Word is making its way around various Jamaican and now UK media outlets of the sad news that the great Prince Buster, the legendary ska musician, music promoter, songwriter, producer and businessman, has died this morning in a Florida hospital at the age of 78, after suffering a series of strokes.
If you’re a reggae fan, then Prince Buster needs no introduction. Called the “king of Blue Beat,” he is credited with coming up with a distinctive rhythmic structure that emphasized the after-beat instead of the downbeat. His older ska hits were slowed down to a less frantic pace to form the backbone of many “rocksteady” hits of the later 1960s and of course rocksteady paved the way for reggae.
It would be impossible to be a “deep” fan of Jamaican music without going through a Prince Buster phase. I know I sure did. I love his music. Trying to think of an American musician of his era to compare him to and the best I can come up with is maybe Smokey Robinson. Not for his voice (which is nothing special) but for his style and his influence. Many a young Jamaican musician saw what Cecil Bustamente Campbell was getting up to, the way he dressed, and the celebrity circles that he traveled in (Muhammad Ali converted him to Islam) and aspired to be as fucking cool as he was. White boys, too. The UK ska revival of the late 70s that started with the 2-Tone label took his music as its very DNA and introduced Prince Buster to a new generation of fans.
The first single by Madness, released on the 2-Tone record label, was a tribute to Campbell called “The Prince.” The B-side was an actual cover of a Prince Buster song—“Madness”—and that’s (obviously) where they got their name. Their second single was a spirited cover of the Prince’s “One Step Beyond” which went top ten and became a bit of a classic.
The Specials relied somewhat heavily on cribbing Prince Buster for their sound, too, recording cover versions of his “Too Hot” and “Enjoy Yourself” and nicking bits from his “Judge Dread” and “Al Capone” for their songs “Stupid Marriage” and “Gangsters.” Additionally, The Beat covered his tunes “Rough Rider” and “Whine & Grine” on I Just Can’t Stop It, so as you can see, Prince Buster’s primary influence on the ska revival was somewhat analogous to the influence that the R&B greats had on the young Rolling Stones. His music also anticipates rap. The guy was truly an original—the blueprint for “rude boy”—and the world is a less cool place without the Prince.
If you want the best introduction to Prince Buster, this would undoubtedly come from the classic Fabulous Greatest Hits compilation album that originally came out in 1968. Probably—no definitely—my favorite Prince Buster song is his cheeky and humorously misogynistic hit “Ten Commandments”:
The best thing on YouTube featuring a young Prince Buster in his heyday is the 1964 film This is Ska! which was hosted by Tony Verity, an influential broadcaster at Radio Jamaica (RJR) during the 1960s. Prince Buster does one number, “Wash Wash,” at the 11:30 mark. This is Ska! also feature performances by Byron Lee & The Dragonaires, Jimmy Cliff, the Maytals and more.
Bonus: The wonderful “answer song” to Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments” by “Princess,” in which the cocky street tough of the earlier song gets his dick kicked to the curb by his better half: