“Pass the dutchie on the left-hand side…” lyrics impossible to say without singing the number one tune from 1982 by Musical Youth. The band who reached worldwide recognition haven’t had the easiest time but have always stayed true to their 0121 roots. BABMAG spoke to Dennis Seaton, the lead singer, who is still representing the Birmingham reggae scene to this day.
Their most successful song was born out of struggle and poverty; the dutchie (a patois term for a cooking pot) was shared around and the five boys sang “how does it feel when you got no food.” 1 in 8 people were unemployed in the UK in 1982 and the West Midlands was particularly hard hit by Thatcher’s cuts and factory closures. So familiar was the Unemployment Benefit Form no.40 that another Birmingham band (UB40) named themselves after it.
Music became an important outlet and a way to combat boredom for those without a job. With no sign of work or the daily routine that came with it, people would meet at West Indian community centres to battle the monotony of life and try to stay afloat. The centres around the country provided an important space for black communities, artists and in particular for reggae. They meant artists could tour the country and get their music heard nationwide by both playing live and having their records spun by DJs through the sound systems, a whole culture introduced to the UK with the mass immigration of Jamaicans in the 1960s and ’70s. Musical Youth didn’t know it at the time (aged between just 10 and 17) but these spaces were where they needed their music to be heard, for their growth, for the political debate and for those who didn’t have places to go.
Gigging was good fun, but when the music tastemaker of the time John Peel got wind of their songs and had the group on his Radio 1 show, things really took off. Major record labels picked up on them, A&Rs got in touch and Musical Youth moved from their home at local label 021 and signed a deal with MCA, now Universal Music Group. Dennis reflected on the importance of Peel and this moment, “it’s only when somebody passes away that you realise the influence they have, but if you ask me now, at this time in my life, who had the biggest influence, probably he did. Everybody wanted to get on John Peel and the beauty was, Peel played who he liked and what he liked. He couldn’t believe at the time Kelvin was 10, it just blew his mind.”
The boys topped the charts with “Pass the Dutchie”, however, the bravado and travelling that came with the stardom never really affected them and they took it in all their stride; their roots, culture and music was what was important to them. They would rehearse every day after school and at weekends making sure they were the best that they could be. Of course, the fame came with all the trimmings and they were invited to the MTV studios to be interviewed. This was not only a turning point for the band but marked huge progress in the acknowledgement of equal rights for black people within the TV and music industry. Dennis explained, “it wasn’t til after, when people looked at it and went hold on a minute, Michael Jackson never went on MTV. Michael Jackson was played but we actually went into the MTV studios for an interview and they just played our video without even thinking about it.”
Despite the Houses of Parliament sitting majestically in the background of the video that accompanied their number one single, Dennis has never aligned himself with the capital. He is proud of Birmingham and its reggae heritage, “I’m not a Londoner. I haven’t got a London accent. I’m a Brummie and everywhere I travel I’m from Birmingham. When I’m in the States, is it Birmingham, Alabama? No Birmingham, UK.” He went on to explain that Birmingham has produced a lot of fine reggae artists; “UB40, Steel Pulse, they won one of the first reggae Grammys. Then you’ve got Pato Banton, Apache Indian. Some of the biggest reggae artists came from Birmingham, Bitty McClean.”
Asking Dennis what’s special about the city he speaks fondly; “in Birmingham, you can travel from the south to the north and everybody would be like, it’s just Birmingham. I think we’re a bit friendlier [than Londoners]. It’s not a harsh city. You could come here and enjoy a good way of life and that’s why I stay here and that’s why I’ll always live here. Apart from when I get older, I’ll leave to the heat and then come back when it’s sunny!”
In the decades between their debut album, The Youth of Today and 2016, Musical Youth and Dennis Seaton have had some highs and some lows. Dennis recounted spending his 21st birthday in Los Angeles, recording with Stevie Wonder and playing football every week with Rod Stewart and Andrew Ridgely of Wham. They’ve had their fair share of heartbreak too, their second album was not as successful which led to the group disbanding and in 1993 Patrick Waite died aged just 24. However, the passion for reggae that runs deep within Dennis has not burnt out, “first and foremost, I’m a reggae artist, so I’m a reggae man. I left school doing this and it never really left me.” Comparing Musical Youth to other successful Birmingham bands he admitted “I’m a bit envious because obviously, we can’t come back together as a five-piece because Patrick’s passed away and Junior is not well enough to play. So, therefore, we just have to accept that there’s two of us in the band now. So as the saying goes, then there were two.”
Dennis Seaton and Michael Grant have perhaps found a surprising home for their reggae music in Central Europe. After touring the West Coast of the U.S. with fellow Birmingham artists, Apache Indian and Reggae Revolution as the Birmingham Reggae Explosion, (or the British Reggae Explosions to avoid confusion) the duo made their second visit to Slovenia. Their first encounter with the country was when Dennis recorded a song with Andrej Sifrer, the man behind the unofficial anthem of Slovenia and ended up with Dennis singing the song in Slovenian on live TV (which he can still recite!) “The Slovenian’s were loving it. So we went out and spent a week there in the summer, I just loved the place. It was one of the first European cities I’ve been to and said, you know what, as much as the language is foreign I could live here.”
The Slovenian theme slips into Dennis and Michael’s next release too, a compilation album celebrating when Reggae was King. Bar one track which Andrej wrote and they want to release with Slovenian parts, the album features covers from much-loved artists: John Holt, Dennis Brown, Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff and Gregory Isaac to name a few. It’s an album that reflects on the years when indeed reggae was king, “for a decade and a half, every year between ‘72 and right up until ‘82 when we started our career, there was always a reggae song in the Top 40. So that’s why we’ve done this album, it’s more like a comeback album. When I say come back, just to let people know, look, this is what we’re doing now. It was a conscious decision to have a themed album. Now, the next one, that will be originals and covers that people don’t really know.”
The album has already been well met; their cover of a Bob Marley track that was sent to his publisher for approval got them singing their praises. Recorded in Birmingham and released themselves, Dennis explains there is “no need for a label, or record companies anymore. They [artists] have to go on the road otherwise they aren’t going to work and that’s what it was like for us when we came into the industry everybody played live. But after the 90s, up until the noughties, they didn’t have to. But now, they all go back on the road because the records aren’t doing what they used to do.”
Musical Youth’s contribution to reggae and their outspoken politics are still being heard today. “Pass the Dutchie” has just been sampled on “Dis Generation”, a track from A Tribe Called Quest’s recent and critically acclaimed album. They had better keep drinking their age-defying elixir if they want to keep resonating with the youth and achieve what Dennis has in mind; “I’ve got a target because my father-in-law played his last gig at 94. Okay, he wasn’t singing, he was a saxophonist but you’ve still got to have the balls. I hope I can still sing as good at 94.”