Chris Blackwell had run aground on a reef a short distance out in the Caribbean sea, and now the motorboat was taking in water.
The sun was going down. Chris abandoned the boat and swam the bare kilometre to land, where he slept on the desert beach under stars. With dawn, he was able to move on; to find a way back to civilisation. He waded for hours along the beach, his thirst growing constantly. He shouted for help again and again.
No one seemed to have gone through this dense jungle east of Kingston on Jamaica. He found himself near Port Royal, a town that as late as the 19th century was the Caribbean’s largest nest of pirates but, after widespread earthquakes and fires, now lay deserted.
Chris was ready to pass out, but he gathered his remaining strength and began running. He ran until he caught sight of a glade with a little hut. But before he reached it, the afternoon sun caught up with the dehydrated Blackwell and he collapsed on the beach.
In the evening he awoke with a scream, frightened and shocked. The people who’d taken care of him in the hut were revealed to be a group of six Rastafarians.
It was 1955 and the 18 year old Chris had never seen Rastafarians in real life. He’d just heard them run down around him; these odd people said to be highly dangerous for whites, who lived at the edge of society, who let their hair and beards grow, who were craftsmen, fishermen, and musicians, and who – for some reason – viewed the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as their god.
When Chris’s first fear had passed, he understood that Rastafarians weren’t at all as dangerous as rumour suggested. They gave him water, offered holy vegetarian ital food, and prayed for him before he was ready to continue on his own.
That the Rastafarians literally saved Chris Blackwell’s life would turn out to be a highly meaningful experience for him when, three years later, he started record company Island Records and came to meet a certain Robert Nesta Marley.
In a mangrove-packed lagoon near the village of Oracabessa, over seventy kilometres north of Kingston, Jamaica, lies Chris Blackwell’s home. It is as if the jungle, like a meat-eating flower, embraces all the buildings, making each and every house in the Golden Eye resort at one with nature.
The relaxed luxury-village that Chris bought in 1995 is the jewel in the crown of his Jamaican hotel chain, Island Outpost. With its beach villas, lagoon cottages, and jet skis, it feels like a remote paradise.
Even Chris Blackwell looks like he’s at one with nature.
He sits in his lagoon bar dressed entirely in line with the Island Outpost dress code: ”No jacket. No ties. flip-flops, yes!” With his sun-bleached swimming-shorts and his washed-out U2 T-shirt, the legendary record-label boss is more reminiscent of an overwintering surfer than the multi-millionaire he is.
He’s always dressed like this, regardless of whether he’s been at a record industry meeting, for dinner with Prince Charles, or just on yet another tour with his favourite toy – the black Yamaha jet ski that travels at 120 kilometres per hour and that’s lying, bobbing up and down at his jetty a short distance away in the turquoise lagoon.
It is difficult not to mention Chris Blackwell’s appearance. Just as it’s difficult not to mention that he keep his countless credit cards in a blue and yellow Ikea-advertising small plastic-pocket that he got with his tube card in London a few years ago.
Just ask Bono.
When U2 singer gave a speech praising Blackwell, as the record-label boss was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, he couldn’t help mentioning Blackwell’s unerring beach style. In between the tender words on Blackwell’s revolutionising of the record industry, Bono remembered their very first meeting. U2 had played in London at the end of the ’70s and Bono related how Blackwell, on this cold November evening at a time when punk was huge, had come to the concert in flip-flops.
The now 74 year-old Blackwell says he doesn’t ”feel free” if he can’t dress like this.
“My whole life has been about finding complete freedom. That and putting people’s eyes on Jamaica,” he says, and feeds his eager puppy Grizzly with fresh sardines, brought with him from New York where he’s had meetings the day before.
Chris Blackwell is an unusual globetrotter.
He owns a flat right next to Central Park in New York, a farm in Ireland, a house in the Bahamas, overnight-apartments in London and Miami, as well as additional lots and fields that probably both he and his financial advisor Marty have forgotten that he owns.
When Vanity Fair invited him to a music festival in the Sahara desert a year or so ago, he completely neglected to arrange a visa. Instead, world-savvy, he talked his way through passport control in both Moroccan Tangier and Malian Bamako.
