By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
By Michele Eve Sandberg
By Abel Folgar
By Ashley Zimmerman
By New Times Staff
By Abel Folgar
By Laurie Charles
It's 6:30 a.m. in the Stony Hill area of Kingston, Jamaica, and Joseph Hill is having one of those rare mornings where he's actually able to spend a few precious hours at home with his wife. Days from now, the founding member of the visionary reggae group Culture will find himself on the road yet again, beginning a tour in March that will take him across America and Europe for the next several months.
Culture has kept Hill occupied since 1976, when it began under the name African Disciples. The dynamic Hill sang lead, with cousins Albert Walker and Kenneth Sylvester Dayes on backing vocals. At the time when small bands were surfacing all over Jamaica, this manifestation immediately set itself apart with its authentic roots/rock/reggae recipe and conscious message.
"There were many love songs circulating back then," Hill remembers, "and I saw room for someone to speak out for the people, someone of strength who could show the benefits of morality."
With this in mind, Hill -- who'd been composing songs since his early teens -- penned most of the feisty trio's material. Always reflecting an awareness of the island's political struggle, their songs drove home the need to combat oppression in the name of peace. "Our message was a positive one," Hill says. "From a very young age, I was aware of the roots and historic beauty of the country. I also noticed when the community began to collapse and what a dangerous thing that was. I began to see the corruption out there, and what I saw came out in my lyrics."
Within a year, Hill and his musical brothers came to the attention of popular local producer Joe Gibbs, well-known for his work with several leading reggae acts. In a successful audition session at Gibbs' studio, the singers recorded a series of original songs, including "Get Ready to Ride the Lion to Zion," "Calling Rasta for I," and "Two Sevens Clash." The latter track gave its name to the 1978 debut album.
"The song 'Two Sevens Clash' was really about segregation due to lack of communication," Hill explains. "It's like, if you go back and view the human body, you will find that each human carries nine passages that eventually bond together. Seven of the greatest passages are in the head, yet people are not using their heads. When two people talk together, that's when the two sevens clash."
The band changed its name to Culture just before the release of Two Sevens Clash, which became an instant hit in both Jamaica and England. Entering the early '80s, Culture went from strength to strength while sharing the limelight with the Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru, the Meditations, and Bob Marley and the Wailers. Reggae was at a crossroads, yet Culture retained its market share with lyrics that left many branding the group as militant, political, and defiant.
"If saying 'peace on Earth' and 'every man has an equal right to live' is political, then, yes, that's a correct description," Hill states.
In 1982, the three vocalists decided to go their separate ways, with Hill continuing to record and perform as a solo artist under the Culture trademark. "The people needed the name, they needed the sound, and they needed the operations," Hill says. "I was the one that could deliver." After the split, the eighth Culture album, Lion Rock, was released in the United States, after which Virgin Records added the Culture catalog to its distribution list, enabling the group to find a larger international following.
The original lineup reunited in 1986 for two highly regarded records, Culture in Culture and Culture at Work, marking the beginning of an extremely active period including worldwide tours and annual album releases. Throughout, the furor and fire of the band remained fiercely independent and original. "We don't believe in copying, unless by request," Hill maintains. "We move differently from other entertainers and have always maintained our beliefs."
Working with a variety of Jamaican producers, Culture went on to quickly knock out Good Things, One Stone, Stoned, Trust Me, Cultural Livity, Payday, and Humble African. Talford Nelson and Albert Walker sing backing vocals on Culture's current lineup, with Hill continuing to shine in the lead. With an impressive number of years in the business, the trio is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, Culture is ready to roll out yet another new record, aptly titled World Peace. With that message in mind, Hill recounts a memorable performance in war-torn Kenya.
"There had been no power in the region for weeks," he narrates. "But on the day of our performance, the lights came on in the stadium and stayed on for the whole show. It made me realize how important it was for them to hear us. I have seen many things over the years, but one of the most touching things is when I see people in the audience crying while they're listening to us perform. That's when you realize that the message has reached them."
On January 22 of this year, Joseph Hill celebrated his 55th birthday. "I feel great -- no aches or pains," he boasts. "I'm acting like a young man more than ever now, and I will continue to deliver my musical message."