Machel Montano was only officially crowned Soca Monarch for the first time in 2011, despite being the genre’s most celebrated and prolific artist since bouncing onto the scene at the tender age of 8 years old with ‘Too Young To Soca’. 30 years and as many albums on, Machel is still the artist constantly pushing soca and Caribbean music forward, known for his super-human energy on stage and in business. True to his ethos of ‘never say never’ Machel has just made a rare appearance on a dancehall riddim for Mixpak, the Loudspeaker Riddim produced by our own Dre Skull, and we spoke to him on the phone from his house/studio in Trinidad & Tobago; talking child stars, his show on 1xtra, soca as competition and his sex chair…
So I hear you were just on stage with Chaka Khan this week? How was that?
It was fabulous. We did ‘Ain’t Nobody’ together, it was her final song in a performance she did for Mother’s Day.
You must be used to sharing the stage with people since you’ve been doing it for so long now. I guess a lot of people over here know about how you’re running things in soca now, but perhaps they don’t know that you were so young when you started out – how did you end up being a star at the age of 9?
When I started, I wasn’t involved in music at all. My brother was learning the guitar, and he would have to play the guitar and sing for his homework and he would call me and take advantage of me and say ‘yo, come here and sing for me while I play’, cos he had no rhythm, so I would start singing his homework while he would try to play the chords on the guitar. I wasn’t very into it. But my mum thought I had a good voice so she decided to take me to vocal training and I started singing in calypso competitions in school. Then they asked me to represent them on a national level, so I went into the competition the first year at the age of 9 and won, and I became an instant phenomenon across the country because everyone was amazed that this young kid was singing like a big man and talking about school teachers being late and setting the wrong example; it was a bit controversial.
Then somebody came to my school and asked me to open for Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, who were the big calypsonian artists in those days. They asked me to open at Madison Square Gardens and took me to New York and then I went on to Paris and started going on tour to Europe. So I was pulled into that league very early. This in itself brought more controversy because there were no child stars in calypso or soca at that time, so they said ‘look, you’re too young to do this, you shouldn’t be singing or performing’. So we decided to do a record, our first record, and we decided to call it ‘Too Young To Soca’, that was when I was 10 going on 11. It became the biggest song in the country, it attracted a lot of attention and was signed by Eddy Grant and released across London and Europe by him. That put me in the recording business right then.
[Machel in 1986; Katch Ya LP, 1989]
Were your parents fully on board with you following that path?
Yeah definitely. They became my management and PR team, just by accident really. They were fully behind us, once we’d done our schoolwork they were always supportive. They weren’t musical, they had no background, it just started with my brother and me. But they were school teachers, so they made sure that education was a priority.
Are they still doing your PR?
My mum is still on the management team, even though I also have a manager from LA. My dad runs a business that we started, an eco-tourism resort.
So you mentioned Mighty Sparrow and calypso – are those the kinds of things that you were listening to when you were 8 years old?
No, no, no. When I was that age, our house was definitely not filled with calypso or soca. It was mostly Bob Marley, Temptations, Lionel Richie, Blondie, a lot of pop, RnB and reggae. My parents did like to listen to music and play records, so we had vinyl at home, which was exciting. The first calypsonian I saw perform who attracted me to calypso was Super Blue, he was very eccentric, he would throw the microphone and shuffle his feet like James Brown and I thought that was exciting so I started looking more and more into calypso because of him.
And when you did that first song, were you involved in the writing?
The songs were written by my music teacher. He was also a writer, a calypso writer. The topics were way beyond the children. Then when I did ‘Too Young To Soca’, we came up with that idea, my parents and I chucked some lyrics down and took the idea to one of the leading songwriters in the country, he was writing for Mighty Sparrow, for Baron, writing some of the biggest songs in Trinidad & Tobago.
Was it difficult for you at any point in your childhood, did you ever think that maybe you didn’t want to do it?
