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Get to Know – Legendary Reggae Drummer Squidly Cole!

By April 20, 2014Interviews

Maliika Walker

Squidly Cole has been a drummer within reggae music for over thirty years.  Yes let that sink in for a minute, thirty years.  At the age of thirteen you were probably playing with your friends in the playground but Squidly Cole was in the studio recording Barrington Levy’s, Black Black Roses for Channel One.  Squidly toured the world with reggae giant, Jimmy Cliff, at the age of fourteen.  The legendary drummer has played on such Grammy winning albums for artists such as Lauryn Hill, Buju Banton, Damian Marley, Stephen Marley, and Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers.  Squidly released his debut album in 2008.  His newest album, Reggae College: Trenchtown, is set for release on 6/20.  I recently got a chance to speak with Squidly about his audition for Jimmy Cliff, working with the Marley Family & Lauryn Hill, and his decision to become the singing drummer.  Here is our conversation.


I know you debuted as a professional drummer at age 13

I was in the studio before I was 12.  My father’s best friend is a pioneer of reggae music, Blackstone Anderson, a keyboardist who was playing music way before Sly and Robbie.  He was involved in a lot of music from the days of Studio One, 70’s era, Duke Reed, my father’s music (Stranger Cole).  I used to go to the studio at 10 and watch all the sessions, then at the age of 12 I started to touch the drums in the studio.  I was professional by the age of 13.


That was my next question.  You played on Barrington Levy’s, Black Black Roses, do you remember anything about that session?

It was a good time in my life.  It was great to know that the owners of Channel One, also did records with such artists as Dennis Brown, Sly and Robbie, and Sugar Minott among others.  I also knew that my father recorded the first song in that studio when it was just built.  That was some coincidence.  Those sessions are what made me.  Here I was just entering my teenage years and I was sitting in with some of the greatest musicians in Jamaica, including my godfather Gladstone on piano.  All of these people had a body language.  They didn’t talk much.  Everybody just listened and they knew what to play, they would know the chords and everything.  People would just listen.  Everybody had a super personality, especially Sly Dunbar and Robbie.  They were just great guys and incredible musicians.  I was able to watch the great Dennis Brown listen to the music.  This took place around 1981-82.  My uncle Tabby (The Mighty Diamonds ) was in music also, before the 70’s, so there was always music in me and surrounding me.  I was born in the studio you can say.


With a father like Stranger Cole and an Uncle from The Mighty Diamonds (Tabby), did you have any other choice in your future besides music?

Let me tell you what happened.  I was born in Trenchtown.  They bulldozed down my block and my family was forced to find another place to live in Kingston.  The first studio I went to was King Tubby’s with Triston Palma.  He was just starting to sing and I happened to live on the same road as he did.  When I was going to school in Waterhouse I would not just hear my father’s music but my uncle Tabby’s music as well.  Whenever I would hear their music it would give me goose pimples.  Even today the music still has a strong effect on me.  There was a song on the Mighty Diamonds Right Time album that used to make me cry as a child.  The song was called ‘Why Me Black Brother Why’.   There was another song on that album that used to pierce threw my heart called ‘Africa’.   I thought to myself, your father is doing music and your uncle is singing these powerful lyrics.  They are doing this thing called music.  My father’s blood flows through me and it called me to do music before I knew it was happening.  I started visiting my godfather Blackstone, in the studio at Channel One, after my father went to Canada.  I was about 10 years old.  I would see great musicians there whenever I went.  There was no escape.  I was dedicated to music from that point on.  I eventually went professional and played on not only Barrington’s Levy’s Black Black Roses, but Brigadier Jerry’s Jah Love as well.  Jah Love was a big song because it was a positive song with Rasta inspired lyrics.  It was a movement at the time for more positivity than is in the music today.


Were you apart of any auditions that are still memorable today?

