🇯🇲 From his time with Sugar Minott's Youthman Promotion Sound & Phillip "Fatis" Burrell right through to working with Conscious sounds Bush chemists & Channel One Sound System Donovan has always been in high demand as a singer & entertainer.
For about the last 18 months, I would tell Donovan Kingjay, that I wanted to interview him, but somehow our calendars were at odds with each other. Finally, we were able to synchronise! Here is Part 1…enjoy!!
So tell me King, where were your born?
“I was born in Camberwell Green SE5. Just across the road from Brixton. That’s where I originate from, me and my brother. My mother Veronica was born in Jonestown, Kingston and my father Caleb in Lucea , Hanover, which is completely on the other side of the island. They met each other in London.”
“My mother left Jamaica and came to South East London, where she met my father and got pregnant with me. Check it now: we are in the 60s and she is now 38. This was a surprise to her because she thought she couldn’t have children. Then two years later she became pregnant again. She then had my brother and then sadly two years after that she passed. I was five and my brother three.”
So would you say you are a Windrush baby? It seems you were born here in a roundabout way…?
“I would say my father is the Windrush one; he came solely because of what he was told about England; He had already been to America doing farm work – that’s how society got you on cheap labour basically, but it gave you an option to maybe stay in America. My father did that when he was 18/19 years old. He came to England, heard about London and stayed with some friends and family. They shipped my mother’s body back (which was a lot of money them times), to a place called Grants Pen Cemetery, which I visited once, but then it was the worse for wear. I also visited the grave of her mum and dad.”
“My father already has two children in Jamaica when he left. Unbeknown to me and my brother, we had a bigger brother and sister in Jamaica. We had a big brother Tony and a big sister Dorothy. By then Dorothy had moved to Kingston and got married. So every weekend we used to go and see our sister in Kingston? This meant we could do a musical thing as well because we couldn’t do that in the country. Then we would come back to England. My father remarried to a lady called Miss Johnson; she passed away a couple years ago. She was 95. She survived the Kendall train crash in 1926 in Jamaica, the train from Kingston to Montego Bay. She used to tell the story in church. She was up the front of the carriage and her friend called her to the back of the train. Though she hesitated, she went to the back of the train. The first nine carriages, most of the people died. When my dad married her we lived in Manor Park and I have been in East London ever since.”
“In 1974/1975 still at school, we built our own sound system. So the dances and the shows? I was in it to the fullest. If you look at my record collection I can show you I was there I was there from 1973 collecting vinyls. I was always in all the dances, all the parties and if they were local in London – like a lot of them were –I would be there. That was the time that we had Library Hall in Manor Park, we were charging every Friday. We were the first sound to play in all the youth clubs: West Ham Youth, Kensington, Little Eye and Celebrities – we played them all.”
“When my mother passed, we moved around a little bit. We went to live with my aunt in Herne Hill for a while. Her husband, Mr. Barton used to drive a Rolls Royce in the 60s, he owned houses too. Then we moved to a place called Spark Hill in Birmingham. We went to the primary school for about six months before we were shipped out to Jamaica in 1983. I only remember because a little girl swallowed a counting dice that they used to have at school. That’s why I remember Spark Hill and the ceiling at the Bull Ring. Every Saturday we would have to sit at the back of the car waiting for my dad, who would be attending to something. That’s why I remember the see-through ceiling at the Bull Ring.”
“By the time we were leaving school and going to college, we were having to use our resources. Remember, the sound systems like Shakka in those days would sell weed. They would use those profits to make records. The other sound systems like Coxsone (Fatman was lucky because he had a legacy from Jamaica) had to hustle. I knew Levi Roots and all those men, I used to buy their tunes. Blacker Dread, Mikey Dread, Jessus Screechy and even Lloydie Coxsone himself, I had to remind him. Coxsone was called Sir Nation in those days, before he met up with Festus and became Coxsone. Remember I told you that! I told Coxsone that to his face. I used to go to the Red Lion in Leyton, go to the front of the queue at 7pm and couldn’t get into the place until 9pm because of the big men with their girls."
When did you realise you could sing?
“We used to have the sound set up in my brethren’s front room – at least the control tower and the speaker box. His parents were lovely people, Jamaican-Portuguese. They loved the tone of the sound, that’s where there’s some old vintage pictures of us. Everybody would come from the record shop excited and have some new selection and would gather around. We were about 15, 16, and 17 at the time. I went to put on a version and instead of just introducing it like I heard the DJs do it in the club, I started singing the tune. Everyone looked round and said “Woah, yeah! You can sing!” My brother especially said “You need to do something with that, when we play the song in the system, you need to sing!”
