Jamaican Music Music Interviews

Dennis ‘De Menace” Thompson: Engineer Extraordinaire – Part 1

Written by Stan Evan Smith

What has Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Monty Alexander, Alicia Keys, Missy Elliot, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Buju Banton and Marcus Miller all have in common? They are music legends and great musicians you say, well, the question wouldn’t be asked were the answer quite that easy. Try Dennis Thompson, he has worked with all of them. Dennis Thompson, a Kingston College old boy who migrated to New York City in 1973 is one the worlds best live show engineers. Unassuming and diplomatically reserved, Thompson a dedicated professional has engineered live performances for some of the greatest and best in the world of music. He currently tour as the live engineer for Marcus Miller.

All the major artists in Reggae music from to Peter Tosh, who he affectionately refers as ‘Bush’ to Dennis Brown, Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, Buju Banton to name a few, Thompson sonically engineered their sound for the global ears around the world.

From engineering great composer, the late Irving Berlin’s 100th Anniversary concert in the hallowed halls at Lincoln Center, the Grammy Awards Show and Bob Marley live performing career, Thompson’s career has been to the heights many can only dream of.

What is equally impressive about Thompson is his decidedly non-plussed attitude about his success. Hearing Thompson talk about the great musicians he has worked or the many history making events like, Zimbabwe independence celebration 1979 or BMW playing before 107, 000 1980 in Milan, Italy he has been a part of he seems, incredibly, unfazed by them. Thompson has been a part of many important events in modern music very few are aware of. He has been with Marcus Miller for the last seven years.

Jamaican.com senior music writer Stan Smith sat with Dennis Thompson to talk about his forty year career in music.

Dennis Thompson at work. Photo courtesy of Dennis Thompson

SES: How did you come to work for Bob Marley?
DT: We use to tease each other in the studio in Jamaica, they (BMW) use to come into the studio to work, saying they were going on tour; I use to say you were going to the country to play. It became a standing joke, (they would say) whenever we were going on tour we will come for you, I said okay we have a deal.

SS: Which Studio was this?
DT: Randy’s (Recording studio) after my old sound system and club days, I decided to go into commercial recording. I got a job at Randy doing Mastering, and then I went over to the recording side.
SS: Then you must have seen everybody then?
Yes, every body came through there.

SS: Is there any difference engineering Jazz greats Marcus Miller, R&B or hip Hop shows than, say a reggae show
DT: A world of difference, Toning the instruments, balancing, some people use a lot more dynamics, yet the sound will come to you very powerful with a lot of energy because of the dynamics, some people just want to hear it loud and blaring, you hate to hear the next song.

SS: What is the feature for reggae?
DT: Bass, The drum & vocals

SS: List some of the people you have worked
DT: Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Steel Pulse, Culture, Burning Spear, Buju Banton, Maxi Priest, Heptones, Max Romeo, Monyaka, even before Monyaka, a band called Jamalla w/ Cleon Douglas and Noel Alphonso.

SS: Let’s move to the other Genre, Jazz?
DT: Marcus Miller, Herbie Hancock, Kirk Welan, Queen Latifah did a nice middle of the road Jazz album, Rochelle Farrell, in hip hop there’s Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes, P Diddy,

SS: I saw picture with you and Alicia Key, did you work with her?
DT: yes, I am still working with her tomorrow I start another project with her at Radio City Music Hall and Carlos Santana) Vernon Reid & Living Color. A long list, there’s groups like the Skatalites, Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff, It 30 some odd yrs.

SS: Does all the traveling ever get to you,
DT: It doesn’t get to you, you do because you love it, it what it entails, a part of the whole package. It is what you have to do….its like the musketeers all for one or one for all. You either do everything or go about your business.

SS: List some of the major event you have engineered”
DT: I have done the Grammy’s, (ASCAP) song writers Award, Irvin Berlins Birthday at Carnegie Hall

Jazz great Joe Sample, Marcus Miller & Dennis Thompson

SS: Who were the artists on that show?
DT Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson. Shirley McLain, Nell Carter, New York Symphony Orchestra, Patti Labelle

SS: Let get back to Bob Marley, he was your initiation into the big time.
DT: Into everything

SS: What was it like as an engineer, when you hit the road with Bob?
DT: It was learning experience,

SS Tell us about what you learnt?
DT: Everything, first of all you learn discipline, and you learn your craft, the hard way, (also) to live with people as people. You’re a novice, you’re working with the best, there is no such thing as you’re going to try, and you have to just do

SS: Get it done
DT: Yes

SS: Was he a tough person to work for?
DT No. he only wanted you to do your best and be truthful. That all he required. If you lied there were problems, do not sacrifice the sound for anything. If you need something that will help the sound (he expected you) to ask for it, to go and get it. According to Thompson Marley didn’t accept excuses for failure.

SS: You were required to think a head, be proactive.
DT: Yes, there was an incident that created that, he didn’t know what was happening, things were being held back from him and something happened and it came to light. He said this is what you have to do.

SS: Talk about the Zimbabwe show in 1980?
DT: That was dream of his that came through. He wanted to do it. They (the Govt of Zimbabwe) asked him to do it, they couldn’t afford the cost, he said find me some rooms and a stage I’ll be there (It reportedly cost Marley ½$m to transport equipment and personnel)

SS: For you what was that experience like?
DT: It was an experience, because you’re seeing the birth of a nation, people seeing and hearing things they had never heard before.

SS: You currently work with Marcus Miller what is that like?
DT: Genius, (he) play everything and (has)a super photographic memory. One of the most humble persons you would ever want to work with.

SS: How did working with Marcus come about?
DT: Just word of mouth. His engineer went to do another job, I was off that week and they ask me to come fill in. We went to South Africa for the North Sea Jazz Festival. After the show he asked me if I would like to stay, I said sure.

SS: How long has that been?
DT: 7 or 8 years

SS: List some of the places you have not gone to?
DT China & India, that its

SS: Is there any important events in your career which stick out in your mind?
DT (laughing) my wedding day,

SS: (laughing) I meant career wise?
DT: There are so many great moment it hard to isolate one.

SS: (prodding) it doesn’t have to be one, more than one?
DT: This years North Sea Jazz Festival, Amy Winehouse was scheduled to perform, we had a day off and she got sick. We got a call at 12:15 to fill in for her. (the show was 4’0clock) we had to get equipment down to the venue. When word got out Marcus was filling in for Amy, David Sanborn, and Lionel Luwikke (Herbie Hancock) it became an all-star jam. All this happened within a matter of two hours.

End of Part 1

About the author

Stan Evan Smith

Senior Editor and North East Media Coordinator for Jamaicans.com