One of reggae's most important and prolific producers, Clement "Coxsone" Dodd was a towering figure in the genre's development, from both creative and business standpoints. Like Motown's Berry Gordy, Dodd set up a streamlined, highly professional hit factory at his Studio One facility, recording vast amounts of music for his label of the same name. Like James Brown, Dodd mapped out a rhythmic blueprint that future generations would rely heavily upon; just as hip-hoppers sampled Brown's beats to death, countless dancehall producers lifted and reused (or "versioned") Dodd's rhythm tracks for their own records. Dodd was present at the genesis of Jamaican popular music, evolving from a DJ to a sound-system entrepreneur to a producer to the first black studio owner in Jamaica. In the meantime, he kept his finger on the pulse of popular taste, watching the music evolve from ska to rocksteady to reggae proper, and maintaining a crack studio band that changed with the times; most reggae aficionados tend to agree that his best work came during the rocksteady era of the '60s. Although haphazard documentation makes it difficult to know exactly how many records Dodd produced, it's generally acknowledged that he worked with nearly every major reggae star of the early days at one point or another, including the first recordings by Bob Marley & the Wailers. He also served as a mentor for future production wizards like Lee "Scratch" Perry and Winston "Niney" Holness, among others who apprenticed at Studio One. All in all, it's well nigh impossible to find another behind-the-scenes figure who exerted as much influence on reggae, over such a tremendous period of time, as Coxsone.
Clement Seymour Dodd was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on January 26, 1932. His parents ran a liquor store, and the young Dodd got his first taste of DJing by playing American jazz records for their customers. He received the nickname Coxsone in tribute to his ability as a cricket player, after the English Yorkshire team's brightest star of the era. After completing his schooling, Dodd found temporary work as a laborer in the sugar cane fields of America's Deep South; while there, he fell in love with early R&B, especially the harder end of the shuffle-rhythm spectrum that would prove popular with many other Jamaican listeners.
Dodd returned home with a substantial addition to his record collection, and in 1954 he got in on the ground floor of an emerging trend in Jamaica, the sound system. Sound systems were essentially mobile DJ units with massive amplification power; they gave poor people access to records they couldn't afford to own, and they were less costly for club owners to book than full bands, whose musicians all required individual salaries. Dodd's system was known as Sir Coxsone the Downbeat, and quickly became one of the most popular in Jamaica, rivaled chiefly by that of the flamboyant ex-cop Duke Reid; at the height of his operation's success, Dodd had up to five units playing around Kingston on the same night. Competition between sound systems was intense, and Dodd made numerous record-buying trips to the U.S. in search of the latest, rarest, and most danceable tunes. During this era, Jamaican DJs started the practice -- later copied by hip-hop, rare groove, and techno DJs -- of scratching out the labels on their records, so that competitors wouldn't know what they were playing and couldn't duplicate their most popular selections. Dodd's theme song was a Willis "Gator" Jackson jump blues called "Later for Gator," which he retitled "Coxsone's Hop"; the story goes that Duke Reid finally discovered the song's true identity and first played it at a DJ battle with Dodd, who nearly passed out with shock.
As the '50s drew to a close, the tastes of black audiences in the U.S. were changing. R&B was moving toward either rock & roll or a smoother, more pop-oriented sound; jazz into lengthier, more cerebral explorations and away from the concise jump blues and boogie-woogie 45s that filled jukeboxes and dancefloors. Jamaican tastes, however, were not changing, and to satisfy demand for the kind of music their audiences wanted, sound system operators began to record local artists. At first, these records were used as exclusive content for the systems' live sets, but overwhelming demand led to copies of the records being pressed and offered for sale to the public. Dodd threw his hat in the ring in 1959, when he formed the first of his many record labels, Worldisc. His likely first production was "Shufflin' Jug," a calypso-style number by Clue J & His Blues Blasters, and he also helmed what many historians consider the first true ska record, Theophilus Beckford's "Easy Snappin'," that year. Over the next few years, Dodd worked with the likes of Derrick Morgan, Derrick Harriott, Clancy Eccles, Alton Ellis, Don Drummond, and Roland Alphonso, among many others; the latter two, both jazz-trained instrumentalists, would go on to join the Skatalites, who served as the studio band for most of Dodd's early recordings, and made their name as the best instrumental ska ensemble in the business on their own sides. As his business grew and flourished, Dodd formed several other labels, mostly as a way to disguise the flood of product coming out under his name (DJs were simply tired of seeing it everywhere).
