Photo by Pennie Smith
Revisiting The Clash's 'Combat Rock' At 40: Why They Stay And Have Never Gone
The influential UK punk rock act's most successful album is being reissued 40 years after its original release. To celebrate, GRAMMY.com unpacks the complicated, genre-bending history of the Clash's fifth record.
The mystique of the Clash is still so powerful that when IT Specialist Craig Giffen found himself in Bangkok, Thailand a few years ago, he decided to locate the exact spot where the cover of the group’s fifth album, 1982's Combat Rock, had been photographed.
"The photo was taken in March 1982 by Pennie Smith," says Giffen, a Portland, Oregon based music fan. "The band stayed at the Bangkok Palace Hotel. The general consensus was that the train line on the album cover was the one that was east of the Makkasan Train station, about 30 minutes from the core of downtown. I think I found the right area, but Pennie might laugh."
At the time, the British quartet was nearing the end of a month-long Asian tour, one that saw them perform in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong and Bangkok at the beginning of that year. This came on the heels of recording "Straight To Hell" in New York on New Year’s Eve, which would be the last song on Combat Rock. Though the group was hopeful about the upcoming release, there was trouble brewing. Drummer Topper Headon was battling a heroin addiction, while co-songwriters and singers Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were increasingly having creative differences about the group’s sound.
Smith saw the storm clouds through her lens midway through the cover shoot. "Halfway through the shoot, something just happened," she said in the 2000 documentary The Clash: Westway To The World. "Somehow they dissolved in front of my eyes."
The catch is, the group still had to release Combat Rock, which is getting re-released four decades later this month with several previously unheard recordings.
When they formed in 1976, the London-based quartet quickly went to the head of the class as a leading punk act. But their ambition to be one of the best bands in the world, combined with a stifling record deal (the group signed a 10 record contract) meant that they wrote songs at a blistering pace — recording 100 songs in just six years. "We always did it on our own terms," bassist Paul Simonon told GQ magazine. "And that's the magic of the Clash, right or wrong, it was on our own terms." It also meant that the group’s collective capabilities blew right past punk and explored a dizzying array of genres.
"They combined rough-hewn punk with ‘50s rock, reggae, disco and even some music-hall crooning," says Mike Sauter, VP of Broadcasting at WYEP in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "It’s hard to overstate the Clash’s importance to rock’s evolution in the US. The band was among the key acts feeding into the rise of college radio’s musical approach in the 1980s, which grew into the alternative rock that became fairly dominant in the rock world by the mid-1990s."
Fresh off their sprawling 36 song, triple album Sandinista and an exhausting 17 date residency in New York City, the group watched from afar as political frustrations built up in the UK and hunkered down in NYC’s Electric Lady Studios. At the time, hip-hop was emerging as a new, exciting music form — and following their successful dance single,"This Is Radio Clash," the group set about recording their upcoming album with an infusion of the vibrant elements they were hearing.
"I want the Clash to get bigger because you want people to hear your songs, you want to be successful," Joe Strummer told journalist Lisa Robinson, as quoted in Mark Andersen’s book We Are The Clash. "But on the other hand, I’m pretty wary of that, of having it get too big to handle. You always think you can handle it, but you never know."
By most accounts, recording sessions went smoothly, with Jones handling production duties and Strummer turning his lyrical gaze to such places as El Salvador, and seeing modern urban parallels with previous conflicts in Vietnam. "This is a public service announcement— with guitar!" Strummer can be heard bellowing loud and clear on the new echo-filled rendition of opening track "Know Your Rights" on the reissue (recorded at The People’s Hall on the Rolling Stones' Mobile Studio). The guitars on the new rendition have more of a jackhammer sound than ever and the chilling lyrics seem even more timely. "Get off the streets - run!" Strummer implores at the conclusion.
Amidst the now-obvious radio hits, several other sleeper album tracks carry more relevance. "Starved in metropolis, hooked on necropolis, addict of metropolis, do the worm on the acropolis, slamdance the cosmopolis, enlighten the populace…" Decades on, Allen Ginsberg’s seemingly throwaway poetic lines and dark delivery on the mysterious album track "Ghetto Defendant" seem to pack more of a punch today than they ever did.
"I just turned around to him and said, ‘You’re America’s greatest living poet and you’re going on the mic now," Strummer told interviewer Joel Schalit, per We Are The Clash. "He said, ‘Well great, what should I do?’ I said, "I want the sound of God!" I gave him two or three minutes scribbling on the piano and on paper. And then there he was, "Slam dance the cosmopolis.""
