ALI CAMPBELL: I be 3REE
Heralded as one of the UK’s most distinctive and recognisable voices, as lead singer with world-renowned reggae supergroup UB40, Ali Campbell sold over 60 million records worldwide, toured across the globe, notched up four Number One worldwide singles, released 24 studio albums, and received an Ivor Novello Ward for International Achievement. Meanwhile, this month sees him follow the infectious reggae/pop flavours of his latest solo album ‘Flying High’ with UK live dates at Belfast’s The Waterfront plus on the Main Stage of GuilFest 2010.
Indeed, with its mixture of largely-self-penned original material and well-chosen covers, ‘Flying High’ also boasts appearances from an impressive cast of international artists - including Jamaican dancehall/pop superstar Shaggy; British R&B chart-topper Craig David; and award-winning London rapper Sway. Meanwhile, a less-well-known but nonetheless equally-significant guest arrives in the shape of white German dancehall deejay Gentleman. Whose presence Ali feels represents a whole new wave of European reggae.
“Yeah, Gentleman is fantastic - but he’s also an oddity!”, retorts Ali with a laugh: “I mean, I saw him in Berlin. He speaks totally fluent patios. But then it between songs, he suddenly starts speaking in GERMAN - and it’s the oddest thing! But then, that’s something that’s happening all OVER Europe now! You know, I recently played the Rototom Reggae Sunsplash in Italy - which like a quarter-of-a-million people visit - and the Reggae Jam in Germany, which has around 15,000 people. And it’s like there’s a whole new homegrown and younger reggae thing happening. I mean, these kids at these festivals are on average, I’d say, 25 years OLD! And I think it’s great, but also hilarious! You know, if you’d said to me 28 years ago there was gonna be a big, strong reggae movement in, say, Austria, I’d never have BELIEVED it! But there it IS!”
“Then, as far as the white reggae thing goes, while the press always gave us a hard time about being a white reggae band, if you look at it now there’s probably more white dreads than there are BLACK dreads!”, he adds honestly: “It’s like the Trustafarians of Montreux have spread throughout Europe! And even in terms of ARTISTS there’s more white exponents of reggae now as well. You’ve got Collie Buddz from Bermuda; the Italian dude Albarosi; The Black Seeds; Gentleman, obviously… So yeah, there’s quite a few white reggae acts out there now. Which is something that definitely wasn’t happening when WE started out!”
Indeed, 51-year-old Birmingham-born-and-raised Ali himself has fond memories of growing up surrounded by reggae in the city’s prominently-black-and-Asian Balsall Heath district: “Well, I actually grew up in a folk household”, he reveals: “My dad headed the Ian Campbell Folk Group, who were quite big in the Sixties. In fact he had the biggest folk club in Europe back then! But he was all about the Aldermaston March and the CND Movement, and for me there just wasn’t enough - well, there wasn’t ANY - bass in folk! You know, I was growing up on the streets of Balsall Heath, which is predominantly West Indian and Asian. And so, while I loved Indian music too, the music of choice for me and my brothers was always reggae. Basically because we grew up exposed to it just like all the BLACK kids around us did! You know, I remember sneaking out to blues parties at just 11 years old! I’ve actually got great memories of walking round the knees of everybody shuffling to James Brown and of just listening to reggae as it EVOLVED basically!”
“Plus I’m also a bit of an anorak”, he confesses with a smile: “Even at 10 years old I had a copy of ‘African Herbsman’ by The Wailers with Lee Perry - which is still, I think, the quintessential reggae album of all time. Then my brothers and I would also have quizzes on who produced what, what label it was on.... So yeah, I grew up loving reggae quite intensely. And so there was never any question that, if me and brothers started a band, it was definitely gonna be a REGGAE band!”
Unsurprisingly, Ali also confirms how his highly distinctive voice - which a whole generation grew up listening to via UB40 classics like ‘One In Ten’, ‘Red Red Wine’ and ‘Can’t Help Fallin’ In Love’ - was also influenced directly by his early black music influences: “Well, as I always say, as a little kid I obviously grew up on reggae. So I loved everything that was coming out on the reggae labels - and all of that is basically represented on the UB40 ‘Labour Of Love’ albums. You know, these were the records we grew up listening to reggae-wise. But then I was also very into Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye... You know, that whole Tamla thing.”
“And so in that way I’d say Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder really were my motivators in terms of singing”, he reveals openly: “I mean, I could sing EVERY SINGLE NOTE of every Michael Jackson song! You know, with me being the same age as Michael, before my balls dropped I could do all those wonderful classic things like ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and ‘Got To Be There’ the whole way through! And I suppose that’s how I trained myself to sing - copying Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, or trying my HARDEST to! And so, when you plonk that on top of reggae, what you get is the Ali Campbell VOICE!”
With Campbell having, after 28 years of global success fronting UB40, in January 2008 announced his departure from the band due to management and business disputes, he now claims to be happier with the freedom he enjoys these days as a solo artist.
“I think with UB40 we achieved a lot, and that the reason European reggae is the way it is now is BECAUSE of UB40”, he asserts in ever-strong Brummy tones: “You know, I think the whole new movement that I was talking about earlier on owes a lot to the fact that we were out there taking the flack, as it were, for being white! But towards the end, because we had our own studio in Birmingham, it actually became quite hard to get people IN! Because all the members had houses and kids, it was like pulling teeth trying to get any WORK done there! Whereas for me now, as a solo artist, it’s VERY different! And I’m a lot happier now, because I can work a lot quicker! Like, in the 14 months since I left UB40 I’ve made two great albums, I’ve made two DVD films to go WITH those albums... Plus I’m already now on to my THIRD album, which is gonna be called ‘Rhythm Method’.”
“So, though when I left the band after that gig in Uganda I did feel like it was the end of an era, what I’ve done since is actually start a NEW era!”, he enthuses: “And I’m more into this era than the OLD one! Because I’m thoroughly enjoying being in control and not having to wade through eight different people’s ideas! Instead I can just kinda call the shots and get things done in half the time! I can get product out there, I can tour… And that’s what makes me HAPPY!”
Ali Campbell performs at The Waterfront, Belfast on July 3 and on The Main Stage at GuilFest 2010 on Saturday, July 17 (tickets available at Seetickets on 0871 230 1106; or the website HYPERLINK "http://www.guilfest.co.uk" http://www.guilfest.co.uk)
Ali’s solo album ‘Flying High’ is out now through Absolute
Words PETE LEWIS