“There’s not a border in Africa that can’t be got through with a smile and a couple of Bob Marley cassettes,” Chris says and laughs. “Cassettes are always the first thing I pack in my hand luggage.”
“Now, what do you say, shall I order down a little Jamaican breakfast?” he continues, and calls for his private chef.
However many places Chris Blackwell has had to live, Jamaica has always been his Home with a capital H. It was where he grew up. It was where he started Island Records. And it is where he now runs the luxury hotels that he himself has been part of and created from scratch.
It’s also where he has his monstrous farm Pantrepant which, according to Conde Nast Traveller, is so big that it would take several hours to ride the farm’s horses from one side to the other.
Whenever I come to Jamaica, I hear people say small variations on the same sentence: ”Ah, so you’re here to meet Chris Blackwell, who gave the world Bob Marley!” Or ”Ah, so you’re here to meet Chris Blackwell, who put Jamaica on the map!” this is regardless of whether It’s a passport controller in the airport, a cane-sugar seller out the countryside, or a mixtape dealer at the local market of little coast-town Port Antonio.
How did Chris Blackwell become Mr. Jamaica? How did he succeed in making Island Records into the world’s biggest independent record-label? And how did he take Bob Marley from being a completely unknown Jamaican folk-musician to selling hundreds of millions of records around the world?
Chris Blackwell was born on June the 22nd, 1937 in London. Six months later, his parents Joseph and Blanche moved back to Jamaica where they’d once met. Here, on a farm in the interior south of Oracabessa, Chris grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth.
His father Joseph was a simple Irishman who’d enlisted in the British Army and found himself in Jamaica when islands still lay in the British Empire. But his mother Blanche belonged to the very cream of Jamaican society.
Blanche, who is 99 today, was born in Costa Rica of Portuguese-Jewish parents who’d fled the Inquisition. The family moved to Jamaica and became extremely wealthy dealing in sugar and Appleton rum. They acquired so much land that they quickly became one of the only 21 powerful families who controlled Jamaica before independence in 1962.
As quickly as Blanche had married, she separated from Joseph, and subsequently took sole care of Chris.
When she wasn’t living the jet-set life.
Blanche had close contacts up to Jamaican government level. She went to parties at Elizabeth Taylor’s in London, and often invited Taylor and other cultural superstars like Truman Capote, Katharine Hepburn, and Errol Flynn to cocktail parties in various villas on Jamaica’s north coast.
In addition, she became Bond writer Ian Fleming’s lover when he moved to Jamaica to build his dream villa Golden Eye. Ian Fleming and Blanche met behind Fleming’s wife’s back, and the author was so taken with Chris’s mother that he used her as inspiration for Bond girl Pussy Galore in his book Goldfinger. The affair continued until the August day in 1964 when Fleming, after a period of heavy drinking, collapsed from a heart attack.
Chris rarely met Ian Fleming.
During his early years, he hardly met anyone at all except his parents and his grandmother. he suffered from severe asthma and was mostly forced to stay in bed.
In the hope that the air of the north would be better for him than the sticky air of Jamaica, Blanche sent Chris away to boarding school. He was placed at Harrow in northeast London. It was one of England’s foremost, elite schools, with a list of former pupils that included Lord Byron and Winston Churchill.
Chris was unhappy from day one.
First, he became sicker than he’d been when he’d arrived. But then one day the asthma suddenly disappeared, and Chris realised how much he missed Jamaica. He decided to get himself expelled, so deliberately got caught selling bootleg spirits and cigarettes to his classmates. Chris could go home, and at first was gloriously happy, but then worried what his parents would think. He was 17 years old, had absolutely no qualifications, and the family rum-business he’d been thought to take over had been run into the ground by his worthless cousin.
What would he become?
Everything, he knew, now hung on him.
The moment you exit Kingston’s safe air-conditioned Norman Manley airport, you become aware of what awaits you. Everywhere you see billboards for security alarm company Cobra, depicting guerilla-like security guards with bazookas in their hands and determined expressions.
The biggest danger for Kingston’s white middle and upper classes, the rich black population, and the tourists who come here is not wild Rastafarians but robberies, kidnappings, and open firefights.
Rival gangs who previously fought for the two totally dominant political parties, Jamaica Labour Party (right) and People’s National Party (left), now seem prepared to shoot anyone to take control of the extensive cocaine and crack trade.