While eventual first single "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" was Jones’ self-admitted effort at creating a rock classic, eventual mega-hit "Rock The Casbah" was a studio surprise. As he waited for the rest of the group to come to the studio one day, drummer Topper Headon laid down the drums, bass and piano riff that he had been toying with. Enthused by what he heard, Strummer then played around with some lyrics he’d been writing, including one about the lengthy "ragas" their manager Bernie Rhodes had been accusing the group of making.
"Somebody told me earlier that if you had a disco album in Tehran, you got 20 lashes," Strummer said on the recent podcast "Stay Free: The Story Of The Clash." "And if you had a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label Whisky, you got 40 lashes. I couldn’t get this out of my mind. I was trying to say that fanaticism is nowhere…there is no tenderness or humanity in fanaticism." The song would go on to become the band’s biggest ever U.S. hit, climbing to No. 8 on the Billboard singles charts in 1983.
Internally though, the group were divided on how the album was developing. While Strummer wanted a stripped back single album, with Jones producing, they were heading towards a sprawling, jam-filled 2-LP set they were calling "Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg" (several recordings from these sessions can be heard on the new reissue).
"To understand Combat Rock, you have to realize it was a salvage operation," Strummer said in the book The Clash On The Clash by Sean Egan. "I finally had to take it to Glyn Johns, an outsider, to save it. Mick’s attitude was that I ruined his music. Fifty percent of Combat Rock was great rock, but the other 50 was what Phil Spector would call 'wiggy.'"
"Rock The Casbah" and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" became hits with the help of heavy MTV video airplay, and the album sold over two million copies. "Combat Rock went top five for us in America," said Strummer in the Westway To The World documentary. "This is unheard of for us. Our place is like 198 - and suddenly it all blew up."
But this came with plenty of mixed fortunes. Within weeks of Combat Rock’s release, Headon was out of the band, to be replaced by former drummer Terry Chimes. Stadium dates opening for the Who followed, as well as a lucrative $500,000 gig at Southern California’s landmark US Festival, held over Memorial Day weekend in 1983. Before the end of the year though, Jones was gone from the band too. As bassist Paul Simonon and Strummer were forming a new version of the Clash, Jones started up his rock-dance hybrid group Big Audio Dynamite. Jones later called his ejection "the greatest mistake in rock and roll history" – a sentiment Strummer grew to agree with.
Still, the Clash's influence looms large, both musically as a classic and innovative punk record, and culturally. A 1991 Levi’s ad in the UK enabled "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" to go to No. 1 on the singles chart there, becoming their only chart topper. Today, the song is prominently featured in the Netflix TV series "Stranger Things." And other songs, like "Straight To Hell," have been sampled by such artists as M.I.A. ("Paper Planes").
As Strummer was keen to note, they came, they spoke and they went. But the Clash remain as vital and as influential as ever. "With the music on Combat Rock we’re just learning to decipher things that it’s saying that we couldn’t when it came out," Steven Taylor, longtime Alan Ginsberg guitarist, told Antonino Ambrossio in the Joe Strummer biography Let Fury Have The Hour.
"‘As railhead towns feel the steel mills, rust water froze in the generation clear as winter ice. This is your paradise,’ are the lyrics of ‘Straight To Hell’. They certainly describe the current state of things."
Don Letts And Tim Young Detail New Clash Box Set
GRAMMY winners discuss their involvement in the Clash's forthcoming Sound System box set, and punk rock's everlasting legacy
Though the Sex Pistols are often credited with popularizing punk rock in the '70s, when the dust settled on that rebellious music era another group of British punk rockers were labeled "the only band that mattered": the Clash.
From their formation in London in 1976 by guitarists/songwriters Mick Jones and the late Joe Strummer, and bassist Paul Simonon (the band were later joined by drummer Topper Headon), the Clash matured with remarkable speed from young thrashers to stadium-headlining musicians merging reggae, jazz, rockabilly, ska, and other idioms into their own indelible sound. Though they disbanded 10 years following their formation, the Clash's first five studio albums — The Clash (1977), Give 'Em Enough Rope (1978), London Calling (1979), Sandinista! (1980), and Combat Rock (1982) — rank among the most iconic in rock history, with London Calling earning induction into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2007.
More than 35 years following the release of their self-titled debut, on Sept. 10 the Clash will release Sound System, a 12-disc box set comprising all five original studio albums, remastered by GRAMMY-winning engineer Tim Young, plus three discs of demos, non-album singles, B-sides, and rarities in a boombox-shaped package, which was designed by Simonon. In addition, the package will feature a DVD of the Clash's music videos and unseen footage from the archives of directors Don Letts (who won a GRAMMY in 2002 for Best Long Form Music Video for the Clash's Westway To The World) and two-time GRAMMY nominee Julien Temple.
