wax Poetics

The Man Who Would Be Don

The Making Of Don Dada And The Many Lives Of Super Cat, The Wild Apache

published online
Originally published in Issue 6
By Eddie Stats Houghton

Super Cat, photo by Steve Eichner via WireImage / Getty Images.
Super Cat, photo by Steve Eichner via WireImage / Getty Images.

On Tuesday, May 12th 1992, Super Cat released his landmark album Don Dada, stepping into the world of MTV and mainstream radio in the pinstriped gabardine of a mafioso right out of the 1930s, tommy gun on one arm and a befeathered gangster’s moll on the other. Yet when he made his major label debut, he was already a veteran 10 years into his recording career and with an even longer resume in Jamaica’s sound system circuit. Those eventful 10 years comprise several careers worth of music and many lives worth of stories, some of which have never been told. Until now.

Life 1: Glockburn Pen

If you face downtown Kingston with your back to the Caribbean sea, and then turn left, heading Northwest on Spanish Town road, past Tivoli Gardens and Bob Marley’s home turf of Trench Town, you’ll soon come to the Western Kingston enclave of Seivwright Gardens. Seivwright is the official name given to the rough and tumble area of Kingston 11 more traditionally known as Cockburn Pen (and still referred to as ‘Glock-burn Pen’ in current street parlance). It was in this tangle of lanes, among the modest zinc-roofed houses and open-air storefronts of Broad Leaf Road, that the man who would become reggae’s Don Dada–also called Cat-A-Rock, Super Cat The Indian, The Wild Apache and The Bareback Rider–was born William Anthony Maragh in 1963. 

As many of his noms de guerre suggest, Cat is of mixed heritage, the eldest son of an Afro-Jamaican mother–Eulalee Moulton, originally from St. Ann parish–and an Indo-Jamaican father–Alfred Maragh, originally from Bailey’s Vale in St. Mary. As Kingston’s concrete jungle grew up around it, the Maragh household would eventually become home to some 10 children. The youngest boy child–Wayne Richard Maragh–would one day follow his older brother into the music biz under the name Junior Cat.

Maragh is a common name across the English-speaking Caribbean and its diaspora, as evidenced by the government name of Nicki Minaj, born Onika Maraj (no relation) to Trinidadian parents in Queens, New York. Maraj and Maragh are both rough phonetic renderings of Maharaj–literally ‘great king’–a title which, by the 19th century, was commonly used in India as an honorific for Hindu priests. This title of respect was erroneously rendered as a family name by shipmasters ferrying laborers across the globe as part of the British Empire’s infamous program of Indian indenture, a “second slavery” designed to solve the labor “problem” that emancipation created for the sugar plantations which bankrolled the whole colonial enterprise.

This 73-year long aftershock of slave society left behind an Indo-Caribbean population in Jamaica that was smaller, and less politically visible, than those in Trinidad and Guyana. Disproportionately male, Indo-Jamaican workers were also more likely to marry outside their own community and to convert to a spouse’s religion (not coincidentally, Hindu spiritual practice would have a profound effect on the young religion of Rastafari in the early 20th century). Not particularly welcome in the island’s middle class enclaves, Indo-Jamaicans’ presumed status as manual laborers was denoted in the term “Coolie,” often applied derisively, sometimes reclaimed with a stubborn reverse pride.

If the whole project of indenture was designed to pit Black and Indian workers against each other, in Jamaica all these factors ultimately ensured they were more likely to live and work alongside each other. This was certainly true in Cockburn Pen, where Indian Jamaicans settled in large numbers and lived side by side by side with their Black neighbors. This tight-knit community more or less raised young Anthony Maragh, who learned history from the local teacher, nicknamed Granny Soul, and religion from the spirituals wafting through the doors of the Emmanuel Gospel Hall, just across the lane at 15 Broad Leaf Road. 

With nine other mouths at home to be fed, Anthony, as the eldest, was more or less out of doors and on his own by the age of 10, often watching the sound systems that played at Bamboo Lawn, also just up the lane. It was there that Anthony–known on the street as Cat–would first test out his deejay skills when the man named Ranking Trevor passed him the mic at a dance held by Soul Imperial sound system. “Ranking Trevor was the first one who instill the work in I,” Cat would tell me, many years later. “Because dem time, I was upcoming, yunno. I would just follow sound…but the influence of Ranking Trevor never leave I.”

Ranking Trevor, government name Maxwell Grant, was a foundation era deejay known for classic tunes like “Queen Majesty”; “Caveman Skank”; Sav-La-Mar Rock” and “Three Piece Fish & Chips”–his take on the classic “Three Piece Suit” riddim. But his contribution to dancehall culture outside the studio is far greater and he can be credited with a long list of firsts in deejay culture. He was, for instance, the first to adopt the title of Ranking, founding a deejay lineage that would come to include Ranking Dread, Shabba Ranks and many others. More importantly, he was the first student to learn the art of mic control from Daddy U-Roy–the first Jamaican deejay to see his name on the cover of a full length album (and thus arguably the first rapper of all time). Trevor was also the first deejay to cut “special” versions of songs to dub-plate and the first to feature on the 12” vinyl format called Giant Disco 45.

To all these firsts, we can add that Ranking Trevor was the first reggae deejay of East Indian descent and perhaps he saw something of himself in the slim half-Indian youth from Cockburn Pen. Certainly, Trevor was as generous in mentoring the next generation of deejays as U-Roy had been with him. One of his other star students was Nicodemus, who worked as a groom at the Caymanas Park race track and had dreams of being a jockey. Cat entertained thoughts of racing horses as well, and although those dreams diminished the taller he got, he would retain a lifelong fascination with horses and horse racing. With Ranking Trevor’s crucial lessons and the encouragement of older deejays like Nicodemus and Early B, riding the rhythms that a selector played live in a dance seemed to open up a better career path than riding horses; a way out of the narrow lanes of West Kingston, away from a life of street hustles and dodging the police. 

As 1979 turned to 1980, however, global forces were converging on Jamaica that threatened to permanently end Cat’s deejay career, before it had even properly started.

Life 2: General Penitentiary

“Back in those times, they was killing us over the politics,” Cat would recall, years later, in an interview with Vibe magazine. “I can count more friends who die than my fingers and toes.” In fact, Jamaica would bear witness to some 840 murders related to the rampant election violence that year, and police retaliation was equally brutal. It was in the midst of this chaos that the young deejay, who was trying out the name Cat-A-Rock, found himself incarcerated in Kingston’s notorious General Penitentiary.

Though he moved with friends from various areas, in 1980 Cat was living in an area officially named Arnett Gardens…but better known by the nickname Bob Marley used for it on The Wailers song of the same name: “Concrete Jungle.” Marley is, in fact, a key figure in the story. The election violence of 1980 marked the end of the “Peace Treaty” between Jamaica’s warring political factions that Marley helped initiate at 1978’s famous One Love Peace Concert. Working directly with the gunmen who enforced the will of the two major parties–Aston “Bucky Marshall” Thompson from the socialist-leaning PNP and Claudie Massop from the more conservative (and CIA-backed) JLP–Marley helped establish a short-lived truce between the “garrison” neighborhoods that each party had built up and packed with armed supporters. He even used his star-power to convince party leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to join him onstage in a show of armistice, holding their clasped hands aloft for the crowd to see in a now-iconic image.

Despite this powerful symbol, the ceasefire would be short lived. In February, 1979 Massop was shot over 40 times by Kingston police. Bucky Marshall fled to Canada but in March, 1980, he too was murdered in a New York nightclub. With the guarantors of peace at the grassroots level eliminated, violence spiked. The patchwork arrangement of garrison communities in downtown and West Kingston meant armed rivals were almost on top of each other. Gunfire and clashes were so frequent that housing blocs like Concrete Jungle had lookouts posted on rooftops to guard the community against raids. Elsewhere, holes were bored in the concrete walls and zinc fences between neighborhoods to create battlements for firing from a protected position. 

In such an area, ghetto youth did not go to war, war came to them. “I was caught in a political eruption,” Cat told the website Reggaeville in 2015. “They just took everybody from the community. It was a curfew so it didn’t matter if you were innocent or guilty, they were just doing a scrape to sort out the good, the bad, the ugly and the different and I was scooped amongst them.”  Barely 17 years old, he was arrested and detained in Cell Block D North of the infamous prison for some two months on what he still maintains are false charges of robbery, shooting and illegal gun possession.

