In the world of Jamaican music, where female icons are few but mighty, Sister Nancy’s original voice has resonated for decades. Born in Kingston, Jamaica into a huge family, she began her time as a dancehall DJ and singer in the late ’70s and early ’80s, alongside her brother Brigadier Jerry and the Chalice, Blackstar, Stereophonic and Jahlovemuzik sound systems. Whilst collaborating with artists such as Jonny Osbourne, Yellowman, Capleton and Angie Angel on over two dozen EPs and singles throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, it was the release of her 1982 debut solo album One, Two on reggae label Greensleeves that made her a star.
Sister Nancy’s high-pitched patois vocals often meander among the crackling bass, whopping horns and playful use of space, a combination that saw her song “Bam Bam” become a reggae classic – largely unbeknownst to Sister Nancy herself, though, who only learned of its cultural reach after moving to New Jersey in 1996, where she lives with her family and worked as a bank accountant for 15 years. Although she never reached the commercial heights of some of her dancehall peers, the influence of Sister Nancy remains – hip-hop stars such as Kanye West, Lauryn Hill, Main Source, Too $hort, Chris Brown, and Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth have sampled “Bam Bam,” among others, and she remains a towering figure for female dancehall and reggae artists worldwide. In this excerpt from her Fireside Chat with Frosty on Red Bull Radio, Sister Nancy spoke about the influence of her brother on her pursuit of DJing, how she felt about being a female artist on the soundsystem scene, the first tracks she did with Winston Riley and the making of “Bam Bam.”
Could you describe where you grew up?
As a young girl coming up in Papine [Jamaica] it was wonderful, because I always have my family with me. I am the second to last of 15 children, so my house is always full, never empty. I always have my mother and my father there, thank God, with all of us. I have three sisters and 11 brothers. I was a very happy girl, never short of nothing. My father was a revivalist pastor, so my home was a church. We only have two rooms because he has part of it as a church, until he stop preaching because he lost his voice.
What was the role of music at that church?
Myself and my brother, sometime when we work on a stage we get into that Christian revivalist thing. We cannot work unless we do that, because it’s a part of us, a part of our culture, because as a child growing up that’s all we hear. Christian music and gospel music, before reggae.
Did you have family jam sessions?
We are an entertainer family. Our community have a club, and every Sunday they have a concert. There’s no concerts keeping the whole community without one of my mother and father’s children. Jerry have to be on it else it won’t work. My brothers and sisters have to be a part of it, must, because they were clowns, living clowns. My family’s like that from birth.
Could you introduce your brother Jerry?
Robert Russell AKA Brigadier Jerry AKA The General AKA The Teacher of the Class. My teacher, my motivator, and he will always be my teacher. The best DJ ever. He is my mentor, he is everything to me.
What was the first time you saw your brother in the soundsystems?
The first time I saw Brigadier with a soundsystem was 1971. It was next door – I live at 5 Tavern Avenue and a man used to live at two and a half. He had a soundsystem over the hills named Emperor Marcus. Briga’ used to go over there – I used to stay home and listen to him coming through the airwaves, how him sound great – but all of us have good voices because of my father. I was told my father had a great voice, although I never hear him speak.
What did it mean to your father to have lost his voice?
My father passed away 1985, and I started DJ 1976. He never wanted me to do that. He was more with my brother because my brother is much older than I, but as a girl them no like it. They didn’t go with it because I should just go to school and do what ladies do, because back in the time women never used to hold the mic and DJ.
When I started in the dancehall I say, “Nancy, you alone.” I will go dance from Sunday to Sunday, and I will see no woman, just me.
Seeing your brother perform, did you realize at that point, “Yes, I can do this too”?
He used to write him lyrics a lot when him home in the bathroom, like when him take a shower. I would hear him singing and DJing in the bathroom, and I wonder if I can try that. I start practice, but I don’t let him hear. I go up in the bush, ’pon a sweetsop tree or something and practice. I find my comfort zone in my sweetsop tree because nobody not going to climb my sweetsop tree, and I wouldn’t climb one of my brother and sister tree, so I climb my own sweetsop tree and exercise in there. What I hear him sing today in the bathroom I then go practice it myself.