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Letts and Young discussed life with the Clash in the '70s, the band's forthcoming box set and the everlasting legacy of punk rock.
After the Sex Pistols, how did the Clash help define the punk movement in the '70s?
Don Letts: The Clash were one of the first bands to realize that the punk movement was painting itself into a corner. They were the first [band] to break out of the fast guitar thing. Look at the difference between the [The Clash] and London Calling. One is sort of a statement of intent. By the time they [got] to London Calling, [they embraced] all the world has to offer. There was a common misconception that punk was about negativity and nihilism. It wasn't about that; it was about empowerment and freedom and individuality.
Tim Young: The punk rock thing [aimed to] destroy progressive rock. It was going to strip everything back to its crude, basic form. … You didn't have to pay respect to some kind of idea that was set in stone. … Mick [Jones] and Joe [Strummer] were actually quite broad-minded musically.
In viewing the footage included in the box set, it seems the Clash were also influential in terms of their fashion.
Letts: The English did two things to the music: They gave it style and they politicized it. … The Clash understood the currency of young people, particularly in the UK. Style and fashion and music are inseparable in the UK.
Young: When they came to the studio to make the first album … they had all these colored paint-splattered [clothes] — like Jackson Pollock had worked over one of your shirts for you, that was the idea. You'd never seen anything like it before, really. And then by 1979, Mick [looked] like [he was] trying to look like James Dean or something. [He had] the rockabilly look with the coif with the greased hair and all that. And Joe Strummer as well. They all [looked] like extras in [the 1953 outlaw biker film] The Wild One.
In their short time together, the Clash quickly grew from youthful pranksters to sophisticated punk rockers.
Young: Exactly. But the playing is great. ... If you [compare] the band [from] going [into] the studio at the start of 1977 to make their first album [to] November 1979 [after] they'd finished London Calling, the musical sophistication on that record, compared to the band two years [prior], it's incredible how much they'd developed.
Letts: Yeah, they were young, [but] the Clash were the quickest to grow up.
Don, your archives show how fast the Clash grew up.
Letts: These five albums happened in such a short space of time. And then, dig it, they're not even five individual albums. There's a double album in there [and] a triple album. Then you've got to look at how many tours they did in that period. I mean, it's no wonder those guys exploded, man, or imploded, [I should] say.
How did you wind up in their circle?
Letts: It was the social, economic and political climate of the time. We all grew up in London; we were all being affected by the same [bull s*]. [Luckily] for me, I had a soundtrack to ease my pain, which was reggae. White friends weren't so fortunate, so they had to create their own soundtrack, which became punk rock. … Back in the mid-'70s, a lot of white working-class kids adopted Jamaican music for their rebellious fix, particularly people like Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, and [the Sex Pistols'] John Lydon, too. … We became friends through our mutual love of reggae, Jamaican music and my respect for their DIY ethos. That's how I really became a filmmaker. The big part of this punk thing was the whole DIY thing. So I'm looking around and this punk thing [is] exploding and my white mates are all picking up guitars and I'm like, "I better pick up something, too." That was the power not only of the Clash but the whole punk movement; they did inspire people to take the energy they put out there, and it informed whatever people did. So you had punk writers, punk journalists, punk photographers, punk fashion designers, punk filmmakers. I actually believe that's why punk has such a lasting legacy; it wasn't just a soundtrack, it was very much like a complete subculture.
Tim, were you glad for a chance to go back and remaster those five seminal albums?
Young: I was just glad to hear it all again. London Calling, in particular, is probably one of the best three or four albums I've ever worked on in my career.
Don, is there more material that didn't make it into the box set?
Letts: Anything that's worth sharing, I've shared. It wasn't meant to be hoarded. … It's not just about looking back and going, 'Wow, the Clash were really cool.' The Clash didn't come out of a void; there's a whole heritage and lineage to this attitude. Look at Woody Guthrie, look at Bob Dylan, look at Gil Scott-Heron, look at Chuck D. The point is that, if people are brave enough and they've got an idea, they can be part of this lineage as well. It doesn't begin and end with the Clash. A lot of the things they were talking about still need to be said, and probably louder. And there's a lot of people on this planet who, like me, still believe in music as a tool for social change.
(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis has contributed regularly to American Songwriter, the Christian Science Monitor, Paste, Rollingstone.com, public radio, newspapers nationwide, and many regional and local magazines. A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen From A To E To Z, she also writes bios for new and established artists.)