The experience had an unexpected effect on the young deejay, pushing him even more determinedly toward music as his path.  Fittingly, it was his cellmates who anointed him with the name Super Cat, which has not left him since. Though he always says the ‘super’ was added to his street name Cat because he was destined to be a superstar, the nickname was almost certainly influenced by Clive Lloyd, the legendary Guyana-born cricketer and Captain for the West Indies team. Lloyd received the epithet “Supercat” for his agility in fielding the ball. Running low, with his spine flexed almost double, he gave the impression of a cat on all fours. In William Anthony Maragh’s case, however, he earned the name from his agility on a very different field, and the shots he had to contend with were live ammunition.

Life 3: To The World

Within a year, Cat found himself in the studio. The story goes that he encouraged the younger sister of Brigadier Jerry [born Robert Russell], who aspired to follow in her brother's footsteps, to try her skills at Bamboo Lawn as he had. “The people gonna love you so much, in one year you gwine have a #1 song,” he predicted. 

Nancy Russell called herself Sister Nancy and, just as Cat said, she created such a sensation that legendary producer Winston Riley came all the way from Chancery Lane to Cockburn Pen to hear the young female deejay. She would eventually record her album One, Two for Wiley’s Techniques label. Cat’s good turn was repaid when Nancy’s boyfriend–a deejay named Bruck Back–introduced him to Riley as well. Bruck Back and the newly named Super Cat ended up on record together, trading rhymes over the M-16 riddim on a tune called “Mr. Walker.”

The record didn’t make much of a splash in the crowded sonic marketplace of Kingston, however, and the experience left Cat somewhat skeptical about the recording side of the music business. Even years later he would say of his work with Riley and other Jamaican producers “Still, I don’t like the recording. It’s a problem. You go recording and then you never get paid. That’s the part of it I’m afraid of.” 

Sound systems were the place to make a name–and if the dance was rammed full you were paid at the end of the night. Over the next few years, Cat would cut his teeth on a series of sound systems, including Soul Imperial, Flames Discotheque, and Crystal Blue. Eventually he landed up on a sound called King Majesty where he and Early B worked as sparring partners, at the time a relatively new trend in dancehall, set by duos like Michigan & Smiley.

It was also in this period that Early B gave Cat his “Wild Apache” nickname, a persona that would be soon be much copied by others, though Cat has always conscientiously pointed out that he was not the original Apache in dancehall (that distinction belongs to Apache I, a selector who played on some of the same sounds).

In September 1983, Cat accompanied Early on a trip to Toronto, where they deejayed a dance held by Stuart Brown’s African Star sound. While there, Beth Lesser (author of Rub-A-Dub, the essential book on early dancehall) and her husband Dave Kingston met the young deejay and found him to be raw but full of ambition. Lesser took some of the first known photos of Cat during a live session broadcast on Toronto’s CKLN radio station.

The legend of the Wild Apache was truly made, however when Cat and Early B graduated to Killamanjaro, one of Jamaica's top sounds. There, the difference in their individual styles fully came into play. Early B was known for the almost academic approach he took to his toasts, filling them with facts and sometimes reporting real life events he had witnessed firsthand, as on “Visit Of King Selassie” and “Gateman Get ‘Fraid.” Cat developed his style by using some of the same themes, but putting his own spin on them. “Early B had this goofy sense of humor, you know,” remembers Lesser. “Cat was more of a bad boy, a rebel…and he started to explore more rebel themes in his lyrics.” The main difference, however, was the voice.

Finding the perfect tone to complement a sound system’s thunderous bass as his mentor had taught him, Cat took the U-Roy and Rankin Trevor school of deejaying to new heights.  A sonorous mid-range with a warning edge to it, his fully developed voice manages to be both hypnotic and urgent. “He just had that electricity in his voice,” recalls Kingston. “Especially when you heard it amplified over 10,000 watts.” By 1985, he was one of Jamaica’s most sought after soundmen, and would be recruited along with Nicodemus and legendary selectors Danny Dread and Ainsley “Rifle” Grey to helm a new sound that helped to change the sound of Jamaican music. It was called Stereo Mars.

“You nuh forget ‘bout Stereo Mars–them are the roughest sound!” crows Danny Dread, his excitement about the set’s impact, even decades later, leaping through the phone on a call from Jamaica. “That sound is where we start to mix it hard,” emphasizes Danny, referencing not just the new style of digital production ushered in by Prince Jammy’s Sleng Teng riddim, but the way he and other selectors would chop up the rolling, sinuous bass lines into staccato stabs underneath a deejay’s voice, actually cutting out the amplification in perfect timing or later, with the quick upward flick of the channel slider on a mixing board. 

“Cat is a man now, who come like him love them vibes too, yunno. Cat love when man a mix him down. An’ him love par with my bredrin Nicodemus, ‘cause somehow him an’ Nicodemus come like them have a…a t’ing. Nicodemus train him, too, because, Cat used to talk fast, and Nicodemus slow him down.” 

Danny Dread’s mixing style on previous sounds had already given early dancehall its rhythmic signature–an influence acknowledged by singer Barrington Levy with a soaring “Pull it, Danny Dready-O!” on his breakout international hit “Here I Come (Broader Than Broadway).”  

“The mixing thing?” Danny says nonchalantly. “If you go back and watch some tape of me an’ Lone Ranger, …me have two BIG piece a tube amps and me have one hand ‘pon the amps and one hand by the mixer and a one drop me a gi’ dem: WOMP…WOMP…WOMP-WOMP-WOMP!

Danny himself names Bob Marley as his primary inspiration. “Sometime me feel like the tune whe’ Bob Marley say, Feel it in the one drop! [laughs, singing]. Out of those vibes we pick up on that one night in a dance, ‘cause Bob Marley used to come a nuff dance weh me used to play.”

On Stereo Mars, Danny, alongside Cat and Nicodemus pushed this rhythmic interplay between deejay and selector into ever faster, choppier patterns, a style that would be carried back into the studio by the rhythm section comprising keyboardist Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson and drummer Cleveland “Clevie Browne. They often worked for Jammy’s but it was at Winston Riley’s Techniques label that they created the composition that would give Cat his monster hit, “Boops.”

Based on Marcia Griffiths’ 1967 hit “Feel Like Jumping,” Steely & Clevie reimagined the groove with rapid-fire mechanized drum fills and big, Danny Dread-like drum hits. If Cat’s lyrics have a bouncy swagger that perfectly matches the rhythm’s distinctive swing, he may have come by it naturally, since Marcia’s mother Beatrice Griffiths (née Maragh) was in fact his paternal aunt, making him first cousin to the I-Threes singer. 

The lyrics he tailored to it were based on a bit of Kingstonian slang that has even deeper roots–‘boops’ is a term for Sugar Daddy that goes back to the days of cartoon flapper Betty Boop. Neither Cat or Riley could have predicted the impact this jazz age slang would have on 1980s Jamaica. “Boops cause death–death!–in this country” Riley told Lesser and Kingston for their self-published zine Reggae Quarterly in ‘86. “From I am in the record business, that is one of the biggest selling records I ever experience in my life. Within two weeks, I sell 10,000. Never see a record sell so.”

A tidal wave of Boops-related tunes followed, including spins on the theme by Major Worries, Lovindeer, Shinehead and literally dozens of others. By April 1986, one UK reggae chart listed 7 songs in the Top 10 with ‘Boops’ in the title, and those were just the hits. Lesser and Kingston stopped counting other copycat versions somewhere around 75.

Setting a new trend in “answer records” within reggae, it would play an important part in a similar phenomenon within hip-hop. When the young rapper KRS-ONE required the proper clash-ready toughness to counter Marley Marl and MC Shan’s claim that hip-hop started in Queensbridge on “The Bridge,” he played a simple minor-keyed piano riff, interpolating the bassline from “Boops” to give a rude boy lean to his response. It was called “The Bridge Is Over.” Skip the needle forward one groove on Boogie Down Productions’ groundbreaking debut Criminal Minded and there is KRS again quoting Cat. This time his scatting “Wa-dada-deng… wa-tata-ta-teng” cadence provides the ominous, taunting set-up to KRS’ “Listen to my 9mm go…Bang!

“Boops” was just the opening shot in a string of dancehall hits–including “Vineyard Party” and “Under Pressure”–that moved Cat from top-billing soundman to top recording artist, suddenly in demand for live appearances from Brixton to The Bronx. “Vineyard Party” was one of the first releases on the Skeng Don label (launched by Stereo Mars owner Kenneth “Skeng Don” Black). Cat’s next hit for the label would change the sound of dancehall again. “Mud Up,” also built by Steely & Clevie, is best described as the sound of ‘90s dancehall in the ‘80s, a staccato three-cornered beat that Cat matched with an equally innovative flow.  The influence of “Mud Up” is clearly audible on “Stamina Daddy,” the breakout single from a young Buju Banton (“Me a the stamina daddy fi all the gal picka-ney / Tell all the sexy body gal fi run come hug me!”) establishing a vocal style that would be as imitated by ‘90s deejays as Steely & Clevie’s riddims were by producers.

