The “Bad Boys” of reggae, veteran band Inner Circle, will celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2018, and their latest single, fittingly, is a cover a 50-year-old song, The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” The reggae remake of the rock classic (produced by Inner Circle, released on DubShot Records/SoundBwoy Entertainment) features Samoan American reggae star J Boog and Jamaican dancehall sensation Konshens — and it developed from a bout of insomnia.
“I couldn’t sleep one night and the story of Jim Morrison was on TV, he was singing ‘Light My Fire’ in a laid back way and I was like, this guy has a reggae attitude,” Inner Circle bassist Ian Lewis recalled in an interview with Billboard on the phone from the band’s Circle House studios in North Miami. “Then J Boog came here, he was chilling at our studio and the idea came to me to do ‘Light My Fire’ because I thought it was a wicked song,” Ian continued. “Reggae is that natural kind of music that can wrap itself around anything so the song just came off of a vibe, it wasn’t planned.”
Konshens had never heard “Light My Fire” prior to being recruited for the Inner Circle version. “When I first heard it my thought was, this is weird, different, but that put my antenna up and made my ears open wide,” says the rising dancehall star who signed to Empire Records earlier this year. “Inner Circle is known for their great productions over the years, so for them to put a dancehall deejay with a vintage group on such a different sounding track, it’s crazy, but it sounds great!”
Because of their hectic touring schedules, getting together for a video shoot was challenging, so Inner Circle opted for an animated clip. “We went on Craigslist and put up an ad that said anybody who likes this song and can do a video for it, get in touch with us,” shares Ian, “that’s where we found Upsetta.”
The video for “Light My Fire,” animated/directed by Upsetta, debuts here:?
Ian and his brother guitarist Roger Lewis founded Inner Circle in Kingston, Jamaica while they were attending high school alongside Stephen “Cat” Coore, Richie Daley and Michael “Ibo” Cooper, who would branch off in the early ’70s and form another powerhouse reggae outfit: Third World. Inner Circle started out playing covers of soul, rock and top 40 hits (the Lewis brothers recall hearing the Doors’ “Light My Fire” in 1967 but it wasn’t part of the band’s early repertoire). They attained greater recognition in Jamaica in the mid ’70s with reggae originals including “Forward Jah Jah Children,” “Tired Fi Lick Weed Inna Bush,” and “Tenement Yard” featuring the charismatic Jacob “Killer” Miller on lead vocals. In 1976 Inner Circle signed to Capitol Records; they released two albums for the label, then moved to Island Records. In 1978 they portrayed the hotel house band in the landmark reggae film Rockers; the same year, amidst ongoing deadly political violence in Jamaica, they performed at the historic One Love Peace Concert, where Miller united the leaders of rival political groups on stage for the chorus of a new song “Peace Treaty.”
In 1980, Inner Circle planned to tour the U.S. in support of their upcoming album, Mixed Up Moods, with Bob Marley and the Wailers when tragedy struck: Miller was killed in a car accident in Kingston on March 23. Inner Circle disbanded shortly after Miller’s demise. “Jake was like my brother, we were always writing and making music, and his death took the wind out of us because you just don’t expect that to happen to someone at his age,” comments Ian. “But the creative juices and songwriting in the band was always strong; a lot of groups rely heavily on their lead singer but we weren’t that type of group.”
The Lewis brothers and Inner Circle keyboardist Bernard “Touter” Harvey migrated to Miami in the early ’80s where they set up their (now) world-renowned Circle House recording studios. A spacious dual complex in North Miami Circle House marries a laid back Jamaican vibe to state of the art facilities and has been utilized by Beyonce, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, 2 Live Crew, Pitbull, Usher, DJ Khaled, Ne-Yo, and Sean Paul. Pharrell Williams even recorded his smash Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 “Happy” there.
Inner Circle regrouped in 1986 with Calton Coffie on lead vocals. They cracked the U.S. top 20 in 1993 with the double entendre laden “Sweat (A La La La la Long),” a No. 1 hit in several European countries. “Bad Boys,” selected as the theme for the long-running TV show Cops, peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100, while their Bad Boys album (Big Beat/Atlantic) was certified Gold and given the 1993 Best Reggae Album Grammy. Coffie left the band later in the decade to pursue a solo career.
Now comprised of the Lewis brothers, Touter (keyboards), drummer Lancelot Hall and lead singer Trevor “Skatta” Bonnick, who joined in 2013, Inner Circle has over 100 shows planned for 2018. Their golden anniversary year will also include the release of an album, a documentary and a book, each project titled A Long Road to Success. A play will be staged in Jamaica based on their signature hit “Tenement Yard,” which was remade by Chronixx (with Inner Circle) in 2015 and recently sampled on the track “Bam” featuring Damian Marley and Sister Nancy on JAY-Z’s 4:44 album.
“The idea for the 50th anniversary is to show the roots of where we began,” Roger Lewis told Billboard. “Some members of Third World started out with us in high school so we were thinking of forming one big band, going back to our high school, and performing with the people that we have recorded and played with throughout our career to tell our 50-year story. Another plan is to go to Germany and thank our fans because ‘Sweat’ spent 14 weeks at No. 1 there, a record for a foreign song and the biggest success for ‘Sweat’.”
Inner Circle’s endurance for the past half century is largely attributable to their ability to put on exhilarating live shows, write appealing songs and move with the times. The reggae pioneers have hosted or recorded with artists from various generations at Circle House including American reggae bands SOJA, Rebelution and Slightly Stoopid and upcoming Jamaican acts Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, I-Octane, narrowing the chasm between roots veterans, contemporary dancehall stars and non Jamaican reggae acts.
“There’s an excitement and infectious energy surrounding them, that’s what their fans gravitate towards, and working with so many young artists at their studio gives them a boost of energy and inspiration,” observes Christoffer Mannix Schlarb, founder and CEO of the reggae influenced DubShot Records, digital sales and marketing specialists, which entered into a joint venture with Inner Circle’s Soundbwoy Entertainment in 2010, and now markets and distributes the band’s music. “For a band to make it to 50 years, you have to have a couple of reboots,” Schlarb continued, “and from Jacob Miller to Calton Coffie to Junior Jazz and now Skatta, every singer along the way has put their own annotation on the history of the band.”
Inner Circle is regarded as the Rolling Stones of reggae because of their longevity, with one major difference, as Ian hastens to point out. “Mick Jagger is worth 300 million and we’re not worth anything close to that,” he laughs, “but for us it’s not the money, it’s the vibe that people still go crazy when they hear our music. Wherever we play, when we start singing, ‘Standing across the room…’ (‘Sweat’) people start dancing and we say damn, this song was a hit in 1993 but it seems like it was yesterday! We believe in yesterday, we are grateful for all it has done for us but we want to stay current. 50 years? Man, I feel like it has just begun.”