Philip Smart, Celebrated Reggae Producer/Engineer, Dead at 61

Producer/engineer Phillip Smart

Philip Smart, a renowned engineer, hit-making producer, owner of a successful recording studio, and visionary radio host who provided a much-needed platform for New York-area reggae artists, passed away on Feb. 25 from complications due to carcinoid cancer of the liver. He was 61. A memorial service was held for Mr. Smart in Baldwin, New York on March 8; his funeral will take place on March 15 at Hodges Funeral Home, Lee Memorial Park in Fort Myers, Fla. Mr. Smart is survived by his wife Georgette and son Philip, Jr.

Born on Nov. 21, 1953 in Kingston, Jamaica, Philip Smart’s career began precociously as the teenage producer of the single “Swing Easy” for his close friend, the late melodica master Augustus Pablo (the duo’s 30-minute recording session was financed through their saved lunch money). Smart then became an apprentice engineer for the late King Tubby, considered one of the founding fathers of dub, the Jamaican innovation where a bass line is typically brought to the forefront on a rhythm track as instruments are stripped out and otherwise manipulated. Smart was groomed by Tubby to cut dubs, exclusive recordings on soft acetate solely for sound system usage and not for commercial sale. Tubby also allowed him to record and mix songs for some of the era’s biggest reggae acts, including singer Johnny Clarke, for whom Smart produced “None Shall Escape The Judgement” (a credit commonly attributed to Bunny Lee), an instant hit that brought Clarke Singer of the Year honors in Jamaica in 1974.

Earning the equivalent of a Master's degree in engineering/production from the hands-on curriculum at King Tubby’s studio, Smart nonetheless sought to expand his capabilities by enrolling in an engineering course at Manhattan’s Electric Lady Studios. He returned to Jamaica before ultimately migrating to New York in 1976. By the end of the decade, the ongoing demand for Smart’s engineering expertise from various New York-based reggae labels and producers -- including Brooklyn’s Jah Life Records and Moodies Records in the Bronx -- persuaded him to open his own recording studio. In 1982, in partnership with his brother-in-law Michael McDonald, Smart opened HC&F studios in Freeport, Long Island, so named for the initials of the investor: their father-in-law, Herbert Chin and Family.

(L-R) Producer Sting International, entertainment reporter Stan Evan Smith, selector Digital English and Philip Smart on the microphone at the studios of WNYU. (Photo credit: Mrs. Georgette Smart)

Before long HC&F became a gathering place for emerging Jamaican reggae/dancehall acts based in New York and those visiting from the island. The studio’s stellar reputation quickly spread with the unexpected crossover success of the dicso-infused reggae single “Go-Deh-Yaka,” by the Brooklyn-based Jamaican band Monyaka, who co-produced the track with Smart. “Go-Deh- Yaka” garnered airplay on urban-formatted WBLS FM (107.5 FM), cracked the UK top 20 and reached no. 48 on the Dance Music/Club Play Singles Chart.

“We were operating out of our father-in-law’s basement, but the crowd at the studio became so big after Monyaka’s song, we decided to move from a residential area to a commercial district at 6 Brooklyn Ave,” recalls Michael McDonald, who was an aspiring engineer when the studio opened. In 2005, McDonald returned to Jamaica, where he is the production manager at Perfect Sync Entertainment Group, which specializes in designing recording studios and recovering lost (recording) data. “When clients came in to do their work, Philip was engineering, but he was also involved in the actual production -- making sure the tracks were made right, that the artists were voicing correctly, all the things required of a producer,” McDonald disclosed. “Philip was the best engineer, but clients always returned because he would coordinate their recording sessions, too.”

