Super Cat: The Ghetto & Glory
By Brian E. Rochlin. V10#2 1992
In Kingston, Jamaica, neighborhoods start and end within blocks, and living on them is a whole other type of education. Instead of a classroom within a single building, the classroom of the streets teaches its students to know which buildings are which. Knowing where you stand geographically can be as important as where you stand politically. The two are often related.
Each neighborhood has its own members of distinction, be they artists, politicians, musicians, or stalking DJs breaking into the international music scene. Seivwright Gardens, one of the toughest sections of the city, is noted for the many DJs that have broken away from it: U Roy, Ninja Man, Josie Wales, and Super Cat, the latest of the Gardens alumni to have graduated with honors.
After years of working on different sound systems and labels, most recently his own, Super Cat has been signed to Columbia Records, and he’s taken the streets with him. His first release on Columbia, called Don Dadda, is filled with pictures of life on the streets of Kingston, stories from Jamaica’s present and from his past
Born William Maragh on June 25, 1963, Super Cat claims not to have come from a musical family. “Just one brother is involved in the business,” he says, “Junior Cat.” His taste for music comes from years of hearing the latest DJ sounds shooting out of local record shops. “In the environment where I lived…you had to find something real to survive, and that was the music. So I went straight away into the music and became involved.”
The Early Years
As a young teenager, Super Cat worked as an assistant for various sound systems, helping them set up and breakdown as they traveled from dance hall to dance hall. “I got my start,” says Super Cat, “by DJing on the sound system in the dance hall. When I was a little kid, going to the dance…with the selector playing rhythms all night long, [I got] some exercise on the mic. You just practice.”
“In the environment where I lived…you had to find something real to survive, and that was the music…so I went straight away into the music… ”
Making his way from lesser sounds such as Soul Imperial and Crystal Blue to the king of the systems, Kilimanjaro, Super Cat began developing the lively stage shows by which she is known today. Alternating between crowd-pleasing energy, in which he bounces from one side of the stage to the next, and a steady intensity—leaning forward like a lecturer, he delivers his most powerful lyrics directly at the audience—Super Cat’s stage presence is both controlled and commanding.
His career began advancing in 1986 with the release of “Boops,” which could be heard on the lips of youth all across Jamaica. The song was so popular that nearly a dozen responses and imitations were recorded. After working with Kilimanjaro and recording on such labels as Techniques and King Jammy’s, he moved over to the Sturmars sound system and the SKD label, where he released a string of successful recordings, including ”Sweet for my Sweet,” “Wild Apache,” and his first album, also called Boops. “I liked working with people that could give me the good sound,” says Super Cat. “But it’s not like I got a favorite studio. Any studio where I could get the sound, I go for it.”
After a 1988 tour of England with DJ Nicodemus, this search for the “right” sound led Super Cat to open his own production company, Wild Apache. In addition to the many artists who have signed onto the label (e.g. Nicodemus, Ken Boothe, Eek-A-Mouse, etc.), Super Cat has used the facilities to record two other albums (Sweet for My Sweet and a collaborative effort with Nicodemus and Junior Demus called Cabin Stabbin’), a slew of singles (including “Don Dadda,” “Nuff Man Dead,” and in cooperation with Heavy D and Frankie Paul, the massive hit “Big & Ready”), and the first works from youths off the street. “We try to produce a lot of youths from the ghetto that we think are very talented, and give them a break. There’s very few producers who really want to work with a new artist. It’s sometimes very risky. He might lose his money. Songs not doing so good…It’s a gamble.”
Coming from the streets, Super Cat knows the risks to which these youths are submitted. He’s experienced them himself. On stage, his look is one of restrained danger, eyes hidden behind “Catwoman”–shaped sunglasses that mirror his downturned mustache. He got his nickname while incarcerated in Kingston’s general penitentiary. Super Cat explains, “It is a trademark from the ghetto and the war that we survive from. Ten men can hang out on a corner and the police take all 10 to jail because one was smoking a spliff. So I was there, and I need a musical name, so Super Cat is the name my brethren gave me when I was about to go back on the street.”
Super Cat’s Star Shines
However, Super Cat’s music isn’t just about the hard licks. “My message,” he says, “is in many different forms. You got to teach about what’s going on in the ghetto. Cost of living is getting high. And there’s people suffering, and stuff like that. Sometimes you just don’t want to stress on that. People don’t want to remember these things every day. So then that’s the time when you go to something different…to try to cheer up people. So you got to do a mixed emotion type of thing.”
Don Dadda offers this mix. In addition to the political songs such as “Ghetto Red Hot,” “Them No Care,” and “Fight Fi Power,” Super Cat offer some softer touches, such as “Must Be Bright” and “Dolly My Baby,” which was recorded with Trevor Sparks. Super Cat is thrilled with his Columbia deal, with the progress he’s made since his days as a Sevwright Gardens youth. “We were working very hard,” he says, “and I didn’t know if there was ever gonna be a day like this, where I’m signing to a major label. I knew maybe we get some break in this business, getting a hit song, working towards making a good label, producing good sound, stuff like that. But now this, you know? I think we really achieved something.”