Dennis ‘De Menace” Thompson:
Engineer Extraordinaire Part 2
Stan Evan Smith
Dennis Thompson has forgotten more important events in modern music than most people know of. From an early age, it seemed, Thompson was destined for a career in music. Dennis was exposed to music at every turn; His father Thomas Thompson was music collector he played on, what was then called a record changer at home. Dennis listened to music his bedside radio. He was exposed to blues, classical and jazz at an early age. He learnt to play the piano and his mother Linda Thompson was a singer. From his home at Lison Road, in front a dance hall Dennis could hear sound systems like V-Rocket. Dennis began collecting music since the age of eleven. Hearing music all around growing up his “heart and soul belong to music; this is where he felt most comfortable. Dennis began playing as a sound system operator at a club in I ½ Way Tree, called ‘Lotus –a -Go-Go and the rest is history. I spoke to David Hinds, Lead singer of Steel Pulse and Jazz great Marcus Miller. According Hinds, Dennis is more that just a great engineer who knows how to work well with young acts as well as musical giants; Dennis was influential in Hinds taking over the business side of the group’s management. Marcus Miller said this about Dennis “He’s like an artist behind the sound board. His greatest strength is that he knows how to get a great overall sound. Some guys get each instrument to sound great but it doesn’t translate into a great band sound. Dennis is great at that” Here’s part two of my interview with Thompson
SS: List some of the major festivals you’ve worked on?
DT: Montreaux Jazz, Nice Jazz Festival, Reggae Su Splash, Reggae Japan Splash, Aspen Jazz, JVC Jazz, Korea Jazz Fest and Newport Jazz Festival to name a few.
SS: Do you do studio recording and who have you worked with?
DT: Oh lord, everybody. I produced a group named Identity, I-Roy, Heptones to name a few.
SS: Working with Bob you did more that just engineer?
Dennis Thompson @home in New York w/ Richard Chin. Photo by Stan Smith
DT: That was just the icing on the cake, I did the stage, I did the back line work, I drove the truck and I did the monitors everything except cook. .
SS: Tell me about your role in the development of the Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers?
DT: Bob had put a lot of songs on tape for the kids to sing; one day we were in the studio going through reel to reel (tape) with these nice rthymns, so I said to him who sings all these tunes, he said he did them with the kids in mind to sing them. So I said well they have got to sing them soon, He said no they are too young, I said no lets try it, so I set up the microphones, the kids were out in the yard playing. I said (to the kids) hey guys what are you doing, (they said) we are playing Uncle Dennis, and I said do you want to sing a song for me. They already knew the music since they had already heard it; they came in studio and start singing. He (Bob) is sitting beside me and because daddy sitting there they got nervous. They were singing off key. He was getting upset and telling them how to sing. I said (to Bob) you have to leave the studio because you can’t rush them, they didn’t expect this. So he left the studio. So I had them sing one by one. They sang, I punched the console, they were still off key.
SS: Which song was this?
DT: Children playing in the street. I said “no session tonight Iam going to stay up all night and work on this song.
SS: You pieced it together.
DT: Aaah, Yes, at 6 am the next morning Boston, who lived in the yard, brought tea made from ginger, cinnamon and thyme in a tall bamboo cup. He said bro’ D, you drink this, all the gas you have from working all night this will take care of it. I drank the tea and I played the tape, I said do you like this, he asked is that the kids, I said yes, he said he didn’t believe. The next morning I played it for the workers, they were surprised.
SS: What did Bob have to say?
DT: He was just amazed. If Bob doesn’t say anything to you then everything is okay. The question then was what their name would be. We need a name them. He said the Marley children, so I said what happens when they grow up. Now Ziggy had an idea what he wanted (for a name) there is a magazine from England, Melody Maker, he liked that name.
DT: Yes, I said …that is the perfect name for you all.
SS: So you were instrumental in shaping their first song and their name
DT: Oh yea.
SS: Did you ever work with them after that?
SS: You have worked with P Diddy, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliot, these are some of the biggest name in music, do you ever stop and say Dennis Thompson, a kid from Kingston Jamaica is at the top of his game, this youth is doing well for himself?
DT laughing, which youth, me (laughing)?
SS: When you were starting out did you ever think your career would turn out like this?
DT: No, All I ever wanted was to be involved in music, making nice music and whatever comes with it just happen.
SS: What does it feel like when a show comes together?
DT: Your spirit tells you, you get goose pimples. Your inner soul or natural, with that you don’t need drugs. That high stays with you for days. Good music is the best drug any day. At this point Thompson began to talk about engineering a live show. “He describes his function as link man in football team. “If you’re playing your ass of I have got to deliver your ass to the people. He describes failure to deliver good sound and incurring audience wrath as akin “the crucifixion Christ suffered”
SS Have you eve been left you awestruck an artist performance?
DT: (without thinking for a second) Joe Cocker. Somewhere in France. It changed the way I did vocals. I did it Rachel Ferrell. The technique allowed if she even whispered she is right in front of you.
SS: What was it like working with the Commodores and Bob at MSG?
DT: I wasn’t nice for the Commodores, we just went to do a show and have fun. We had just come of a fantastic European tour (where audiences were15, 000 minimum) 40 and 50, 000 and that band (Wailers) was firing on all 24 cylinders.
SS: What did it feel like going up against this huge group You did get sound check, you may not be at your best?
DT: You don’t think about that, we did five shows with Fleetwood Mac, they didn’t show up for the last two.
SS: Rolling Stone (magazine) named the Wailers the most popular in pop music. That must have been a high for you
DT: Yes, still a high, that high never leaves. That a chapter in your life that never leaves. We played with Stanley Clarke and Tower of Power (Spectrum in Philadelphia) they tore up the place. Bob said to me “what we are going to do”. I said we going to do our show, what you going to do, change your show what for. I’ll make the in-house music is going to play very low for the next twenty minutes. You can’t start a race at full speed. We had really good show. I call all these artists I have worked with chapters in my life.
Thompson’s inner circle consists of twenty eight close friends, friends he has had since he was 8 years old, his wife who has been with for thirty five years and three kids. Dennis describes his wife as “beautiful woman” who when she walked into his life “changed the game” he said “its time” decided it was time to give up his swinging bachelor ways.
SS: Do you ever think of retiring?
DT: Re-tiring is for Dunlap, Breakstone, Goodyear and Yokaharmo, those are tires, I am not in the tire business. Retire and do what. You retire when they throw the cement in the box. I have slowed down, me and my wife will travel a little bit more and because I am now at the stage where I can select the tours I want and the artists I want to tour with.
SS: What advice do you have for a young person wanting to get in to the business?
DT: Be sure this is what you want to do. Make sure you have a plan what you want to do. Do not think you’re going to get rich. You will get wealthy in experience and knowledge. You will learn how to survive, leave drugs alone and overdo anything. You take care of it and it will take care of you