Nicodemus and Stur Mars Sound, 1987. Photo by Beth Lesser.
Nicodemus and Stur Mars Sound, 1987. Photo by Beth Lesser.

“Mud Up” was included on Cat’s Sweets For My Sweet LP, released in 1988. By this time Cat was spending more and more time in New York. His continued popularity, combined with longer and longer absences from Jamaica, left a sort of vacuum in the Kingston sounds and studios that initiated what can only be described as Apache Fever. Many artists in dancehall derive their name from an established lineage (see also: Ranking, Banton and Demus) but Super Cat seems to have inspired an extra long list of artists who based their style on his Wild Apache persona as well as the name, spreading a Cat-like influence that would continue to reverberate within global music for years to come. In New York, Lady Apache had a minor local hit with “Rock and Comeen,” while in Birmingham, UK a British Punjabi youth born Steven Kapur fused bhangra and dancehall under the name Apachi Indian, creating a whole new sub-genre awkwardly termed “bhangramuffin” and ultimately introducing dancehall to the Indian subcontinent. In Jamaica there was of course Junior Cat, who came by the association honestly, but also Apache Scratchy who’s voice and style were so close to Super Cat’s that Cat and his manager Robert Livingston promptly signed him to Wild Apache, to keep all the profits within the firm. 

Apachi Indian would go on to score four #1 hits in the UK. “My name Apache comes from Super Cat, Apache Indian cause I’m Indian,” Kapur affirmed  to the Entertainment Report Podcast in 2021. “He’s my idol and  hero; I grew up listening to Super Cat and Nicodemus and all those cassettes from Jaro.”

His first independently released hit, “Movie Over India” is in fact a fanciful spin on “Cat Reach America” which imagines him being embraced by the stars of Bollywood. His fourth, “Arranged Marriage” would be his first release on Island Records and made him a star in India, conjuring some of his preposterous lyrics to life when he toured the sub-continent and performed at Nehru stadium. Island boss Chris Blackwell sent him straight to Jamaica to finish out an album with the island’s top dancehall producers, like Bobby Digital and Sly & Robbie. Although sometimes treated as a footnote to the evolution of dancehall, these sessions would ricochet back through the culture when Sly Dunbar and his guitarist Gitsy reinterpreted Toots & The Maytal’s early reggae classic “Bam Bam” as if it were a bhangra pattern on dhol and tumbi, arriving at a unique drum-and-guitar dancehall track with no bassline. It became the backing track of Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote”–the genre’s biggest global hit to date–originally released in Jamaica under the title ‘Reggae Bangara’.

Similarly, by the time KRS-ONE was making his golden age comeback as a solo artist, he borrowed his raggamuffin flow for the hook of “Black Cop” straight from Apache Scratchy’s signature hit “Pon Cock,” (“take your .45 and you put it ‘pon lock!”) originally voiced over a re-lick of the beat from “Mud Up.”  It was this cultural capital within New York’s rap scene which would bring Cat to the attention of the man who would become one of his key collaborators: Heavy D.

(left) Heavy D, 1991. Photo by Al Pereira via Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images.
(left) Heavy D, 1991. Photo by Al Pereira via Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images.
DJ Eddie F, 1991. Photo by Raymond Boyd via Getty Images.
DJ Eddie F, 1991. Photo by Raymond Boyd via Getty Images.

Born Dwight Arrington Myers in Mandeville, Jamaica, Heavy D was raised in the Bronx-adjacent community of Mount Vernon, New York. By the time he was a senior in high school, his cousin had introduced him to the area’s most popular DJ, who went by Eddie F.. “Mt. Vernon is a small town,” explains Eddie, born Edward Ferrell. “4 square miles, 1 high school…everybody knows everybody.” Dwight, Eddie, and a few talented friends all ended up in Eddie’s basement, working on rap demos and dreaming of making it big. They would eventually be signed to the fledgeling Uptown Records as Heavy D & The Boyz.

With a born Jamaican as their frontman, reggae was always an element of the group’s sound and in 1989 Heavy sang a rap-ified version of “In The Mood For Love” by rocksteady pioneers The Techniques (lead by a young Winston Riley) over a pounding beat lifted from KRS and Just-Ice’s underground hit “Going Way Back.”

“It was just part of Heavy, part of who he is,” says Eddie, looking back. “Those records were always playing in his house. Mt Vernon had a heavy, heavy West Indian population and culture, so…We didn't think of it as infusing reggae, reggae was always there.” Appropriately, their next venture into reggae was a collaboration with a Mt Vernon neighbor who provided a crucial link to the deejay who had given Winston Riley’s Techniques label one of its biggest hits. 

Reggae singer and producer Robert Ffrench did his first show in the states at The Apollo in the early ‘80s. When a “sweetheart” he met on these touring trips became his wife, he also settled in Mt Vernon and opened a record store on 4th street between 5th and 6th avenue. Ffrench Records became a magnet for local artists. By the ‘90s that category included Christopher Williams, YG, Grand Puba and youngsters Mary J. Blige and Sean “Puffy” Combs.

He remained active as a singer however and had perhaps his biggest international hit with deejay Clement Irie on 1989’s “Bun & Cheese.” It was at a live performance of this tune at the Tunnel that Heavy D approached and introduced himself. Within a few weeks they would be in the studio recording “Free & Single,” the first of several collaborations. 

“He did really want me to establish him with the reggae fraternity, to introduce him to all those people he loved [as a reggae fan] but didn’t know them,” explains Ffrench. Crucially, he linked Heavy and Super Cat when they spotted the deejay across the room one night at Bronx nightclub Act III on White Plains Road. “Act III was a hotspot…Heavy did just want to get into the reggae situation so I would have him go to some places where the reggae was playing. There was a bar in the center of the club. Me an’ Heavy was on one side with his brothers and whosoever; his partners. Super Cat was on the other side. Heavy say, Wha? Super Cat? me like Super Cat!

Ffrench made his way around the crowded bar to make the introduction but Cat was guarded at first. “Him was like [kisses teeth], ‘Me nuh really wan’ meet nobody, yunno.’  I said, No, Supa–because me an’ Super Cat is really good friend–I want you to meet him, this kid is a big time.” 

Eventually Ffrench’s cosign put the cagey deejay at ease. Won over by Heavy’s buoyant personality, Cat agreed to record with him. Heavy chose the rhythm, Cat recruited singer Frankie “Dancehall” Paul to provide the hook on what became the classic combination tune “Big & Ready” (also called “Big & Broad”). That would utimately come out as a single on Cat’s own Wild Apache label, distributed by Jamaican-owned New York indie VP Records. Though reggae might have been an integral part of Heavy, it wasn’t necessarily a key part of Uptown/MCA Records’ plan for him at the time. 

“I was able to talk to Heavy later on and he told me some of the story,” says veteran music journalist Rob Kenner, one of the few to have interviewed both artists, who graciously shared the substance of his unpublished conversations with Heavy. “His label was definitely not super happy with him doing these unauthorized, uncleared, dancehall records…but it wasn’t an industry link [with Heavy D and Cat]. It was a real link.”

Indeed, Eddie F confirms that their initial meeting quickly became a genuine friendship between the artists. “It wasn’t even necessarily about records, Cat was just…cool.” he says. “Now, you could have somebody on a feature and never really even meet them, but back then it was really more of a chemistry thing. If you were on somebody record, you were co-signing them. And if you didn’t fuck with them, you just didn’t get on the record.” This sense of brotherhood is captured on “Big & Ready” in the form of an audible joy that animates the traded lines between Cat, Heavy and Frankie Paul, sparring just like Cat had with Nicodemus and Early B over Danny Dread’s mixes, welcoming Hev into a rarefied inner circle of sound system culture. 

If Hev’s cameo on “Big & Broad” seemed out of pocket to his label at the time, his initial determination to work with Cat was at least somewhat vindicated when the dancehall star was signed to Columbia records, making him only the 3rd or 4th dancehall artist to land a major label deal. Their next collaboration “Dem No Worry We,” would be a 12” single from Columbia with an official hiphop remix by Eddie F, released in support of the Don Dada LP.

Jamaican-born Dave Kennedy was Heavy and Eddie F’s go-to engineer at the time and got the call to record the session. He remembers being impressed by their spontaneity in the studio. “These were two guys who I don’t think had to practice anything. I’m sure Heavy worked out the chorus previously but it was all call and response after that and it was natural. These guys were just full of lyrics all the time, you know?”