Did you know you were capable of that?
“Only in my heart and my mind. There was no experimentation in the choir or such. I just sang straight through the vibes of a tune, or something that I was feeling. It would just come out. With the vibes from my crew and my brother, I felt confident and tried it again and it grew from there.”
“By now I’m 19/20. I got invited to perform with (God rest his soul) Lindy who was on the keyboards and we were determined to move on to one of the very first Newham festival shows. They had this big stage! I thought “Wow, I am going to have to go up there and sing.” I got the mic and went up there. I loved the vibes. I loved the vibe of seeing people who you know as well as who you don’t know and them realising I could sing. I’ve got just one picture of that era. I was wearing my locs even then. I went All Nations one or two times, but I wasn’t one of those who wanted to rub off wallpaper and them things. I was more looking into Rasta, more looking into African kings. I was into spiritual things. I felt I needed to learn more and have knowledge. I was always searching since I was young.”
“From college, I went straight into work. I was the first one to get a driving licence. So everyone wanted to get a lift! I was involved in all of it.”
How did you make that that transition from the sound system days, to saying ‘Right! I’m going to start recording my own song’?
“Okay, that happened with King Original, courtesy of Fatis and Sugar Minott. They started up a label called the King Original Label. They were releasing songs for Jamaican artists, predominantly Half Pint and Johnny Osborne; they decided to fling Kingjay in there. At the time my artist name was just Singjay. This was about 1989/90; they said they had a riddim they were doing down at Easy Street. They said “You need to write a song for this” and the song was called “State of Mind” written by myself – a 12” vinyl, published by Negus Roots (Michael & Robert Palmer) then Sugar’s Youthman Promotion Label. It was on a popular kind of riddim at the time – a slow kinda tune. It was considered Lovers Rock-ish. I did that first record and I was over the moon; I took it down to Capital Records man, because that’s where Rodigan was at the time. Yep! I put it in an envelope and took myself down to the station.”
“He wasn’t there – but I left the envelope at reception with a note saying who I was and I hoped he liked the song. The first week (he only played every Saturday night and mainly Jamaican tunes; however he had a little segment for the British artist) – nothing. Second week me and my brethren gathered round the radio – nothing. Third week – Rodigan played the tune! I was over the moon. “
“Then a couple other things happen. Sugar Minott came over and took me down to Blacka Dread’s studio. Shaka was starting his label, so I was just about to do some things with him, but Sugar convinced me to come down to Blacka’s Studio in Brixton. I did a tune at the studio called “Never Too Late” and they took it to Jamaica and released it on the seven inch. I’ve still got a copy and it’s on discography. So far that is my one and only Jamaican release. I went to Jamaica in 2000, me and my brother. We went to Sugar’s house; one of the men (who I later found out was one of his cousins) asked me if I was “Singjay”. The cousin went away, asking me to wait. When he came back he was bringing a box, containing 7” discs of “Never Too Late”. The record was selling off in Japan and America! That was something! “
“Then I came back and did an album with Fatis (God rest his soul). When I did the album with six, seven and twelve inch, I thought I was making it. I was a UK artist, I had released a Jamaican record, and I had worked with the big Jamaican producers. Fatis Burrell had his own label called Vena Records; my album was on Vena Records. I also did work with Jessie Royal and Prince Malachi. Devon Russell was responsible for that. Up to this day, I’ve never seen this album because when I left and went to Jamaica, they said that it was in Jamaica. When I checked with Fatis he said it was in London. After a lot of back and forth, it became apparent that the album was missing. It was then I decided that I was done. My heart was broken. The whole album was gone. Fatis then changed the name of his label to Exterminator; afterwards, he worked with Luciano; Jessie Royal and Mikey General. If I had my album, I would have been with them.”
“Anyway, I went and did a couple of other things in Brixton and I sort of semi-retired. I was bored of all the stories I was hearing and that album became a bad story as well. I was done with it all – until 2005. That’s the next chapter!”
So here we are at the next chapter and it’s 2005. How does it begin?
“In 2005 Wazir, Ras Elroy, Keith Mind Link formed a record label called Studio 55 Label. Nereus, Errol Bellot, African Simba and a few Jamaican artists who were here at the time, all recorded on Studio 55 label. I had two releases: “Mama Africa and “The Half” two seven inches – I’ve still got those. Just about that time, Dreadlocks and Frankie coming from a show pushed in a CD; when they heard my voice they asked “Who is this?” and I told them it was mine.”
