by M. Peggy Quattro
No doubt, Maxi Priest is one of the hardest and longest-working men in the Reggae biz. In town to perform for the inaugural ONE Caribbean Fest, and, following an exclusive Meet, Greet, and Eat fan luncheon at Miami’s HOT 105 to promote his Easy to Love CD, the supercharged singer sat down inside the Miramar offices of VP Records for a long overdue catch-up interview.
Our connection goes way back. Maxi Priest has been featured on no less than five Reggae Report magazine covers, and from 1985 to 1998, he was featured, reviewed, interviewed, or mentioned in innumerable issues. In fact, since storming the music scene from his South London base in 1985, Maxi Priest has not stopped writing, recording, performing, promoting, producing, or rockin’ n’ rollin’, all while circling the globe .
“This is my life,” says Maxi, “this is what I’ve been blessed to be doing.” And this blessing is not lost on the ever-smiling Maxi, as witnessed by the joy he brought to lucky fans at the fab luncheon in his honor, provided by VP and Nove Sushi. Bounding into the room, Maxi went around and greeted every single person with a smile and a handshake or hug. He chatted intently and was happy to pose for photos or give autographs. This is what a star does…humble, happy, and never forgetting that it’s the fans that put you, and keep you, where you are today.
I noted that it’s been several years since Maxi Priest released a studio album. “I have tons of material,” he explains, “and I just wanted to understand what was going on with the game. The game is changing; even as we speak the game is changing. The goal posts keep moving. So I wanted to understand what I was doing it for and where I was going with it.” The inspiration for Easy to Love came at just the right time.
On the music biz: “The game is changing; even as we speak the game is changing. The goal posts keep moving.”
Listening to the title track, I recognized a familiar feeling with the rhythm and had to ask. Maxi smiles, says yes, and tells this story. While recording dub plates, he stumbled across a Beres Hammond riddim track that was brought to him by a friend. “I knew I wanted to do something original on it. When I found out the track belonged to Bulby [veteran Fateyes producer Colin “Bulby” York], I immediately sent him the track.” Bulby quickly responded with “Bwoy, a’Chrissss-mas!” Adding that they wouldn’t be waiting for any record company to put out the “Easy to Love” single. “We started to leak it out and it just got so much love… that was when we decided to move forward and do this album with VP Records.”
Easy to Love is produced by Bulby, along with veterans Donovan Germain and Handel Tucker – co-producer of “Close to You,” the massive single from 1990’s Bonafide album. It’s important to note here that “Close to You” went straight to No. 1 on the Billboard charts and that Maxi Priest is still credited as the only Reggae singer ever to reach top position on that chart. When I asked producer Handel Tucker to what did he attribute the success for that particular 1990 single, he replied, “I think it was the instrumental aspect… Sly Dunbar’s drum beat, the live strings. And Maxi’s voice had a new texture, a fresh voice that came with something different.” He also credits Bonafide’s success to co-producers Sly Dunbar and the late great Geoffrey Chung. “It all came together effortlessly,” Tucker added.
Fast forward to 2014, “We were evolving and wanted to try something different,” says Maxi. “Now we’ve come full circle—Roots Reggae, Lovers Rock—but that’s life. You evolve, you benefit, and you grow by what you deposit around that circle. If you don’t deposit anything, you just go ‘round and around. So you have to deposit something and then you build on that something.” Producer Tucker notes that when recording Easy to Love, Maxi’s vocals were as fresh as when he was a kid back in ’89. “Maxi was right there, sounding the same way,” he notes. “He is one of those gifted voices.” He also gives props to Bulby for “doing a great job, making good choices, and bringing the whole thing together.”
Handel Tucker says: “He is one of those gifted voices.”
Building Easy to Love included adding such accomplished musicians as cohort Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Earl “Chinna” Smith, Steven “Lenky” Marsden, and Clive Hunt. Lucky charm Beres came on board to do the sweet, sensual duet “Without a Woman.” The current touring band consists of a group of Jamaica’s top musicians, including bassist Taddy P and guitarist Gus Angus. “Those who are amongst me have been amongst me for a long time.” Shaking his head, he quips, “If there is one thing that’s gonna kill me, it’s loyalty.”
Maxi says he is very happy and pleased with the outcome of this whole project. “This is one album I can sit down and listen to and not have to explain myself.” He’s making reference to the 1990’s and the days of “Close to You” and “Housecall” when everyone was like (he slips into patois) “Yo, bwoy, dos’ tunes deh, sound like cross-o-vah tune…” Laughing at the truth in that, he adds, “it’s like we opened the gates and now everybody’s crossing over!” Then taking a serious teacher-type pause, he makes clear that “there’s nothing wrong with crossing over because this thing is run based on economics. If you don’t create a revenue, then pack it in because you will incur sufferation… and work at Burger King.”
