George Phang is a producer from the Powerhouse label who got into the Reggae business through bass guitarist Robert Shakespeare and drummer Lowell Dunbar, better known as Reggae legends the Riddim Twins Sly and Robbie. Together they spawned many Reggae classics, ‘Greetings’ by Half Pint as well as Frankie Paul’s ‘Tidal Wave’, ‘Roll Call’ from Tenor Saw, Sugar Minot’s ‘Buy Off The Bar’ and ‘Galong Galong Galong’ from Yellowman, not to mention countless others. To celebrate Powerhouse’s impact on Reggae, VP Records are releasing an incredible 4-disc set entitled ‘17 North Parade / Selector’s Choice present : The Powerhouse Productions Volumes 1-4’.
Marvin Sparks caught up with the George Phang to discuss his beginnings in reggae, shares his producing techniques, what he doesn't like about todays dancehall and how he would go about solving it.
Marvin Sparks: How did you get involved in Reggae?
George Phang: I grew up around a lot of artists. Where I come from you have Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Marcia Griffiths, Ken Boothe; I was around all of those people so the music was in me.
Marvin Sparks: What made you start the Powerhouse label?
George Phang: Through going to the studio with Sly and Robbie and seeing what was happening. It happened very swiftly; when Sly and them were on tour, I would do work for them on the Taxi [Sly & Robbie’s] label and that gave me the inspiration to start my own thing.
Marvin Sparks: Where did the name Powerhouse come from?
George Phang: The name Powerhouse - well it was Robbie who really designed the label. The riddims they made were big and powerful, so we just called it Powerhouse. It basically came the riddim tracks that Sly & Robbie made.
Marvin Sparks: How did your working relationship with Sly & Robbie begin?
George Phang: Me and Robbie knew each other from a long time ago. We basically grew up together. He was from a different community from me but we used to meet up in a lot of parties.
Marvin Sparks: With Sly & Robbie being the making the beats, what role did you play?
George Phang: My role was to tell them which kind of riddim I would like them to play or sometimes they would do something on their own. I’d have the tracks to play when the artists came. Sometime we didn’t do a live session with the artist’s [and band]. For instance, ‘Greetings’ was recorded in England and Sly & Robbie had done the [rhythm track]. Half Pint listened to the track and whilst we were there listening to the track and deciding what we were going to do, someone came into the studio - and you know how you [greet] someone with ‘Greetings’ - so he caught onto that. he started to hum and hum until it became a tune.
Marvin Sparks: How did you choose which artists you would work with?
George Phang: I am a man who was at every party and listen to the sound systems. For instance, me and Barrington Levy would go to a party and tell him to sing [specific] songs. [Depending] on the riddim he sung them on and the reaction he got, I would tell him to make it as a tune.
Marvin Sparks: To the people who aren’t familiar with the Reggae scene back in the 80s, the artist’s would perform live on sets then cut the tune afterwards, is that correct?
George Phang: Yes. The dancehall was helped [artists] a lot.
Marvin Sparks: What would you say are essential qualities to become a producer?
George Phang: If you listen to most of my tunes, they are clean tunes. Tunes that you could listen to for a lifetime. If can listen to ‘Greetings’ you can listen to it forever and look how long ago that song was made. It sounds like it was just made because that tune is a classic tune. As a producer, I always tell my artists I need clean songs because the kids catch on to Reggae music easily so if you do a tune which has a lot of slackness then that’s what you teach the kids.
Marvin Sparks: Did you have to choose which artists worked on a certain rhythm track?
George Phang: Michael Palmer’s ‘Lick Shot’ was already dubbed but on a different riddim. I had a riddim which was more up-tempo so I told him to sing it on that ridddim. After he’d done it, I said ‘Yeah, this is the ideal riddim for that tune’ and when we released it, it went [straight] to number 1 and was on the chart for a long time. The riddim has a lot to do with what the artist is singing on it.
Marvin Sparks: Having been on both sides of music being produced digitally and live instruments which sound do you prefer?
George Phang: I prefer the live session. I love to see Sly & Robbie around the instruments playing and I love to see Robbie with the Bass Guitar in his hands playing, so I prefer the original sound of method of playing the music than the computer.