To keep the live feel of a dancehall session, Kennedy rigged two mics cross-wise–something like the central mic in a boxer’s ring–so the artists could face each other and trade lines in real time. “I recorded them at the same time because they fed off each other’s energy,” he says. “I think my presence there helped [because] we were all Jamaicans. It was 100% Jamaicans in the room. I’m not sure it would have had the same energy otherwise. They were trying to bring two genres together and the fact that they were both Jamaicans was the bridge that they crossed to do it. I don't think anybody else has really done it the way they did it since.”

The atmosphere was equally spirited off-mic. “I remember, I had a bottle of roots [tonic] I was drinking and Cat was joking, saying: You gettin’ ready for later! [in Jamaica, the herbal cocktail is commonly said to fortify the drinker for vigorous sexual activity]. The general levity was appreciated because the engineer found Cat an intimidating presence at first. “It's my first time meeting Cat, so I was in awe. I was like, Oh, god: Super Cat. You know he had somewhat of an aura about him, a persona. This was after his shooting incident in Brooklyn. So I was like…” [opens eyes wide and sits up straight]

Life 4: Super Power

“Now, Massive! Here comes a dub that only can be played by Stone Love like this, seen? –and the reason why? The artist is dead an’ gone.” - Wee Pow, introducing Nitty Gritty’s “Good Morning, Soundboy” dubplate special (Stone Love Movement Live, November Records 1995)

Glen Augustus Holness was a member of 1970s roots reggae group the Soulites who branched out as a solo artist under the name Nitty Gritty in the foundation dancehall era, finding his greatest success in the mid-’80s with tunes like “Hog Inna Minty” and “Good Morning, Teacher”–a favorite in soundclashes when it was time to take an opponent to school. His career came to a tragic end on Monday June 24, 1991, when he was shot dead in front of Super Power record shop, located on Church Avenue near the corner of Utica in Flatbush–the heart of Brooklyn’s West Indian community. The streets of Brooklyn remember Super Cat as the man who pulled the trigger.

Tales of the altercation that took Nitty Gritty’s life have been retold so many times, often laced with embellishments and misinformation, that it has taken on the misty outlines of street legend. Firm facts have been hard to pin down because, as a rule, those who talk about it were not there and those who were there do not talk about it. Even the streets have a statute of limitations, however, and one member of New York’s reggae fraternity, who was present that day at Super Power–at the tender age of 12–was willing to speak on the record, on condition of anonymity.

“I was coming from Music Master, Witty’s [record shop]. Witty [reggae producer Whitfield Henry Reid] is a good friend of my pops, so I used to work there on the weekend or when I was off school. Friday, Saturday, sometimes even Sunday I used to literally run the shop. A lot of times [the stores] would exchange records. So I would bring some records down from Music Master to Super Power. Witty would just tell me “Yo, go bring these down to Shelly, he gonna give you…whatever amount, nahmean? I brought the records over, I used to walk with them in a little hand truck. It was like right around the corner, if you know Utica and Church…”

Situated at 4905 Church, Super Power was mere steps–around the corner and half a short block–from the Music Master storefront at 817 Utica. Several blocks further up the street at 1234 Utica was Jah Life, the record store and label of Hyman “Papa Life” Wright, making the whole area a hip strip for reggae artists and DJs. “You have the record shop and a crowd of people used to be out front, drinking, talking, smoking…you know, doing what grownups do,” he continues. “I’m just a little young yout’, I’m going about my business.” 

Super Cat was there that day, easily recognizable amongst the assembled reggae congregation, because “them times, Cat was already Cat.” Not that the dancehall star’s presence was out of place. There was in fact, a constant traffic of artists from shop to shop, who also acted as labels and distributors. “It wasn't really nothing for me to be starstruck [by] and I’m a kid, in all honesty. You know like, OK, that’s Ninja Man (or whoever) right there, it wasn't a big deal to me…I go inside the shop, boom, talk to whoever I had to talk to. 9 times out of 10, I had to go around back cause that's where they conducted the business at.”

It was from the stockroom in the back of the shop that the young ear-witness heard the argument that quickly turned deadly for Nitty Gritty.  

“I remember the shot. I remember hearing the shot, then everybody looking and just shouting, you know–Bloodclaat! and shit like that. Those that was towards the front [of the shop]...they seen it and knew what was going on.”

As is the nature of such feuds, there have been many conflicting accounts of the argument that lead Nitty Gritty to draw a gun on Super Cat in front of Super Power that day–but there is unanimous agreement on what happened next. Nitty Gritty drew for his weapon and aimed at Cat first…but the firearm jammed before he was able to get a shot off. The fluke jam bought Cat precious seconds to produce a weapon himself and fire back. 

“I remember that being the talk of what happened [amongst those in the shop with a clear view of the incident],” confirms the young bystander “that it was a self-defense situation.” Although Cat has understandably been reluctant to talk about the incident, this aligns with the few statements he has made on the matter. 

“It’s luck that I’m here,” Cat told Kenner in late spring 1992, just before the release of the Don Dada album, for what would become a profile in the very first issue of a brand new hip-hop publication called Vibe Magazine. In another quote from the same conversation, published in Spin magazine’s July 1992 issue, Cat told Kenner: “It was as if you were walking down a street and unexpectedly a dog run out and try to bite you. If you don’t react, then you gonna die.”

“Even for years [after that],” says the anonymous Music Master employee, “people wondered why Cat never got any jail-time or whatever and…that was the reason why, because it was self-defense.” He concludes his narration of the fateful day's events by saying “I went back down to Music Master and by the time I reached back, they already got wind of what happened. I didn’t know who Nitty Gritty was at that time, to be honest. But I do remember seeing his album cover in Music Master. He has an album cover with just his face and his name, written almost like a kid wrote ‘Nitty Gritty’ in chalk. I remember just focusing on that album cover after that incident, like, Damn, that’s the man that died.”

The next day–Tuesday June 25th, 1991–was William Anthony Maragh’s 28th birthday. The gift he received that year was life itself, the chance to see another day and–as one who had tasted firsthand the bitterness his friend Nicodemus spoke of when he deejayed “Life in a Jailhouse Nuh Sweet”–to walk away a free man.

Life 5: Border Clash

Though his brush with death had some immediate fallout (namely, being dropped from a top slot on the UK’s annual commemoration of the One Love Peace concert that year) if anything, surviving a shootout in broad daylight on the streets of Brooklyn only enhanced the legend of Super Cat in New York. The remainder of 1991 would find him going from strength to strength musically, eventually landing the major label deal that resulted in Don Dada. The success, however, would also place him into a different sort of crosshairs, identifying him as the man to beat for upcoming dancehall artists trying to make their name. 

That year he self-released the collaborative “Cabin Stabbin” album with Nicodemus and his protége Junior Demus. The title track humorously told of the three-man crew’s exploits with girlfriends while on tour in a sparring fashion, most of the rhymes centering on who was locked out while their shared room was occupied. The hit tune was picked up for the 2nd volume of Profile records’ Dancehall Stylee compilation series, curated by Murray Elias, which played a key role in breaking dancehall reggae as a phenomenon outside the West Indian market, particularly college radio.

Elias, a former Island records employee who also DJed at an A-list of downtown NY clubs like the Limelight and Peppermint lounge, almost single handedly developed the dancehall compilation format in the mid-’80s for Sleeping Bag records, Arthur Russel’s eclectic dance label. Using his club gigs as testing ground to identify what reggae tunes could work for a hipster crowd within a mix of no wave, post-disco and early hip hop, he translated his setlists directly into the tracklist of the Dancehall Reggae Classics comp, which helped to break Barrington Levy’s “Under Me Sensi” (for instance) to a wider listenership. Super Cat was one of the artists he conceived the series around.

“‘Sweets For My Sweet’ was one of the very first songs I reached out to try and put on the Sleeping Bag album,” he recalls by phone. “I even met with Maxine Stowe, who represented Skeng Don in New York at that time, but it didn’t work out.”

Maxine Isis Stowe (niece to reggae’s original label boss, Studio One founder Clement Coxsone Dodd) is the person who would eventually broker Cat’s signing to Columbia but it would take some time before the major labels recognized the potential of the dancehall phenomenon. Even at adventurous rap indie Profile records, Elias tried three times to sign Cat but couldn’t convince the label to come with the money to seal the deal. Dancehall, however, was making a noise that couldn’t be ignored. “What happened in ‘90, ‘91? Soundscan came in,” explains Elias. “Then everybody could see that Dancehall Stylee Vol, 1 & 2 were each selling a quarter of a million copies plus.” 