Murder statistics make the Jamaican capital look like a Darwinian nightmare where only those with the best aim and most ammunition survive. 1,700 people were murdered last year on the Caribbean island, most of them in Kingston. That’s 1,600 more than in Sweden, in a country of only three million inhabitants.
“It’s only got worse since the arrested ‘Dudus’” says Christopher, a young Jamaican with short cornrows under a floral sunhat. He calls himself a ”chauffeur” and works running Island Outpost guests to and from the hotels in a white Kia-minibus.
”Dudus” is another Christopher’s nickname. He has the apt surname Coke, and he was west Kingston’s and the whole of Jamaica’s counterpart to Colombia’s Pablo Escobar; an all-powerful drug lord who led the gang the Shower Posse and who, amongst other things, accounted for over 40 percent of all the crack cocaine smuggled into the US. After a long trade in arms and drugs, he was arrested in Kingston in June 2010 after the US issued an arrest warrant.
“It’s sad that it needs to be like this, but you can’t be afraid. It’s pointless being afraid. My friends and I usually say that as long as you think of all the pretty girls instead of all the weapons, you’ll survive,” says Christopher, and turns up the volume on the car stereo where popular dancehall star Vybz Kartel in his hit “Summertime” is singing how wonderful he thinks it is that it’s finally summer – even though it’s high summer all year round in Jamaica.
“That’s how Chris Blackwell has survived here,” continues Christopher.
Jamaica’s bad reputation can be measured in other numbers than tragic murder statistics. In 2010 over five million tourists travelled to the nearby Bahamas while just over one million made it here. And although the number of visitors is said to have increased by five percent this year, Jamaica is not the easiest environment to run a luxury hotel in.
This isn’t made least obvious when, driving along the bumpy, twisting, and poorly lit road over the Blue Mountains, we see speed signs with the poetic warning: ”Do not be in a hurry to eternity.”
Here you’ve prepared yourself to be kidnapped or robbed. So instead you get to pray to Haile Selassie not to crash or drive off a cliff.
When Chris came back to Jamaica in his late teens, he got his first job as a water skiing instructor and then became responsible for the island’s many jukeboxes. His parents, who it might be thought had big plans for him, were just happy that he was healthy now and enjoying life.
And he was.
“Water skiing was like a dream; I could combine my love of the sea with my love of pretty girls,” says Chris, smiling.
“And, you know, I loved music. Taking care of 63 jukeboxes was absolutely wonderful. I got to go round and see all of Jamaica, change records, and argue about my commission with bar owners in the mountains and the small fishing villages. It was fantastic to experience that so young. Real music, real people, real life. As far from Harrow as you could get.”
Chris’s life revolved ever more around music, and he soon felt that the jukeboxes weren’t enough. So in 1959, 22 years young, he started Island Records. It came about, as he says, entirely naturally. He took the name from Harry Belafonte’s title tune for the film Island in the Sun.
“I was like a groupie – not to the musicians, but to the music itself. For a long time I’d spent all the money I earned on records. I was obsessed. I went to New York as often as I could afford and bought more records than I could carry. I simply had to get closer to music’s essence. I wanted to be in the studio where the magic occurred. In order to have a chance of getting there, I started Island.”
Chris probably also sensed where the wind was blowing. The Jamaicans had for a long time copied the R&B and New Orleans jazz that streamed in via American radio stations. But now they had slowly found a sound that was entirely their own, with a swinging backbeat. First in the jazzy folk-music mento, and then in the faster and more danceable ska music.
The latter soon became hyper-popular in the so-called sound system parties often held in Kingston ghettos. They can most simply be described as an early Jamaican counterpart to today’s rave parties, where Jamaican disc jockeys played the latest American and Jamaican music, sometimes over an entire weekend without break.
The Jamaican radio stations played mostly American soul and gospel so, if you wanted to hear Jamaican music, you either had to hang around Chris’s jukeboxes, or go to the parties in the Kingston ghettos.
“It was a completely different attitude at the time,” remembers Chris. “However much rum I drank, however late it was and however far out in the slums I was, nothing ever happened. Most people wondered who I was, but when they realized that I knew what was going on and that I loved music, they respected me. When I was in New York I sometimes bought multiple copies of the latest records in order to sell them at more than twice the price to the sound system disc jockeys. All this to raise the money to start Island Records.”