Yeah in the beginning it wasn’t really something I was attracted to, it was just something that I was good at, and everbody was enjoying it. I was also alone. I was really more attracted to the electronics and the technology behind it, I liked the studio, I like the equipment, I liked Solid Gold and watching bands and Sting, and Sade, I liked the live performance and the instruments. At the age of 10 or 11, I put a band together which was made up of a lot of young people like myself, just kids from the neighbourhood coming together, we had a little fake drum set and keyboard, and we’d play juice tins and guitars and cuatros. That was really the part that excited me. I never wanted to do it alone. So I amassed this band so people were always around me. But I was still always thrust into the front, cos I was the one who looked like the leader and the one who was more mature at expressing themselves…
And that’s not something you grew out of is it – the band has been going strong ever since?
Yes. And the very first member of the band is still here with me. He was somebody that we found on the side of the street, he was fighting, while we were moving into the town – we were just moving with my parents, we were carrying all our furniture in and he was fighting on the side of the road. My dad picked him up and said ‘look, stop fighting, come help us move this furniture’. And then he joined us in the band and now he’s a recognised artist himself, his name is Farmer Nappy.
So do the band always go on the road with you?
We mainly tour together. I still do some solo shows, we all do solo shows, but our priority is the tour as a unit.
How many times have you changed the band?
Probably like 6 or 7 times. We changed the name 3 times. We were Pranasonic Express and then Xtatik in the 90s and in 2000 we changing to Xtatik 5.0 and then we changed to Machel Montano and the HD band. That’s about 5 years now.
Tell me about your bus too – that’s also pretty famous?
That was an idea brought to me by my brother. He stopped playing the guitar very early on – he was still a young man trying to decide what he wanted to do and he said ‘look I’m not into music, I wanna be a pilot’ and he started to study at flight school, he’s now a captain of Caribbean Airlines, and he still helps out with transport for the band and when we do live shows he helps us in the dressing rooms. One day he said ‘let’s do a Machel Montano bus’ and we got an old national bus, and no-one had ever seen one of the nation’s buses changed into a celebrity bus and it has all our faces on the side, and it’s pretty tricked out, very loud music, lights, bar, microwave, beds, TVs, plasmas. We use the bus for anytime we do shows, we park it outside, fans come on the bus to chill, hang out, we party on the bus, some people even rent the bus out for their birthday. It’s a bit of an excitement anywhere it passes cos they think I’m in there. A lot of people stop it and wave and try to get on.
What’s your favourite thing in the bus?
The sex bed [laughs]. It’s not literally a sex bed, that’s the name of it. It’s a bed but it’s not really a bed, it’s almost like a modern Cleopatra chair. It’s where you sit, and it’s between all the biggest speakers. You can put your drink down on the speakers but it’ll fall off cos of the vibrations of the speakers, it’s so loud, so I like to lay down on that bed and get the vibrations.
So apart from now being able to watch plasma TV in a bus, in the 30 years that you’ve been involved in the music industry in the Caribbean, how do you feel that things have changed?
I have always been someone who’s paid attention to the mainstream and the international market and I think the main thing that’s changed it is technology. We used to all sit around and wonder how we would get the attention of a major label and how we would break into the main game and we’ve never had a proper industry here in Trinidad & Tobago so we’ve tried to mimic the international market, but really and truly we don’t have the record sales to be able to do the things that they do. But I think now with the cellphone, iTunes and the internet, now there’s a lot more potential to reach out for sales, to fans, doing marketing, and we have been able to advance our music a little further. People are taking chances and trying new things. Now there are a lot of young people coming up choosing to do reggae, or rock bands, a very diverse culture and different types of music and people are believing in it and themselves. This music still has Caribeean influence but I’d say it’s generally pop, people are coming into their own, and not seeing success as a far away dream but seeing it as close as their computer. It’s a shorter distance for them to dream. That’s changed the whole concept of people’s involvement in the music business.
You and your team have done very well at getting the international thing on the go – you even used to have a show on BBC1Xtra, how did that happen?
I was involved in radio in Trinidad, I had a show on a station totally dedicated to soca. The BBC wanted someone with a knowledge of soca, and a known personality so they approached me and I said why not, cos I had the experience. I was in England a lot, I did a lot of shows there anyway, or I would fly there to pre-record a load of shows, and it was just about the experience and getting soca out there to the world. After a while it became difficult to balance that with my life.