Smart’s meticulousness proved indispensible to New York’s burgeoning reggae industry of the late 70s/early 80s, notes Tad A. Dawkins, founder of the Kingston/Miami based label/distributorship Tad’s Record; its first office was located above HC&F studios. “When most Jamaican producers left home, they stopped in New York to have Philip Smart mix, overdub or do something to ensure their music sounded right,” says Dawkins, whose recently opened Kingston studio is run by his son Tad Jr., Smart’s apprentice for three years. “Jamaican artists in New York wanted a familiar place to make good music; once we took Gregory Isaacs to a Manhattan studio to voice [record vocal tracks], but him say it nah feel right,” Dawkins reminisced, “so we went to Philip’s studio, and within two days we finished everything, easily, because the familiar yard [Jamaica] feel was there.”

Philip at HC&F studios (renamed Black Pyramid Recording Studios). (Photo credit: Mrs. Georgette Smart)

That "yard" feel juxtaposed with Smart’s expertise in the latest in recording technology and instinct for recognizing a hit as it was being recorded, resulted in a succession of popular singles in the mid- to late-80s, including Audrey Hall’s U.K. crossover hit “One Dance” (1985, Penthouse), Barrington Levy’s “Murderer” (1984, Jah Life), and Shelly Thunder’s no-nonsense suggestion for keeping a cheating spouse in line, “Kuff” (1988, Music Master).

The 1990s brought to HC&F the introduction of digital recording and Sound Tools' two-track computer recording. The first Sound Tools hit recorded there was “Hot This Year” by Dirtsman, released on Smart’s Tan Yah label, and a remix of singer Cocoa Tea’s poignant dancehall hit “Rikers Island” featuring deejay Nardo Ranks.

As the 90s progressed and dancehall reggae attained major-label support, Smart’s engineering/production acumen enhanced recordings by New York-based dancehall luminaries including Shinehead, Super Cat, Shabba Ranks, signed to Elektra, Columbia and Epic Records, respecitvely. Shaggy’s debut single “Mampie" (Tan Yah) was recorded at HC&F, as was a significant portion of the tracks featured on his albums for various majors including “Hot Shot” (MCA), which crowned the Top 200 tally in 2001 and has sold nearly 9 million copies in the U.S.

Smart’s steadfast championing of local reggae acts could be heard on his popular Friday night radio program “Get Smart,” broadcast on WNYU (89.1) FM from 1979 through 2004. “Philip Smart changed the radio landscape by using New York as a marketplace for New York-based artists; he helped establish dancehall reggae in New York so artists could have careers competitive with their Jamaica-based counterparts,” acknowledges Stan Evan Smith, "Get Smart"’s entertainment news correspondent from 1992 until the show’s end. Now the senior music editor at Jamaicans.com, Smith conducted Smart’s final interview in December 2013.

Smart’s affable personality and strategic on air approach compelled other New York reggae jocks to allocate slots on their Jamaica-centric play lists for New York-area artists. With the producer/engineer's deep roots in reggae’s earliest days and connections to Kingston’s finest talents, “Get Smart” was also a preeminent vehicle for Jamaica-based artists/producers seeking international exposure for their latest releases. Smart also freely shared the tracks he played and his vast musical knowledge with other radio hosts. “Philip played many tunes first, but was never selfish in allowing others to play his exclusives; it was part of the mission to close the gap in the production and engineering quality between Jamaica and overseas, and to place New York talent on the world stage,” explains Francine Chin, host of "Caribbean Blend" (WNWK 105.9 FM) New York’s number one weeknight reggae show from 1993 to 1996. “Despite his many accomplishments, Philip remained a humble man, hardly wanting to discuss his past feats," adds Chin. "He trained engineers and music students and stood for nothing that would exploit a female talent. His departure is a massive blow to our industry."

Before he retired in the summer 2013, one of the last projects Smart worked on was Shabba Ranks’ forthcoming album, which will be completed by Bryan Morris, who now helms HC&F Studios, renamed Black Pyramid Recording Studios in 2007. Mentored by Smart and McDonald, Morris remembers Smart as “always keeping current. He taught us to prepare ourselves, to try to find the next thing, the right sound. Philip taught many people and touched many lives and we will carry on the work that he started.”