This was paralleled by the emergence of NY radio support for dancehall in the form of a segment on DJ Red Alert’s Saturday Night hip hop mix on Kiss-FM. Promoter Dahved Levy was having huge success booking Caribbean artists at The Underground, parlaying that audience into his own Caribbean-focused radio slot, where he put Frighty & Colonel Mite’s “Life Is What You Make It” in regular rotation on WBLS. In this era, both Shinehead and Lt. Stitchie got major label deals (with Elektra and Atlantic, respectively) but neither went very far. 

Finally in 1991, Shabba Ranks debuted on Epic, putting dancehall in rotation on MTV, and eventually taking a Grammy. “Suddenly, everybody wants to be down,” Stowe told Kenner in his Vibe profile of Cat. Still, if the majors were now bold enough to think they could understand dancehall, they didn’t necessarily understand Super Cat’s place within it. He would eventually find his way into the spotlight via an unlikely route. 

Even if hip-hop had crossed over to him in the person of Heavy D, Super Cat never stopped making records for the core dancehall market and it was one of these, “Nuff Man A Dead,” which changed the equation. A tribute to his friend and fellow dancehall star Tenor Saw, who had been found dead in Texas under still-mysterious circumstances, “Nuff Man A Dead” honored the singer by placing his name on an in memoriam reel of reggae’s fallen greats: “Bob Marley die, Jacob Miller die, them kill Tenor Saw and them dust out Free-I.” 

The beat he was riding was another Steely & Clevie innovation, the Fishmarket riddim, which modified their signature beat into a bouncing contradanza march filled out with clattering Afro-Caribbean percussion. With a pattern something like a fast cumbia, it connected almost immediately with the burgeoning reggae market in the Latin Caribbean community, especially in New York. A remake of Shabba’s hit on the riddim–“Dem Bow”–famously inspired the name of a whole new genre; dembow or reggaetón. Cat’s version of the Fishmarket riddim, however, may have been just as central in the success of the new sound.

In 1991, Stowe, who had been helping VP Records distribute the hottest reggae singles via her Jamaican connections, put together a unique compilation for Jive records, licensing the latest dancehall tracks through VP and placing them alongside the mostly Panamanian artists who were covering these songs in Spanish for something she termed Reggaespañol. Significantly, of all the Jamaican tracks represented–including tunes by Ninja Man and Cutty Ranks–”Nuff Man A Dead” was the only one on the Fishmarket riddim, putting Cat in the unique position of representing dancehall to a Latin market but also the signature sound of Spanish reggae to the club and mixshow DJs who were picking up on it. 

“Those Spanish speaking places,” explains Levy, “The Dominican Republic, Colombia, Cuba, Panama…they love Super Cat.” Shabba and Cutty Ranks were more widely imitated in the Spanish-speaking world, but Cat’s uniquely melodic tone was a blueprint for a whole generation of Latin artists developing their own take on dancehall. This is especially true of El General, perhaps the most prolific of the new Panamanian reggae wave, who openly paid tribute to Cat on the rare bilingual track “Cross The Border.” It was this cross-cultural appeal, along with his organic connections to big names like Heavy D, that sold Cat as star material to Columbia. 

With sterling street credentials and now a white-hot pop spotlight in the form of his deal with Columbia, Cat’s profile in New York took on larger than life dimensions. “There’s a picture out there of Donald Trump coming up to meet all of them [at the Plaza Hotel] shaking everybody’s hand, getting his picture snapped with Shabba and Cat,” says Levy, to paint a picture of the moment. “I was a few feet away when that picture was taken. I was there talking with them but then I walked away just when Trump came up. Now even back then, Trump was already Trump but it just goes to show that we had no fear, as Caribbean stars we were up in the V.I.P., in the most famous nightclubs in the world, and we were doing it without apology."

Shabba Ranks, Cyndi Lauper, Super Cat, Marla Maples and companion in NYC, 1992. Photo by Catherine McGann via Getty Images.
Shabba Ranks, Cyndi Lauper, Super Cat, Marla Maples and companion in NYC, 1992. Photo by Catherine McGann via Getty Images.

The sudden meteoric rise of Shabba and Super Cat–and their absence from Jamaica–created space for new stars to rise in the Kingston studio system, but also made them targets for the young guns. One of these was hard-as-nails deejay Cutty Ranks, who like Cat cut his teeth on Stereo Mars before recording his breakout tune “The Bomber.”  Another was Ninja Man, a friend and protege of Cat’s, who he had encouraged to deejay. When he was still a street kid, Cat urged the talented youth to camp outside radio personality Barry G’s studio, using the same words he had once used to motivate Sister Nancy: “In one year you gwine have a #1 song.”

By 1990, Ninja proved his friend's words true with hits like “My Weapon”; “Murder Dem” and–appropriately–“Number One.” His specialty was hardcore clash lyrics, his persona as the “Original gold tooth, front tooth, gun ‘pon tooth Don Gorgon” conjuring the image of a pirate climbing the rigging with a pistol clenched in his jaws. Though he never called Cat’s name on record, verbal jabs made at various live events made it clear he was itching for a clash with his former mentor. Just after Christmas 1990, Ninja clashed Shabba, who returned to Jamaica from promoting his hit records in London and New York at the island’s massive annual Boxing Day stage show, Sting. Ninja took the clash in a David-over-Goliath upset, further cementing his status as “the people’s deejay.” Cat was next in his sights.

Cat addressed the situation on the tune which has become almost synonymous with this name: “Don Dada.” 

Clearly referencing Ninja on the intro ( Well, well, well…yuh see some likkle bwoy a come talk bout ‘Gold teeth front teeth side teeth colored teeth? A we pull all teeth!”) Cat immediately switches focus to Cutty, interpolating the hook of “The Bomber” which is taken directly from the Father Jungle Rock riddim that Cat’s friend Nicodemus popularized, as if to remind Cutty where he got his style: “Over Stereo Mars sound where them pick it up, where Burro Banton and Natchilous (aka Nicodemus) a rip it up / Mr. Cat inna di crew and just a tear it up…Don Dada!” 

‘Don’ had become a common term of respect in dancehall music by the ‘80s via songs like Leroy Smart’s “I Am The Don,” usually glossed as suggesting an underworld boss, like Don Corleone in The Godfather or the Mumbai crime lord portrayed by Amitabh Bacchan in the Bollywood action flick Don. Dada means daddy (or even granddaddy) in Jamaica. The double honorific Don Dada thus put a capital G on Godfather, making a Don Dada the big boss, the father of all dons.

The Don Dada 12” on Wild Apache flew out of the shops and the second run featured a “New York mix” by Salaam Remi and Bobby Konders that was foundational in its own right. The nature of the three-cornered dancehall beat (on “Don Dada,” self-produced by Cat and Livingston) is that it blends awkwardly with rap’s 4/4 emphasis, producing a cacophony of clashing swings. Modern dancehall’s verbal flows also tended to sit awkwardly on hip-hop beats or at the very least underwent a deflating change in emphasis…unless those hip-hop beats utilized drum breaks so polyrhythmic that they had accented beats on the one, the downbeat and the after beat. This is exactly what Remi and Konders achieved on their “Don Dada” remix, pitching up James Brown’s slow but funky “Popcorn With A Feeling” to club tempo with deadly effect.

With Ninja running Jamaica and Cat dominant in New York, it seemed inevitable that the competition would boil over in a face to face confrontation. But before that could happen, another artist entered the clash, uninvited, through a side door.

Louie Rankin’s “Typewriter” 12” on Shelly’s Records kicks off a flip of the drum loop from Soul II Soul’s “Keep On Moving” with a resounding “Original gun come to boom it up! Louie Rankin deyah mi friend” before launching into its first verse with Cat’s signature intro, transposed by Rankin into the second person: “Easy Super Cat, you a Don Dada! Me fling two stab up in the boy with the bomber / Me lick out Ninja Man front teeth with the hammer!

Though seeming to jump on Cat’s side against Cutty and Ninja, there is an important subtext to both songs’ references that suggest this assistance was unwelcome, to say the least. If “Don Dada” meant something like Godfather in JA slang, in 1991 it was most closely associated with the man who was then Jamaica’s top underworld boss, Lester Lloyd Coke. At that moment Coke sat in a cell at the General Penitentiary awaiting extradition to the states for his role in leading the notorious Shower Posse, the JLP (and CIA) -affiliated clique of gunmen having played a significant role in introducing crack cocaine–and the rampant gun violence that came with it–to the mainland. Coke’s alias was Jim Brown and he is widely thought to have been the man who shot Bob Marley. It was in fact the death of Peace Treaty signatory Claudie Massop at the hands of the Kingston police that allowed Coke to rise to the head of the gang he would remold into the Shower Posse, a saga fictionalized in Marlon James’ Booker Prize-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.

