Prince Buster the Boxer

prince buster boxing

After hearing from some readers of last week’s post that they would like to see some history on Prince Buster and his foray into boxing, I decided to delve into the archives and see what I could find. And it’s pretty interesting, I think you’ll agree.

First, we know that Prince Buster is a man of flash and prowess, so why not start with a little flair. From the Daily Gleaner, October 5, 1964:

Monograms on the dressing gowns worn by boxers are always a source of interest and sometimes amusement. Saturday night, Prince Buster’s glowing scarlet and white robe had inscribed on the back in bold letters of black “Prince Mohammed the Great,” the inscription on Joe Brown’s robe read “Joltin Joe,” Bunny Grant’s read “Bunny Grant — The Whip;” and Vincent Ramsay had to addition to his name the spiritual acknowledgement “In God I Trust.”

Despite the fact that his first fight ended on a “sour note,” Prince Buster had quite a lot of fun before, during and after the bout. Amidst a thunderous ovation he made a grand entry, followed by an entourage of about 20 supporters. His entry into the ring was dramatic and he did quite a bit of shadow-boxing a la Cassius Clay his “Big brother,” before resting briefly on the not too regal stool provided for him. His antics during the fight again drew laughter and applause and at the end he spent about half a minute in the centre of the ring, arms high over ha head and gazing intently at the sky.

Prince Buster, born Cecil Bustamante Campbell, grew up on Orange Street in a rough neighborhood in Kingston and only ended up in the music industry after literally fighting his way in. He received nickname “Buster” after his middle name Bustamante, but “Prince” was the nickname he received while boxing. He learned the skill as a teenager from Jamaican boxing greats Kid Chocolate and Speedy Baker. Prince Buster told me in a never-before-published interview from July 14, 1997 that he wanted to be a boxer initially. “I was in a dance troupe and would sing solo. I used to have problems going to school in the day because I stayed up so late at night. I paid less attention to singing and was more into boxing and wanted to be in fights but really there was no money in boxing. You’d get punched up and then there was no money. So I leave that and go back to singing and started recording. From day one, I started for me.”

Prince Buster’s first fight was on October 3, 1964. Daily Gleaner sportswriter L.D. Roberts wrote in anticipation of the debut, “Prince Buster is to make his ring debut in four rounder and this in itself should be a treat. But if the Prince forgets he is in the ring and starts to do the ska instead of throwing leather he may get his block knocked off.”

The connection between Prince Buster and Cassius Clay, who by this time was known as Muhammad Ali (Clay changed his name on February 26, 1964), is evident in the comparisons between the two fighters and likely because Prince Buster had begun a relationship with Muhammad Ali and due to his influence converted to Islam himself. Prince Buster changed his name Yusef Muhammad Ali although he still went by the stage name Prince Buster. The two fighters met during a trip to London where Prince Buster was transformed by Ali’s faith in the Nation of Islam. During Prince Buster’s trip to the 1964 World’s Fair with Bryon Lee & the Dragonaires, Ronnie Nasrala, and entourage, Prince Buster took Jimmy Cliff and his friends to a nightclub in Harlem to meet his comrade Muhammad Ali. Prince Buster had also been with Muhammad Ali in Miami when Ali invited him to attend a Nation of Islam talk at Mosque 29. So the two were connected by a friendship and faith.

prince buster boxing with ali

The Daily Gleaner on September 19, 1964 discusses Prince Buster’s planned debut in the boxing ring:

With all the flair and the gimmicks of deposed world heavyweight king Cassius Clay, Prince Buster bows into the ring with a song on his lips on Lucien Chen’s October 3rd promotion. The promotion is with the cooperation of David A. Lindo Ltd.

The ska singing sensation, more popular in the areas of ‘Wash Wash,’ claims intimate association with his ‘big brother’ Clay. No opponent he says, will last four. He fights in the first-round opening bout on the October 3 promotion. Like Clay, the Mighty Prince Buster claims to be Black Muslim. He has dubbed himself The Mighty Prince Buster Mohammed I in keeping with the Mohammed All, the name assumed by Cassius Clay after his seventh round TKO victory over Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title. Buster returned to the Island recently from a tour of the USA, where he had ‘the advantage ‘ of meeting and hobnobbing with some of the biggest names in boxing in the country, among them, Sonny Liston. “Going from gym to gym in the USA, I decided to become a professional boxer.” Mohammad I said after his return. He is currently undergoing training at the Liberty Hall gym. And like Clay, Jamaica’s newest professional has this to say in verse.

                I Mighty Prince Buster, Mohammed the first,

Predict my first fight will end in the first

When the gong sounds for the first round,

My opponent will already be on the ground,

I have no time for fooling around,

There must be better herring around.

