Why you are WRONG about Maxi Priest

Maxi

What? Is this some kind of post-ironic ironic thing?” – a fictional uncarved blog reader…

Cos, obviously he’s rubbish reggae, isn’t he? The apotheosis of crossover crapness – watered down JA vibes for tourists on beaches and that guy from accounts who made an arse of himself at this office party. It’s reggae-lite for people who don’t get all excited by how weird Lee Perry is. Innit?

Well, let’s examine the evidence…

Max Elliot was born on 10th June 1962 in Lewisham. His dad was a steelworker and his Mum divvied up her time between her children and the church. She named the 8th of her offspring Max after her fondness for Max Bygraves. Max grew up in south London, going to the same school as footballer Ian Wright (who he’d later nearly hug the living death out of on “This is Your Life”).

I imagine growing up as a teenage black youth in 70s London it would have been nigh-on impossible to avoid reggae. At some point Max embraced rastafari and changed his name to Maxi Priest (after Priest Levi, one of the figureheads of the 12 tribes of Israel – I did have a quick look into this, but got a bit lost!).

Perhaps surprisingly, given his involvement in the church choir, Maxi’s first involvement with the reggae scene was technical and not musical. Having trained as a carpenter he was invited to build speaker boxes for none other than Saxon Studio International – the ruling sound of the day.

Throughout the 80s, Saxon cornered the market in UK dancehall. They clashed everyone from Lloyd Coxsone to Jah Shaka, eventually going all the way to New York to beat all comers in the world clash. Saxon are probably best known for their fast chat MCs like Papa Levi, Asher Senator and Smiley Culture, who became internationally respected and successful. But Maxi sang alongside the DJs and would eventually eclipse them all.

Maxi Priest - Throw My Corn

After some time on the sound Maxi collaborated with Paul Robinson (aka Barry Boom) and his band Caution on the Level Vibes label. His first solo single Throw My Corn was released in 1984 and reached number 1 in the reggae charts (well, one of the reggae charts, anyway) in August of that year.

The tune is upbeat and happy, but still heavy on the bass. “Throw my corn but call no fowl – if you wanna pick it up it’s your business”. An old expression from yard, perhaps best known because of the different tune by Larry Marshall of (nearly) the same title, which coined the name of the foundation riddim.

What does it mean? Err, ok. Originally “Me t’row carn, me no call me neighbour fowl”, it’s about showing yourself by your actions, not your words. I’m guessing (“no shit, John”), but it’s along the lines of “I’m not calling you a chicken because you ate my chicken feed, but people can make their own minds up about what you’re like…”

The b-side was even better. Strolling On isn’t exactly meat and drink to hardcore roots fans – “Strolling along… with a beautiful girl like you…” – but it is a shining example of the variety and quality of mid 80s UK reggae. The version took things one step further with some fantasticly melancholic horns, horns that make you feel…

Caution – Strolling On Version (Level Vibes 1984) zipped mp3

Maxi Priest - Should I

The 2nd solo single, Should I was released shortly after and reached number 1 in (one of) the reggae charts in December of 1984. This was a definite progression (tho perhaps not in the “correct” direction for the purists). The production is extremely glossy and commercial, and it was around this time that Maxi signed a major deal with 10 Records (a subsidiary of Virgin).

It shouldn’t be forgotten that there was, and remains, a huge market for this sort of reggae – mainly amongst women. Of course the lyrical themes (in this case, being wronged by his woman, but still wondering if he should let her “stick around”) and production values do not lend themselves to being leapt on by crate-digging fanboys decades after the event, but there are some great tunes in the “lovers rock” genre which exist on their own terms, for their own fanbase.

Lovers rock is as important, in its own way, as Shaka-esque steppers, or cockney chat in terms of the UK’s place on the reggae map. It’s a sub-genre which was crystalised in the UK, and named in south London, which then became popular “back a yard”. There are some moves to re-evaluate the more “cultural” aspects of lovers at the moment but it remains hugely ignored by all except its target audience…

Maxi Priest and Caution - You're Safe

The first fruit of the deal with 10 Records was the album You’re Safe. Now… this is definitely still reggae, but it’s about as far removed from dour sufferation laments as is possible. For sure, the first track is about “singing songs of freedom”, but it’s actually a jaunty number about birds singing in springtime, complete with backing singers chirping “tweet tweet”!