All this may not seem to have much to do with a New York dancehall record over a Soul II Soul beat unless you scroll back to the very first entry in Louie Rankin’s discography–“Dance A Fe Ram” on the Claypot Records label–and note that the production is credited to one V. Blake. Vivian Blake was Jim Brown’s right hand man in running the Shower Posse, and was indeed involved in New York’s Jamaican music scene in the early ‘80s, a period in which he crossed paths, very uncomfortably, with Marley. Although Vivian Blake is a more common name in Jamaica than outsiders might suspect, Rankin left no room for doubt about his patron’s identity. In 2019, he told the Entertainment Report Podcast: “My first recording…I did it for one of Jamaica’s most powerful Mafia gang. I did it for the leader for that gang, his name is Vivian Blake. The leader of The Shower Posse. His record label was called Claypot records, and that’s who I did my first two songs for.”

Rankin, now deceased, also related his inspiration for “Typewriter” to the podcast’s host–the man called Musclehead–this way:

“Typewriter” is a true story. I grew up in Jamaica in a place called Rockfort. There was a politics war in Jamaica that went down in ‘80, ‘81. A politics war with the government and ghetto people. There was a gun that comes out of the hill in Waricka Hill–when soldiers was coming in helicopters–that gun [fired] up in the air and all we can hear from the bottom of the hill is TapTapTapTapTap, like a typewriter. It came out on the news and the government was questioning, What kind of gun was that? Because the gun shot down like two helicopters. There’s a big Don by the name of Flash, they call him George Flash. Flash sent a message to the Prime Minister: This gun is called The Typewriter.

Flash later fled to Cuba to avoid prosecution for murdering a Jamaican government official, all part of the same political “eruption” that saw Cat incarcerated in 1980, a fact Rankin seems to be riffing on in his escalation of this war of words, saying, in effect, If you’re the Don Dada, I’m the Typewriter.

The raw memories of those real life events perhaps explains why emotions between the two artists were running extremely high when they met face to face at a legendary clash inside a dance at Act III, the same Bronx “hotspot” where Cat had been introduced to Heavy D. The date, as immortalized in video footage, was June 15th, 1991–just two weeks before the fatal encounter at Super Power. At the outset of the clash, Cat is visibly angry and cussing, seemingly requiring several hangers on to hold him back and direct his fury into the lyrical arena. Once the musical contest actually begins in earnest, Rankin’s booming voice makes him a formidable opponent. But the crowd reaction to his one anthemic tune cannot match the repeated forwards earned by Cat’s deeper war-chest of lyrics.

Ironically, Rankin’s voice calling out “Easy Super Cat, you a Don Dada!” became the soundtrack of New York City’s streets throughout summer 1991 when it was looped by Kenny Dope and producer T-Ray (credited as “The Mad Racket”) on a breakbeat record title simply “Supa,” adding yet another dimension to Cat’s larger than life image. 

Rankin would go on to parlay his dancehall credibility into a successful acting career, depicting decidedly Jim Brown-esque characters in the classic films Belly (“Ox”) and Shottas (“Teddy Brukshot”), a persona based largely on the fact that he had once gone toe-to-toe with Super Cat. As Levy puts it: “When he did the movie [Belly] Louie Rankin comes off as a real, real, real badman. Super Cat is more of a cool personality, he doesn't come off in the beginning as a badman, unless you have some tusslin’ with him. But when someone like Louie turns around now and says ‘Easy Super Cat, you're the Don Dada’…then we all know who the Don Dada is!” [Laughs]. 

If this face off was a sort of qualifying round, the heavyweight championship for true dancehall supremacy was between Cat and Ninja Man, a bossfight scheduled, appropriately, for Boxing Day: Sting ‘91.

Sting ‘91 is considered by many to be the greatest clash of all time, and unquestionably is the most re-played, analyzed and hotly debated. It began with Ninja Man warming up the crowd with a short solo set at the height of the star-studded Sting bill, a victory lap cut short by Cat’s entrance onto the stage with a chilling war-cry of  “Warning, Warning Warning! Clear the way, The Apache is coming!” in his piercing, instantly recognizable tone.

“The whole a de stadium a shake, yunno!” Ninja Man would later recall. As he told Jamaica Gleaner journalist Mel Cooke in 2013:  “Three times Super Cat mek mi shake pon di stage. When him draw fi the tune: ‘Killin’ pussy an me kill dem fi fun…’? Stadium come een like a bomb drop in deh!” In these first three exchanges, Super Cat has clear command of the stage, whereas Ninja’s voice is audibly squeaking in nervousness as he attempts to deliver his melodic rebuttals, suddenly regretting the war of choice he had been seeking for months. 

Once he found his footing, though, Ninja made effective use of his home field advantage, unveiling full songs he had clearly rehearsed, complete with changes in arrangement, with the Sting stage show band. Cat, having just arrived on the island with no chance for rehearsal, had to rely on their knowledge of his older riddims. Ninja Man had every intention of using this uneven footing to fortify his position, telling Cooke: "Them lyrics ready an’ a wait pon him! If you don't prepare fi war, a man will catch you as a sitting duck, an' no sitting duck nuh get up back again and walk. Dem dead or cripple."

Suddenly finding himself battling full choruses with couplets, Cat’s next few attacks fell flat with the notoriously unforgiving Sting crowd. Just as he seemed to rally back, the clash was interrupted by the first in a series of glass bottles shattering on the stage, one of which Cat picked up and hurled straight back at the missile thrower, warning the crowd “Me have mi gun pon me!” Suddenly, the two warring artists were on the same side against an angry mob. Showing more sense of self-preservation, Livingston quickly hustled Cat off the stage, leaving a mortified Ninja Man behind to chastise the crowd, explaining in vain that the lyrical enemies were friends in real life: “Cat help me write lyrics when me couldn’t write lyrics mi’self!” he said. “If you kill him, you kill me!”

Though the clash was disrupted at a moment when Ninja had the clear lead, maintaining his undefeated status at Sting, the concert series will forever be defined by the image of a defiant Cat, fearlessly facing down a crowd of some 40,000 by himself. Cat would have his final word in this musical war of all against all–but when it came, it was delivered on wax. 

Super Cat and Mary J. Blige at the New York Music Awards, 1992. Photo by Steve Eichner via Getty Images.
Super Cat and Mary J. Blige at the New York Music Awards, 1992. Photo by Steve Eichner via Getty Images.

On “Ghetto Red Hot,” which saw release as the main single and video supporting Don Dada, Cat pre-empted any further lyrical escalation with a cry of “Curfew!” reminding the dancehall massive that all of the military metaphors being employed by the toughest deejays were in fact drawn from the street battles of 1980, real life events that he himself had experienced from the front lines. 

Kingston, we deh when Massop get shot,” he relates, referring directly to the police killing which ended the treaty and plunged Kingston’s garrisons into political violence, asking: 

Where dem deh-ya when di ghetto run hot? When we lookin’ fi food fi we pot? And guardin' poor people head-top? / When the politics friction drop? / When the bomb a drop ‘pon house top? and every mornin' a dead man on spot / and the yout' dem go to school through shot?

It remains a high water mark in dancehall lyricism. On this one release, Cat seemingly brought to bear the full deejay arsenal he had developed over the years; the searing voice and rude boy slang of Jaro’s clash specialist, the relentless flow of “Mud Up” and “Don Dada,” even the observational skills of dancehall reporter or historian he absorbed from Early B, except in this case Cat was not a detached observer but a war reporter, embedded with the troops: 

Man have M-16 over him back / .45 and we have it ram packed / Carry bazooka, nah left di Glock / When we moving, we move compact / Man will take a couple store, couple bank and shop / and policeman a talk ‘bout we hot.

Though the original rhythm track built by Cat and Livingston (with assistance from Tony “CD” Kelly) splits an ideal balance between dancehall bounce and military march, as with “Don Dada” a hip-hop remix from Konders and Salaam Remi took “Ghetto Red Hot” to another level. Remi broke down the track’s construction in a 2012 interview for LargeUp.com: “We did a long talking intro to “Ghetto Red Hot” and the [label] cut it off and left me with my little voice just going uhh at the end,” he explained. “That’s what that uhh is that starts the song.”

