Jimmy Cliff on Rebirth, The Harder They Come, and his reggae legacy
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Jimmy Cliff has earned some of the highest accolades in the music industry—up to and including being one of only two reggae artists inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Like his fellow inductee, Bob Marley, Cliff began his career singing ska in his native Jamaica in the ’60s. It was the reggae movement of the ’70s, though, that gave Cliff his greatest success. His contributions to the soundtrack of Perry Henzell’s 1972 gangster classic The Harder They Come—in which Cliff also starred—have become part of the reggae canon. Specifically, the songs “The Harder They Come” and “Many Rivers To Cross” embody the joy, fear, pain, passion, and aspirations of his homeland.
Cliff’s voice does the same. Aching yet triumphant, sunny yet shadowy, it’s a style every bit as rich and resonant as those of contemporaries like Marley—not to mention soul giants like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. In fact, it’s the social consciousness of these influences that led Cliff to record “Vietnam” in 1970, a stirring anthem that Bob Dylan famously called the best protest song he’d ever heard. On the backs of successful covers of songs like Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” Cliff has maintained a steady, Grammy-winning output across the decades. Lately, though, he’s slipped into a familiar rut: that of an aging legend who seems content to make slick, immaculate, blandly modern-sounding records.
That’s changed with Rebirth. Cliff’s new full-length is a warm, spirited, vintage-sounding album—the kind of disc that’s poised to recapture old fans as well as snag new, retro-happy ones. His voice has never sounded more supple or soulful, but it’s the efforts of producer, bandleader, and backing guitarist Tim Armstrong that’s made much of the difference. Best known as a member of the pioneering ska-punk band Operation Ivy, as well as the frontman of punk stalwart Rancid, Armstrong brings a rawness and reverence to Rebirth that showcases the effortless depth, emotion, and timelessness of Cliff’s voice. Cliff spoke with The A.V. Club about the legacy of The Harder They Come, covering The Clash and Rancid on his new album, and what we talk about when we talk about rebirth.
The A.V. Club: Ever since Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, many veteran singers have been making gritty, back-to-their-roots albums. What made you decide to take a similar route with Rebirth?
Jimmy Cliff: For me, it’s a combination of things. My first big album, the second album I made [1969’s Jimmy Cliff], had a hit called “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” on it. It also had “Vietnam” and songs like that. It was my roots reggae album. After that, I went to Muscle Shoals and did another album called Another Cycle. Some of my fans were unhappy that I didn’t continue on my reggae train. So that was a chapter of my career that was incomplete. I always knew in my mind that I would complete it, and the way to complete it was to go back to the roots again. That was one of the main reasons for Rebirth. Another one of the main things is that—the way recording is done today, and I’ve done it—you go into a studio with one musician, with a keyboard, and the two of you do everything. I enjoy the formal way, playing with six musicians, and all of you put down everything live. Rebirth was a return to that.
AVC: How did it feel to rediscover some of these vintage sounds and organic ways of recording?
JC: It was very uplifting. Liberating as well. I felt so good doing it; it goes much faster, too. It’s the spontaneity of it. It makes for more creativity.
AVC: In particular, the new, single version of “One More” sounds very different from your original version, which is slick and full of synthesizer. Did you find something new in the song this time around?
JC: I originally started doing that song a cappella, and then I started doing it the way we recorded it the first time in Jamaica. I was liking the a cappella version more. Something wasn’t fitting quite right with that other version. So when I was recording [Rebirth] with Tim, I said, “Okay, let’s do it again.” It feels like it is fitting right now.
AVC: How did working with Tim Armstrong come about?
JC: First of all, I was introduced to Tim’s music via Joe Strummer of The Clash, whom I recorded one song with on the last album that I did [“Over The Border” from 2004’s Black Magic]. When his suggestion came to work with Tim, I jumped at the idea, because of the fact that punk music was influenced and inspired by reggae music. They address the same political and social issues. And then when I first met Tim, it made things seem more right. It was the right move to make. It was so easy to work with him. First of all, he’s a reggae connoisseur. He has so much knowledge of reggae, something that I kind of overlook myself. He made me realize that, you know, there is great value in these things.
AVC: On Rebirth you pay homage to both Joe and Tim by covering The Clash’s “The Guns Of Brixton”—which references The Harder They Come—and Rancid’s “Ruby Soho.” What spurred you to choose these songs?