Prince Buster said that there was “no money” in boxing and certainly that was true—not because Prince Buster didn’t win, and not because it wasn’t offered, but because he didn’t receive the money because there was suspicion the fight was not fair. The Daily Gleaner on October 5, 1964 tells of that first fight against Gene Coy in an article entitled “Prince Buster’s purse withheld.”  The article states, “The Jamaica Boxing Board of Control announced Saturday night after the Prince Buster-Gene Coy scheduled tour found at the National Stadium, that the purses of both boxers would be withheld and an investigation made on Wednesday. Ska singing Prince Buster recently turned boxer was making his fight debut, so too was Coy. After a light flurry to the midsection in the first round, Coy hit the canvas and was counted out, as Buster had predicted in a poem. The 15,000 strong crowd that had cheered him into the ring five minutes earlier, booed as Coy lay on the canvas.”

But Prince Buster did get his money after all amid the spectacle.  The Daily Gleaner on November 5, 1964, over a month after the bout, states:

The Jamaica Boxing Board of Control, yesterday announced that ska-singing lightweight, professional boxer Prince Buster and Gene Coy whom he floored in the first round on October 3, will receive their purses. The Board had withheld the purses of both boxers after a questionable performance in the four-round bout promoted by Lucien Chen at the National Stadium. Principals of the five fight card were Bunny Grant vs. Kid Bassey for the Jamaica Welterweight title and Percy Hayles vs. former world lightweight title holder Joe Brown.

Boxing Board Secretary George Abrahams said through a release after a meeting of the committee set up to investigate the fight. “It was decided that in consideration of all the circumstances the purses of both boxers, which was previously withheld, should be paid and that severe reprimand be issued to Coy’s trainer.”

Coy, who trained at Liberty Hall, maintained that he was sick and that his trainer said he should fight.

Coy was floored by a light flurry to the mid-section seconds from the end of the first round as Buster had predicted in his poem.

Prince Buster has recently returned from Miami where he watched world heavy-weight boxing champion Cassius Clay’s early training for his title defense with former champion Charles (Sonny) Liston in Boston, Massachusetts on November 10. Buster says that he is going to Boston to be in Clay’s corner for his return bout with Liston.

Although Prince Buster continued for a short time to help support other boxers by appearing at their bouts, such as his mentor Muhammad Ali, Bunny Grant, and Grady Ponder, whom he helped convert to Islam, the October 3, 1964 boxing match against Coy was the only professional fight that Prince Buster ever fought.

Pick It Up, B-Boys! The Toasting/Hip-Hop Connection.

My good friend Michael Turner recently found and posted the above rare clip of King Stitt toasting on his Roots Knotty Roots page and I wanted to pass it along and write about it here. This particular clip interested me because I have been researching the link between toasting and early hip hop and wanted to take a few minutes to elaborate and solicit your thoughts.

As Buster Brakus notes in this clip, the backing band is Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. He notices Carl Brady on percussion who is a life-time member of Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and possibly Marvin Brooks on tambourine. Brakus says that Clancy Eccles told him that Eccles and King Stitt performed a lot with Byron’s band.

What interests me most is toasting as an art form. Count Machuki first began toasting for Tom the Great Sebastian and then came to work for Coxsone since he was skilled at attracting a crowd and keeping the crowd. Machuki says that he was so desired by the crowds that they were disappointed at the recorded version of the live performance, solidifying the concept that ska is very much a live experience. In The Rough Guide to Reggae, authors Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton quote Count Machuki. “There would be times when the records playing would, in my estimation, sound weak, so I’d put in some peps: chick-a-took, chick-a-took, chick-a-took. That created a sensation! So there were times when people went to the record shop and bought those records, took them home, and then brought them back, and say, ‘I want to hear the sound I hear at the dancehall last night!’ They didn’t realize that was Machuki’s injection in the dancehall!”

“Toasting was developed by the sound-system operators,” writes Mohair Slim. “To emphasis the music’s rhythm, the DJs chanted staccato noises over the top of the instrumental tracks that were the staple of the early dancehall. A common technique was the rapid-fire repetition of words, like “ska-ska-ska” or “get-up-get-up-get-up” also employed were locomotive-noises (“ch-ch, ch-ch, ch-ch”), hiccups (“he-da, he-da, he-da”) and grunts. Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd and Byron Lee all utilised toasting to accentuate the fervour of their records.” The clip above is evidence of Byron Lee using this art form. Classic Skatalites tunes like Rocket Ship and

Legendary historian and artist Clinton Hutton says the toasting had a deeper impact on the power of the sound system. “The mike gave the voice reach and agency. The deejay could talk to the fans in the dancehall as well as to the persons outside of the dancehall. He could advertise the next dance and venue that the sound system would be playing at. He could praise the sound system owner/operator and help to brand his name and enterprise in the minds of the people. The disc jockey could dedicate a song or songs to a specific person or group of persons. He could announce the names of persons going off to England or coming from prison. Yes, he could really ‘wake the town and tell the people,’ to use a line from Daddy U-Roy. He could cover the weaknesses in a selection with live jive, with toasting, with scatting, with bawl out.”