Ghetto Red Hot was done in one night in D&D Studios, a reggae studio that Konders worked out of. As Konders has related many times, they bounced the vocal to  ½” tape so as to mix it from a reel to reel with pitch control, catching the swing of Cat’s vocals section by section in passes they had to execute live in the studio. “I think it’s probably the first record that Eddie Sancho, Premier’s engineer, mixed,” continues Remi. “De La Soul’s ‘Bitties in the BK Lounge’ had come out with the Lou Donaldson sample on there, and I used that and put together a bunch of breaks that had been used in hip-hop. The little squeak is similar to the sound that’s on Poor Righteous Teacher’s ‘Shakiyla’. Bobby said, “lets cut it real short and put it on the track,”—nyeehhh—and that’s where that sound comes from.”

The result is a masterpiece of post-Bomb Squad production, creating complex polyrhythms from layers of dissonance, including not just sampled drums but gunshots and squealing distress signals. Though artists like BDP, Shinehead, Poor Righteous Teachers and Asher D & Daddy Freddy had all experimented with raggamuffin-style rap before, Remi and Konders’ reverse-engineered approach, tailoring hip-hop's dissonance and frenetic drum breaks to the swing of a reggae deejay’s vocal, created a whole new kind of sonic hybrid which must be considered an early influence on the ragga jungle sub-genre which at that moment was just about emerge from the UK’s rave scene. 

In an even more direct connection, Cat (along with Barrington Levy) was recruited by the UK’s Rebel MC–often credited as the missing link between ragga/hip-hop and ragga jungle– to provide two dub-plate style interludes to his 1991 album Black Meaning Good, which became the ahead of their time tracks “Keep On Steppin’” and “Tribal Bass”

Even these, however, cannot compare with the cultural impact of the last video and remix to emerge from the Don Dada album cycle, which introduced the world to a two-word phrase that would define an entire era: Bad Boy.

Life 6: Passing The Glock

Sean “Puffy” Combs was the youngest of the Mount Vernon clique that accompanied Heavy D into the music biz. Although he went to high school nearby in The Bronx, he was still a familiar face in the small town world of those boys even before they became The Boyz. Puffy was away attending college at Howard University when Heavy D & The Boyz helped make Uptown Records a new force in black music but “when stuff was blowing up, he came back around, explains Eddie. “He wanted to manage Heavy or just get in the game somehow. Heavy ended up referring him to Andre [label head Andre Harrell] as an intern…and the rest is history.”

Puffy did indeed make history when he went from intern to the youngest A&R in the industry at age 22. His development of Jodeci and round-the-way teen singer Mary J. Blige launched two multimillion selling albums, projects that would come to define the label as well as a whole generation of R&B. It was in this period that Puffy began to lean on collaborator Jesse West, a self-produced rapper who had been Motown’s first rap act, to bring his visions to life in the studio.

“Motown and Uptown were both distributed by MCA, so they shared offices,” explains West via zoom. “They had separate entrances, but they were both on the same floor. That’s how I met Puff. He said to me, I have this artist and I want to sign him, but he doesn’t have a demo. Can I bring him to your studio? I was like, who the hell gets a deal with no demo?”

Who-the-hell was a young Brooklyn rapper who had just been featured in The Source’s “Unsigned Hype” column under the name Biggie Smalls. The track West built for him, “Biggie Got The Hype Shit” would be added to the demo tape that sealed his deal with Uptown records. Based on this experience Puffy offered to manage West, recruiting him to work on tracks for Biggie and urging him to form a group of his own. Over the next year, Puffy would place Biggie’s first single “Party & Bullshit” on the Who’s The Man soundtrack and squeeze him into a posse cut called “A Buncha N**gas” (produced by West and featuring his newly formed group, 3rd Eye) on Heavy D’s Blue Funk album. 

Sean “Puffy” Combs and Heavy D, 1990. Photo by Al Pereira via Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images.
Sean “Puffy” Combs and Heavy D, 1990. Photo by Al Pereira via Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images.

“We were working on Biggie’s record and we were working on 3rd Eye’s record and in the midst of all of that he was getting all of this remix work,” explains West.  “One day he came to me and he just told me: Listen, we’re going to do a remix for Super Cat.”

West’s first paid gig in the industry had been two tracks he wrote and produced for BDP-affiliated reggae artist Shelly Thunder’s album Fresh Out The Pack, so taking on a remix for the dancehall star seemed like a natural fit. “At the time, Super Cat had ‘Ghetto Red Hot’, which was different for a lot of people, including myself, because it was kind of like the first time hip-hop mixed with a reggae artist. So when the Super Cat mix came to [Puffy] he said I want you to think of a classic hip-hop record and put it to Super Cat. The initial remix we did, it was his idea. He wanted to use the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes, We Can Can.” He was adamant about it, so I just went along with it.”

By the time this remix was contemplated, “Dolly My Baby” had already been twice a hit for Super Cat, released on his Wild Apache label as both a solo version and a combination with singer Trevor Sparks. Creating his own Boops-ified answer to Eric Donaldon’s reggae classic “Cherry Oh, Baby” Cat took the U-Roy style of deejaying to new melodic heights on “Dolly.” Chatting in counterpoint as U-Roy and Rankin Trevor had with the reggae tunes of their day, Cat and Sparks created a classic in its own right. The old school reggae feel of the tune, however, made it difficult to tailor a hip-hop beat that could match its bouncing double time. 

“The first time I met Super Cat,” recalls West, “he came to hear what we was doing with the ‘Yes We Can Can’. He didn’t have anything critical to say about it but I could kinda tell from his vibe that he wasn't super happy about it. I remember talking to Puffy and I said um, I don't know man. It sounds ok, but…I got a better idea. He was like well, what's your idea? I said, Do you remember LL Cool J, 1-900 Number?” 

A phone skit that was also a song, “1-900-LL-Cool-J” was built from a pitched-up loop of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” as recorded in 1973 with his jazz-funk group The Headhunters. “Initially, we were just going to sample LL’s record but I told him I know the original, I’d rather take that and do something from scratch with it,” says West. 

A self-consciously psychedelic and afrocentric experiment, the Headhunters version paired the blues tuning of the original song with percussionist Bill Summers’ eerie riff on a traditional Central African polyrhythm, approximating the traditional Hindewhu whistle of the Ba-Benzéle people by blowing into a beer bottle, a mesmerizing loop that comes in under Cat’s hook on the remix. The arrangement was filled out with funk rhythm guitar in an intricate, trilling pattern that would nicely pick up the reggae time-feel.

“When we did the mix with ‘Watermelon Man’, Cat came to the studio and he was very happy about it,” says West. “But it was still just so slow. If he did it over, I could speed it up and make it a little more danceable. He went right in the booth. He said, just put it to whatever tempo you think it should be at and I’ll fall in, just went in and did it. Once he did over the vocals, we knew we had something really good.”

Devoting this amount of time and care to a remix, even for a prominent artist, might seem out of place for the industry’s wonder-kid, but the strategic collaboration with Super Cat was clearly part of a larger master plan for Puffy. 

“Everything has a reason with that dude,” says Matt X, who was in charge of video for Uptown records, “Especially back then, even being as young as [Puffy] was, it was always part of a vision.” During these years, Puffy was living in the attic loft of Eddie F’s house in New Jersey, banking intern wages while making industry-changing waves as he developed the rugged image of Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. His overnight success as an intern-turned-A&R made him almost indispensable at Uptown, but also fed into creative differences between his boss and the man who’d got him the gig. 

“Hev really was the creative force behind Uptown,” says Matt X bluntly. “Andre didn't want to sign Jodeci, he didn't like ‘em. But Hev said if you don't sign ‘em I’m gonna take them to MCA and get my own deal. He didn't want to sign Mary, Hev forced him to do that. He brought Andre Puffy, Al B. Sure, Soul 4 Real…all of them.” 

The differences created an atmosphere in which everyone involved increasingly expected Puffy to step out on his own and as 1992 rolled into ‘93, Puffy was preemptively fired from Uptown. Biggie was dropped as an artist, his album project shelved. Suddenly, what had been just one in a slate of hot remix projects took on make-or-break significance for the young mogul, as did the support of Heavy’s sparring partner Super Cat.

“Hip–hop back then was a very small clique,” says Matt X. “I’m sure the reason Cat even fucked with him was because Heavy probably told him to.” From Cat’s perspective, his motivation was as much to make room for the next generation of talent as it was to bring his music to a different audience. “When I went to CBS [Columbia] I take a good look at hip-hop and I see hip-hop running parallel to our youth coming out a Jamaica, just like a roots growing from the ghetto,” he explains. “They tell me that hip-hop music was getting a fight, they couldn't get booked on any stadium tour and those venues because it’s looked at as ghetto music. They wanted to associate with a reggae artist because them times reggae was actually easier to book. So I say just let it roll.” 