JC: Again, the punk idiom of music was really inspired by reggae. Tim Armstrong and Rancid represent the American side of punk, and Joe Strummer and The Clash represented the European side of punk. It seemed very appropriate to cover these two songs from across the Atlantic.
AVC: “Ruby Soho” isn’t one of Rancid’s ska-infused songs. The original is a straightforward punk tune. Was there any challenge or pressure in re-interpreting Tim Armstrong’s song with him right there at your side?
JC: It was effortless, definitely. But I’ve covered a song in the past with the writer standing right there: Cat Stevens with “Wild World.” It was the same kind of situation. He wrote the song, and then he produced my version of it. Both he and Tim made it quite easy.
AVC: With Rebirth tracks like “One More” and “Children’s Bread,” you’re continuing that spirit of political and social consciousness. Why is that still important?
JC: It’s not something that I consciously set out to try to do. It’s a natural part of me to make those kinds of expressions. I’m glad that I’m doing it on this album with someone like Tim. I do think it’s important to highlight social and political issues that are going on in the world. The songwriters in this day and time don’t seem to be paying much attention to that kind of thing. The fact is, I’m coming from another era where that was an important thing. And I still think it is very important. Even when I perform those kinds of songs now on stage, I see a very young audience out there, and they seem to lap it up, you know? It’s like there’s a hunger for it. No one else is saying it.
AVC: “Reggae Music,” which you co-wrote with Tim, tackles some of those things, but it’s also a miniature history lesson in reggae culture. It also traces your own part in it. What inspired you to write such a definitive statement?
JC: Like I said, I needed to close a chapter of my career in the reggae field. I needed new songs to do that, and “Reggae Music” is such a song. Tim really contributed a lot. He really pushed me. [Laughs.] He came up with the idea of it, and I just said, “Oh, okay, great.”
AVC: Speaking of your place in reggae history, this year marks the 40th anniversary of The Harder They Come. Looking back on the making of the film and the soundtrack, what stands out most in your memory?
JC: Well, you know, The Harder They Come is a classic movie. What gives it its longevity, I think, is the fact that it captured a particular moment in time. That kind of moment still lingers in all generations. When we were doing the movie, it was on such a very low budget. I don’t think we even realized how low of a budget it was. We were doing it with one camera. Finally, to see it make an impact on the world, those moments stand out in my mind.
AVC: Is there any truth to the rumor that a sequel is in the works?
JC: While making the original movie, I always had the idea of making a sequel. I was always arguing with Perry Henzell. Why does the hero have to die? If you want to point out that crime doesn’t pay, why didn’t Mr. Hilton die? So I always wanted to make another movie that showed that goodness can come out of a ghetto or a bad environment, and that it can flourish.
AVC: So that’s a yes?
JC: Yes. I had the idea, and I’ve been toying with it. I came up with a synopsis, and a script was based upon it. We’re still not satisfied with the script, but it’s still on the table. We hope that it’s going to go into production as soon as possible.
AVC: Has the film’s anniversary gotten you thinking about your legacy?
JC: I’ve not really been thinking about my legacy as an artist. What I’ve been thinking about are the things that I have yet to do, such as writing my best songs and having them be number one. Writing and starring in movies. Collecting the Oscar. Becoming a stadium act all over the world. These are goals that I have set that I have yet to accomplish. I’d rather focus on those than what I have already done.
AVC: Rebirth doesn’t seem like a title that was chosen lightly. At this time, with this record, what does the word mean to you?
JC: I have been thinking about my career since they year 2000 kicked in. Okay, this new time that we’re in, what am I going to do with myself? What do I do with the goals I have set? Where do I start? How do I do it? And then, in 2009 I was told that I was selected to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. In 2010 I was inducted. That was like, okay, this is a stepping-stone. This is where I start my career all over again.
But it’s more than that. Where does this planet stand today, this planet Earth that we live on? Where are we now? People have been talking about the Mayan calendar, but I have been doing my research starting all the way back with the ancient Egyptians. With their calendar, they spoke about the year 2012. The change of a new age is coming, and they gave that knowledge to the Babylonians, to the Indians, to the Tibetans, and to the Mayans. So, I am aware of this change of energy, more positive energy, that is coming in this year. It’s also a rebirth of the planet. It’s a universal rebirth that’s going to affect our planet very, very strongly. That’s how the title Rebirth came. And that is where the music comes from.