Even upbeat tracks like Caution or the title track with its “Worries in the Dance” refrain have their toughness submerged under a slick 80s production. Somebody was clearly putting a lot of energy behind Maxi at this point, which is certainly an interesting insight into the popularity and commercial prospects for reggae at the time. (Where is the UK Sean Paul? or is that my bias – maybe it’s that young rascal chap?).

Of course, the investment paid off – big time.

Maxi has now sold more records in his lifetime than Bob Marley did in his (curtailed as it was). He’s travelled the world promoting reggae and fusing it with other genres. And yeah, maybe he’s strayed too far from my tastes on occasion, but the fact that he’s sustained himself as a reggae artist throughout 20 years in the dog-eat-dog music business is worthy of some serious respect.

His cover of Derrick Harriott’s Some Guys Have All The Luck went top 20 in 1987. Which is cheesy as you like, yes, but check these lyrics (and read them through gritted teeth in a slightly aggressive fashion. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, then you’re probably not bitter and twisted enough to be reading this blog, right?)

Alone in a crowd on a bus after work
and I’m dreaming
The guy next to me has a girl in his arms
My arms are empty
How does it feel when the girl next to you
says she loves you
It seem so unfair when there’s love everywhere
but there’s none for me

Some guys have all the luck
Some guys have all the pain
Some guys get all the breaks
Some guys do nothing but complain

Probably his best known tune Wild World (originally by Cat Stevens) hit the top 5 in 1988 (and sounds way better than I remember it – maybe I am just getting too goddamn old or something).

Housecall, his collaboration with Shabba Ranks, was a huge hit and it was Maxi’s “Shabba!” call which was sampled so much that it became a part of UK popular culture – Peter Kay being able to raise a laugh off the back of it on “Phoenix Nights”.

And Maxi is still on it: last year’s I Believe was one of the most popular cuts on Donovan “Vendetta” Bennett’s huge “Drop Leaf” riddim. A recent interview on David Rodigan’s Kiss FM show proved that Maxi was still happy and humble, even just after 17,000 people stayed out in the Miami rain to see him peform.

It all started on Saxon, and soundsystem is still a big part of Maxi’s perspective as this recent quote shows:

“The experience of being on the sound systems, through all the ups and downs, is what put me here today. I keep my ear to the ground and I’m very much aware of what’s going on in dancehall and bashment. I like to think I’m somewhat of a foundation for that, just as I looked at John Holt, Beres Hammond and Dennis Brown as the foundation for what I do.”

Soon come: The Papa Levi connection.

30 Comments

  1. Big up! I thought it was going to be the Barrington Levy retrospective first, but no, you’ve gone straight for the jugular with Maxi!

    What’s next, Third World? 🙂

    Seriously, great stuff.

  2. Hey the man makes more money than me. My cousins Step-Dad grew up with Maxi and I never heard anything corresponding to what I hear here. The man is making a living and hey what we gonna slam the dump truck driver too? Besides I’m sure everyone has heard the plates he’s done for Saxon. Those get serious forwards in the dance. So hey, he must be doing something right. I just wish I heard more dubs from him and more of Saxon for that matter. And anyway, reggae has many levels, I’m new to this but I haven’t seen anyone hating on Shaggy or Shabba, or Beenie or Bounty etc. Also, if you’re laying with your girl and she wants Maxi, what you put on Lee Perry?

  3. Max is an has a voice of excellence and nothing is wrong in what ever Max believes in thats his choice big up Max we love you ever one is intitlied to whatever they believe in. from Patricia Matthews

  4. love u.k. lovers rock, cant knock the man for trying. how many european singers try to do the reggae cross over or sample reggae til they end up dragging it down to gutter level ace of base, snow, apache indian, need i say more even sid owen off east enders did a very embarassing version of sugar minott’s “good thing going”. let the u.k. reggae scene flurish. i prefer his old tunes on “10 records” and he has lost his way a bit, but shall we get on to the likes of aswad while we are here !!!!!