I would argue that toasting is the grandfather of hip hop. It is evident that those who either participated in or witnessed the activity of toasting in the 1950s and 1960s Kingston, at the sound system dances brought this cultural phenomenon to the shores of the United States where it then evolved into hip hop traditions. In the 1970s, hip hop began when a disc jockey by the stage name DJ Kool Herc began hosting block parties in the South Bronx. He, like the Jamaican predecessors, toasted over the music to encourage the attention of the participants. Hip hop toasting then evolved into adding musical flourishes to the music, utilizing two turntables to create percussive effects like scratching and looping, and it then evolved into rapping completely as a vocal, rather than a few words over the existing soundtrack, and vocal percussive effects, beatboxing. Hip hop culture spread to communities throughout New York and then the world in the 1980s. 

Scholar Joseph Heathcott notes the origins of hip hop culture in Jamaica. “Taking shape on the playgrounds and street corners of the South Bronx, hip-hop was from the first moment a popular cultural practice that stretched across borderlands, linking the local to the transnational. Not coincidentally, hop-hop erupted in the one American urban neighborhood with the highest concentration of Jamaican labor migrant families: the South Bronx. . . . Islanders imported with them to the South Bronx highly developed musical and electric performance cultures centered around the mobile sound system. If ska had filed to gain a purchase on the American music scene, and if reggae was only beginning to establish its credentials, it was the sound system and dance hall culture that ultimately made sense on transplanted soil. Where Jamaican genres of music only penetrated American markets obliquely, Jamaican performance practices provide enteral to the creation of hip-hop.”

Is it possible that DJ Kool Herc knew of these Jamaican toasting methods? Most definitely. DJ Kool Herc, whose real name is Clive Campbell, was born in 1955 in Kingston, Jamaica where he lived until he was 12 years old, during the height of the sound system era. He came to the Bronx in 1967. His first gig was DJing his sister’s birthday party and he did as he learned, filling the break sections of the song with toasting to keep the audiences going. This is not to say that DJ Kool Herc was merely imitating the originals, and indeed he was innovative by incorporating the turntables themselves in future gigs to create additional techniques that became separate from the ska genre and a part of the hip-hop genre, but credit is due the first toasters—Count Machuki, King Stitt, and Sir Lord Comic.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this connection. Please share your knowledge of vintage toasting and the hip hop link with me as I continue to research this fascinating musical evolution.

Ska, Ska, Ska! Jamaica Ska!

world fair

Here they are! The Jamaican delegates to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, ready to head to Palisadoes Airport on April 16, 1964. From left to right in the front we have Jimmy Cliff, Eric “Monty” Morris, and Alphonso Castro. Standing from left to right is Prince Buster, Linda Jack, Roy Willis, Sonia Blake, Byron Lee, Janet Phillips, Carol Crawford, Ronnie Nasrala, Beverley Neath, and Ken Khouri.

The photo was taken at Issa’s, a high-end department store similar to Macy’s. The Issa family were a big business family in Jamaica with branches in not only retail, but real estate, hotel, and tourism industries. The Issa’s originally came to Jamaica in 1893 from Bethlehem, Palestine. The first two Issa’s to come to Jamaica were Elias Issa and his son Abraham Issa in 1893. The father and son team first visited the World Fair in Chicago, the Columbian Exposition, before coming to Jamaica on a ship named the Arabian Prince. They were a wealthy family from the start with the equivalent of $5 million dollars today in their pockets when they began on the island. They established the House of Issa in 1894, a company that specialized in dry goods and industrial goods, which later went on to purchase the famous Myrtle Bank Hotel in 1944, the site of many jazz and ska concerts. The family company then built Ocho Rios’ first modern hotel, Tower Isle, another site of many ska-era concerts. This hotel is now the Couples hotel, opened in 1978. They also opened Negril Beach Village, later known as Hedonism II. It is easy to see why the connection between the Issa family, involved in tourism, and Eddie Seaga, Minister of Culture, was important to spreading the word of ska.

The connection of the Issa family to ska was more than just the support of the World’s Fair crowd and Seaga’s endeavor. The Issa’s were also involved in the juke box industry, owning and operating the machines in rum bars all over the island. An article in the Daily Gleaner in 1958 says that a juke box owned by E.A. Issa in Montego Bay was damaged when a man punched it after it jammed and his record wouldn’t play. Juke boxes were critical for entertainment, for bringing money into drinking establishments, since virtually no one, except for the wealthy, owned their own phonograph. Vincent Chin, better known as Randy’s, got his start this way, through Issa’s. He worked for Issa’s, as many did during those days, including Ken Khouri of Federal Records, and he drove around from rum bar to rum bar, taking out old records and installing the new ones. After the old ones were of no use to Issa’s any more, he bought them from Mr. Issa at a cheap rate, set up shop, and then sold the American R&B tunes to the public who had slowly started to acquire their own phonographs from places like Times Store, or Issa’s.

Issa, Seaga, Khouri–say what you will about the monied families in Jamaica during the early years, but love them or hate them, without their support of the creativity coming from downtown, ska may not be where it is today, nor the music that followed. What are your thoughts?