What was the first time that you took your DJIng outside the sweetsop tree and made it public?
I wouldn’t say I was a bad girl growing up, but I was an out-there girl. My sisters used to be stay-home children – I wasn’t inna that. I want to do what I see my brothers do. I am the one who run away every six months. Them have to find police for come get me. Me say, “Me can’t bother with my yard, it too boring, me gone.” Me want see out there, me want go out there, just like how my brother go out there, me haffi go out there. I run away, a place name Cambridge in St. Andrew, not far away from my home, but inna the bush. When I went up there I met some brethren and them have the sound name Chalice. Them used to go play outta night time and them play all different place in Jamaica, St. Thomas, and I used to go with them. One night one of the DJ pon the sound, Junior Chalice, him say, “Try the mic, Nancy.”
I was so nervous and tremblesome, it’s terrible, but I did try the mic that night. Some people run me, some people say, “Put down the mic, you sound like a little micey rat,” and some people say me sound good. Me never nervous again after that. That was 15. When I was 16 I say, “Alright, I go step up me thing.” As I said I was a bad child, my mother and my father couldn’t handle me, so they used to ship me out, give me to a next big sister, give me to a younger brother, but it never work. Them always send me back. When I 16 I moved from where I used to live in Papine, I start go amongst Black Star: that the biggest sound for me. My brother was with Black Star. The owner rate no DJ like Brigadier Jerry, so when Brigadier Jerry is not there I would go and exercise on that sound. That was the big sound where I really go out there, with Black Star.
Did you feel that when you started with Black Star, that you would try to kind of copy Jerry?
I don’t try, I copy him. I still do. I will never stop. Him a run Jamaica now, you know. I start going out there and DJ Black Star, make a couple lyrics of my own, and plus I have my brother lyrics them too. Me a gwan good.
Could you talk about being a female artist at that moment?
When I started in the dancehall I say, “Nancy, you alone.” I will go dance from Sunday to Sunday, and I will see no woman, just me. That time I weigh like 92 pounds, so small. I was always in there. Sometime I go to some soundsystem and some of them man there no wan give me no mic, but because of Brigadier and the respect them have for him, I will get a one and two talk sometimes. Me feel so good, me start feel big now and say, “Yes muma, a your time.” Me ready for the road. Nothing a stop me, straight ahead me a look.
How long were you with Black Star before you went to Stereophonic? What appealed to you about Stereophonic?
I went to Stereophonic 1979. The first time I listen Stereophonic, my brother was working with them, and although I had to go to school Monday morning, because that year is the year that I finish high school, this dance can’t miss me. So I run away and went to the dance with Brigadier Jerry and General Echo. That night I say, “I have to get on Stereophonic.” I talk two tunes on the sound the Sunday night, and the brethren who own the sound, Big John, come to me and ask me if me can come DJ the sound, and me say, “Yes, me will come.”
When me go places people nuh call me Nancy anymore, them just say “Ms. Bam Bam,” and it just a spread.
As far as being with the sound, did it mean being exclusively with Stereophonic?
No, it wasn’t exclusive. Although I was with Stereophonic, if a person a keep a dance in Jamaica check me and say, “Sister Nancy, we a keep a dance and would a like you come talk for the night, we give you $50,” I would leave Stereophonic and go and DJ that sound for the night. Sometime me there a Stereophonic, nobody not paying you anything, you just want the exposure, you know?
Were you talking with the other DJs?
Sometime I was talk with other DJ, them encourage me. Them stop call me Sister Nancy, them call me Muma Nancy, because it mean mother of all. I was just out there among the man them, just working, no fear. When them get hot ’pon me me just turn Brigadier ’pon them and mash them up. Them couldn’t manage me: me a tell the truth with the voice what me have.
Did Winston Riley first connect with you by hearing you with Stereophonic?