Bruce Springsteen pays tribute to Joe Strummer
Photo: Michael Caulfield/WireImage.com
In Memoriam Tributes To Fallen Musicians: "GRAMMYs Greatest Stories"
The amazing tribute performances honoring late music legends have become an inseparable part of the GRAMMY Awards' annual In Memoriam segment.
Whether it's the electric Strummer tribute, Adele honoring George Michael or Lady Gaga paying homage to David Bowie, these powerful performances in the 15 years since have served as a complement to the annual GRAMMY Awards In Memoriam segment, which serves as a moment of reflection for the artists, technicians, executives, and other music professionas who passed away during the prior year.
Watch some of your favorite artists discuss the most memorable performances and moments in GRAMMY history on the TV special "GRAMMYs Greatest Stories: A 60th Anniversary Special," airing Friday, Nov. 24 from 9–11 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
Photo: Norman Seeff
LeAnn Rimes On New Album 'God's Work,' Major-Label Debut 'Blue' & Choosing Joy 25 Years Into Her Career: "I Think It Was My Rebellion"
LeAnn Rimes was thrust into the music-biz machinery at just 13 with her breakthrough, 'Blue' — a throttling experience for any youngster. Her new album, 'god's work,' reflects the introspection and hard-fought wisdom that got her through to adulthood.
LeAnn Rimes' world-dominating success came as a bolt with the release of her debut album, Blue. She was just 13 when it came out in 1996, yet the country singer faced pressures that have destroyed artists with more years of experience under their belts — and less fame waiting at the door.
What does Rimes remember about this time that put her on the world stage, at an age when most are chiefly concerned with earth-science homework?
"Not much, to be honest," she tells GRAMMY.com over the phone, from her pool northwest of L.A. "There was so much success and momentum that for three and a half years, it was constantly the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. I didn't really have time to stop and take in anything."
To hear the two-time GRAMMY winner tell it, her unexpected hurtle into the heart of the country mainstream did "a number on me." But she made it through intact, with an eye for self-realization and mending old wounds. And that's partly what her newest album, god's work — which was released in September — is all about.
Musically, god's work is steeped in international flavors; lyrically, it gets heavier and goes harder than any of her past work. What does she say about "spaceship"? "There's a lot of anger in that song, a lot of grief." "the wild"? "A lot of rage, and a lot of hope."
Indeed, from fury and despair, god's work arcs northward into jubilation — especially that which relates to true love. Specifically, "how much a heart can hold" — written for her husband, actor Eddie Cibrian — wasn't supposed to be a public offering, but Rimes reversed course due to public demand, when she posted it to Instagram.
"I've been very fortunate," Rimes says, reflecting on the song's resonance. "I'm so honored to be part of the fabric of people's lives when it comes to their special moments." What a counterweight to any of the darknesses of getting famous, young — and reason to keep making art, no matter what.
Read on for an in-depth interview with Rimes about making her most eclectic music yet, ignoring the comments sections, and how she's achieved something like happiness in her fourth decade on earth.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What did you want to impart to the listener with god's work?
I think it's a big message. Many of them.
I think the album takes a look at the duality of life, and how we all live in that world of duality — of the light and the dark, and how everything is basically a part of creation, no matter what side it is. I've done a lot of my own spiritual exploration, taking a look at my own.
I had a podcast called Wholly Human, so it all kind of ties in. But [the album deals with] a lot of exploration of my own holy and human sides of myself — my life, and the shadow side. I took a look at all of life from that perspective. And the album, I hope, for everyone listening, takes you on a deep emotional ride.
It's been one of my gifts — being able to connect people with emotions they don't necessarily touch all the time. I know music does that for me, so this album definitely will have you crying, it will have you questioning, it will piss you off, right? It does all the things.
It's a deep record, and I don't listen to my music once I'm done with it, very often. And I find myself listening to this record, because I find myself revisiting topics often. Every listen to different songs brings up a different emotion depending on where I'm at in my life, so I hope it does the same for people.
Most emotions aren't easily categorizable; we're usually feeling half a dozen ways at once. What emotions are present on the album that might not be typically present in song?
Yeah, totally. I've touched upon my own deep, dark spaces of depression, and "spaceship," to me — there's a lot of anger in that song, a lot of grief. In songs like "the wild," there's a lot of rage, and there's a lot of hope, which is really interesting to have both in the same breath.
I think as we grow up as human beings, being able to hold the duality and complexities of emotion and being able to be happy and sad and rageful and hopeful — all of that in the same breath — is part of our evolution.
