As a teenager, Priest was a carpenter who crafted speaker boxes for local luminaries including Jah Shaka and Negus Negast, before joining the pre-eminent British reggae sound system1 Saxon Studio International. A gift for singing and performance soon revealed itself, and he went from box builder to star of the show, transforming sound system culture along the way. He landed a deal with Virgin Records and started charting in the UK in 1986 with "Strollin' On." His first taste of international success came in 1988 with his majestic cover of Cat Stevens' "Wild World," and in 1990 he went to #1 in America with "Close To You."
Along with UB40 and Soul II Soul (which had their own sound system), Priest helped embed British reggae into the firmament during this period. In 1991, he teamed with Roberta Flack on the hit "Set The Night To Music" and with Shabba Ranks on "Housecall."
With 11 solo albums under his belt, Maxi is showing no signs of slowing down as we turn our attention to the coming decade. His solo album, It All Comes Back To Love, is in the running for the Grammy for Best Reggae Album, but the latest project for the 59-year-old Londoner is the politically-tinged United State of Mind, a collaboration with Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower and renowned producer Livingstone Brown. Songfacts caught up with Maxi to discuss his eventful career – including his initial loathing for "Wild World" – and find out how he's handling these uncertain times.
Maxi Priest: Most definitely! It does not matter what situation we face in life, my creativity, my vibes, will always flow. That's what I believe. That's just the way I was born. I'm just "that kid." Every day I wake up with a bright and positive mind with a great appreciation for life and the world.
Songfacts: I'd like to begin by talking about your early life in Lewisham and your involvement with Saxon Studio International. What kind of music did you grow up listening to and what led to your participation with the reggae sound system scene in particular?
Priest: I grew up with a wide variety of music, and an open mind. England is a massive melting pot of all genres of music and culture. My uncle, Sydney Elliott, was a well-known singer, and I grew up with nine brothers and sisters that had all different tastes in music, from The Jackson 5 to Motown to Stevie Wonder to reggae, from Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Jon Holt, Bob Andy, Alton Ellis, to country and western, which my dad loved. Every weekend my dad would play Jim Reeves, Ace Cannon, but my groundation and source of musical and spiritual inspiration was gospel music.
This creative energy I spoke of earlier has been with me since I was a child wanting and needing to express itself. I found myself with this gift that I was able to explore. It consoled me when I was sad, made me happier when I was happy, a gift that I call my special friend, my outlet, to sing and rejoice. I got involved with Saxon because of all those things I just mentioned which we all had in common, the key being the love of music, as it brings us together.
Growing up, there was a cultural struggle in a society that spent a lot of time making us feel unwelcome, even though we were born in England. We were always told to go back home, which was very confusing as our own Caribbean people would say we were English. Many of us found ourselves in a void, but the music had the message, the teaching: "We are Africans," which is the base of sound system culture, the Rastaman Vibration.
Sound system was the glue to our camaraderie that gave us a sense of togetherness and belonging in a society of inequality and injustice. Sound system was the glue for the few places we could go to find like-minded people with the same struggles.
Priest: It's crazy because I didn't want to do the song, I didn't like it. All the way from England on the plane to Jamaica to record with Sly & Robbie, I didn't want to do it. My manager at the time, Earskine Thompson, brought the song to me. It wasn't until Sly & Robbie started to play the track, that I could see a vision and with their motivation the rest is history.
Songfacts: How do you feel about it now?
Priest: No man is an island. You have to have an open mind to learn from other people. You have to allow others to bring their experience and wisdom – to at least be heard. Take time to listen, look for the positives and put aside the negatives. So this experience with "Wild World" has taught me to keep an open mind.
Maybe I should just go around hating all the songs and they will become hits, who knows.
Songfacts: "Close To You" topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1990 and was also a gigantic global hit. Can you tell me the story behind this song and explain the creative process behind it? It must have been an incredible feeling to become one of the first reggae artists to have such sweeping international success.
Priest: I was in my Jeep on my way to a session with Gary Benson and Winston Sela. We were writing for the next album. It was a bright, sunny day, my sunroof was down, and I was just watching the road and watching people go by and then all of a sudden, I just started singing, "I just wanna be close to you." When I got to the studio they were working on something else, and I came in with this vibe. I was just singing and Gary asked me, "Where did you get that from? Where did that come from? I like it!!!" and immediately we began working.
That day we finished the basis of the song and the next day we came up with the idea of adding a rap. At the time rap music was fresh and we penned a few lyrics and sewed up the rest of it. That was pretty much how it came together.
When I heard that we were so close to the top of the Billboard charts, there was a constant back-and-forth conversation all the way until we got the news that it hit. I remember the moment they called to say it was #1. I was in tears as I called my brothers and sisters reminiscing about our parents and my brother, Osburn, that we had lost, wishing they were around to share that news. I was just overwhelmed with joy.
Songfacts: In 1991, you teamed up with Shabba Ranks for the iconic "Housecall." What's the story behind that song?
Priest: This song is an extension of sound system culture. At that time I was one of few singers among many DJs. I was very much an influencer, always encouraging and motivating an energy to create vibes.
When Shabba was signed to Epic, his manager at the time, Specialist, came to me about doing a collaboration. I was a big fan of Shabba way before that. For me it was just a no-brainer. It was something I felt I had to do, a must.
I was on Virgin, he was on Sony – there was a massive opportunity for us to bring sound system culture to another level, mainstream, especially with the remix by David Morales. This gave the song wings to fly, taking the combination of hip-hop along with reggae to create an international dancehall vibe. This song is a groundbreaker, a trendsetter, the birth of a new format that opened many doors for sound system culture. Many successful songs came after that using this same format.
