By Sthepehn Cooper , Apr 3, 2019

In a career spanning fifty-five years, legendary reggae star Max Romeos many hit songs have brought joy to millions of fans and influenced generations of artists, including rap mogul Jay-Z, who famously sampled Romeo’s (1976) Chase the Devilin his (2003) song Lucifer.”So when Selecta Jerry, host of highly respected reggae radio show Sounds of the Caribbean,advised me via tweet I should run[,]dont walkto see Romeo perform live at the famous Dub Club in Los Angeles, I did what any sensible California-based reggae journalist would: I got on the freeway early the evening of March 27 to make sure traffic as predictable as the jerk chicken-sellers outside the Dub Club wouldnt impede my ability to capture every minute of reggae royalty possible.I wasnt disappointed. Mr. Romeos performance was sensational; his music after all these years is as rootsy and righteous and as capable of igniting a revolution as ever. Amazingly, afterward, though I wasnt scheduled to meet with him, Mr. Romeo graciously agreed to be interviewed in a small room behind the stage.There amidst a motley of musicians, security guards, and lucky super fans who walked in to pay Mr. Romeo respect, we spoke for fifteen minutes about: his 2017 song The Farmers Storyand the exploitation of farmers generally; Romeos self-owned, family-operated Charmax” music label and recording studio in Saint Catherine, Jamaica; the most important advice Romeos given those of his children whove followed him into the music business; his friendship and collaboration with musical genius Lee ScratchPerry; obstacles to the Jamaican governments proper investment in reggae; his unsatisfactory experience with Island Records; the kind of man Bob Marley was, and more. What follows is a transcript of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.

Mr. Romeo, its a blessing to meet you. I just met your son, Azizzi. Hes an extremely talented young man. And I was just talking with him about the video that you released for a tune called The Farmers Storyhighlighting the exploitation of farmers in Jamaica. [What were your] motivations in writing and releasing that song?
Well the fact is Im a farmer myself. Im a part-time artist, part-time farmer. Im into livestock. Raising cows. And goats.

In St. Catherine?
(Nodding) In St. Catherine. But what happened now [is] I used to be into ground produce. But I couldnt keep up with it because its like working for nothing. The farmers get a very small little mass of the produce. And then when they go to the market they find the produce selling for a lot of money. So thats what really inspired that song.Theres been a lot of news in the press about the relaxation of laws surrounding marijuana in Jamaica. Was your song [The Farmers Story] addressing that issue as well?
Well it covers the whole spectrum of farming. Whatever farming you are in. All farmers have been exploited. Especially in Jamaica. Its a worldwide thing. Cause a lot of places Ive been in the world, [farmers] who hear the song congratulate me. And tell me, Im telling their story.

Do you think that the Jamaican government, given how Rastas have been persecuted over marijuana for so long back to the days of Pinnacle and after, that they will be particularly attentive to making sure that the Rasta farmer will also be able to benefit from the changes in the law?
Well for now thats not the case, but its shaping up to be like that in the future. Because what they are trying to get us to do, theyre getting the small farmers to work for the big farmers. Its been that way all along. And the small farmers dont get nothing. Everything goes in the pocket of the big farmers. [Marijuanas] not legalized. Its decriminalized. And that kinda mockery because youre still getting your herb burned in the fields. And youre still getting the youth being arrested for herb. Its like one step forward, two steps backward.

This video [for The Farmers Story] you made with your son [Azizzi] is a beautiful video. Its the first official video youve made in over fifty years of music
Fifty-five years.

Did you enjoy making that video and will you make another?
Yeah I enjoyed making it. Because one the beautiful parts about it is: its mine. I didnt record [The Farmers Story] for anyone else. I have total control over it. And the album that the track is on is also mine.

On your label the Charmax” music label, right?

You have a lot of adult children who are now in the music industry you discussed this onstage tonight.

Is that [Charmax] label just the family business or will you also be promoting other reggae artists with it?
Its a mixture. Its a private studio for the family. But its also been utilized by the youth in the community who show potential. The gate is wide open for them. They come in and show their potential. One artist in particular [who did that] is Iba MaHr. Thats what happened in his case. He walked right in. And [Dubtonic Krus guitarist and vocalist] Jallanzo was there engineering when he came in. And [Iba MaHr] didnt impress him. [But] I told him, record him. [Because] his sound [has] a little of Jacob Millers sound on it. And Jamaican people love Jacob Miller. And he did. And hes [the] Iba MaHr [you see] today.

Is that studio based
Its on the farm in St. Catherine.