These songs hold multiple emotions and are very complex. So, I think for me, as a woman — [and] as just a human being, not just a woman — I think everybody has a very challenging time touching upon rage and anger in a healthy way.
To touch upon my own grief and shame around sexuality with songs like "the wild" — there are a lot of emotions that have been not as welcomed that I touch upon on this record, especially for women.
But, like I said, for the whole human race, I think these emotions aren't necessarily the first thing we want to admit that we're feeling.
You mentioned in the god's work press release that "the wild" touches on "the ridicule women face when voicing their opinion." Can you talk about that form of belittlement, overcoming it, and whether we're societally headed in the right direction in this regard?
I hope we're headed in the right direction. I think we are; I still see it.
[With] not only myself but other women, I see people come at us on social media when we don't just "shut up and sing." You look at sports players who are taking a knee, and they're not just shutting up and playing.
I think we do have a platform, and I think we're very fortunate to be able to have a voice in the way that we do. And use it for social justice; for women's rights — and from my perspective, equal rights — so that all of humanity has a joyful, fulfilled, sovereign life. [That's] important to me.
On social platforms and even in the media, people still want us to shut up and do whatever entertainment that we do, but it is shifting. I think, first and foremost, we're human beings before anything, and we do have a voice in life and humanity.
I'll be 40 next month [Writer's note: This interview took place in July 2022], and it's taken me [up until] this moment in time to start using my voice in the way I feel like I'm called to.
Releasing a song like "the wild" felt like coming out to me, because it was such a powerful statement, and it's not something I've made so overtly in the past. It did feel like a release and unveiling of sorts for my own spirit — my own self — to speak so freely in my music.
I think it started a few records ago, and has only grown ever since, so I don't see me going back anytime soon. [Laughs]
Comment sections and social platforms seem to be where the rancor really lives.
Yeah, and you know what? To release "the wild" and have such insanity come back at me — I feel like I've grown so much, because I can totally sit in the discomfort of it and understand that everyone has their own point of view.
We're all very unique, just as our fingerprint is unique. So is the lens that we see life through. I've really come to understand that and have compassion for everyone's point of view — even if I don't agree with it — and be able to create from that place too.
I think that's where god's work was created from — that space of "No one's right or wrong; we're all learning." If I can create a better world — a world of more compassion — with my music, that's what I'm here to do.
So, yeah, the comment sections can be challenging at times, but it teaches me a lot. It has taught me a lot.
What a caliber of contributors here; I'm sure they all helped bolster that message. Ziggy Marley and Ben Harper are very talented and versatile, and Mickey Guyton is a ray of sunshine in the music community. What do you appreciate about her?
To have her on a song like "The Wild," it was important to me for a woman like her who has been through so much and fought her way through the industry and been through so much insanity — to have her sing those words was so powerful.
I love her voice; I love her spirit. And I know I've influenced her so much along the way. I think we're practically the same age, but to know that she's just now kicking off her career and how much I've influenced her has been really beautiful to see.
I think I can't say enough great words about her. She's a really good human being.
Can you talk about "throw my arms around the world"?
With all the climate change, with everything we're going through as a collective and have been going through, I felt like that was just my big prayer.
Not only a prayer, but a call for people to wake up and see what we're doing to ourselves. And, hopefully, start to shift what we're experiencing into something that's more regenerative and nurturing not only to Mother Earth, but ourselves.
One of the things I love about this record is that it's so eclectic, and there are so many world grooves that we explored. "throw my arms around the world" was kind of the catalyst for that exploration. And then, to have "the only," which is total reggae — I never thought I'd create a reggae song, but here I am doing it!
And I know "how much a heart can hold" holds resonance regarding your 11th wedding anniversary.
I wrote that song for my husband, for our wedding. I never thought it would see the light of day in public. I put it on Instagram with a video celebrating our 10-year anniversary, which was last year.
So many people were like, "What is this song? Where can I get it?" I've been very fortunate, and I'm so honored to be part of the fabric of people's lives when it comes to their special moments.
Because of the overwhelming feedback, I wanted to go in[to the studio]; that was the last song we recorded for the record, and we put it on so that love song could be a part of people's special moments, too.
We also just celebrated the 25th anniversary of Blue. What do you remember about that period in your life, and in the music business?
Not much, to be honest. It was such a whirlwind, and I was so young, and there was so much going on.
As soon as Blue was released, there was so much success and momentum that for three and a half years, it was constantly the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. I didn't really have time to stop and take in anything.
So, I take things from the perspective of now, looking back and kind of in awe of — number one — my ability to survive those three and a half years of this skyrocketing trajectory to success, and the choices I made at that young of an age.