Sly Dunbar and Handel Tucker made the track during a recording session but we didn't use it. The track came back around to me through this project. Myself, Mikey Bennett, and Brian Gold were given a day to write the song. We were in a Howard Johnson hotel banging our heads trying to find ideas for the track and bam... "HOUSECALL!" The next day we were in the studio with a full house of 30-40 people. It was a party, like we were in a dance, literally doing a sound system performance. There was a real hype energy on that track! As we delivered our vocals there were people on the other side of the screen going crazy. It was a sound system session inside a studio, one I will never forget.
Songfacts: You worked with Shaggy for the first time in 1996 on "That Girl," which famously samples Booker T. & the MG's "Green Onions." Can you tell me more about this song and how Shaggy got involved? I love the video!
Priest: This actually wasn't the first time I worked with Shaggy. I took Shaggy on the road with me prior to this song being created. I met Shaggy through his manager, Robert Livingston, whom I spent a lot of years with driving all over London selling records out of the back of a car. I had gotten a break while in America preparing for a world tour when Robert stepped to me and said he had this DJ that he thought would work well with me on stage rapping, and introduced me to Shaggy. We toured together for some time before he got his break with the song "Oh Carolina." So it was pretty much a no-brainer that we would do a song together, which was "That Girl."
Songfacts: In October 2019, you teamed up with Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower and acclaimed producer Livingstone Brown for the fantastic United State of Mind. I understand the title track was the first piece of music Robin came up with for you. Can you tell me more about this song and its lyrical content? There's a certain melancholy about it that feels particularly relevant in these times.
Priest: It's mind-blowing to us to think that we wrote this song over a year ago and here we find ourselves in this unpredictable COVID time where this album United State of Mind lends itself to inspire and open minds. It's a godsend.
We went into the studio not knowing what would happen or how things would turn out. We came up with some chords, melodies, and lyrics, feeding from each other's expertise, creating a space of freedom where we could make mistakes and vibe. I believe this inspired the words "united state of mind" along with the fact that Livingstone wasn't sure if Robin and I would work together. This uncertainty sparked a vibration, inspiring the lyrical content of the title track, "United State of Mind."
It is a blessing that USM was released at this particular time where everything seems so uncertain and the need to come together is even more evident. What better time than now for a "united state of mind" in addressing some of the injustices occurring around the world like racism and the controversy of who's in or out in the presidency. I don't think we could have thought of a better inspiration to carry us through in the time we are living in.
Before all this happened we were wondering how we were going to present this album to the world as it was not a "typical" album for any of us. This was just music from the heart as a gift to the world.
Before COVID, I often wondered if people were even listening to music or just watching music. This COVID thing has made people reflect and also made people more compassionate toward each other. People are starting to listen and appreciate the art of music again! I think that COVID, as tragic and devastating as it has been, has also opened some doors for us.
USM is a journey! If you close your eyes and think of Martin Luther King, Kennedy, Marvin Gaye, Muhammad Ali, you will find similarities in the times, reminding us all that we are still fighting the fight and that with a "united state of mind" we can overcome.
Songfacts: How about "Are We Just People?" This one gives me big Jimi Hendrix vibes! I also love the lyrics:
Angels we believe in
Like legends to behold
Golden days forever
But wishing won't make it so
Priest: I am very proud of this song, "Are We Just People?" It's now a part of the new Muhammad Ali docufilm, Ali's Comeback, that just came out. It's an honor and a pleasure to be in anything with Muhammad Ali. He is an icon! When the opportunity was presented I just knew I had to be involved with the film. "Are We Just People?" will be stamped in that history forever.
Songfacts: Another personal favorite: "On Fire Like Zsa Zsa." Is this a reference to Zsa Zsa Gabor, or is there further meaning to this song?
Priest: Yes, it's a reference to Zsa Zsa Gabor. I remember we were in the studio trying to create a song about a seductive, provocative, and strong woman. Robin came up with the idea of Zsa Zsa Gabor and we just went for it! "Who's a fire like Zsa Zsa," the progression, melodies, and the lyrical content just flowed.
Songfacts: Is there a song you're particularly proud of that we haven't covered today? This could be from the new album or beyond. I think it's fascinating to hear what artists themselves regard as their favorite and finest works.
Priest: I can't do that! Each one of them is my baby. I have a spiritual, mental, and emotional connection to all my songs. I have so much respect for the blessings I have received from The Most High, and give thanks for the ability to create a song or even come up with an idea for a song. Right now, I'm so proud of the album It All Comes Back To Love because it all comes back to love. God is love. It starts with Him and it comes back to Him. The album It All Comes Back To Love was just nominated for the 2021 Grammy for Best Reggae Album. Thank you and congratulations to all the other nominees.
Songfacts: Thank you so much for speaking with Songfacts, Maxi! Finally, can I ask you what your plans are for the near future?
Priest: Probably the same as everyone else! I'm looking at a brighter future and can't wait to get back on the road of touring. I need to share with the world this great material live and on stage with my band and you, the people. I don't want much, I just want a lot!
I don't want much, I just want everything that comes with the beauty of living and to keep doing what I love.
January 19, 2020
For more from Maxi Priest, follow him on Twitter or head to maxipriest.com.
Thanks to his mention of Jezebel in the "Close To You" rap, Maxi made our story on biblical figures in songs. More interviews:
David Hinds of Steel Pulse
Graham Gouldman of 10cc
- 1] Reggae sound systems are teams of DJs, toasters, singers and other performers. They're a huge part of the culture in Jamaica and also in England, where they proliferated in the '70s and '80s. Saxon is the king of the English sound systems. (back)
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