Rocket Science

Nicky Ezer and Culture Promotions continue to follow their own path

The rumour and gossip that always blows around has been working itself up to hurricane proportions lately. When I met Nicky Ezer to talk over a cappuccino in a Central London cafe, I had some burning questions but no idea how she would react to them. We were just around the corner from the Euston Road, one of the capitals busiest and most polluted thoroughfares. The roaring engines and blaring horns of the agitated drivers trying to circumvent the congestion zone was in direct contrast to the relaxed vibes emanating from someone who has arguably been the country's top reggae promoter. She sat down to talk with no particular agenda in mind, no burning desire to dispel any myths, happy simply to tell her story and leave it at that; its clearly very calm at the eye of the storm.

Culture Promotions are closely associated with sound system legend Jah Shaka. He has been a key connection and is probably the main reason that Nicky has become an expert in the art of dealing with rumour and wild speculation.

"The Shaka business began because I was trying to push some people I knew to have Shaka at their event. I used to go to Shaka dances, I loved the vibes and I was just a normal Shaka follower. They didn't have the contact, so me and Shaka sort of bucked up and I started the initial dances. We formed a business relationship and I continued to manage his live shows and act as a representative for him with his world wide work."

She describes her self as a "North London girl" and her professional background was in arts administration and theatre production. She had already dabbled in reggae promoting and broadcasting outside London, but working with Shaka was a totally different experience.

"My attitude to Shaka's dances and Shaka's work was that he had an important message. Shaka did something for me whenever I went to one of his dances. When I started to work with him he became my mentor in the whole reggae business. He was like a teacher for me. I was inspired to do the work I have been doing because of him. It was a very gradual thing, we had a mutual respect."

 

The defining move of the relationship was the decision to run sessions at the Rocket in Holloway. This resulted in Shaka reaching a whole new audience and achieving a level of popularity that would have seemed inconceivable to most observers at a time when his was virtually the only roots sound able to survive at all.

"My whole philosophy on the Shaka dances at the Rocket was that I wanted to create events that were accessible to everyone. So that people weren't fearful to go. The black Caribbean community were used to being there with him, in back halls in Hackney and less upfront venues, but we wanted to open out the sessions. I suppose I used all my arts administration skills on the reggae music business. We did flyers that didn't just say it was happening, they explained what the dance was about, that there would be nice food and that everybody was welcome. People could find it in Time Out, they knew where to go. The media knew who to contact and could find me. It was a way of hopefully making his audience bigger . I suppose we did succeed because we had some massively successful events."

Culture Promotions promoted Shaka with the same care and attention that a top rock group would receive. Despite the following that Shaka had built up he had never taken on any formal management contract before and established a unique style of representation with Culture Promotions that suited them both. However there were still those who were unhappy with the way things were going.

"I had a lot of negative response. The Shaka dances are a church to many people, so the original roots and Rasta community felt that their space was being invaded. There were students who wanted to sit around on the floor or hang out there to just smoke weed and listen to reggae music. it suddenly became trendy to go to Shaka. The dub scene opened out . The whole point of what we were doing had been to encourage other people to come. It wasn't just a money making thing. My philosophy was that if new people could walk away with a little piece of Shaka's spiritual offering then that was beneficial to their soul, if you know what I mean. So when Rastas complained about the heavy student population of unconventional followers, I said that they should be welcomed in this place as much as you because Shaka is there for everybody."

 

Regular dances in such a large venue began to pay off in other ways. Nicky decided to wind up the other projects she'd been working on.

"Culture Promotions formed for real as a full time rather than a part time thing. I was pregnant at the time, starting my family. So it was quite good that I could create the Shaka/Culture Promotions umbrella, promote the dances and still look after my children because I was at home and I did everything from my kitchen. My office has always been in my house."

This isn't quite the image that some of her and Shaka's critics were painting at the time. It was possible to look at the slick marketing, the crowds of up to 1500 people attending a dance and the massive profile that Shaka was earning and to assume that he'd somehow sold out.

"People argue that Shaka's become commercial, but he's never been a commercial icon. Shaka doesn't drive big cars or spend his money on commercial enterprise. He goes to Ghana and works with his own charity the Shaka Foundation. He's not anybody that wants to show off. The people who think he's made all this money are wrong. People who think he's spent unwisely are wrong. People who think I've made loads of money are wrong. What we did was just to survive in a business."

The way that this articulate defence was delivered gave me the feeling that it had been used before. I sensed that some of the criticism had been able to hurt her feelings at one time. That certainly isn't the case now. Confident and secure are two of the adjectives that most readily spring to mind when describing Nicky Ezer. This is not surprising when you consider that her next move was to establish the legendary Dub Club.

