40 Years Later, Reggae’s Heart Still Beats in the Bronx
By Brandon Wilner
Jan. 5, 2020
Lloyd Barnes has run the Wackie’s recording studio and label since the late 1970s. As he prepares for his next chapter, he wants to ensure its spirit lives on.
Lloyd Barnes, known as Wackie, is behind one of the longest-running reggae studios in the United States. Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times
Lloyd Barnes carried a shopping bag full of cleaning supplies up to a humble recording studio tucked above a financial services center and a Caribbean restaurant in the Eastchester neighborhood of the Bronx. A colleague was in a session with a dancehall vocalist, and Barnes pointed out his most recent nonmusical project, a custom-upholstered sofa embroidered with his record label’s logo: a dreadlocked Lion of Judah with its tail cocked up aggressively, and a flag displaying a star of David next to the name Wackie’s.
Together, the studio and label make up one of the most respected reggae institutions in the United States, and Barnes, a calm, lanky man with a penchant for crisp clothing, is their founder, chief producer and champion. Wackie’s began in 1976, but 1979 was the year he and his team locked in to their sound and released records by stars in their prime: Johnny Osbourne, Wayne Jarrett and the Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles. The label went on to put out cult classics like Horace Andy’s “Dance Hall Style” and Love Joys’ “Lovers Rock Reggae Style,” which, despite multiple reissue campaigns, are still not easy to find.
It’s been 40 years since Wackie’s hit its stride, and it has held a prominent place in New York’s music history ever since. First as a reggae sound system that put on parties, later as a studio and record shop, it has served as an expression of the immigrant-led aesthetic exchanges that came to define the city’s musical fabric. But Barnes isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be able to focus on his beloved studio. Now 75, he underwent double bypass surgery in 2017 and later developed nerve damage affecting his neck and arms. Though he recovered, he’s now looking back at his career with appreciation.
“I’m just thankful I’ve gotten to make music how I want — a true feeling from within,” he said in an interview in the studio’s break room, decorated with posters for international events and the label’s original certificate of incorporation. “When you do that for as long as I have, you’re filled with gratitude.”
His concerns now are ensuring that his studio carries on the traditions of roots reggae and lovers rock — the primary styles he works in — and sharing his knowledge with the younger people who populate it. “I’m like a primary doctor,” he said. “I help them with whatever part of their music I can, but I know when to offer my skill and when to recommend someone else who can do that style better.”
Barnes, known to reggae fans as Bullwackie and to friends simply as Wackie, was born in the Trench Town neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, and joined his mother in New York in 1967. His nickname traces back to Trench Town, where his friends wanted a wild-sounding name for their crew. After deciding that their first choice was too lewd, they settled on Bullwackie Boys.
Trench Town is known as the birthplace of reggae, where bandleaders like Alton Ellis and Delroy Wilson forged the upbeat dance style of ska into the cool sway of rocksteady. Barnes recalled seeing greats like Ellis, Bob Marley and Ken Boothe around the neighborhood. He got involved with his church’s music program, helping to pump the pipe organ on Sundays, which also gave him access to other instruments. When he heard the new music bubbling up from the nascent Rastafari movement, he felt naturally drawn to it.
He would sit in on Duke Reid and Prince Buster sessions at Federal Records, the studio that later housed Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong label. Then he came across the work of the dub reggae innovator King Tubby.
“He was the real king of dub; he set the pace,” Barnes said. “There was always a standard way to do a mix, but when he used effects and played with the vocal or drum track, there was real expression and courage. Seeing that gave me the picture of freedom.”
Alongside Glen Adams’s Capo Records and Linval Thompson’s Thompson Sound, Wackie’s was one of the first reggae labels established in the United States. Most didn’t survive the switch to CDs and the rise of dancehall in the 1990s, but Barnes persevered by offering audio services to other artists and labels, and continuing to believe in his own musical instincts. Today, Wackie’s is probably the longest-running American reggae studio.
In 1976, Barnes set up shop at 4781 White Plains Road in the Bronx, where his studio had an adjoining record shop called Wackie’s House of Music. At the time he worked in construction, and spent his earnings on equipment from the Sam Ash music store on West 48th Street in Manhattan. Financial constraints led to technological ones, which required resourcefulness in his recording strategies. The result was a rich and textured sound that gave his studio’s music an audible signature, which in reggae and dub carries just as much weight as the songwriting; the studio itself is considered an instrument.
Barnes recorded and released albums by a stable of lesser-known and emerging vocalists and songwriters — Love Joys, Milton Henry, Junior Delahaye, Annette Brissett and Prince Douglas — all backed by his mighty studio band, the six-piece Wackie’s Rhythm Force. On the early hip-hop single “Wack Rap” by Solid C., Bobby D. and Kool Drop, Barnes experimented with styles that demonstrated the Bronx’s swirl of influences at the time, combining M.C.s with a disco beat and elements of dub production. His innovations appealed to artists in other genres, too: The dub techno innovators Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus started reissuing Wackie’s records on their Basic Channel label in 2001.
Wackie’s relocated to Englewood, N.J., after the sale of the White Plains Road building in the late 1980s. Barnes spent much of the following decade in Kingston helping run a label the reggae musician Sugar Minott put together to bring up younger artists, but returned to New York in 1998 when his mother became ill. Around that time, Wackie’s moved back to the Bronx; it settled into its current location on Boston Road in 2014.
Ira Heaps of the now-defunct East Village record store Jammyland met Barnes when his shop became an outlet for some Wackie’s pressings done in 1998. For Heaps, the label captured a distinct New York spirit. “The dark, sparse sound was what I loved,” he wrote in an email. “New York was a great place in the ’70s and ’80s. It was dangerous, but full of soul. That whole vibe definitely found its way into the music.”
In 2013 the streetwear brand Supreme released a line of clothing honoring the label. “I grew up with that Sugar Minott record,” the company’s special projects director, West Rubinstein, said, referring to the 1983 album “Dance Hall Showcase Vol. II.” While the Wackie’s line wasn’t the most marketable collection, the goal was “to educate, to try to help young people understand the real culture that’s right beneath their feet, particularly in New York City.”
In the late 2000s Barnes took a break from recording and releasing new music, but continued to offer the mixing and mastering services that have paid the studio’s bills. He still makes his way to the studio several days a week to oversee projects he’s working on with his protégés, Eric “Synester” McGill and Steadley “Meddz” Reid, both producers and digital engineers. He records with his daughters Crystal and Jasmine, and is still working with artists whose names have adorned Wackie’s records for decades: Claudette Brown of Love Joys, Jah Batta, the Wackie’s Rhythm Force members Jerry Harris and Jerry Johnson, Prince Douglas and Coozie Mellers.
The studio has incorporated digital tools and techniques alongside the analog gear that Barnes has used for decades, but Barnes still considers himself a proponent of old-school recording techniques and hands-on instrumentation.
“Imagine you’re sitting in front of a program, and you got 500 hi-hats, and you’ve never listened to a real drum set,” he said. “I always tell the people around me: a real hi-hat, you can make it sound like anything. But you can’t make anything sound like a real hi-hat.”
Barnes and his wife, Sonia Cole Barnes, have lived in Yonkers for the past 20 years, and he still dreams of opening a music center in the Bronx to provide young people access to instruments and offer the kind of education and enthusiasm that he was exposed to back in Trench Town. He recalled going to watch studio sessions and being frustrated that he wasn’t permitted near the piano.
“I remember that all the time,” he said. “I used to say: ‘One day I would love to have a studio. Then people could touch the piano.’”
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