The first thing that Chris released was an LP with Lance Hayward, a blind, Bermudan jazz pianist Chris had discovered playing in the bar at the Half Moon Bay Resort, the hotel in Montego Bay where Chris worked as a water skiing instructor and where prominent guests, like John and Jackie Kennedy, held court when holidaying on the island.
But just as Chris released his first record, he received a request from Ian Fleming wondering if he wanted to work as a production assistant on the first James Bond film, Dr. No, to be filmed in Jamaica.
“He knew that I knew the island inside out,” says Chris. “I said ‘Yes,’ and the job was a lot of fun. The film’s producer, Harry Saltzman, was also so pleased with me that he asked me to continue permanently as his assistant. So I was forced to choose – the film industry or the music industry. I searched out a soothsayer to make the decision.”
“Yes. Ha ha! My mother always went to a soothsayer round Kingston’s downtown. And yes, I think that that there’s some kind of … maybe not the truth, but something there that people believe in. It was really fifty-fifty, so she got to decide. I don’t know why, but she said I should go whole-heartedly into the music industry.”
Strengthened by the soothsayer’s words, in 1962 Chris moved back to the UK and London. At first it was the same as working with the jukeboxes on Jamaica, driving around records in the boot of his Mini Clubman, the only difference now was that he was driving round the British isles instead of Jamaica.
It was a tough time and, if his mother hadn’t pitched in the money to pay rent on the flat, it wouldn’t have worked out.
Because even though he now licensed and release a lot of black American music like Etta James and Ike and Tina Turner, it was still mostly Jamaican and Trinidadian ska and calypso singles he sold. Music that, in principle, only emigrant Jamaicans and Trinidadians in the outskirts of London, Birmingham and Bristol cared about.
But everything changed in 1964 when Chris got an international hit with the 16 year-old Jamaican Millie Small and her song “My Boy Lollipop.” It was essentially a classic doo-wop song, but driven by a characteristically ska beat, that led more and more people to discover Jamaican music.
Chris followed Small around the world on her tour.
“I felt proud, but quickly realized that it wasn’t one hit wonders but whole albums, and artist careers that would be my future. Chart music has never been about the music itself.”
What is chart music about?
“It’s all about how pretty you are or what you can sell with the music. If you look at Island Records’ history, you realize how few hit singles we had after “My Boy Lollipop.” Look at the same history for, say, Motown. There you find a zillion hit singles from artists that nobody remembers even existed. We had album artists, bands that are still active and, even though the music industry looks like it does, still sell millions of records. It’s unbelievable!”
From “My Boy Lollipop” onwards, it was almost as if Chris had magic fingers. With a snap of his hands it seemed he could turn anything to gold – or, as it’s called in the music industry, platinum.
For how could you otherwise explain how he even got – in addition to rock bands and singers like The Spencer Davis Group, Nick Drake, Cat Stevens, Roxy Music, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Jethro Tull to break through. Here was a band that had named itself after an English 19th century agronomist, and whose frontman Ian Anderson spent a big part of the group’s concerts standing on one leg and playing the flute.
“I’ve always had a good feel for the new and slightly different, and have never been afraid to trust my intuition,” says Chris.
How was it getting into the music business in the 1960s?
“It was easy, because the people there weren’t very smart. It was full of people who came from the street, and seemed more like hot-blooded boxers. But I …”
… had a completely different background?
“Did you feel, with your class background, a bit of a misfit?
“Yes, a little bit like that. I’ve always felt like an outsider. I was often lonely as a child and have always travelled a lot on my own. I was always white in Jamaica and Jamaican in England.”
Dag Häggqvist, who early on licensed Island Records’ records to the Scandinavian music – and later film – company Sonet, agrees that Chris was a special character.
“When I met him in Sweden for the first time, I knew immediately that he was more like a creative genius than a record-label boss. He had completely new ideas when it came to packaging albums and launching an artist. He was also in the studio and had ideas about how everything should be produced. And he was ahead of his time when it came to marketing. He was always full of ideas, and it was also him who inspired Sonet to enter the film industry.”
