Tappa Zukie’s long career has taken many unexpected twists and turns. Prior to his involvement in music, Tappa was an “enforcer” of party loyalty in western Kingston, and although several other reggae performers and producers turned to music as a route away from “badness,” he is probably the only one to have done deeds for both Jamaican political parties and lived to tell the tale.
In Chris Salewicz’s book Rude Boy, he describes hiding slain bodies in a hole in the ground in Trench Town during the turbulent 1970s. Initially affiliated with the left-leaning People’s National Party (PNP), he later became a bodyguard for a top-ranking politician of the right-wing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), taking some bullets along the way for his trouble.
I stole my mother’s milk and they run me down and fling something at me and say, “You thieving tapper cat.”
His musical career has also been anything but standard: becoming a deejay in his teens through happenstance, he made his first recordings in England and after retroactively discovering his overseas popularity, he swiftly became one of Jamaica’s leading record producers, as well as a recording artist in his own right. Subsequent veneration by Patti Smith brought a contract with Virgin and a large overseas fan base. Later still, Tappa made a successful transformation to dancehall producer and ran a pressing plant for many years.
Even so, Tappa’s always been an enigmatic character, remaining somewhat apart in Jamaica. He says his unusual stage name is linked to gang culture. “My given name is David Sinclair, but... I just claim it from my parents, the way that they call me, because the things that I do, they give me that name. Like I stole my mother’s milk and they run me down and fling something at me and say, ‘You thieving tapper cat,’ and then they call me Tapper. Then, when I grow up, I was a favorite in the dancehall, so I becomes like a gang leader for my little friends who run behind me. So I had a little gang named the Zukies, and everybody in it was a Zukie.”
On the cusp of his teens, Tappa essentially became a street urchin. “My parents, pressure reach them, and they didn’t have time to think about we, so I have to go pon the road from I was 12. When I run away from home, the people of Trench Town take to me; they say, ‘When your mother and your father forsake you, the lord God Jah will pick you up.’”
The broken home eventually led him to music, his powerful voice used in a very different arena at first. “Tappa Zukie’s talent arise from politics,” he explains. “When I used to run away from home, I used to go and sleep over by the PNP headquarters. They used to advertise the PNP at the meetings, like, ‘This is the master PNP, blah blah!’ Me start take the mike and start chat, so every day, them would carry me down and give me the mike. Political rally all over them put me on, and I was the little boy who was riding the donkey that was leading the political meetings.”
PNP activists soon introduced him to the sound system. “Them start give me the mike and me start to mash up the place, so people start send for me everywhere. I was on I-Oses Discotheque, down Greenwich Town, and some of the other sounds, me never did even know the name.”
I was the dancehall crave, the first little-boy deejay.
As a pre-teen deejay, Tappa prefaced the fame of young sensations like Little John and Beenie Man. “I was the dancehall crave, the first little-boy deejay, and I used to hear people saying I greater than U Roy, Big Youth and Dennis Alcapone.” But once into his teens, as Trench Town became riven by politically-affiliated partitions, he became involved in the conflicts that pitted the southern slum of Wilton Gardens (known locally as Rema) with neighboring Arnett Gardens (better known as Concrete Jungle). Without proper parental guidance, he was out of control, heading down the wrong road.
“I used to play sound and everybody rate me, and they say that I was a hyped youth. People say crazy things and I’ll do crazy things, so Bunny Lee, my brother and my mother decide to send me to England when I was 17 to escape these crazy things that I do.”
The move brought Tappa a different level of exposure, ultimately kick-starting his recording career. “I had never recorded, never appeared on a show, and Bunny Lee introduced me on this show U Roy had in Ladbroke Grove – they played the rhythm for Slim Smith’s ‘The Time Has Come’ and I toast over it. At the time, everybody had me as a warrior. People was scared of me, for what, I don’t know! I’m just a guy who stand up for my rights and don’t let nobody push me around, so I figured the man is a warrior, so that’s when I made that album Man Ah Warrior.”
Bunny Lee is like a father to me.
Once back in Kingston, Tappa searched for a way forward. He found some degree of success on Ray Symbolic sound system, but it was hard to disassociate himself from his former lifestyle; in fact, the notorious gunman Ranking Dread became his deejay apprentice on the set around the time Tappa shifted party allegiance, the result of conflict with a prominent politician. Meanwhile, well-connected music producer Bunny “Striker” Lee extended another helping hand, trying to direct him away from the battlegrounds. “When I first came to England, I didn’t change,” Tappa explains. “I came back down with a bigger head towards it, and because I still did love music, I decide I’m going hang out round Mr Lee. I was actually a bodyguard for Bunny Lee and I enforce artists to record for him. Bunny Lee is like a father to me. Me and my brother Blackbeard used to go to the studio with him.”