"The Dub Club came about in response to people asking why we only worked with Shaka. As soon as Culture Promotions name became a bit bigger people began saying "why can't you do it for us?" I created the Dub Club because I wanted somewhere where everyone else could work that wasn't Shaka's home. We found the Tufnell Park venue and it became wonderful. Each week we'd have one or two different sounds playing. Known and unknown sounds could come and play and have a space where people could come and enjoy reggae music. The Dub Club was great, we had a good strong twelve years. Then we pulled it down and I thought to myself I'll bring it back when the time is right. I'm nearly there, I think I really want to, I've still got to find the right venue. I really miss it. I wasn't in my house on a Thursday night for twelve years! The name's gone round the world. I was sat in an outside bar in Jamaica and there was a poster with my Dub Club logo. It said "the Dub Club here on Wednesday". They'd taken a Dub Club poster and changed the names of the people playing. I couldn't believe it! Dub Clubs have sprung up all over the place and that's fine, I haven't got a problem with it, but the original was in London with us."

 

Shaka has maintained a loyal group of followers around him for almost thirty five years. They are a self sustaining set that have ignored what other people may be doing or think of them. Wider circles may have been pronouncing the death of roots in the eighties or talking up a 'revival' in the nineties. The people like Nicky who have stayed close to Shaka have simply carried on regardless. They don't feel as if anything came in or out of fashion and the dances were always powerful. When the right kind of music stopped coming from Jamaica they simply made their own and when a new generation of roots artists emerged, they were embraced.

" I brought Morgan Heritage in first and worked with Bagga John on a tour. When a music hits me that I really love and believe in it doesn't matter who they are. That was a new music but I thought I've got to work with them because I love them so much myself that I need everybody else to have them as well. That's my logic. I brought Sizzla in the first time. It was a good thing to do. I felt slightly honoured that Fatis wanted me to do it."

Nicky is also particularly proud of the ten year involvement that Culture Promotions had with the Essential Music Festivals in Brighton and London where she hosted many of reggae's living legends. As well as organising tour dates and festival line-ups she has represented many artists on a management basis over the years. This is one of the roles that she has been cutting back on recently.

" I don't work with so many, I really pick and choose the artists I particularly want to work with now. Prince Malachi is a key singer at the moment because I love his work. Its our history that I'll always look after Johnny Clarke's work. Jah Shaka I'll always work with."

Like everybody else I'm desperate to know if there's any work to do where Shaka is concerned at the moment. Where is Shaka? Nicky is obviously an expert guardian of the man's cherished privacy and has no intention of telling stories that belong to someone else. However she allows me to ask my questions and patiently listens while I reel off the rumours that are currently doing the rounds.

"The truth is that Shaka is well, healthy and in South London. The truth is that some of his equipment has been stolen. The truth is that he will repair himself and that situation and he will be playing again. The truth is that he hasn't lost his music. I get e-mails from people who are worried he's not well. He's mending spiritually, but he's alright. My vibes are that he'll be back."

As the promoter she's able to be far more specific when it comes to the situation with the Rocket.

"The Rocket had a licensing problem. Someone built a block of flats behind. The new neighbours moved in and were complaining about other music events. The manager thought "oh my god Shaka's in next, we'll never get away with that one!" So they phoned me up and said we'd have to cancel. No loud music now goes on at the Rocket. Every event you see advertised is downstairs in the small arena. The main hall is out of action until they sort out their soundproofing. Someone gave planning permission to build residential accommodation within spitting distance of an established venue. That's what happened, it was nothing to do with the Rocket not wanting us. When its right we will go back, they've just got to repair their building."

 

Jah Shaka is widely credited as the inspiration behind UK dub; a scene with its own ethos and a music that is virtually regarded as a new style or genre. Nicky has been every step of the way with Shaka since the late eighties, but gives the impression that she hasn't been paying much attention to the hype. Whilst most protagonists on the UK scene feel that they are fighting for acceptance and regret the distinctions that are drawn between British and Jamaican music, Nicky seems happily unconcerned by the labels. It's all just reggae to her, it doesn't matter where, when or who made it as long as it feels right. The Shaka camp is, of course, famously immune to any anxieties about fashions or trends.

"I've had a hard fight over the years staying on my path; but that's all I've done, stay on that path. You don't fight people. People try to fight you, but I don't fight them. They can dislike me or what we've tried to create. I just carry on with my work and all those people have disappeared. We've got more supporters than there are people who are negative about it. Anything that's successful in any business will get that. People felt angry that I was a white female coming into a very male dominated industry. I've had to find my little place and I think the respect is there now. People in Jamaica say "yeah we know that little English girl in London". Right now we just follow the path of where we want to go."

As patient as she is, some of my questions, provoke an amused, quizzical smile as if she's wondering why I'm worrying about this stuff so much. After we part and I'm following my own chosen path (to Kings Cross tube station) I find I'm wondering what I was worrying about as well.

 

March 2006

Culture Promotions website: www.culturepromotions.com

Jah Shaka website: www.jahshakasoundsystem.com