Recording Industry Professor Mike Alleyne is the author of numerous books on popular music and recording artists, including The Essential Hendrix (2020) and The Encyclopedia of Reggae (2012).
Born in London, England, to parents from the Caribbean nation of Barbados, he has lectured and presented conference papers internationally (e.g. Denmark, Finland, Sweden, U.K., Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Jamaica and South Africa) and serves as a visiting professor at the Pop Akademie in Germany.
His publications include Popular Music & Society, Rock Music Studies, the Journal on the Art of Record Production, the award-winning Grove Dictionary of American Music, Popular Music History, Ethnomusicology Forum, the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Social and Economic Studies, Small Axe, Billboard magazine, and in the SAGE Business Case Series in Music Marketing issued online.
His book chapter contributions appear in Rihanna: Barbados World-Gurl in Global Popular Culture (2015), Sound and Music in Film and Visual Media: An Overview (2009), Globalization, Diaspora & Caribbean Popular Culture (2005), Bob Marley: The Man & His Music (2003), and Culture and Mass Communication in the Caribbean (2001). Dr. Alleyne contributed track notes to the groundbreaking 9-CD box set, the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap (2020).
His notable interviewees include producer/musician/songwriter Nile Rodgers, Phil Collins, Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood, and Public Enemy rap music icon Chuck D. Alleyne was also a consultant for the estate of legendary singer Marvin Gaye in the widely-publicized “Blurred Lines.” copyright infringement case, decided in favor of the estate in 2015.
In 2017, he was the co-organizer of the first popular music conference entirely dedicated to the life and career of the artist Prince, and the successful event took place at the University of Salford in Manchester, England. He was invited to teach a Masterclass at that institution in 2018 on copyright infringement issues in popular music. He spoke to Beverly Keel about Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, authenticity and his five deserted-island album picks.
What are you working on now? What inspired you to tackle this project?
I’m making additions and re-editing some entries for the first edition of The Essential Hendrix which provides an A-Z overview of Jimi Hendrix’s career and associates. I’ve taught a Special Topics course on the famous guitarist for over a decade, but none of the available books suited my requirements. Eventually, out of sheer necessity I had to construct my own text to facilitate more cohesive discussion of various aspects of his career. (I’m using a preliminary edition of the book this semester before its official public release.) Meanwhile, I’m awaiting the publication of several other projects later this year.
When you look back on your childhood, what are your most influential musical memories? What role did music play in your childhood and teen years?
I suppose the variety of the music I encountered on radio and television growing up in England had a powerful influence. As a youngster, I had my own drum kit while learning piano at home and playing violin at school, so it was a multilayered engagement with both popular and classical music. It wasn’t long before I began exploring historical analyses, biographies, and reviews in the popular music press. The fusion of these factors inevitably shaped my approach to popular music.
When and how did you realize you could make a living immersed in popular music studies? Why did you choose this area of study?
Making a living from popular music studies was rather accidental. My Ph.D. thesis (written at the University of the West Indies, Barbados) discussed the way that the encounter of Caribbean artists with major (Western) record labels usually resulted in the dilution and commercialization of the music. Afterwards, it became evident that analysis of pop music originating from outside of Europe and America needed further attention. While that’s not my only focal point, it’s where my academic journey with popular music began.
Your chapter on "Authenticity in Music Production" was just published in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Music Production. You explore the concept of authenticity and the context in which we use that term. Of course, authenticity is a frequently discussed topic in popular music. How did you approach it in this chapter?
I emphasized the many contexts of authenticity, noting that definition of the term changes depending on historical phases, technological innovation, and also differs among musical genres. It’s a highly complex subject, and I interviewed several successful producers to incorporate their perspectives on how ideas surrounding authenticity might have impacted on their work. The approach was to integrate theory with practice and historical actuality to create meaningful depictions of what authenticity means from different perspectives. The chapter doesn’t attempt to establish an all-encompassing definition, instead challenging the reader to extrapolate central ideas from the analysis.
I tell people you are the man who literally wrote the book on reggae because you are the author of The Encyclopedia of Reggae: The Golden Age of Roots Reggae. How does one even begin to write an encyclopedia? How did you organize it? How did you decide which artists should be included and how long each entry should be? What were your greatest challenges?
The main organizing principle was to primarily focus on the peak era of roots reggae, which was the 1970s, but there was no way to achieve that without discussing the historical and artistic antecedents that led to reggae. Ultimately, this meant discussing artists and events preceding the 1970s and several following that phase. Interpretations differ as to whose music constitutes roots reggae, so not every reggae artist who rose to prominence in that era could be included. In other instances, some artists were excluded due to a lack of reliable, verifiable data. In some cases, conflicting or inaccurate sources made definitive commentary difficult. Editorial decisions determined the general length of entries, and with the time that’s passed since the publication (2012) much information needs to be revised. Unfortunately, the book is now out of print and there’s no prospect of a comparable second edition, partly due to the exorbitant cost of licensing photos and other graphics. Publishers are very reluctant to undertake what they perceive as major financial risks at a time when only a few categories of books achieve notable commercial success. Other reggae encyclopedias had been published previously, but not on the same visual and historical scale. Those books also had their own biographical anomalies, an almost unavoidable circumstance within a genre where detailed documentation and historical consensus have not been commonplace elements.
When I think about your work, three names come to mind: Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Prince. So let's talk about Bob Marley first. How is his work being applied now, years after his death, and in new ways? What is it that draws you to study Marley?