What was he like to do business with?
“He was a professional, but he didn’t look like any other businessman at the time. He was well kept and well brought up, that was obvious, but he always arrived in jeans and a T-shirt, or with his shirt hanging out of his trousers and with three buttons open at the neck. When we went out to eat, it was almost always problematic. in Gothenburg, we weren’t allowed into Hotel Rubinen’s restaurant, even though Chris was staying at the hotel! In Sweden at the time, men dressed up when they ate out. So we always had to go to the best places, like Operakällaren. They were a little more accustomed to the fact that rich people could dress a little oddly.”
Chris Blackwell’s fingertip-feeling must have peaked in 1972 when a young Jamaican with short dreads dropped by Island Records’ studio in Notting Hill, London.
Bob Marley and his backing band The Wailers were on tour and had been stranded in London when the travel-money ran out. Now they asked Chris for money to record an album.
Chris knew both Bob Marley and his backing band The Wailers. They had had a couple of smaller hits like “Simmer Down,” and even put out a few overlooked singles on Island Records. But that had been a few years earlier, and now Chris knew that something had happened, in particular to the now highly charismatic young singer.
Ever since Chris started Island Records, he had dreamed of launching a Jamaican reggae group as a black rock band. He was convinced that it would make the world finally wake up to Jamaican music, which in turn would put Jamaica on the map.
Now, when Bob Marley stood before him, he felt that here was his chance. He gave him and the Wailers 4,000 pounds – equivalent to about 430 000 Swedish krona in today’s money – to go back to Jamaica and record an album.
Since his near-death experience as a teenager, Chris had felt he could trust Rastafarians more than other people.
“I thought like this: They were a rebel gang from Trenchtown and music was their one chance of getting out of the Kingston slums. Normally business is about being unsure where you have each other and both partners in the end feel a little like they’ve cheated each other. Here it was different. I had to show them respect and that I believed in them in order to get something back. I knew that Bob would be a star.”
The album that Bob Marley & The Wailers recorded was Catch a Fire. Chris, who put more time into his record covers than most, had chosen to design and develop Catch a Fire as a zippo lighter where the package opened in the middle to remove the vinyl. If an album looked good, he thought, record buyers would be curious and even think it sounded good.
During 1973, Catch a Fire sold only 14,000 copies and was completely overshadowed by big-sellers like Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and Roxy Music’s Island Records released Stranded. But word spread and Bob was soon, thanks to his hypnotic gigs, transformed to something beyond superstar. At home in Jamaica it became trendy, if not to convert to Rastafarianism, at least to look like a rastaman.
Chris decided early on to keep himself far in the background of Bob’s success.
“He was a Che Guevara figure with a guitar instead of a rifle. It wouldn’t have looked good if it looked like he was friends with me, that is – with the industry. That’s why there are hardly any pictures of us together.”
The attention surrounding Catch a Fire was nothing compared to that surrounding 1977’s Exodus. The album got as high as number 20 on the US Billboard chart and broke reggae worldwide.
The music even came to Sweden but it took some time before it took hold here. Kristian Lönner, journalist and author of the book Jamaica – Sverige tur och retur, says that reading reviews of Bob Marley’s four live shows at Gröna Lund show how, over the years, the Swedes travelled from skepticism to understanding.
“The first reviews were arrogant, but they became more respectful as people learned more about reggae and Jamaican culture. Suddenly journalists stopped criticizing things like Marley seeming stoned on stage. When Thomas Gylling started Radio Västindien on Swedish radio in 1979, everything exploded. And that fourth, final, and most legendary, Swedish Bob Marley concert at Gröna Lund in 1980 set the famous audience-record of 32,000.”
Thomas Gylling himself was there and hung in a tree to see the show.
“I just felt, ‘wow,’ what a victory for everything that we fought for,” he says. “Island were smart. They took money from other successes and invested them in putting out Bob Marley. And if you manage to get into mainstream channels – which they did – you’ll have a hit sooner or later. That’s just how it is.”
Even if the Beatles had already used a back-beat in “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and Eric Clapton in the mid-1970s did a cover of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ “I Shot the Sheriff,” it was still with punk that the Jamaican musical heritage was spread further seriously by white artists.