In 1984, when I was 15, Earl “Chinna” Smith took me to an audition for Jimmy Cliff without me even knowing who I was auditioning for.  Jimmy was auditioning “Style” Scott from Roots Radics, he was also the drummer for Gregory Isaacs.  At that session were musicians such as Tyrone Downie, Chinna Smith, Sticky Thompson.  Chinna walked in but the band was done rehearsing since they were playing from 1PM and it was now around 6.  Chinna mentioned he wanted the band to hear me play the drums.  I couldn’t believe what was happening because I didn’t know I was going to audition and here I was looking at all of these great musicians, all been playing for great artists for ten years or more.  Chinna asked Jimmy Cliff if I could audition and Jimmy said he wanted me to play three songs “Many Rivers to Cross, The Harder They Come, and Reggae Nights.”  After we finished playing everyone was silent.  Style Scott looked at me and said “bumboclaat.  What you come here for.”  I was upset that he said that.  He is one of the greatest drummers to play.  He played on songs for Gregory Isaacs, Barrington Levy.  He played on so many hit songs.  I just walked outside and sat down.  I was heading out the yard and heard a voice call for me so I walked back toward the house.  Jimmy Cliff mentioned he knew my father and shared some stories with me.  He then mentioned he wanted me to rehearse with the band the next day and he was going to Europe for 3 months and Africa for 2 weeks and he wanted me on the tour.  Keep in mind that I was only 15.  I mentioned that I wanted to bring my friend who played bass, Christopher Meredith.  I then went to tell Christopher Meredith and he couldn’t believe it at first.  The next day we were rehearsing with Jimmy Cliff.  Chris and I have been playing together ever since.  After we finished touring with Jimmy Cliff, we toured with Michael Rose after he left Black Uhuru.  That was the first time I toured the US.  It was the greatest tour because we played this venue called “Music Machine” in LA and a reviewer from the LA Times reviewed the show and said it was the greatest reggae band they ever saw.  A three piece band with the power of a ten piece band.


You have been the Marley Family drummer for over twenty years, how did you begin playing drums for the family?

I toured with Mutabaruka and when I returned to Jamaica I was contacted by Ziggy Marley.  He wanted me to come down to Tuff Gong and we recorded the Conscious Party demo.  That is how my relationship with Ziggy Marley began, in the studio.  We recorded the song Conscious Party, Tumblin Down, Have You Been to Hell.  Ziggy was playing with an Ethiopian band at the time, we recorded the album in the studio.  I even arranged the intro for one of the songs on the album, a track called We Propose.   I was bursting with so much music back then.   I started touring with Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers in 1989 with the album, One Bright Day.  The band split around 2000 and I have been playing with Stephen Marley since then.  I also played with Julian Marley and Damian Marley.  I produced and wrote some of the lyrics to the title track to Damian Marley first studio album, Me Name Junior Gong.


As a drummer on the classic opus, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, you were part of an historical album that will always be remembered.   The album has won 5 Grammy awards and is considered one of the greatest albums of all time.  What was it like working on the album as a musician?

Before that album was released there was a big song I co-produced with Stephen Marley, a remake of Bob Marley’s Turn Your Lights Down Low.  I arranged the rhythm and some of the vocals.  When we were making that track it was just me and Chris.  Stephen left the vocals with us and when he came back he heard Lauryn Hill’s vocals on the track and was pleased with what he heard.  Stephen then played the song for Cedella Marley.  Chris Meredith and I co-produced two songs on the remix album Chant Down Babylon.  Lauryn Hill’s album started after that so we already had some history working together.  When she came to Jamaica, after Rohan and her became close, she met my father and that was a good experience. She saw they were both short and slim.  My relationship with Lauryn was more than just as a musician.  She was my friend.  Playing on that album wasn’t any different than our experience working with her on Turn Your Lights Down Low.  We were friends and the Melody Makers toured with the Fugees also so we had a good relationship.  Combined with us already having a hit song with her it just felt natural, nothing extraordinary.   It was like a family thing.  All the songs were recorded in Tuff Gong Studios.  We were home so being that we were in Jamaica recording, it just felt natural, like it was meant to be.  I could just drive to Tuff Gong with my father and record.  We were home.  When we record at home it’s like a natural ting.   I am from the core of reggae, Trenchtown, where you find dirt and zinc and we make up house.  No matter how great a person is we are always on the level.  Also coming from a camp like the Marley’s you are going to feel special so it was just a natural vibe.


One of your inspirations is the late great drummer, Carlton Barrett of Bob Marley and the Wailers.  How did his drumming style influence your career?

Carlton Barrett was playing drums from before I was born.  He used to play with bands called the Reggae Boys and the Upsetters.  He also played on a lot of tracks with my father.  Carlton and Family Man would jam with my father.  They both played on many songs of my father, including his biggest hit Just Like a River.  Carlton made a big milestone happen in my life.  It was before I went on tour with Jimmy Cliff.  In 1983 I was at the Bob Marley Museum with Chinna Smith.  I used to go there and work at night and there is where I met Carly.  Someone came up to me and told me Carly wanted me to come check him.  He was sitting on the same step in front of the house that Bob Marley sat and photographers took some photos.  Carly told me he was a friend and played with my father and he knew I was a drummer.  I told him I wanted that snare.  Carly said ok you want that snare, come back on Friday.  Can you believe I came back Friday and he give gave me that snare.  Me a youth, 14 years old.  The kind of love and care it takes to play reggae music, he must of known it was within me.


How do you feel about the state of reggae today?  Everybody is talking about the revival movement.  What are thoughts around the music coming from the Revival movement?