I took the Blue demo and put the yodel thing in it myself. I was making my own artistic choices back then and creating something different. I like the things that happened to that girl, whenever I need to really take a risk in my life these days. And she's very much alive. It was a whirlwind moment, for sure.
What do you think gave you the resilience to go through that insane pressure-cooker situation and not let it destroy you — like it did so many young people?
Well, I mean, it definitely did a number on me, for sure. But I've come out of it, and I'm thriving in my life, and happy. I think it was my rebellion.
It's interesting because for me, as a woman, I've had such shame around my rebellion at times. Because, I think, while it can work in your best interest, it can also trip you up and teach you a lot of lessons, which it has for me.
But when I look at it from a holistic perspective, I think it saved my life many times — especially at that time in my life. I had this crazy success, and then my parents were going through a divorce at 14, and then I was basically living on my own by the time I was 16.
To think about how much of a fight I had in me — not only to live and succeed, but the fight for what was right and good for me, even if I didn't know it at the time — there was just a strong drive for that.
I think the last 10 years of my life have been [about] really getting back in touch with that and appreciating that piece of me.
What would you tell that young girl today if you could?
That the voice inside of her is the only thing she needs to listen to.
I think my intuition was so strong; I think our intuition is very strong as children. Then, we have so many voices from the outside world — whether it be parental, peers, media, whatever — that gets in our heads and takes us away from that deep intuition.
I think part of my journey, too, over the last decade, has been getting back in touch with that voice and knowing that's the most important thing to listen to, and the thing I should trust the most. So, yeah, I think she was on the right path as a kid by listening to that voice, and I'm glad that voice has returned.
Photo: Yannick Reid
Protoje's 'Third Time's The Charm' Closes A Trilogy With Melancholy, Reflective Vibes
Protoje released his sixth studio album in September, with the hope that his reflective, collab-heavy record will put an end to the misfortune of the Pandemic.
It is safe to assume that no one takes the artist Protoje to be the super extroverted type. The reggae singer perpetually possesses a chill vibe, and his music possesses the same calm. But while previewing his new album, Third Time’s The Charm, I was surprised by the gloomy sentiment seeping through my body, curiously calming my previously excited vibe. What was this?
"I am a sad person," Protoje reveals as he lounges in a brown leather sofa chair amidst studio equipment at a downtown New York content creator space. "[I’ve been like this] since I was a child. I have a pretty melancholy vibe, and with this project especially, I was in a much sadder place."
Released on Sept. 23, Third Time’s The Charm is Protoje’s sixth LP. The album is a melodic rift between isolation and family, love and betrayal, light and darkness — but it’s not depressing. Rather, it's his third consecutive album focusing on the concept of time, and exemplary of Protoje's seasoned mastery of his sound.
Third Time’s The Charm — Protoje's second album on RCA in partnership with his own In.Digg.Nation Collective — is a shift in consciousness. Sentient sounds sail over one drop dubwise beats. The lyrics are alert, yet nothing is forceful, and Protoje's vocals swiftly switch from crooning to old-school conscious rap flow, and sing-jaying — the Jamaican tradition of toasting and singing.
The third in a trilogy of temporally-themed albums (his previous being 2018's A Matter of Time, and 2020's In Search of Lost Time), Protoje hopes Third Time's The Charm will bring forth the fortune that the pandemic cut short.
"I did my last album, and for two years, I didn't get to do one show, sing one song, go to one party or hear it out in public," Protoje tells GRAMMY.com of the cheerlessness of Third. "I just felt sad a lot about not necessarily just my life, but what is life about, and why are we treating each other like this as people?"
Protoje spoke with GRAMMY.com about his headlining Lost In Time Tour, collaborating with Jorja Smith, and what time and the number three means for him.
How are you, and how has your 2022 been so far, especially in comparison to the past couple of years?
I’m good. A little bit tired from the tour, the driving, and everything else except for the performance, but I feel good, thankfully. 2022 is a lot more active, a lot more traveling, a lot more shows, more interacting, and less time for myself, but I'm grateful. I think it's been a good year. I've got to release a bunch of good singles, shoot some great videos, and play some great shows.
What are you hoping this album brings to you that the previous albums didn't?
Just to be able to go out and make the album connect. I did my last album, and for two years, I didn't get to do one show, sing one song, go to one party or hear it out in public. I didn't get to work. And not that it's too late, because reggae music's shelf life is very long. So for example, last night was the first time people heard me sing my new song "Hills," but it was [also] the first time they heard me sing "Switch It Up" and "Like Royalty" as well.
What is your experience with the number three in general?
