB: He was a very quiet, rather shy person, who had an extraordinary aura, way before he became famous. He led by example and in my experience, his wordwas his bond.
Dr. L: You signed U2 when every major label had rejected them, and have remained close to them since. Why do you think Bono is so involved in trying to resolve world poverty?
CB: He’s completely dedicated to using his fame to make a difference in the world and he is really doing that. He’s been able to meet some of the most important leaders in the world and to impress them with his passion and intellect to the degree that they have really responded. Something is happening–he may walk in as a rock star, but he leaves with the respect as a world leader himself.
Dr. L: What do you think is the most interesting music being made these days?
CB: World music! To me, world music is music that is not sung in English. I’m very, very interested in music made in India, Africa and actually from all different parts of the world. Good music can come from anywhere today. It’s so easy to record music now. No big studios–you can do anything and hope for ‘nothing.’ You can then expose it on the Internet and if people respond, you can then make a distribution deal with a company who can take it all the way.
Dr. L: Years after selling Island Records, you started Palm Pictures as an audio-visual entertainment company, which has brought out some classics including my all-time favorite, “1 Giant Leap.”
CB: Palm Pictures has been set up to produce or acquire independent music and film projects with a focus on the DVD format, audio visual, music with images, documentaries on art, music, dance, etc., and Asian and other foreign independent films.
Dr. L: You are very excited by your latest project, Palm World Voices. Why ?
CB: Palm World Voices is a series set up with music at its base, beautifully packaged with a CD, DVD and a map of the area from which the music is inspired. The map is custom designed by National Geographic.There is also a 40-oddpage booklet full of photography and information on the subject. The first in the series is Vedic Path (Indian Sub-Continent), followed by Africa and then Baaba Maal, the extraordinary Senegalese singer, songwriter and activist.
Dr. L: What are your favorite CD’s?
In a Silent Way by Miles Davis
Kind a Blue by Miles Davis
Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis
Miles Ahead by Miles Davis
Astral Weeks by Van Morrison
The Sermon by Jimmy Smith
Live at The Apollo by James Brown
Dr. L: Who are the most fascinating people you’ve met over the years?
President Bill Clinton
Dr. L: When did you meet Mandela?
CB: I was in South Africa once while the film “Mandela” was being filmed. So I spent some time with him then, before he became President.
Dr. L: You consider yourself Jamaican and make your home in Jamaica. Why?
CB: I love the people and the extraordinary beauty and diversity of the country. I’ve always been a Jamaican on the inside, but being ‘packaged like a Brit’ on the outside was certainly an advantage back in the day.
Dr. L: Didn’t you start a non-profit there?
CB: Yes, we put time and resources into education in sports and health in the Oracabessa area of Jamaica. We do it through an entity called Island Acts, which is based in the U.S.
Dr. L: You are a maniac on the Jet Ski? Is that how you keep fit?
CB: Yes, it’s the best exercise. It is focused concentration of the mind, a kind of meditation. And for the body, you are using so many muscles to balance on the Jet Ski.
Dr. L: What have you been up to lately?
CB: I’m developing a Thalasso Therapy Spa at Golden Eye, the property I bought from Ian Fleming’s estate in Jamaica, where he wrote all the James Bond books. There will also be cottages, villas, apartments and huts managed by the resort operation there.
Dr. L: You make a mean rum-punch. What’s the recipe?