They replied, “But this ah nuh Singjay?” meaning it was not my usual style. Singjay means to sing in part and DJ in part.
They said “So you ah straight singer”
I replied “Yeah man me ah singer”.
“So how you get dat name deh?”
Me: “It’s just a nickname weh mi get from singing in di dance.”
So they played the next track and asked me “Ah you dis again?” I think the song was “Higher Meditation”.
He said “No man! You see from today? You get di crown my yout, ah Kingjay you name!” and that’s how I became Donovan Kingjay – this was in 2005. Yes good vibes big up Dreadlocks and big up Frankie one level, they were responsible for that.”
“Sugar Minott then came to the UK on a tour with Frankie and I got that bug again. Sugar (God rest his soul) has gone – he passed away in 2010. He would have been so proud of me now. I do things and play like how he taught me. In those days I was a bit shy and I was still very nervous when I got on the stage; even when you’re focusing your mind can go blank. You have to learn how to style out things like that!”
“From 2005-2007/8 one of the things I remember, was that he gave me a lot of work and a lot of exposure to other producers around the world. I was singing at the carnivals in 2010/11. When we used to go we would be with One Blast, Gladdy Wax and Saxon. Once, one of my brethren said, “Come on! We’re round the corner at Channel 1 with Ambassador Sound”. I went round and a few men that I knew were there. I started singing in my style based on my experience. When the carnival finished, one of my friends told me that I better go round the other side of the van because there were people queuing up to take pictures with me. As I took the picture, they were asking me where I was from; there were people from Rome, Brazil and Japan. My pictures started coming out on Facebook; friends of mine had started going there a couple of years before. I haven’t stopped since! The following year I went and sang with Channel 1 – you’re talking thousands of people you know? When you looked out into the crowd its 90% white. On top of that they’re from Poland and places like Georgia. I ended up in Georgia last year, a place near to Russia and Turkey. This was on the strength of a man who remembered seeing me singing with Channel 1 at the carnival in 2014 or 15. I was the first UK reggae singer to sing a sound in Georgia. They flew me out and I toured the city – I had a great time!”
How did the first album come about?
Well my first album entitled “Higher Meditation” came about after two or three years of Nereus and I working together. He had his own label and projects going on with people like Dennis Al Capone and Benjamin Zephaniah. Nereus said he had some tunes for me – this was in 2007. So I went to the studio and “Higher Meditation” came out of that. We started the project and it ran into 2009/10 with a couple of other stuff, because some of the producers came and did a couple of the tracks. Then the company dissolved, there was no more Sirius Records. He decided to do his own thing, which can be risky. If you listen to most of those tracks on the album yourself. The label SSC Records is named after my three daughters.
The BBMC musicians included on the album, were Diane Black, Caroline Williams, Jenna, Valerie – all of them! So we got the album together and put the label together, pressed it myself, mastered it myself, paid all my money and give thanks for Calvin who took the picture. Calvin worked for Stingray Records, he used to come down and work on the project with Starkey Banton. He took the picture and I sent it to a French brother who I did a gig for. He said he would love to do my cover for my album and he did what he did using Photoshop. I asked him the cost, he said “No charge Kingjay. I got everything together, ready for the pressing for my first ever album. That was the most inspirational and aspirational way of putting together a good production.
I keep forgetting that Nereus produces as well as sings…
“Oh yes! With a lot of the riddim tracks, he will call in whoever he needs to help him, like Patrick Anthony to do the live horns, Jerry Lyonz to do the live bass – whoever he needs. Bless up Nereus’ sister who heard some of my tracks and asked me “Ki2ngjay can I uplift them?” She sings, but she does not perform; she’s happy with her family and her house. She just goes to work and looks after her kids. She can sing! She asked if she could do some harmonies on the tracks. I w2ould tell her to ask Nereus what track I had worked on that day and she would go and harmonise on them. So the harmonies you hear on my first album and half of “Natural Living” even those tracks, was also produced by Nereus himself. He did the riddim tracks and I had to write the songs”.
“For my debut album Higher Meditation, I had to put three dubs on it, because when the people in Europe used to hear me sing an ensemble on the stage, the sound system culture is: if you don’t have the version of the song then there is a problem! Haile Selassie – they want the version”.
What is the story behind “Natural Living”?
“Natural Living came about with some tracks I had with Nereus and an addition of two other producers: Kris Kemist and Nick Manasseh, who mixed four versions. A combination of these producers produced “Natural Living”. It was a necessary progression from “Higher Meditation”. It’s a mixture of reggae, dub and a couple of ballads, all with a message.”