Lee was reluctant to record Tappa at first, but he eventually voiced the odd tune, toasting on Johnny Clarke’s popular recut of “No Woman No Cry,” and the devotional “Jah Is I Guiding Star” where he emphasized his unusual approach to toasting. Tappa then founded the Stars label, moving into the producer’s chair with ease. Early releases included “Pick Up the Rockers,” which hit in Britain, and the even bigger “MPLA,” a song referencing freedom fighters in Angola, which finally allowed him to turn his back on negative diversions, once he returned to London in the summer of 1976. This is the breakthrough track that led Patti Smith to reissue Man Ah Warrior on her own label and make Tappa her opening act on tour, ultimately leading to the Virgin contract. “If it wasn’t for music, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you,” he says, with gravity in his voice. “Down here, they had me as a rude boy, but music changed me, and I didn’t change until I came back to England and ‘MPLA’ turn me into a star.”
At the same time, Tappa worked as a producer with upcoming vocalists from Greenwich Farm, such as Junior Ross and the Spears on “Judgement Time,” and Prince Allah, who cut the stunning “Bosrah” for Tappa at the Black Ark. “Lee Perry was the engineer but he also add to the production,” he says of the latter. “He helped me structure that song, and that’s how my education start expand from Bunny Lee’s classroom.” Tappa was also voicing material at King Tubby’s studio, where the superb Tappa Zukie In Dub album was mixed.
As Tappa’s star continued to rise, the Virgin contract enabled him to offer tangible assistance to the community that had given him support when he most needed it. “Trench Town, that’s where Jah pick me up and put me, so when I sign with Virgin I build a community center and that golden age home, to give back to the people and show my appreciation. I was the warrior with whole heap of love.”
In 1978, Tappa’s “She Want a Phensic” was one of the biggest reggae hits in England, but he withdrew his allegiance from Virgin, due to a misunderstanding. “Virgin write me up as a Mafioso because I demands back my contract from them. No disrespect intended, but I heard they was selling a lot of records in South Africa, but those monies wasn’t coming back to England. Some people tell me they was investing in guns to use against my people in South Africa, so I confront Mr Branson, say, ‘I’m a black man and I don’t support such things,’ and that’s how me and Virgin mash up. At the time U Roy was going for them in Africa, and Culture and I was going for Virgin in England. From there, no big company would deal with me, so I decide to come back to Jamaica and establish my own thing.”
More hits followed, including the boastful “Oh Lord,” which swept the island more than any previous Zukie hit. Then, his duet with Horace Andy on a re-cut of Soul Syndicate’s “Natty Dread a Whe She Want” drew a strong response on both sides of the Atlantic. The half-sung “Raggy Joey Boy” was another poignant description of ghetto life, but Tappa avoided the trend set by older deejays, and never made the full shift from deejay to singer. “That’s when everybody say that Tappa Zukie was a terrorist,” he suggests, “but I was just tired of seeing people taking advantage of poor people. Raggy Joey Boy is the only album with a little singing on it, because the way I take it with music is from one extreme to the other: I don’t see myself just like a dancehall artist, I just see myself as a musician, so I’ll make jazz, funk, reggae, anything – just the frame of mind and vibes to really hit me at that moment.”
I’m a creative person, so the things that I do, other people don’t even think of doing it.
In the early 1980s, Tappa recorded a bit of lover’s rock with Ruddy Thomas and Barry Biggs, but was more successful with dancehall material cut with Peter Metro, Courtney Melody, and Dennis Brown; Gregory Isaacs’ “Hard Drugs” even became a late ’80s anthem. Then, greater success came in the early 1990s, when Tappa produced Beres Hammond’s landmark “Putting Up Resistance,” which remains hugely popular today. And though he subsequently concentrated on back-catalogue reissues, Tappa continued to issue sporadic releases of note in the new millennium. For instance, there was a popular Taurrus Riley collaboration, “Stress Silent Murderer” (voiced on “Natty Dread A Whe She Want”), which surfaced in 2011, around the time that Tappa released his most recent album, X Is Wrong, which was comprised of new voicings on vintage rhythms.
Despite the many trials and tribulations he has faced, Tappa Zukie can be seen as one of reggae’s ultimate survivors, a tough man that continues to follow his own path, oblivious to any passing fad or trend; to the end, he remains one of reggae’s true originals. “I’m a kind of person who thinks for myself and I don’t try to pattern myself either,” he surmises. “I’m a creative person, so the things that I do, other people don’t even think of doing it.”