Maxi does not hesitate to give honor to his early mentor Dennis Brown. “He is THE mentor,” Maxi exclaims. “I don’t stray or change from my direction because I have a very good understanding of where I’ve come from.” He recognizes all the hard work that went into building the foundation that so many stand on today. “It’s always good to pay tribute to and give respect for the work that Bob and all the other greats did to create and build this foundation.” Not finished making his point, he goes on, “You know, it’s kinda sad in a way that we don’t have celebrations for the others, like Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, John Holt, for their works and for what they’ve done, both culturally for Jamaica and for the Caribbean. To recognize where they’ve come from, the barriers they helped break down. I think a lot of people forget the times and situations that so many of us had to face back in the day, with discrimination, ignorance, and misunderstandings from all colors and classes of people around the world. They miss the point – or the fact – of how much work these guys put in to help get rid of a lot of these things.”
Taking it a step further, Maxi adds, “I’m not really impressed with the appreciation shown for what these people have done from the folks – the government of Jamaica – who could do a lot more, and private industry; everybody could do a lot more to celebrate these pioneers. It’s not just the music they created – that’s just a small part of what they’ve done.” He declared that if he were running government, there would be monuments and statues for Dennis and Gregory and John…for all the pioneers of the Reggae music business. “It would aid in strengthening tourism and culture,” he declares, “and recognize where we’ve come from, up to where we are today, and where we should be going.”
Today Maxi is enjoying life. His appearance at the Apollo Theater’s Bob Marley 50th Tribute was a highlight of 2014. Performing alongside the Wailers, Third World, Ky-mani Marley, and surprise guest Lauryn Hill, Maxi felt privileged to be part of this honorable celebration. He says he also had “a ball” performing at the ONE Caribbean Fest in December and was extremely cooperative in promoting the event. “I do what I can do. I support the promoters. If you kill the promoter, who’s gonna promote? If you kill the distributor, who’s gonna distribute? If you kill the media, who’s gonna do the media work?” Remembering his early days as a carpenter in London, he recalls that it took everyone from the secretary to the manager to the foreman to get the job done. “It’s common sense, really. And yeah, I get it… common sense ain’t so common.”
When asked for some favorite memories over his 30-year career he correctly answered “all of them.” But when pressed, he acknowledges 1985’s Reggae Sunsplash at London’s Crystal Palace football stadium, and the 1990 Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay, where he was invited on stage in the early morning sun to join mentor Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and Freddie McGregor.
Maxi Priest has toured this world many times over, resulting in a large, devoted world-class fan base. When asked what he credits his longevity to, he simply states – support. “Support breeds confidence. If you’re supported you feel strong, you feel wanted, you feel needed.” His songs span three decades with 20+ releases on such great labels as 10 Records, Virgin, EMI, and now VP. Who would he like to collaborate with in the future? It didn’t take long for him to pick out superstar Miguel, a leader in the new wave of R&B singers. Gets my vote.
Credits to his longevity: “Support…it breeds confidence. If you’re supported you feel strong, you feel wanted, you feel needed.”
If you’re not following Maxi on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you should be. He takes great pride in announcing that he “calls the shots” on his Facebook and does a lot of his own social media posting. Recognizing the importance of social networking, he admits, “Social media is very important. It has to be supported by yourself and whatever record company you’re working with. In fact, it’s probably the most important part of marketing today.” To connect, follow @MaxiPriest and Instagram TheRealMaxiPriest.
When asked if anyone ever made a comparison to him and Bruno Mars, Maxi laughs. “I heard Bruno Mars once said I was one of his favorite singers!” There is a similarity in looks, too. Check a young Maxi from the ‘80s and the young Bruno Mars – you see it? “He must look like me cuz I was here first,” Maxi laughs, adding, “Yeah, we had the same uncle!” See for yourself. Watch this video with clips from a young Maxi in 1984-85-86 for VH1’s 1991 Before They Were Stars.
Three of Maxi’s sons are also in the music business – Che, and Marvin and Ryan, who co-wrote and produced “Full Hundred” for their father’s 2 the Max album. “I’ve guided them in everything they’ve done, but there comes a time where you have to let go, and pray to God that whatever you taught them from foundation, they will take with them wherever they are going.”
I like to leave an interview with something that no one knows about his or her favorite star. We know he was born Max Elliott on June 10. We know he is from the Priest tribe of Twelve Tribes (hence his name.) We know he co-founded Mad House Records. We know he was managed by Erskine Thompson and Zola Burse. We know he sang with Roberta Flack and Daryl Hall. So after mulling it over, Maxi confides, “Yeah, I like to sketch, a little.”
The “Easy to Love Tour” continues in 2015, so check MaxiPriest.com or follow him for the latest news and tour/show dates. You won’t be disappointed, and guaranteed, you will get why Mr. Maxi “Level Vibes” Priest is so easy to love.
Holiday – Maxi Priest – Easy to Love CD 2014-15