For bands like The Clash, whose bassist Paul Simonon and guitarist Mick Jones had grown up side by side with West Indians in Brixton’s working class neighbourhood, Jamaican dub experiment was as obvious as pub rock.
Kristian Lönner doesn’t believe that Jamaican music would have got here so quickly if it wasn’t for Chris Blackwell.
“It’s undoubtably thanks to him that today reggae sits next to rock and pop in record shops, and not in world music like other Caribbean music. And everything depended on that first Bob Marley record. Marley was the first Jamaican who got the same economic terms to record an album under as European artists. This is because Blackwell understood both white popular music and Jamaican music and its roots. It really was like the best of both worlds when Blackwell winked at the audience with all those guitar solos on Catch a Fire. It became commercial without distorting for a second how Jamaican it was.”
Chris himself says that the time with Bob was the best in his life.
“When he broke through with Exodus, it was like David winning against Goliath for me. All my dreams came true there and then.
“I feel really fortunate to have had the chance to be so close to him. We never misunderstood each other, Bob and me. He could be tough if he had to, but he always let it go just as quickly as it came. He really had an aura around him. To spend time with him was a bit like it must have been to spend time with Jesus.”
Chris’s private chef paws down the stairs and serves us that Jamaican breakfast. It turns out that – just as Chris is a tropical version of an Englishman – the food is a tropical version of an English breakfast: bacon and eggs, served with coconut milk and a spicy mass of the spinach-like local vegetable, callaloo.
Chris is expecting a visitor. His 18 year-old son Chris Blackwell Jr., who attends school in nearby Ocho Rios, is coming over to play backgammon.
“Backgammon and jet skiing are my two favourite sports,” says Chris, and laughs.
Despite the fact that we get to spend a whole Sunday with Chris, he doesn’t want to talk about his private life. He says no more than that he has three children with three different women who have been his girlfriends and lovers.
When I ask if his itinerant jet-set lifestyle has made it difficult for relationships to survive, he says only that he ”tends to have very long relationships with most people he meets … or very short.”
Chris Blackwell Jr. comes by and sits down at the breakfast table. I ask him if he agrees with me that his father must be the world’s youngest 74-year-old.
“Yes. If dad feels like doing something, he just does it. I remember when I was little and he got himself his own aeroplane just because he could,” he says with a broad Jamaican accent.
“Oh, that aeroplane,” interjects Chris. “It just cost loads of money if you didn’t keep everything in order. The aeroplane is my worst investment. That and when I was going to finance a theme park in Azerbaijan.”
“It was five or six years ago. I don’t remember how it came about, but it was a nightmare from day one, mostly because of the local authorities. But I learned a lot. And the food was interesting: Russian caviar and vodka for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And also the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. But it was perhaps because … because …
Because you were drunk all the time?
“Yes, tomatoes was all there was that wasn’t Russian caviar and vodka, ha ha!
“Speaking of which, there’s one thing I’ve thought of. Think; if marijuana became legal, imagine what it could do for Jamaica! They’ve voted on it in California, and when people start voting on things, there always tends to be a change on the way. So what if someone here, maybe Bob’s son Rohan who’s had international success with his coffee brand Blue Mountain, would make Marley Marijuana. Do you know how many likes Bob Marley has on Facebook?”
“Over 32 million. So I think it could be just as big if not bigger than Marlboro, and really take the country forward. I also think that legalisation would get rid of a lot of the crime in Kingston. And Bob would be smiling in heaven!”
What do you think about the drug?
“I see it as just a drug. I like to smoke myself, but only late at night if I feel I’ll have trouble sleeping. It’s perfect to calm your nerves with but, like alcohol, not to start the day with because then it’s ruined before it’s even started. I haven’t got any time for that.”
Island Records grew massively in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The company built the Compass Point studio in the Bahamas, signed U2, Grace Jones, and Tom Waits, and became the world’s largest independent record label, with offices in London, Paris, New York and LA.
At the same time, Chris had an identity crisis. Unlike many others in the industry, he’d started his company because he loved music. Now Island Records had become like any giant company, and Chris was as uncomfortable with office life as he’d previously been with his British boarding school.
Bob Marley died from cancer on May the 11th, 1981, the same day that Cat Stevens announced that he would stop making records.
