Don’t be deceived by BERES HAMMOND’s cool profile. The playful smile, the unassuming demeanor, the beard, the cap, and the spectacles might lull you into forgetting that you’re in the presence of an awesome musical talent, Jamaica’s greatest practicing singer/songwriter. Hammond remains cool, though he knows that he’s one of a handful of people responsible for maintaining the mighty legacy of soulful reggae music built up by a select group of artists like Toots and Gregory Isaacs, like Dennis Brown and Bob Marley.
Over the course of a 30-year career, Hammond has poured his smoky-sweet voice, an instrument of subtlety and power reminiscent of an Otis Redding or a Teddy Pendergrass, over every kind of “riddim” track, from the funked-up reggae jams of ’70s fusion band Zap Pow to the lush instrumentation of his 1976 album Soul Reggae, to the spare digital beat of his 1985 dancehall breakthrough “What One Dance Can Do.”
In 1990, his album A Love Affair for Donovan Germaine’s Penthouse label raised his popularity to new heights. Cuts like “Tempted To Touch” and “Who Say” with Buju Banton are still as effective in the dancehall today as they were as pre-releases. The ’90s proved to be Hammond’s decade, during which he blazed a trail of modern classics for a variety of producers, from the strugglers’ anthem “Putting Up Resistance” (Tappa) to lovers’ laments like “Come Back Home” (Star Trail) and “Double Trouble” (Steely & Clevie). The rub-a-dub groove of his current hit single “They’re Gonna Talk” (Track 2 on Music Is Life) was recorded right there in the home studio by Flabba Holt and Style Scott of the legendary Roots Radics, whose riddims are clearly as powerful today as when they were the backing band for giants like Gregory Isaacs. No computer can rock quite as steady as these veteran musicians.
“I personally don’t believe in a whole heap of technology business,” says Hammond. “It’s all about what you have to offer. As long as your vibes are there, that’s what the people feel.” Hammond’s sophisticated musical taste is well suited to translate easily across cultural divides, yet the international reggae massive has remained his most loyal fan base.
A brief encounter with Elektra Records in 1994 yielded the excellent but under-appreciated album In Control, with its R&B-flavored single “No Disturb Sign.” But for the rest of the decade, Hammond has focused his attention on his own label and production company, Harmony House, distributed by VP Records. In the last few years, Harmony House and VP have released memorable albums like Love From A Distance (1996), A Day In The Life (1998), and Love Has No Boundaries (2004), which have in turn yielded chart-topping hits like “Can You Play Some More” and “Can’t Stop A Man.” Indeed, Hammond appears to be unstoppable. With the release of Music Is Life (2001), he shared his considerable gifts with an ever-larger audience. The album ranges widely over styles and themes: from the rock-solid reggae of “Ain’t It Good to Know” a plea for peace and unity amongst his brethren to the quiet-storm consciousness of “African People” and the tasty Spanish accents of “Honey, Wine and Love Songs” (produced by Philip “Fatis” Burr and featuring a tasteful guitar solo by the great Earl “Chinna” Smith).
Few artists can tell a story and bring it to life more vividly than he can. For Hammond, music truly is life. It’s not unusual for him to stroll downstairs fresh from his morning shower and lay down a rough vocal idea to be worked out later. “We no stop make tune,” he explains, relaxing on a breezy veranda in Kingston.
“Every day, each vibe you get, just comes natural. You can sing about this and sing about that and sing about the next,” he says, with heartfelt conviction. “Just make some songs, man. Songs about everything – love affairs and life itself, the ups and downs, and your brothers and sisters trying to survive in the street. It’s for real. No fantasy business. We don’t rehearse them, we just make the vibes flow. Like Bob [Marley] did say, a ‘natural mystic,’ you see? Natural. It goes on and on.”