  5. I’m tired of hearing people dump on Maxi Priest and other artist, their music is not hard enough or black enough..
    we all dont have to sound the same or keep regurgitating the same music all the time.. ..music weather it’s reggae,funk,soul or socca should evolve and go places where they have never gone before.

    It’s time for some our folks to open their mind and think out of the box…Maxi is an amazing singer, maybe you need to open your mind and see beauty in what he is trying to convey!!!!

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  7. please give maxi a break- some of you should really get out of that negative box and see what the man is
    doing….Maxi is and always be my favorite reggae singer. Do you ever listen to ooh la la,one more chance
    and love will cross over etc…….

  8. Maxi is the man. He has the voice and he knows how to use it too. Not everyone enjoys hard reggae and the lyrics that go with it so for those of us who like it soft Maxi is the one. Where is the variety if everyone is imitating everyone? Some of us are not into “hear one & you’ve heard them all’ Way to go Maxi!!!

  9. My only problem with Maxi was his stupid grin in all his videos. Every video looked the same with teeth all skin up and nose crinkled. Nobody could take him serious looking so stupid.

  10. I rate Maxi as the best UK reggae singer. I am a bit lost by the history though because I think Sensi & love in the ghetto was out late 1983 or early 1984. It was properly forgotten because this is the only record i know where people brought a 12″ single for the part 2. For those who don’t know the DJ version of Sensi was Mi God Mi King by Philip Levi a song which people demanded to not play the Maxi piece and go straight into the DJ version. Maybe its me bit i actually think the b-side Love is the ghetto was 1 of Maxi’s best singles. Still enough of this trip down memory lane

    1 Love
    Reb

  11. Big up maxi priest!
    I get ripped by alot of mates for being into the like of Aswad and Maxi Priest, they seem to have a misinformed view of UK reggae due some tunes that came out when we were only about 11 in the early nineties. They seemed a bit jokey to us then but i can fully appreciate them now 🙂 shame that some others cant 🙁

  12. Oh my, me and my work mates have just been discussing Maxi Priest and to hear the name Maxi Priest brings back so many wonderful memories – I can only describe his music as feel good tunes and definately music you could rock to..

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  14. MAXI PRIEST IS A LIVING LEGEND, NOT ONLY TO REGGAE MUSIC, BUT ALSO TO THE ENGLISH WESTINDIAN COMMUNITY FOR ALL HIS STERLING ACHIEVEMENTS.

    GOD BLESS HIM

    Ha, spirit.

  15. PLEASE CHECK OUT THE NEW BOOK BY FORMER SOHO NIGHTCLUB BOUNCER HA, SPIRIT ITS CALLED LETTERS TO MYSELF. PUBLISHED BY ATHENA PRESS UK.

    HA, SPIRIT.

  16. I was fortunate enough to be around when Maxi was first stinging as practically the lone melodic voice among the slew of fast chatters on Saxon. He always had a charisma and a vibe; there was something different about him. His tunes were a welcome breath of fresh air when he made it onto vinyl – ok, as you say, much of his material wasn’t exactly roots nor even dancehall business, but then nobody complained when Horace Andy sang Delilah or Dennis sang It’s Too Late. Roots is about Jah love and if Jah made everyone then he must also have made romance between lovers. Better this than sing of badness. Even in the times when he was making songs alongside Shabba and the likes, he was still a pioneer, taking the music to ears that had never heard it before. So you are right to praise the Priest: props to you.

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  18. Finally getting back to you John after three(?) years – now you know why you ain’t seen anything from me for a while!