“Poof! So my two biggest artists had suddenly gone. This was a few years before U2 broke through and, even though I’d always believed in them, I was never really captured by their early records.
As if that weren’t already enough, Bob Marley’s legendary producer Lee ”Scratch” Perry, released the album Judgement Inna Babylon, with a cover cartoon of Chris Blackwell as a vampire. In interviews, Perry said that it was Blackwell, or ”Whiteworst” as he called him, who’d sucked the life out of Marley.
“That changed nothing between me and Lee,” says Chris. “I love him. He is a true genius. I think it was mostly just because he was upset that I didn’t want to release one of his records. I remember opening a newspaper at home in England where it said he’d seen me drink chicken-blood in Jamaica.”
But it wasn’t true?
“Yes, it was true! When you’ve built something in Jamaica, it’s the tradition to cut the head off a chicken and pour the blood into a glass of rum, then drink some of it. It brings luck. Lee knew this of course, but now he was making me look like some kind of voodoo-priest. I knew myself that I wasn’t a white colonialist raping Jamaican music, but a white Jamaican who was spreading their music around the world. But I managed not to let it bother me. I was still too low after Bob’s death.”
Chris held out for a few years. In 1987 he was in a meeting with the new Philips managing director, Jan Timmer. Timmer, who lobbied early for the CD because Philips had the patent on it, told him enthusiastically how the shiny little disc would revolutionize the music world.
“Of course, they couldn’t see into the future or anticipate that the CD and internet would one day cause the death of the record industry. But I remember that I got a creeping feeling during this meeting. There was something that didn’t feel right. I remember I smiled and played along, but then I got myself ready to sell.”
You sold Island Records in 1989 for 262 million dollars to PolyGram. How did you decide on that price tag?
“I had a few bankers who calculated and calculated, and they did a fantastic job. That’s all I can say. I would never, ever, be able to put a value on music, especially the music I put out. I should certainly have been able to earn a bit more, considering how big U2 became. But, as I said, I wasn’t in the music business for the money but for the music. Otherwise, you could say that the music industry was, and still is, full of people who got lost on their way to Wall Street.”
Chris stayed on as A&R at Island Records until 1997 when, after a string of arguments with PolyGram top-dog Alain Levy, he left the company for good. There was probably a lot behind the comment that Chris’s great role-model and friend, the now deceased Atlantic Records owner Ahmet Ertegun, gave Rolling Stone:
“I didn’t even understand why he stayed. He’s a free spirit who can never be happy if he doesn’t have full control of his destiny. You simply don’t make Chris Blackwell’s decisions for him.”
Boom! Suddenly there’s a bang that almost makes a Japanese couple on the lagoon fall out of their kayaks. Although we are in the rainy season, it’s not a lightning strike but the music starting at a so-called igloo party on James Bond Beach. It’s called igloo, I’m told later by the twins in charge of renting out the hotel’s water sport equipment, because ”it’s so cool.”
From ten this morning until the following dawn, DJs play – or rather bombard – the beach with rock-hard dancehall music.
You could say that dancehall music represents the new Jamaica that emerged after Bob Marley’s death. Where, Bob Marley sang revolutionary-romantic, back-to-Africa romantic, or just simply love-romantic songs; dancehall stars sing – like bling-bling hip-hop – about screwing chicks and making money.
The biggest dancehall star in Jamaica right now is Vybz Kartel. A controversial character who, before he was recently arrested on suspicion of murder, literally spat out new songs, not uncommonly on taboo subjects like skin-bleaching and oral sex.
Besides his condom brand Daggering and rum company Street, Vybz is also behind the skin-bleaching product Cake Soap and the reality series Teacha’s Pet in which 19 girls fight for his love.
It’s hard to say if he is a mad genius or brilliantly mad, but in Jamaica, it is almost impossible to avoid him.
While we slurp the last of the coconut milk, Chris says he loves Vybz Kartel. He likes dancehall and especially that they liven up Oracabessa with igloo parties, even if he thinks that developments in dancehall music have stalled recently.
“It’s the same sleazy themes, the same type of beats. It’s a bit like Jamaica after the financial crisis; the country has stood still. Young people want quicker and quicker money to get the status they dream about, which leads to them they joining drug-gangs in Kingston – or getting lucky and managing to get abroad,” he says. And appears to be the only 74 year-old in the world who can draw a connection between dancehall music and the financial crisis.