I’ve argued for decades that while we recognize the quality of Marley’s music during his peak in the 1970s, we also need to be consciously aware that significant stylistic compromises were made to achieve mass market crossover. This, of course, returns us to the concept of authenticity, and Marley is also discussed in my previously mentioned book chapter “Authenticity in Music Production” that includes a segment of a first-hand interview with the engineer overseeing his first international album Catch a Fire (1973). It’s a notable irony that in order to philosophically challenge the capitalist exploitation that shaped Caribbean history and the music business in general, Marley had to harness commercial forces in order to be heard. The reason that Bob Marley became a global anti-establishment icon is because his records achieved international release and distribution through the ‘Babylon system’ – the mechanism of ruthlessly capitalizing on commercial product, sometimes at the expense of the music’s integrity. Now, his estate generates millions of dollars annually from products that have only a peripheral relationship to Marley’s music and artistic identity, raising valid questions about whether his legacy has been literally sold out. We should also note that his Legend album (1984) which is now the best-selling reggae album of all-time is a compilation focused on Marley’s lighter musical side, with few songs representing the political opposition on which his rebellious image was based.
You teach a course about Jimi Hendrix and recently published "Jimi Hendrix's Business Legacies" in SAGE Music Business Case Studies. What did you research discover about how his business issues created problems for his creativity? How were you able to research this? Did anything surprise you?
There weren’t many surprises for me at this stage, having previously explored this aspect of his career. Hendrix’s business issues provide a snapshot of artist exploitation and legal challenges in the late 1960s when artist knowledge of the music business and access to practical remedies were less commonplace. Previously published sources provided some data, but examining issues encountered by his estate, Experience Hendrix, in more recent times, emphasizes the longevity of the problems. Essentially, his managers exercised too much control over his income, and the contractual arrangements were not in the artist’s best interest. Such circumstances will eventually affect creative focus and stability, and Hendrix was no exception.
You helped create and host a symposium on the life and music of Prince in conjunction with Salford University and have published research about him. What are some new ideas and interpretations about Prince's work that emerged from the conference and your work?
One particularly notable aspect is that historical appraisal of Prince has to extend beyond his commercial peak in the 1980s and the focus on chart hits. When the set list for the televised 2020 Grammy tribute to Prince was recently revealed, it appeared that nothing performed by Prince after 1987 was included. The forthcoming book Prince and Popular Music which I co-edited engages with later phases of his career when the artistic freedom created by his independent status facilitated some of his most ambitious work.
I joke that you are an International Man of Mystery because you travel the world researching and presenting. But on a serious note, you are a rock star in the world of music scholars. What is one memorable or fun encounter with one of your famous or non-famous fans?
Well, I’m certainly not aware of having any ‘rock star’ status among music scholars, but it’s certainly important to attain some degree of recognition for your work from your peers. I once attended a conference when I was introduced to a senior scholar whose work I’d admired and cited. Remarkably, he’d read my work, though I thought he must have confused me with someone else. At that point, he cited a specific book chapter I’d written and the essence of my discussion. The lesson is that you never know who’s reading your work, and that your usually invisible audience may include the most established, famous scholars.
Have you ever interviewed one of your musical heroes? What was that like?
In late 2006, I had the honor of interviewing producer/songwriter/guitarist Nile Rodgers in London. He’d risen to prominence in the late 1970s with Chic, and subsequently established himself as a producer with multiplatinum acts like Diana Ross, Duran Duran, David Bowie, Madonna, and INXS, to name a few. Apart from displaying multiple levels of musical talent, he’s also an entrepreneur, raising him to an even higher level in my estimation. The interview proved to be an inspiring experience because of his acute awareness of his roles as a producer and a refusal to allow any commercial failures to derail his artistic momentum. Later, following his Grammy-winning work with French act Daft Punk in 2013 (on the international hit single “Get Lucky” and the album Random Access Memories), the approach he’d discussed in my interview was clearly being applied to another generation of artists, and demand for his work since then has never been greater. (Both the interview and a separate article I wrote on Rodgers were published online in 2007 in the Journal on the Art of Record Production.)
You are so prolific. Please give us some tips on research, writing and organizing. Also, how you find time to write and research?
It helps to have an immersive interest in the subject matter, because you’ll be living with it for long time. Like recording, writing is a frequently exhausting process that may require reframing or totally revising your ideas in order to communicate something meaningful to audiences. Methods of organizing material will vary based on the analytical focus, but it’s vital to represent your critical perspectives in an authentic manner, which may mean going against the grain of mainstream thought. In order to find enough time to write and research adequately, some significant level of sacrifice is usually involved. Prospective writers and researchers definitely need to recognize that reality.
I hate to ask this, but what are the five albums you would bring if you were stranded on a deserted island?
On any given day, I’d probably choose five different albums, some of which were not commercially successful. Among my choices would be Seal’s self-titled debut (1991), Marvin Gaye’s largely instrumental Trouble Man soundtrack (1972, though the 2012 40th Anniversary Expanded Edition is recommended), the instrumental album Valerian (1988) by keyboardist Philippe Saisse, the eponymous debut by Automatic Man (1976), and the reggae release In the Light (Dub) by Horace Andy (1977, reissued in 1995, and now out of print). Miles Davis’ 1986 album Tutu is another favorite among a very long list of alternative possibilities.