    Still find it remarkable that we can love this music and yet so many of us, while being evangelical about praising it and wondering why more people don’t love it so, only turn around and reject anyone who actually does take this music to the masses. Maxi became a big man in the pop business without forgetting what he was really about. Even Dennis Brown get dissed by some people when he die, because people forget just how much he did for the music at ROOTS level, instead just seeing him as a man who have some hits and sing a few love songs. Familiarity breeds contempt. An artist like Alton Ellis spent his entire adult life struggling sincerely to make a living from this music as well as communicate what was in his heart. He had a deal with a major company in the early 70s but it all went sour on him. If he’d have been having big pop hits back then, would he not have been worthy of the respect hs undoubtedly had up to the time of his death? I fear he would have become too familiar, and not the beloved hero of so many who claim to adore all reggae music. The message is: LOVE your heroes, people, because they will not be born again in this world and if you don’t respect them who will? Certainly not the pop people who pick them up and spit them out. It is our job as lovers of this thing. These singers don’t make fortunes from what they do – they do it for love. Give some back now.

  19. DEAR IAN..
    “GOD” BLESS YOUR WORDS OF POETIC WISDOM. I THINK SOMETIMES WE ALL TEND TO TAKE OUR HEROES FOR GRANTED, ESPECIALLY OUR LOCAL HEROES. SUCH IS THE BANE OF FAMILIARITY…

  20. all these artist back in the 80’s were great, and still are, but i must admit smiley culture was my favourite, he had so much talent and a good role model for the youth. would be good if he made a come back..xxx

  21. I WHOLEHEARTEDLY AGREE WITH YOU “JACKIE” ABOUT “SMILEY CULTURE”, AS HE WAS TRULY BRILLIANT. BUT THERE ARE SO MANY OTHERS WHO WERE AROUND IN THOSE DAYS THE 80s, WHO IT IS EASY TO FORGET MADE SUCH A HUGE IMPACT IN THE UK REGGAE SCENE. WHICH IN-TURN SPAWNED JUNGLE/DRUM AND BASS, TO THE CURRENT TRENDS OF WHICH YOUNG STARS LIKE “DIZZEE RASCAL” NOW DOMINATE.

    NAMES LIKE PAPA LEVI, ASHER SENATOR, AND THE IMMENSELY POPULAR SOUND SYSTEMS THAT GAVE ALL THESE YOUTHS AT THE TIME A CHANCE. SOUNDS LIKE “SIR COXSONE” “FATMAN HI-FI” “SOFERNO B” “FRONTLINE INTERNATIONAL” “D’UNES” “SMALL AXE” AND MANY MANY MORE WHO ARE THE REAL UNSUNG HEROES, IN THE HISTORY OF THIS WHOLE DEBATE.

    I THINK WHEN WE CONSIDER THE GREAT STRIDES IN UK MUSICAL ENTERTAINMENT ESP (REGGAE) BY THESE AND OTHER PIONEERS, THERE IS NO DOUBT IN MY MIND THAT A POWERFUL MOVIE COULD EASILY BE MADE TO CHRONICLE THAT GOLDEN ERA!

    NUFF LOVE TO 1 AND ALL
    HA, SPIRIT

  22. I just entered this site this evening. Wow – the pros and cons of Max Elliott aka Maxi Priest. Let me tell you my story. I wasn’t acquainted with Maxi’s music until the early 90s – I must’ve been sleeping for a minute – when I finally woke up one day – I heard this amazing voice singing on the radio. After I heard the DJ announce who it was, I was determined to go out and find the CD. Well, let me tell you – I found the CD and more, and more, and more! (Somebody didn’t get paid that week). I played all of those CDs that evening. Needless to say I have been a Maxi Priest fan since then. This man just gets better and better with age and time. Just thought I’d throw that out there! MAX IS THE “IT FACTOR”! Peace.

  23. I first met Maxi when he came to Cincinnati, Ohio back in 1988. He was just getting a taste of what he would later become, an international superstar. I kept saying, if only they would just listen to his voice, his music, he can go far, and far he did! A few years later, he is the only number one selling Reggae Artist in the United States. A feat that non other has accomplished. Today, he is still touring and collaborating all over the place. His music may not be for everyone’s listening ear but hey, Maxi is the definition of “Staying Power.” In the music industry, that is very hard to do. With 20 plus years under his belt, he is a legend. Big ups to the man and his music. One Luv

  24. I loved the first Maxi Priest albums when they came out in my late teens. I recently rediscovered Maxis music some 25 years later. I heard the album 2 the Max and was blown away. The cover of Stings Fields of Gold just blows me away. Fantastic.

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