With Cat’s blessing, the “Dolly My Baby” remix became the perfect vehicle for Puffy to show what he could do and to emerge from Uptown’s shadow.  “What do you think about you, 3rd Eye and Biggie rhyming on this track?” Puffy asked West. “Honestly when he said that, I said to him, For what?” he recalls. “He was like…I got an idea, there’ll be gunshots here and the track drops out [then] you can come in here like, Ring, RING! I looked at him and I said, Gimme a pen and paper. I didn't remember that he said ‘ring ring,’ so instead I said ‘Bling bling.’

It was the first use of the term on record, itself a sign of where Puffy was about to take the music industry. But that was just the beginning of what he had in mind. What he laid out for West involved making the remix an introduction for what he envisioned as the whole roster of a new label, including not just West and his partner Roland as 3rd Eye, but also Biggie, Mary J. Blige, an R&B singer named Q and Puffy himself, spitting a verse West wrote for him. Though unprecedented (and later mocked by Suge Knight) Puffy’s determination to morph from A&R to artist had always been part of the plan, according to Matt X. “Ever since he came out he wanted to be Bobby Brown,” he observes. “His whole shit was like I’m gonna be Bobby Brown but with my own record label.”

By the time the now-iconic video for “Dolly My Baby” was shot inside the Moroccan style lounge Fez–underneath the Time café on Lafayette street–only West, Puff and Biggie would be featured on camera. Matt X was not in charge of the Columbia-funded production but he came by to check in on the second half of the 18-hour day of shooting and smoke with Biggie.

“I came towards the end but he was there all day. He ain't had nowhere else to go at that point. At that time, Big was broke, yo,” he remembers in disbelief. “He was a broke, stinkfoot dude over there in front of the weedspot at St. James and Fulton. I used to live around the corner from him and sometimes we’d take the C train together into Manhattan. I remember him complaining that Puff was dragging his feet, ‘cause this was important for him.” As related in the 2021 documentary I Got A Story To Tell, Biggie was still supporting himself through street hustling while his Uptown project was in limbo, his future uncertain despite assurances from Puffy. 

This precarious existence seems hard to reconcile with Biggie’s dominating vocal presence on his “Dolly My Baby” cameo. All doubts about his future seem to disperse when he shoulders his way into the frame, introducing himself with a booming “I love it when you call me Big Poppa, the show stoppa!” 

Biggie’s first few cameos on Uptown shared a faster pace and frantic feel more in line with the posse cuts (ATCQ’s “Scenario”; Main Source’s “Live At The Barbecue”) that were the rage at the time. But over the slow and low Headhunters groove, his mature rhyme style and the Big Poppa persona that would define his debut album appear fully formed, seemingly out of nowhere, for the first time as he calls out ‘Super Cat, pass the glock!’

“That’s really Super Cat [in the shot] and that's an actual glock,” remembers West. “That’s why it's covered by the handkerchief, that was Biggie's glock. I remember telling Biggie, Yo whatchu doin with that big-ass gun!  For the video man, it's for the video. For Cat to pass to me. I was like right, Ok.”

“At that time, it was a competition,” says Matt X. “Snoop and Dre, that West Coast sound was the biggest thing. We felt we had to do this better and we had to be credible. So when Puffy came out [on his own] he said, I need that credibility. He got Big, who was a hard rock–I mean hard–and Super Cat. That was the credible shit. And Big coming from a Jamaican background, I know that he wanted to do that, to have that flow and interaction with Cat.”

Although Biggie’s Jamaican roots were always part of his persona, prior to the release of I Got A Story To Tell they were often framed as a distant influence, less relevant to his style than the sounds of the Brooklyn streets. The 2021 doc, however, revealed that he spent more time with family in Jamaica than had been previously realized and absorbed the art of deejaying live at sound systems where he was carried by his Uncle Lou. By the time he ends his short cameo with “Yes, it’s Bad Boy, hard to the core, Lawd! Me cyaan take it no more,” it was clear that a whole new chapter was about to begin, as if a sharp line had been drawn separating the Uptown era from a Bad Boy era on its way in.

Another cameo alongside MJB–the remix of “Real Love”–would garner more radio play, familiarizing a new listenership to the sound of Biggie’s voice. But it was also much more in line with the Uptown formula, fitting Biggie roughly into the New Jack Swing template Heavy D had established. The video for “Dolly My Baby” is what truly introduced the Notorious B.I.G. as a personality, and established Bad Boy as a new aesthetic. “That whole thing is really what catapulted Big up there,” affirms Matt X. “‘Party And Bullshit’ and those joints, they were local hits but ‘Dolly My Baby’? That was the catalyst for the whole shit. For Bad Boy, too, in hindsight. That's where it really started.” 

Though the remix did its job in the moment, extending the chart life-cycle of the Don Dada album to another season, it has been treasured since for the rich layers of sound system culture represented in its 3 minutes and 55 seconds. When Glockburn Pen’s most famous son passed the handkerchief-wrapped pistol to Biggie, he connected the Brooklyn youth to the first rapper of all time in a chain of succession with only 2 links: Super Cat and Rankin Trevor. Likewise, Biggie was connected to Bob Marley by only 2 degrees of separation: Super Cat and Danny Dread. 

“Puffy and Big can owe that shit to what Cat did for them,” concludes X, “and that's real.”

Life 7 - 77: Passing The Mic

“Cat a go on?” Spliff Star asks urgently, still breathless from rushing up the stairs located stage right in The Apollo. It is 2023 and D-Nice’s virtual pandemic happening Club Quarantine is celebrating its first in-person session in New York at the legendary Harlem venue.  Super Cat is just stepping out of the wings, giving Spliff exactly enough time to hustle back down the stairs, through the Apollo’s green room and back up to join Busta Rhymes in the VIP box overlooking stage left, where, gunfingers in the air, they’ll be shouting along with every word of Cat’s anthem-packed set.

Back in 1992, in the midst of a year punctuated by gunshots, soundclashes and shattering glass, Rob Kenner ended his Vibe profile of Cat by asking ominously–How long before Super Cat joins the tragic roll call in the sky? Thirty years later, he is still here, selling out Barclays and Radio City Music Hall, and at the moment, lecturing the Apollo audience that to chat gun lyrics, you must have gun-sense and not none-sense.

At the moment Cat passed the mic to Biggie his highest highs–his biggest charts hits with Kris Kross and Sugar Ray, world tours and packed arenas, were still ahead of him. As were many of his lowest lows. In addition to walking away from a lucrative deal with the Neptunes’ Star Trak label in the mid-2000s, Cat would witness the passing of Frankie Paul, Heavy D, Nicodemus, Rankin Trevor, Early B and Biggie, one after the other. 

Yet by the time Don Dada’s last single left the charts, his place in music history was already secure several times over, and its foundational influence can be clearly heard on dancehall’s global success stories to come: Sean Paul and Shaggy, to name the two clearest examples. We can add to this elite list Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley, who, though clearly taking his raspy way with a melody straight from his famous father, is more prolific as a deejay, an arena in which his flow is audibly modeled on Cat.

Danny Dread, who has seen many eras of music come and go, says: “It’s like this here: U-Roy was the baddest deejay. Me nuh see no deejay weh U-Roy nuh influence…weh fi try to imitate the same style. So when Cat come, you have some man who try to imitate them now and admit it. Shaggy and them; the same vibes whe’ Cat did have, them pick up and come through with it and it work fi dem. Sean Paul the same thing.”

Sean Paul would not disagree. “Big up Super Cat, him a mi father inna di business,” he tells me. “It’s an honor to be able to forward and do music, same like him. Especially this great music reggae and dancehall music. An’ I’ve learnt from the Don them, yunno? Big up Super Cat, every time. My daddy. Mad.”

Perhaps though, Sean Paul, is simply one of those descendants who favors Cat most audibly–and is cool and humble enough to acknowledge his lineage. After “Mud Up,” every dancehall deejay carries some of Cat’s sonic DNA in their style. After Criminal Minded, “Ghetto Red Hot” and “Dolly My Baby” a huge swath of hip-hop does as well. His voice is essential to the origin story of reggaetón and, via his formative influence on Apache Indian, the same is true of UK bhangra and the innumerable Bollywood and Punjabaton hits that have been modeled on it since, carrying the art of deejaying from its root in West Kingston all the way to Bombay and Tokyo.

In fact, though the story of Super Cat is in many ways the ultimate survivor’s tale, perhaps his lives should not be numbered according to obstacles overcome, clashes won or even bullets dodged but by the musical offspring he’s engendered. By that reckoning he is a true patriarch, a veritable Genghis Khan of global soundsystem culture. And that, children, is the story of how he met your style’s mother.

Don Dada
Don Dada

This story was featured inside Issue 6, Vol 2. Secure yours here today. 

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