I think three is a very good number. I think a lot of luck comes from three — you know the trinity, that's the major one. I like the off-balance of three and odd forces. Odd forces individuality and originality. I think when it's even, nothing has to be uncomfortable as we can just even it out. But when it's odd, and it has to be one or the other, that forces you to choose, make a decision, and take a strong stance. So I like that.
They say growth comes out of being uncomfortable. Do you believe that?
Yeah, it's true, but I like to be comfortable too. [Laughs] But, I'm looking for some comfort now, I swear to God.
Absolutely. There's a whole thing going around talking about "soft life" — like, "I'm going to get my rest, and I'm going to work as well." Do you believe in soft life?
Yes, yes, yes! I work so hard and non-stop but at the same time it's good to just unplug, and it's good to just live life, enjoy life, and experience it positively. I want to live life and spend time doing the things I want to do with the people I want to spend it with — being with my daughter, staying at home, getting up, going for a jog, coming back to my house, making food, making juices, eating fruits off my tree, going to the beach, visiting my mom, and looking for my dad.
When did you start recording this album? Was it a conscious move, or did you naturally record as a musician, and then certain songs ended up creating a solid album?
It was intentional, and I started last year in May. I did a bunch of work, and then took a break, then did a bunch of work and finished up. I guess in the pandemic, I was just making lots of music, but every time I did one I knew like okay this is for the album, this is not for the album, I think this is for it, I don't think that is for it. And that's how I work.
So I would hear something and make a song, but I knew that was not really for [the album]. It’s mostly the production. When I hear a beat I'm like this is it! My album needs one of these! When I did "Late At Night" with Lila Ike, I was like my album needs a heavy drum and bass in your face, dubwise with obnoxious drums. It needs that. Then I was like okay, I need an intro, and I need an outro. I just kind of work through it like that.
When I listen to that song specifically, as well as the whole album, to be honest, I feel a little bit melancholy. Melancholy is a feeling of pensive sadness, typically, with no obvious cause. So I don't know the reason why I feel melancholy, but you as the creator, you know. What's the reason?
I mean, I have had lots of sad times since 2020. I had a lot of upfull times too, but overall I am a sad person. [I’ve been like this] since I was a child. [You can’t tell that on stage] because on stage, I am a kid having fun, but in real life I see things. I have a pretty melancholy vibe, and I think with this project especially, I was in a much sadder place. I was not doing the things I love to do — my personal life and different things. So I make music how I feel.
I’m not depressed. I am an empath, so I feel a lot. It was like in that period of time, [making the album] I just felt sad a lot about not necessarily just my life, but what is life about and why are we treating each other like this as people? Why is it so uneven? And just things like that.
So you did a song about it?
Yeah, the song "Love For Me." When everybody listens to it they say "Jesus Christ this is so sad" but it's called "Love For Me" because there's real love. I am definitely loved and appreciated, but as I said, sometimes you're out there and you're giving your energy and you'll feel pressured or not appreciated in certain ways.
People may be loving your music, but the moment something doesn't go the way they want it to, they don't [love] anymore, and you realize that's not love. That's why the song after that is "Here Comes The Morning" where I am singing to my daughter about this. So yeah, the album will be melancholy, but I like to think it gives you hope and up-fullness as well.
I think it’s real and people appreciate real. I love to see this side of you. I didn't know you were such an empath. So how did the link up with Jorja come about?
Jorja is a dope superstar — a global global superstar with the most humble energy and the most welcoming spirit. She is cool. [We knew each other] relatively for like a couple of years and we kept in contact. I just reached out because she kind of inspired the song with her hairstyle. She usually has cane rows in. That was her first style and it kind of inspired me to write the song inspired by her. She heard it and she loved it and she came up with something.
Did you know who you wanted to collaborate with?
One hundred percent, it was [Jorja] or nobody. [In regards to the rest of the featured artists on my album] I am particular about who I want to work with so it was hand-picked. I wanted to work with all of them. Jesse is like family so when I started writing "Family" and actually finished it, I was like, this is missing something you know. I just reached out to him, and he pulled up and did it.
Lila was like "Yo me haffi deh pon your album" so we found something dope. Then Samory is a voice that I really love, and I just wanted him to get highlighted. I knew being on my project would be a big step for him.
So this is your second solo album on RCA. How has this experience differed from the albums when you were not on a major label?
It differs in terms of the time it takes for things to happen. When I'm on my own, I move faster because there's less paper trail and fewer clearances that have to be done than when you're dealing with a major label. At the same time, it's been much easier to make music and videos faster at this pace.