In 1963, Dodd opened the first black-owned recording studio in Jamaica on Brentford Road in Kingston; officially called the Jamaican Recording and Publishing Studio, it came to be known as Studio One, which also served as the name of Dodd's signature label from then on. With the Skatalites serving as the house band (and cutting plenty of instrumental hits of their own), Studio One turned out some of the era's best and biggest hits, with records by Delroy Wilson, Toots & the Maytals, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Bob Andy, and -- perhaps most importantly -- Bob Marley & the Wailers, including their chart-topping debut smash, "Simmer Down." In the process, Studio One became an invaluable training ground for an entire generation of Jamaican musical talent. Dodd was constantly scouting for new talent, holding weekly auditions, and often provided vocal training for talented but raw singers; what was more, the studio's prolific recording pace kept its stable of arrangers, producers, and musicians heavily occupied, giving them the practical knowhow that would help some set up their own operations in the years to come, and providing a strong foundation for the continued development of the country's recording industry.
During the latter half of the '60s, ska slowed down into a new style dubbed rocksteady. In spite of his earlier successes, it was during this period that Dodd truly hit his creative peak, and it remains the most often sampled portion of his extensive catalog. Helped out by new multi-track recording capabilities, which allowed for richer vocals and leaner, subtler arrangements, Dodd honed a signature sound that was soulful, organic, and rootsy, which grew into a sonic blueprint that would endure up to the ragga age. Some of Studio One's most prominent artists of the period included Alton Ellis, the Heptones, the Ethiopians, Jackie Mittoo, Delroy Wilson, Marcia Griffiths, and Ken Boothe, plus the ever-evolving, post-Skatalites studio band (first dubbed the Soul Brothers, then the Soul Vendors, and by 1970 the Sound Dimension).
Dodd was no longer on the cutting edge of production techniques by the early '70s, and his frantic recording pace finally began to slow down a bit. Still, his skills were perfectly suited to the roots reggae era, and he continued to produce some of the era's biggest stars: Burning Spear, Horace Andy, Dennis Brown, Dennis Alcapone, and Freddie McGregor (whose early album Bobby Bobylon is widely considered to be one of Dodd's finest latter-day works). As roots reggae gave way to dancehall in the early '80s, Dodd initially kept pace via his work with the likes of Sugar Minott, Johnny Osbourne, Frankie Paul, and Michigan & Smiley, among others. However, amid shifts in popular taste and political unrest, he soon decided to move his operations to New York City, opening both a studio and a music store in Brooklyn. He returned to Jamaica on occasion and continued to produce records from time to time, though without the widespread success of old. In 1991, two all-star concerts in Jamaica celebrated Dodd's 35th anniversary in the music business and featured many of his old cohorts; meanwhile, the Heartbeat label (a subsidiary of Rounder) secured CD reissue rights to the vast Studio One catalog, releasing both various-artists compilations and individual artist collections. In 1993, Dodd embarked on a lengthy legal battle to collect unpaid royalties related to samples of material from his vast back catalog that were lifted without credit or permission; by 2000, he'd shifted his attention from individual producers to big-time distributors like the VP label. In 2004 Coxsone returned to Jamaica for a celebration in his honor in recognition for his contribution to Jamacain culture. The storied Brentford Road in Kingston that served as home to his recording studio that was so pivotal to the development of reggae was renamed Studio One Boulevard. Tragically, Clement "Coxsone" Dodd died of a heart attack just four days after the ceremony on May 5, 2004.