Winston Riley connected with me through General Echo. He was the main DJ on Stereophonic. At the time Mr. Riley was recording General Echo and Lone Ranger. General Echo was the first slack DJ; slack mean them talk about men parts and woman parts, how people do in the bedroom. He was a very X-rated DJ but he was loved and he was nice, and people love him. Him just talk it raw. Winston was at one of the dance, he heard me do a tune name “Papa Dean Want To Give Me Sardine,” and I mashup the dance. Stereophonic have a big lawn where you go play domino, drink, chat and play music, when I go there the morning after the dance Echo say him a carry me go a the studio, and me say, “For what?” Him say, “Me want you go voice the tune deh what you do last night and mashup the place, ‘Papa Dean Want To Give Me Sardine,’” and me say, “For who?” Him say, “For Mr. Riley, Techniques.” That’s how I go to Channel One and I did me first record, in 1979. All of my tunes is for Techniques and they were all voiced at Channel One Studio.
How was that first day when you walked up to the studio?
Echo was there with me. I met Mr. Riley and he seems a very loyal and royal person, so it wasn’t too bad. Me and a microphone, and Roots Radics them play the riddim and me DJ the tune. Soldier was the engineer, take me voices and thing, Steely there ’pon the keyboard, live! After them take the voice, them put it ’pon a reel-to-reel, but all of it was live. It was done so quick.
What was your feeling when you held this first single in your hand?
Me run go tell everybody. Me get a whole heap of them – I don’t sell none, I give away the whole of them. Then I hear it over the radio, a wah? Now me a star. Me hear it on the radio before me go out, like I putting on my clothes and I just hear it on the radio, “Papa Dean Want To Give Me Sardine.” Man! The happiest time of me life, me hear my voice. Turn up them radio high and carry it for me father could a hear it – because that time my father was sick – and me carry it come make him hear it. Me say, “A me that.” Him say, “A you? You sure a you?” Me say, “Yes a me, a me! Hear my voice there.” It was a joy, pure excitement.
What was in your mind as the next step?
I wanted to do more. I went back to to Techniques headquarters and I told Mr Riley that I wanted to do another single. I did “Money Can’t Buy Love” about three months after. Me ready now to stand up beside all of the man them, because me get fi know how to write all my own lyrics, everyday me write a lyrics.
What was the quality that you were bringing to the microphone to differentiate from other DJs?
I was bringing cleanness. I have a quality voice where up to now I don’t hear it. Not to be biased or anything, but I’m telling the truth: I don’t hear no female DJ the voice that I have. I have a clear, clean, high pitch, nice voice. It doesn’t matter if I have cold, if I’m hoarse for nine days. I can still work; you’ll never know that I’m hoarse.
With your tracks like “Only Woman DJ With Degree” and “Gwan A School,” the message is very positive. As an artist did you think that you had a duty to amplify these things to people?
Yes, I needed to reach out. That tune “Gwan A School” is my brother’s lyrics. I listen him DJ it so much times and it is so good. He was not recording the way he should, because of his religion, so most of what he wasn’t recording I took to the studio and record them. I say, “I rather do it than somebody else.” It’s positive music, it’s telling kids there’s no way to life than getting an education. The music with a positiveness is from my brother, because I wanted to do what he does, and he is a positive DJ. I want to follow that footstep. I tried slackness once, and it almost kill me in Skateland, so I let it go.
What is Skateland?
Skateland is a dancehall, and the man who own the place keeps some of the biggest dances in Jamaica right in there. I was there with Echo and Stereophonic, and Echo DJ about woman under the man them, him give me the mic and I start DJ ’bout the man. There comes Brigadier Jerry – I was so ashamed. The look that he gave me, I had to just cut it off. Him say, “Put down that!” I never do it again, just that one time. It didn’t suit me because I was not brought up like that.
What led to the recording of One, Two? Did you go to Winston saying “I want to do an album”?
No. After I did “Proud of We,” I had my daughter. I get mess up. I go to country and stop DJing for a whole year. When I came back to town 1981, I check Mr. Riley. I was in a rough position, so I went to him to get some money from him and him say, “Everybody been looking for you, nobody can find you.” I say I was in country, I have a baby and all of that. Him say if me still want record, and me say, “Yes.” Him say, “Tell me what you have.” Me DJ “One Two” for him, and him tell me me must come record it. That night him come get me at my house and drove me to Channel One, and I did “One Two.” It was released in the Christmastime in 1981, and that record took me all over the world. The first big hit for any female DJ. It take me international and so I take DJ business. It make me take DJ business out of Jamaica and carry it all over the globe. I won DJ of the Year for so much awards for that one record, and after that he told me that I need to do an album. I tell him, “Yes, I’ll go work on it.”
What point did you meet Yellowman? In the course of working on the album?
I met Yellowman before I did the album, after General Echo died. I met Yellowman at Skateland. People used to scorn him, them say him just come out of the poor house, but him start right there. I met him and during the process how everything gwan, people like him too and him get a work and a sound. Me and him become friends, and him go a St. Thomas, go DJ, and one or two time I will go to DJ with him, and then two of us start working together all the time on that soundsystem Aces International. That’s how I form that relationship with King Yellowman. It’s a pleasure fi work with him, anytime. He’s a very genuine brethren, me a tell you that.
Was it surprising to you that “Bam Bam” ended up becoming the biggest hit on One, Two?
Yes, it was. When I finished One, Two Mr. Riley told me that him wanted to release the album inna Christmas because is the biggest time for the record sales. Him say, “Me want finish One, Two, but I didn’t got no more record to put on it, it only have nine and you need ten.” I said, “Lord, what am I going to do? What me a finish it with? I don’t have nothing because me run out of lyrics.” Working with Yellowman now and I think it’s a Sunday night, we was in St. Thomas and him say him have to go to studio to do a track, him and Fathead, if me want come. Me tell him yes, I go with him a the studio, and they do a “Bam Bam.” The punchline – “What a bam bam, bam bam bi dam, bam bam” – is a festival song from Toots & The Maytals; I think it’s from 1969. Him and Fathead sing up, do “Bam Bam,” and I was in the studio just watching them. I say, “You know what, I go do a ‘Bam Bam.’” I never tell them. When them finish I call Mr. Riley. I use the phone in the studio and say, “Mr. Riley, come get me, let me go finish the One, Two album,” and him say, “You never have any tune yesterday, where you find tune today?” Me say, “Just come get me.” Him carry me to Channel One, and Mr. Riley lay out the Stalag riddim and me just do “Bam Bam” right there. I still use the Toots & The Maytals punchline, but everything else is mine. I make “Bam Bam” my own.
How did “Bam Bam” get so big?
I don’t know. I never hear “Bam Bam” play in Jamaica. I migrated to United States in 1996; that’s how I know it was a big hit. Me still never feel no way still until 1998 when I was in my living room and watching the TV, I saw it in the movie Belly. I say, “What the hell is this?” That’s how I know it was a big tune. I start to get a lot of work because of “Bam Bam” and the movie them see it inna. When me go places people nuh call me Nancy anymore, them just say “Ms. Bam Bam,” and it just a spread.
Can you tell us what prompted the move to the United States?
My mother migrated in 1978. She leave all of us in Jamaica, and becoming a citizen she petition and file for all of us, so all of us are here. Most of us are in New Jersey. Brigadier is the only one who live in Connecticut, but all of us is one place. I didn’t finish my education in Jamaica, so when I came here my mother send me back to school to get my GED, get my little Bachelor in Accounting, so I become an accountant and I work in one of the biggest bank in New Jersey for 15 years. I quit 2015 and just do music all the way.
Did people at the bank understand your musical side?
They love me, they crazy about me. I sell them CD everyday. They call me Sister Nancy – they don’t call me by my right name, everybody at the bank.
How does it feel to be a pioneer for female DJs?
I was just glad that I could have done that. I am just happy that I could break the ice between the man and the woman. I am glad that I was the one who really open the eyes of these female fi make them see, say, “We can do the same thing like what the man them a do.”