Marvin Sparks: Did people of your era ever envision that Dancehall music would be so big to the point where it is worldwide and Dancehall artists getting played on mainstream radio?
George Phang: Everyday things change and now is much easier now then back then because sometimes you had a really hard time to get your songs played on air. I would say now is a little bit easier than back then because sometimes you had to pay to get your songs played. I had my program on the radio where every Friday night the Powerhouse program was on radio with Barry G [Radio presenter]. You had to buy a slot and then your music would get played.
Marvin Sparks: What do you think of current Dancehall?
George Phang: These guys make it a little different. One time you would have Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin and those men in a clash and it was a joy. Now you have these [artists] who are talking about war and I don’t like that.
Marvin Sparks: A lot of older fans complain about today’s Dancehall. Do you feel there is a particular reason why this generation isn’t rated as highly in regards to content?
George Phang: Honestly, most of the artists fans get the too hype and the hype that they have cause these kind of problems to arrive. A man always wants to prove that he is better than another artist and says things like ‘I have more money than you’ and those things aren’t really relevant right now. They should make the love maintain within the music. Yeah you would have guys like Brigadier Jerry and Josey Wales and them man who would clash but it wasn’t anything like this. The later generation kind of threw off the [music].
Marvin Sparks: So do you feel artists used to do record more for the love of music than money?
George Phang: Back then it was more fun than money, definitely.
Marvin Sparks: What influence did the sound systems played back then?
George Phang: The sound systems played a great role back in the day. You could train an artist because you would be in the [party] in front of the audience and you would [rap] or sing and see how the crowd react. The sound systems did a lot as far as the artists were concerned.
Marvin Sparks: Do you feel that if the artists had that sound system grounding the output would be better?
George Phang: Well you still have the sound systems but it has kind of changed a bit.
Marvin Sparks: Yeah because artists don’t really perform on them anymore.
George Phang: Right. The artists that are coming up now believe they are too big for that whereas the men from back in the day know it was the sound systems that built them; make them and break them. Now these youths you would say ‘Come and talk few tunes on the sound,’ but they feel like they are too big for that.
Marvin Sparks: As a man who grew up in the Dancehall, would you say the Noise Abatement Act is detrimental to the progress of Dancehall music?
George Phang: Well yes, because you see Jamaican people - you know one time people would have gone to the [party] at 8/9 o’clock - they’ve taken onto the American style of going out at 2-3 o’clock and by the time you come out the [party] has finished. I think if we have a peaceful area they should allow the [parties] to go on a little longer. Well that is if they aren’t disturbing anyone.
Marvin Sparks: Who would you work with from this current crop of artists?
George Phang: No [sir]. Not right now.
Marvin Sparks: Not even the likes of Busy Signal or Assassin and that kind of artist?
George Phang: Their thing is different to what I would like to do or work I like.
Marvin Sparks: If you could go back into business and have an artist, what direction would you give him?
George Phang: First of all, me as a producer, I like to make the artist know that clean lyrics is what I want and lyrics which [are] worthy [of] airplay. I’m the one putting money into this work so I would want to hear my music clean so that it can get airplay.
Marvin Sparks: Who was your personal favourite Deejay that you worked with?
George Phang: Josey Wales is an artist I really admire. I loved working with him. Charlie Chaplin the same thing, Admiral Bailey, Yellowman, Peter Metro, Toyan - he’s passed on now. But Josey Wales and Charlie Chaplin; I really admired their work.
Marvin Sparks: How about your favourite singer?
George Phang: Barrington Levy is who I would say.
Marvin Sparks: Which songs are you most proud to say Powerhouse label released?
George Phang: Don’t Hurt My Feelings by Freddie McGregor is a classic tune. Greetings, One Big Family, Lick Shot - Those songs are songs you can still sit back and listen to. Buy Off The Bar - Sugar Minnott, Bank Account by Leroy Smart - believe me when I hear that tune and remember I am the producer, I don’t even remember that tune. Last night, I played it and it sounds like a song that was just made.
Marvin Sparks: Do you wish to have any involvement in the music today?
George Phang: Yes man, I’m just waiting on Robbie now. We’re going to go back in the studio and work because they have been asking me to go back and do some work, so I’m definitely going to go back and do that.