What is one of the most important lessons youve told your children who are now following you into the music business?
One of the main lessons Ive told them if they want to be in the music business as long as I have is: put the music in front of the money.

It took me thirty years to be Max Romeo. It [doesnt] have to take them that long. Its just twenty-five years ago I started to get the respect I deserved.

You sang some of your famous hit songs tonight songs that are legendary in reggae history [such as] War Ina Babylon, Chase the Devil, [and] Three Blind Mice. You made these songs together with Lee Scratch Perry in the 1970s. Scratch is still creating new music. Hes still touring. Would you ever want to collaborate and work together on new music with Scratch today, if it could be arranged?
We are [still collaborating on new music together]. On my album the year before last Horror Zone,we collaborated on that album.

Awesome. I didnt know that. I will definitely check that out. So you still have a good relationship with Scratch up until today?
Yeah. Scratch is my brother, man. (Laughing)

Because you have this friendship with Scratch, [and] you guys produced [such] great music together, why did you guys break apart in the 70s? What happened to [cause] you guys to split apart?
Well he took a different turn. He became a comedian. And [he] portrays this madman image. And [he] start[ed] listening to his inner-self. And that wasnt really actually telling him the right things. So he start[ed] straying off of track. Its not we drift from him. Its him drift from us. I never leave him, you know? At one point, I was the only reggae artist who could actually go up to him and touch him and say, Whats up, Scratch?Most artists couldnt do that.

What are the biggest obstacles preventing the Jamaican government from investing more money into the development and promotion of reggae music?
Its hard to answer that question. These guys are unpredictable. You cannot peep into their minds.

The government [officials]?
Yeah. For some reason they feel that reggae music is done.And dancehall music cant cut it. Therefore, they think its a high-risk business. So nobody was interested. And it was said a few months ago that [Jamaica has] made nine billion dollars off of the music industry. And I havent seen any put-back into it.

Do you think [the] recent concert they had in the national stadium for Buju Banton there was a lot of [worldwide] attention given to that do you think that that will regenerate a buzz for the [Jamaican] government to [want to] participate and be more willing to [make reggae music] grow?
Well Buju Banton is a one-off thing. And its nostalgic. We dont know whats gonna spur from that. What it was, was an eye-opener to them that reggae still has clout. And they are saying, you know, after so many years, we have just seen the potential that reggae brings. Because Buju come from prison and put thirty-thousand people in the stadium.

Mr. Romeo, is there anything that Chris Blackwell and Island Records could do to make it up to you and some of the other famous reggae artists like Third World, Toots Hibbert, and the other [stars] signed to them, when they invested [so] heavily in Bob Marley but didnt spend enough time and investment and promotion on you all?
What Chris Blackwell could do for Max Romeo is give him a statement for the sales of [the album] War Ina Babylon”. And let him have some money instead of coming with this story that I was stupid to sign a contract [as a] writer for hire.Even a seven-year-old kid would know that a writer for hirecontract dont cut it. And he used that over my head from 1976 until today. That I was just merely a writer for hire.So Island Records owns the whole product.

Do you have any lawyers that are pursuing this for you?
How do you fight the devil with a lawyer? I wouldnt waste my time. I just call it a sacrifice.

I mentioned Bob Marley. We just [celebrated] his seventy-fourth earthstrong in February. Since youre one of the few people left in the world who knew him, played soccer with him, did things with Bob, when you think of Bob Marley, what comes to mind?
He was a no-nonsense guy. He was a stern individual. He was a guy that, he tells you what to do. He had that third eye to see things. Its hard to describe Bob. He was a great guy. And his success shows you that he was great. It was just, I dont know, he walked in the valley of the shadow of death and got caught.

Mr. Romeo, is there anything else that you want to say or let the music-listening world know about Max Romeos music, or reggae in general?
When I [got] into reggae music, I came not knowing what I want[ed] to do. At some point I started off doing things you might consider as lewd or rude.

Like [the song] Wet Dream?
Like Wet Dreamand Play with Your Pussycatand all these types of songs. And then I sight Rastafari. And [I] say, alright I cant explain this to my grandchildren further on in life so I may as well cut that out from now. And I start calling upon Rastafari. And I made a pledge to Jah that every time I open my mouth, I must be giving praise. Every time I move my hand, it must be something positive. But its always about Rastafari. And I cling to that until today. Thats my faith. And if it was money alone without Rastafari, it wouldnt work. You have to have money in one hand, and God in [the other]. God without money dont work. Money without God? Thats even worse. You see? Thats my whole concept.