Later in the evening, in the darkness outside the lit outside-bar, the calls of lizards, crickets and birds blend into a sound that is amazingly like a car alarm. I’m standing at the bar when Chris shows up and, smiling, asks what I think of his hotel.
Before I have time to respond, Chris calls to one of the bartenders and offers me one of the hotel’s signature drink: A Golden Eye. It turns out not to be a martini, ”shaken, not stirred,” but Blackwell’s self-produced and self-titled rum with lime and crushed ice.
We toast each other, and I ask how he ended up in the luxury hotel business. Today he runs four hotels with associated luxury villas in Jamaica. Ian Fleming’s old villa here at Golden Eye Resort is the smartest. For about 25,000 Swedish krona per night, you can enjoy the author’s house, private beach, secret caves and a newly built infinity pool.
Chris leans on the bar.
“It all began in Miami,” he says. “When I was walking along South Beach at the end of the 1980s, I quickly discovered that everything was for sale. The city had a bad reputation. Not like Jamaica, but the whole area was a bit Scarface. I bought a hotel, then I bought another one. Suddenly I had seven. When Miami subsequently boomed and South Beach was cleaned up, I took a big cut. The profits, along with money I got for Island Records, I wanted to use for my … what should I call it … Jamaican dream.”
Chris means that his luxury hotel isn’t just a luxury hotel. It’s not just the place where Ryan Gosling, who’s here just now, takes off to between filming. Or where Jay-Z and Beyoncé, who stayed in the Fleming villa for a week, go on romantic weekends. The hotels are rather a disguised philanthropy; like one long fundraiser for the Caribbean island.
Unlike the multinational all-inclusive hotels in Negril, Montego Bay and nearby Ocho Rios, Chris tries to ensure that as much of the profit as possible goes to his home island.
He admits, chuckling as if a little ashamed, that the Golden Eye Resort was first conceived as being ”a James Bond themed hotel.”
“We actually had plans to create a Shaken Not Stirred Martini Bar, having waitresses dressed as a Bond girls, villas numbered 001, 002, 003 and so on. Also, once we’d renovated we were to open on the 7th July 2007. Or 070707. But as it dragged on and we weren’t going to be able to open until 2010, I realized that all this was my vision, and not Ian Fleming’s or anyone else. I’m glad I changed my mind.”
Then he looks up anxiously and asks again what I think of Golden Eye.
“It’s not too much is it? The worst thing I know are gratuitous, snobby hotels.”
I say that, first and foremost, it feels very different from Kingston.
“That’s true. I like Kingston, because I know exactly where to go in the town. But yes, it is a bit like it’s on a different continent.”
How dangerous is Kingston in your opinion?
“Let me put it this way: It’s not harmless. It is the only place on Jamaica I don’t recommend my guests visit on their own. But if you go there with our drivers, it’s fine. 99 percent of all the violence that occurs is gang related.”
The bartender is, like most people Chris hires, a Jamaican who earns a good bit above average. Chris Blackwell invests in the local fruit and vegetable markets so the country can avoid importing so much from Florida. The goal is eventually to make Jamaica increasingly organic, eco-friendly and self-sufficient, and that the Island Outpost hotels will be small villages which will gradually merge with the small Jamaican communities next door.
Chris is firm that everyone who visits his hotels and eats the first day at the hotel restaurant, eats the next in the Jamaican villages.
“The Jamaican economy is so small. Now that I employ 400-500 people and give them a good salary, that’s straightaway cash flow giving life to communities around the hotels. And since my hotels are scattered all over the island, I hope that it will slowly rub off on the countryside and finally even be felt in Kingston.”
Are there any similarities between the hotel industry and the record industry?
“Well, I run this just like I ran Island Records. I promote my hotels like my artists, and I would most of all like this place to become known as the most relaxed place in the world. Just as Bob Marley’s music became known as the world’s most relaxed political music.”
Chris Blackwell smiles and, before he leaves me to chat with Ryan Gosling who’s standing at the other end of the bar, he says:
“I’m not there yet, but this will be my biggest hit.”