The state of reggae today is not as good as when I was young.  Everybody knows that.  We have a saying the old sweep is better than the new broom.

I do not see it as a revival and you know why.  A lot of the people who made the great reggae of yesterday are still here and music lives forever.  People have the right to create their own icons because people have their own opinions and the internet is here to help spread the message in the music faster than back when reggae began.  What revival are they talking about?  When I go back to Jamaica I see my father, Stranger Cole.  I see my uncle Tabby who was a member of The Mighty Diamonds and my godfather Gladstone.  These great artists are still here.  It’s hard for me to say reggae is coming back.  I mean let us list some of the greats Jacob Miller, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, The Mighty Diamonds, Burning Spear.  Their music will never die.  At the same time we all have a part to play in this music.  These artists of today are descendants of the originators of the music in the since they are carrying the torch that was lit.  We have to be careful of the expectations we place on young artists.  Give them some time.  I like to see an artist like Chronixx doing his thing and him have many hit songs.  Looking forward to seeing the continued works of the new artists.


What inspired you to record your debut album, Babylon Days, after being a drummer for decades?  How do you feel the album was received by the people?

My inspiration for recording my first album was honestly because I didn’t like how I saw my life as a musician.  As a musician I felt like a slave.  Being knowledgeable, growing up in this business, seeing the economics and things yes I felt like a slave.  Sorry to say it like that but that is how it feel sometimes.  I mean when I listen to the music of my father, my uncle, it draws me back to Trenchtown when there was unity in the music and everyone was creative and making music.  I’m a revolutionary musician inspired by the greats.

I used to work in the same studio as artists like Warrior King, Bascom X, and Gyptian when he was first coming into the business.  I wrote a track for him but on the day he was to record it the studio burned down.  I felt so bad that when I returned home I decided to do the song myself and that song ended up being the title track of my album, Babylon Days.  Not saying I that I thought I was a singer but I saw it as a sign that it was my time.


You are also performing live now as a singer.  I noticed you have toured the west coast while promoting Babylon Days and your new album Bloodlines.  How did it feel to not play a gig as a drummer in a band but as singer performing your own work?

I am doing it for many musicians.  A lot of musicians have played and are now dead and gone you understand.  I am doing this for musicians like Carlton Barrett because he was shot at his gate in Jamaica and died.  I am doing this for drummers like Phil Collins and Angus “Drummer Zeb” from Aswad.  Musicians like Christopher Meredith.  Many musicians like Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson.  I have a mission for Trenchtown artists and musicians, I am doing for them.  As musicians we put so much into the music but we get so little back.  We normally don’t watch time like that but when you reach a certain age you make sure you are using your time wisely while you are still here on earth.


How did your collaboration with Sizzla come about?

Before we go into that I have to talk about how the album title came about.  With Babylon Days I wanted to express myself and talk about the times we are living in.  We are surrounded by Babylon.  With the next album I had to represent my people, my Bloodline.  You know how the Marley’s represent them bloodline.  I wanted to represent mine, my father and my uncle.  When me talked to Sizzla in Jamaica.  I walked up to him in his yard and when he heard me sing he got on the track Can’t Sit Down.  Sizzla’s my friend and he is a genius.

Your most recent release, Bloodlines, includes a song with your father (Stranger Cole) and uncle (Tabby).  It must have made you feel immense joy to record with your family, your inspiration.

My father and uncle both live in Jamaica.  I made a riddim in Miami for Michael Rose in the 90’s and I had it on cassette.  One day I came across the riddim while I was with my son and decided that riddim was going to be the title track and I needed to get my uncle and father to sing on it.  This track was going to represent Bloodline.  I called my father and Tabby and told them I wanted them to sing on a track on my album titled Bloodline.  I went to pick my uncle Tabby first then I picked up my father.  We went back to my house and I played them the riddim.  No one knew what the lyrics to the song were going to be.  My son turned the mic on and I just went into the first verse from the top of my head.  I sung whatever came to mind.  Recording the song just came natural to all of us.  It was one of the greatest I ever did.  It was my time to represent my Bloodline.


What is next for Squidly Cole?

The next album will represent where I am from.  The next album will be called Reggae College: Trenchtown.  That is where it all started.  Letting people know my father sang the first reggae song, Bangarang.  We will be doing the song our way on the new album.  It was a number one song in Jamaica.

 Anything else you would like to tell the people?

The album is finished. I’m mixing it. I am seeking an Executive Producer for the new album because I need help with financing it. Let the people know that Babylon Days and Bloodline are available on iTunes right now and I would appreciate their support. Be on the lookout for Reggae College: Trenchtown, coming 6/20 on 100 Studio Production. The album will be distributed by Zojak Worldwide. Check out my website


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