For generations schooled in the sublime sounds of roots, ska, lovers’ rock and dub, aggressive dancehall-dominated reggae has been hard to love in the past couple of decades. But in Jamaica, new acts like Kabaka Pyramid, Tarrus Riley and Protoje are resurrecting the island’s mellower musical traditions. And in reggae’s second home, the UK, a revival of vintage, vibe-heavy reggae is being led by the unlikely figure of Mike Pelanconi, a bearded white producer from the genteel seaside town of Brighton.
Pelanconi, who operates under the sobriquet Prince Fatty — anatomically incorrect but thematically spot-on — admits he suffers from “reggae OCD.” A studio engineer for the likes of Lily Allen, Graham Coxon and the Acid Jazz label, in the past decade, he’s brought back the moonstomping tradition of classic ’70s reggae and spearheaded the rebirth of one of the most vibrant eras of Jamaican music. He’s reinvented lovers’ rock with Hollie Cook (daughter of Sex Pistol Paul Cook), masterminded the glorious Nirvana-go-reggae album Battle For Seattle with singer Little Roy, and earned a reputation for scrupulous authenticity, working with original equipment and legendary artists like Style Scott, Dennis Bovell, Winston Francis and Dennis Alcapone. A typical Fatty tune sounds so exuberant that you might place its date of origin somewhere around 1973, until you realize it’s an uptown top-ranking cover of Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain.”
His latest project is a spirited dub clash album, Prince Fatty Versus Mungo’s Hi Fi, where he trades tracks with the Scottish dub outfit who, he says, operates “probably the best sound system in the UK.” Fatty replaces the drum machines and electronics of their digital dub with his high-end live band, and the Mungo’s crew do vice-versa with Fatty’s tunes. The UK hasn’t felt like a reggae powerhouse since the ’80s and ’90s when artists like Maxi Priest, Smiley Culture, Bitty McLean and General Levy earned international acclaim. Thanks to Fatty, that’s changing.
Pelanconi’s sound might be pure Trenchtown, but he was born in the UK and grew up in Palermo, Sicily, where his dad worked for the United Nations setting up textile cooperatives. His mother was a linguist; his globetrotting father would bring music back from South America and all over. “We had a very open-minded vibe,” says Pelanconi, who rolls the ‘R’s in “Palermo” like a true Italian, but ends many a comment with a very Jamaican “yunnoh?”
The family moved back to England when Pelanconi was 12, and reggae got to him early. A school friend’s mother had inherited a choice record collection from an old Rasta boyfriend. Thus was Palermo introduced to Garvey’s Ghost by Burning Spear, the Fatman dub of Israel Vibration’s “The Same Song,” and other classics. “After that I found pretty much every reggae record a disappointment,” he says, laughing. “I started with some of the very best. That was the beginning.”
A bass player, Pelanconi began to work in studios as soon as he left school, taking the traditional route of tea boy to tape-op to assistant engineer at London institutions like Maison Rouge, Air and Matrix. At 16 he inveigled himself into the Denmark Street studio of jungle pioneer Rebel MC and partners Double Trouble. Clients like the Ragga Twins were amazed that this kid already knew about Burning Spear. “They sent me off to [buy] Slavery Days ’cause they wanted to sample it,” he says, “but I already knew what the record cover looked like. I’d already sampled it.” They’d take Rebel’s dub plates out for testing in Brixton clubs on the night they were finished, then go raving ’til 4 a.m. The two remain good friends and Rebel, who now records conscious jungle as Congo Natty, typically pops round to Fatty’s studio for a dub plate when stars like Big Youth visit.
Also assisting at “posher sessions” for artists like Simply Red, Pelanconi “got the uptown and the downtown education,” as he puts it. Did he sneak dub tricks into the top jobs? “You’d be surprised,” he says. “The rock guys can be so conservative. You put a little echo or delay on and they freak out — and not in a good way. The rock I like is really dubby, like Pink Floyd or even Led Zeppelin. There’s moments of real psychedelia there. But a lot of the bands were really boring and unadventurous. I used to take the uptown jobs and then use the money to do my own thing.”
His own thing turned out to be an homage to reggae’s early-’70s glory days, initially recorded as part of the clothing brand Stüssy’s 25th-birthday celebrations in 2005. Pelanconi chose the name Prince Fatty as nod to King Tubby. When his instrumental “Nina’s Dance” took off he decided to make a full album, Survival of the Fattest, with fidelity to real reggae values. “It’s harder to get the dub sound with digital technology, not easier,” Pelanconi explains. “The original guys recorded impeccably, even if it was only to a four-track, and the feel of the playing was phenomenal. I’m always looking for the best musicians and they’re hard to find.”
One of his most fruitful hookups so far has been with Hollie Cook, once a singer with the reformed Slits, on her succulent self-titled debut of summer reggae and — of course — its subsequent dub version. “We work in a super-relaxed way,” he says. For Hollie’s second album Twice, out in May, they’re going in a more cinematic direction with a 30-piece orchestra, harps, tables and vintage synths. He describes it as “reggae Shirley Bassey.”
Pelanconi’s instinct to delight the purists by messing with them led to Little Roy’s Nirvana covers album Battle for Seattle. Pelanconi had seen Nirvana play at the London Astoria when he was 16 and loved them, but thought the records were overproduced compared to their raw live sound. The idea of a reggae Nirvana album sat at the back of his mind until one day he heard their MTV Unplugged album playing in a clothes shop.
“I started to hear the reggae chops in my head,” Pelanconi recalls. “My brain filled in the blanks. It was reggae OCD again.” With Little Roy — a Jamaican veteran who has worked with Lee Perry, the Wailers, Steely & Clevie and Adrian Sherwood — he proved once again that there’s no song that can’t be improved by a reggae remake. Both Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic expressed their appreciation.
As well as building on the sounds of classic producers like Leslie Kong, Coxsone Dodd and Tubby, Pelanconi matches their work rate. With collaborator the Mutant Hi Fi — a surf-music producer and light aircraft pilot, why not? — Fatty cut an album of spaghetti Western reggae and operates an online instant dub service (Send them your track and £500 and you’ll get a Fatty dub by return). Pelanconi also runs an online drum service where producers can download authentic reggae and soul beats from Fatty collaborator Horseman, and promotes reggae festivals across Asia.
Sometimes being prolific is its own drawback. Pelanconi has made so much music lately that he can’t see how he’ll ever get to release even a small part of it. The Prince Fatty live band — MC Horseman, Brit-reggae musicians the Rasites, and sometimes Hollie Cook — often plays music that will never see release. He just wants to keep the party moving. “I come at it from a DJ point of view,” he says. “If it doesn’t work on the dance floor then it’s no good to me. I want the people dancing, the old school block party vibe, yunnoh?”
And has he, after all these years, discovered the secret of this most indestructible of genres? What is the ultimate appeal of reggae? “Everyone’s a sucker for a good bassline, aren’t they? There’s a little rastafari in everyone.”