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Like most tales of triumph and tragedy, the life, career, and untimely passing of reggae pioneer Mikey Dread at age 53 will live on long beyond his time on earth. There aren't many artists in the history of the genre who were able to gain acceptance for reggae the way Mikey did. But he didn't do it as a singer or as a producer (which he would later become known for) but rather as an on-air personality at Jamaica Broadcast Company (JBC) in the mid-1970s.
While plenty of Americans would find it hard to believe, there was a time in Jamaica's music history, not so long ago, where playing any reggae on the radio other than Bob Marley and Toots and the Maytals was strongly discouraged. The music was raw; it railed against the powers that be, and there was no particular reason for program directors to let it on the air. But along came a studio engineer named Mikey Dread, born Michael Campbell, who was set to change all that. Mikey fought ardently to get a slot on the airwaves, and to pacify him in 1976 JBC eventually put him on during the graveyard shift, midnight to 5 a.m., thinking they'd set him up to fail. But with his quick wit and deep knowledge of reggae, Mikey turned his slot into one of the most popular graveyard shifts in the history of Jamaican radio.
Affectionately dubbing himself Dread at the Controls, Mikey revolutionized radio in terms of what was allowed on the air — not just through the records that he played but through his unwavering decision to talk about issues pertinent to Jamaica's underprivileged communities. His outspokenness helped win over the hearts of his listeners, but it also continuously got him in trouble. His brave attitude and Rasta ideology eventually forced him out of JBC in 1978. But by the time he left, reggae was a worldwide phenomenon.
From a musical standpoint, it's fair to say that artists such as Augustus Pablo, Big Youth, Mad Professor, Lee "Scratch" Perry, U-Roy, Dennis Alcapone, and countless other popular Jamaican artists owe a great deal to Mikey Dread. Until he came along and broke down the barriers in broadcasting, their music wasn't getting any play in Jamaica.
Shortly after leaving JBC, Mikey started recording music himself, and his albums Dread at The Controls and World War III were seminal releases. He also studied under the tutelage of dub pioneer King Tubby and had a knack for producing some of the best dub riddims of his era.
Mikey's music grew so popular that he was invited by the Clash to move to England, where he coproduced the album Sandinista in 1980 and went on to tour extensively with the group. While all of this music-making was going on, Mikey somehow remained focused on his education and got a degree from the National Broadcasting School in London in 1980. He also did production for UB40 during his time in England.
He would move to South Florida in the mid-'90s, going to school to get another degree in TV/Broadcast journalism from Lynn University in Boca Raton. He lived in Florida off and on for 10 years while also touring the world.
In October of 2007, it was announced that Mikey was suffering from a brain tumor and was in North Carolina receiving treatment. His condition only worsened, and on March 15 he died in Connecticut, reportedly surrounded by family.
Numerous tributes are being organized around the world for Mikey, but testimonials from his colleagues and admirers may be the most telling.
Carlton Coffie, former lead singer of Inner Circle: "It was a beloved situation for us Rastas in Jamaica, because he was the only one as a Rastafarian on the radio who played our music. Jamaica society is not too friendly with Rasta. For him to be at JBC and to acquire a position as a disc jockey and announcer, Mikey Dread broke down barriers and opened doors for other Rastas to come on the air. It's a sad loss but he definitely came here and did what he what he was meant to do."
Glen Washington, reggae singer: "I just remember we would hear all this crazy reggae until the wee hours of the morning and everybody was talking about this new dread on the radio. He played stuff you would never hear [elsewhere]. Mikey played a whole heap of dub music at a time when nobody else would. A lot of people don't play the flipside version of tracks, but he was dubwise on the radio. That was Mikey Dread. He'd take his shirt off his back and give it to you. A real irie bredren."
Burning Spear, reggae singer: "Mikey is a man who believed in owning whatever he had, no matter how small it might be. He believed in what he stood up for. People thought they could walk over Mikey, but he was determined not to let that happen. Knowing that a real Rasta could have that position as a DJ at JBC brought a lot of hope to the people of Jamaica. He showed that Rastas are not garbage like a lot of people thought. That a Rasta is educated and can do good things. A lot of people would be fishy about what was on the radio, but not Mikey. If it was good, he would play it. People always respected him for that."