You have a lot of other stuff going on – including the all-important competitions, I guess over here we have awards and that kind of thing, but what is it particularly about soca that makes music into a competition?
It’s the trend of what’s been handed down. I never liked competition, I left the competition at a very early age. When I became very famous in the country around 1997, I had this song ‘Big Truck’ which is still one of my most famous songs and this song went on to win Road March. That was the year I could have won the competition, but I decided to stop competing in 1997 because I was under the impression that everybody would only focus on the competition.
But it all goes back to the days of calypso, there was this competition to prove who was the best calypsonian, everybody was focussed on who was the best, and I think that was the beginning of us going in the wrong direction. Everybody would start fighting, it would be a lyrical war but sometimes it would get physical and the tension would spill over onto the public and would create an excitement to see who would bring out the biggest song for carnival and who would win. But you know there was prize money, and that really attractive to a lot of the artists because there was no record industry here and you couldn’t make money from sales, you’d make your money via live performance alone. We had one record plant in Trinidad and it never lasted long, you would still find pressing plants in Jamaica – they were focussed on records, while we focussed on shows and singing live. And the only thing that was better than being paid for singing live was competing and winning; that would give you something like 10 times the normal money you would get for a show. So that was the trend. It went from calypso to soca. And by the time it reached Soca Monarch, around 1997 I had released my first major album that I wanted to focus on and when I say first I mean it was the first time I stepped away from older established producers – we made our own sound, we recorded in our own studio, focussing on the ideas we had instead of taking ideas from older arrangers and older writers. It was our most successful album. It sold over 100,000 copies in Trinidad, it had 5 hits. And I thought, somebody has to be focussed on recording albums and getting people into the habit of buying albums and supporting artists, and I went into that game and did albums every year and they kept getting more popular, and I just stayed away from competitions.
Recently I went back into the competition because there was this excitement around it and a lot of young people were getting involved. So I’ve balanced it, it’s not something I like or support but I never say never to anything because I’m someone who lives in the now, I don’t believe that music is a competition but it’s part of our tradition and sometimes it’s necessary to keep your presence by doing that.
In the last two years I’ve done the competition and I’ve won and it’s changed the game – it’s improved the writers and the young people coming up and the competition is fierce and the standards are raising cos they have to compete against the best.
What skills do you need to be a winning Soca Monarch?
You need to have a catchy song that everyone loves. So first of all your writing material. When you have that covered, the live performance on the night. And this is at the end of the season, so you have the entire season to work your performance at your shows, you have to be seen and be visual and on the night you have to come with a presentation that’s going to blow people’s minds, give them something more than just the fact that they love your song. Once you get all those things together at the right level, then you stand a chance of winning.
[Machel’s winning song in the Groovy Soca category, 2012]
Do you have to work out in the gym?
To sing soca and perform in Trinidad you have to be in shape. There are a lot of people who’ve done it with bigger..um..statures than normal but it’s always a good help and I’m a believer in being fit, I’m known for my energy and stamina, so I run a serious camp in the gym. Sometimes I lose up to 25lbs in the gym before carnival comes.
Has your energy ever gone over the top and have you ever injured yourself on stage?
Many times. I always get injured; I twist my ankle, sometimes I will fall through the stage , run off the stage, bang my knee, do a split and tear a muscle, but I’ll always continue a performance with no pain…until I get off the stage.
Apart from being at carnival in T&T, where’s the best place to do a soca show?
I love Toronto, they have a great carnival too [Caribana]. You feel like you’re in Trinidad cos there’s a diverse culture there. Canada’s always very warm to soca music. I also play Mas in Jamaica, they love soca, the uptown crowd love its values like hearing you say ‘jump and wave’ and it has become the norm that when you perform, if you say ‘turn around and run a mile’, they will, cos they love the instruction part of soca and it’s usually very fun.
Have you ever seen anyone using anything funny in place of a rag?
All the time – I’ve seen people waving entire trees [laughs], root them out the ground while the show is going on and start waving them. I’ve seen Burning Flames in Antigua and they would have their audience run and jump into a pond, I see people do a lot of crazy things, people get creative when it comes to fete.
There’s so many different categories of soca too – do you have a preference betwee the power soca and the groovy soca?