[RCA] pretty much left me to be independent and do what I need to do and just kind of help administer and put stuff together. Overall it has been a good experience.
You are the go-to person for your signees as the head of In.Digg.Nation Collective and an artist on the label but who is the go-to person that you trust?
My mom, for sure. My mom is my manager too, so she runs my company, she runs my label, helps me, and runs it with me. Outside of that, we have a very close relationship. She always calms me down, gets me back to zero, and tells me it's gonna be fine and balanced. And then my daughter is very up-full — she's five. She's very positive and very, like, "Daddy, come on, it's cool, you're good." It's very helpful.
I love that. So how do you manage to be there for the artists and balance your career?
I dedicate so much time to my music that I find time to produce, A&R, release music, and manage because I put a lot of time into it. I don't waste time. It's difficult, but life’s difficult.
I was listening to the song "Hills" and was like, damn, he's OD chilling. I know that must’ve felt nice. I want to OD chill. I want to be in the hills too. Where are these hills?
The engineer is up there running my studio. You should go visit. He is a dope producer too. He did "Like Royalty," "Same So," "Solitude" for Lila, and a bunch of stuff. So he's up there governing the studio in the mountains. It's crazy.
So that’s your place. What do you experience in the hills beside the recording that you don't experience elsewhere?
Yeah trust me, the lyrics are in that song:
"Aye, fresh air inna morning/ Six mile fi di day, despite gravity/Everybody just smile when dem witness/Hail up di artist; 'Gwaan, hold yuh fitness'/And me stay inna mi business always/Better live life simple nowadays."
At your NYC Webster Hall concert, you did a sick transition into Pop Smoke. Did you meet Pop?
No, no, and just to be honest, I did not know much about him until his passing because a lot of times I will listen to hip-hop, but I wouldn't find stuff that I like. When I heard "Dior" I was like, What is this? What is this? It sounds like UK music but from New York.
I then started to listen to some of his other stuff, and his voice was like, "unh". I was like this is DMX and 50 Cent in one energy, and then I heard he died so it’s sad. Hip Hop has been going through a lot of that. A lot of rappers' losing their lives to gun violence so it's wild. But I love Pop Smoke’s music. It just gives me an energy.
So what is the main message you're trying to convey on this album?
It's hard to say one message. It's lots of stuff. It’s hope, it’s appreciation for people you love, and focusing on making sure your circle is tight and that you're hanging out with people for the right reasons. Don't let yourself be taken advantage of, and don't take advantage of the people that you care about and expect too much of them. Those are the things that have been on my mind.
Were these thoughts always on your mind or did the pandemic heighten it?
I think things that happened during the pandemic heightened it. When I'm touring, I don't even know what's going on in life. I'm just waking up, doing shows, waking up doing shows, driving this. I don't have time to be worried about or focused on things that are not right. But when you're sitting down, day after day, and you're feeling things more it makes me think more.
[During the lockdown] I was taking time for myself and spending a lot of time by myself, trying to develop who I am as a person. I tried to get rid of things I wasn't proud of.
And can you give me an example of how you transmuted that? What is something that you started doing during the pandemic that you weren't doing before?
Stretching! I did some last night. It’s rough because everything's on the road now, but that's where discipline comes in. So there’s that and just trying to work out to be more in shape, clear my mind, and eat better. The stuff like that starts with my body, then my mind, and makes it expand.
This album feels melancholy in one aspect, but it also literally feels like I might have had a blunt maybe an hour ago when I'm listening to it. I'm like, okay this is a bit closer to Jah. What are your views on spirituality and did they evolve any in the pandemic?
It grew, but at the same time, it's not very dogmatic at all. It's open and free. I just chose to spend more time focusing on not just my career, and making songs, but just how I feel within myself and what are the answers for me to feel better about things.
Being uncomfortable about how I feel led me to just dig deeper into everything. I learned that you can’t have control over everything. Being in the position that I am gives you a feeling of control, and you kind of start getting used to controlling things. But life is so unpredictable, so just accept that some things are out of your control. Acceptance has been a thing that I've had to work on a lot in the pandemic.
What do you want people to take away from Third Time's The Charm?
Maybe by listening to the things that I am expressing, and the things I'm going through, they can find some answers in their life. They can feel freer to express how they feel. They can see that there are many things to feel — whether from being up in the hills in isolation or being back on the road in LA with family or the duality of life — and that certain times call for certain energies.
Be free to know that life is unpredictable. There are always waves, but you have to always show up. That is the main thing. It's about showing up every day and making sure you are putting yourself first and being consistent. When I make my albums, these are things I think about and I hope it comes across.