I’ve been involved in all levels of soca; it’s been constantly developing and looking for a home. It was only created in 1974, by blending the original music of the African people with East Indian music and this formed calypso. After that everybody started doing their own blend, like the dancehall artists who do ragga soca, and then the Indian people into soca, they make Chutney music, mixing bhangra with soca. I have crossed into Ragga soca, and been one of the leaders of experimenting – I collaborated with Beenie Man and Red Rat and Shaggy and Buccaneer. A lot of young people didn’t like soca in the beginning so I was trying to win them over by singing reggae songs in my sets, and then I’d slip into soca, and sort of fool them into liking soca, then I just realised I should try blending it. It didn’t go well with purists, who were true to soca, they were always criticizing me asking why I was collaborating and bringing the jamaicans in, but that didn’t last, it became a style cos people saw that it worked for me.
And now you’re on this dancehall riddim, the Loudspeaker, produced by Dre Skull – how often have you been on a straight dancehall riddim?
I’ve been on a few, Underwater Riddim was the first one, by Tony Kelly, and I had a song called ‘Big Fat Fish’, that was in 1999 I think.
So are you open to voicing more straight up dancehall?
I’m always up for it, and I want to do more, especially ones that sound close to soca. And over the years soca and dancehall have been converging – using similar tempos, sounding more alike. The days when Sean Paul and Elephant Man were rising, dancehall started speeding up, this is just before Kartel broke through. I still think the sound of both genres is changing so much, they can get mistaken for each other and you have a greater influx of artists like Busy Signal, Popcaan and Konshens voicing on soca riddims – there’s a cross-pollination going on that to me is positive. We are looking at the door that may one day be the sound of the caribbean , I believe soca is that sound – it can house reggae, it can house salsa it can house anything and sound international. I’m always open to meeting with Jamaican producers, I rate them very highly in terms of technical ability and sound and creativity, we look up to the Jamaicans and aspire to be as good as they are.
And what do you think about some of these newer electronic sounds like dubstep making their way into the Caribbean music scene – like Damian Marley & Skrillex ?
I am very open to those things, I’m of that school, the school of experimenting with music. I like all types of music. Just like music was Bob Marley’s way out of poverty, blending music and experimenting with different sounds was always my way out of my strife, I wanted to see my music popular, I wanted it to be loved and that was the way out, I was always been rooting for that success.
Are there any younger artists out there that we should be looking out for?
Of course – people like Patrice Roberts, we’ve done a lot of collabs, she’s part of my team, people like Farmer Nappy who was my wingman but now he’s cutting his own course, people like Kes The Band who open for most of my concerts, they’ve developed their own style, people like Kerwin Du Bois, he’s a younger calypsonian and I worked with him early in his career, he used to remix my songs with himself as the artist featuring on it, but he has come up to be one of the best producers and songwriters, he’s got great potential. There’s a lot of artists now who understand the game like Nebula868, who are not just writers but producers and artists all in one who are looking at that world recognition, it’s close to pop…there’s a lot of exciting people in the game.
If you had a dream dinner party who would you invite round?
Bob Marley, Michael Jackson [laughs], people who I could ask about music and try and swindle into collaborations, I would want people like Kanye West there, the real players in the music business. I’m interested in the top producers too like David Guetta, RedOne, Max Martin, these are the guys I’d like to sit with and talk about innovating music. Skrillex definitely. I love the guys from England who do funky house, I really wanted to work with Crazy Cousinz, I’ve been in contact with them, we had a plan to work together last year but time didn’t permit, I still want to though.
If you were president of T&T what would be the first change you would make?
I would work hard to curb crime, I would focus totally on that. I would be active in investing in the music industry bringing in the right schools for song writing and audio engineering.
Have you thought about setting up that stuff yourself?
I’ve had my own label in the past – I’ve had more than 6 or 7 artists but it never seemed to pan out, cos it’s too much when you’re trying to develop yourself to be able to develop other people too. It’s hard to get other people to focus on the bigger picture…I’m at that point to form a new label again but we need the help of the management sector, publishing, people who could help us run a company or a label like that and get it back up and running…
Well hope to see that up and running soon! Thank you…
Interview by Suze Webb