The unsung story of Toronto's reggae bootlegger
"Some people are best observed from a distance. That's me: DB Hawkes."
Most often, when we think about a music scene we describe it in terms of artists, promoters, venues and labels. Certain inputs into the economics of local music can't be described so easily, like well-directed community institutions, supportive journalists, or a record store employee with persuasive taste. They're often unexpected, but they amplify everyone else's efforts and create greater vitality in the process.
From the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, DB Hawkes (an alias) was one such figure. He traveled around the GTA and worked in the shadows at most of Toronto's live reggae shows of consequence, a self-styled archivist sometimes on the sly and sometimes with permission. Joe Strutt of Mechanical Forest Sound is a modern-day parallel, however DB's medium isn't the internet but good old radio, and its reach into a loyal audience who has followed him for decades.
As the humble ruler of Saturday overnight's Club Ned on CIUT for many years, his recordings remastered into broadcasts have had a direct, positive effect on the overall health of Toronto's reggae scene. Likewise, the sheer workload of managing so much content over the years has given DB a sense of purpose when things could easily have gone completely off the rails.
Canadian Reggae World's Julion King's first encounter with DB describes him well.
As the manager of the band, I wanted to know "who de blood claat is this likkel man a record my band shit without my permission!" and as I was just about to puff up my chest and walk over to him, [dub poet] Michael St. George (in the audience that night) said, "that's DB Hawkes." Thank goodness he stopped me from making a fool of myself."
"He played IBADAN's sets on his show the following week. Needless to say the next time IBADAN played at the Boo, the place was PACKED! I credit that to DB and was eternally grateful because he chose to do this on his own to elevate the music and the scene and has still never asked me or anyone else that I know for a single dime."
DB has been in the public eye forever but has now seems like the right time to tell his story. To speak with him is to notice his distinctive voice right away - like Shaggy from Scooby Doo, but deeper, older and wiser, punctuated by a signature laugh that every reggae musician in this city can identify. DB speaks in paragraphs, paced by a good-sized spliff.
"I record the whole show from the beginning" DB begins, "when I play it back on the air I'll start it up from before I actually get the mix together so if you're Johnny-come-lately, you end up being fodder for the monitors. You don't end up sounding so good cause you don't have a lot of experience. I'll play you anyways on the radio! And you hear it and you get really embarrassed and you go 'I'm never going to let that happen again.'"
"So because of that, people started getting really slick. The backup bands started getting really tight because they were hearing each other and there was competition. Not just among artists but compared to the last time you were on the radio."
For a scene fighting to break down barriers to the mainstream of Canadian music, it was a godsend to have weekly, high quality reggae broadcasts beamed to hundreds of thousands of people across Canada's biggest media market and surprising that a "skinny, weird li'l white dude" was responsible.
Nobody could have seen it coming.
DB was born in Toronto in 1950. He lived in Scarborough early on ("farmland north of Eglinton, construction south") before moving to Montreal. Things fell apart.
"When I was fifteen I became a ward of the court. That really sucked. But my family really sucked. I ended up in Douglas Hospital, which is a mental hospital, on this experimental ward where they were trying out new techniques, new drugs on people. During the daytime it was young Jewish intellectuals - basically the doctors, psychologists, head nurse. But at 3pm they went home and the staff ended up being Jamaicans and until 7 in the morning I was surrounded by Jamaicans."
"I didn't even know what a Jamaican was. So anyways you could get in trouble for doing things, so you wanted to stay on the good side of the staff. I discovered that Jamaican women are really susceptible to laughing. I discovered that if you could make a Jamaican woman laugh, well then they won't bother you. So I figured out how to make Jamaican women laugh and I think that's stuck with me for the rest of my life."
Moving back to Toronto in 1969, he took up residence in U of T's notorious Rochdale College and partook in the various wheelings and dealings therein.
"It was an exciting place to live" he deadpans. "A bunch of young people with a budget. You don't find that very often. Now the way it goes in Rochdale is you do alright but weird fluky things happen and you make a whole bunch of money in one night. And it's not something you're expecting and you can't make it happen again the next night. So anyways, we made a whole bunch of money one night and my partner decided we should stay up all night and in the morning go to the airport and go to Jamaica. So we ended up in Jamaica."
The mid '70s were spent smuggling back and forth from Jamaica to Toronto, which established a lot of contacts outside of his principal trade. "If people know you're a commuter they start giving you things." He met Stranger Cole, an expat who ran a record store in Kensington who gave him envelopes of record sales' proceeds to deliver to producers and artists in Kingston.
DB ended up meeting every artist and producer of note in mid-70s Jamaica, and people were always trying to push things on to the Canadian commuter thinking he could help their music up north. He did informal promo work for Bob Marley's international debut Catch A Fire. At one point we was given the screenplay to cult classic movie Rockers but had no idea what to do with it, so passed it on. "I honestly didn't think I could sell that."
But, as these Scorsese movies play out, he got caught at Toronto International Airport in 1977. "I had made it through customs. I always felt that when the doors open up people would be cheering. I made it all the way to that point then somebody grabbed me and hauled me back. And I did time for it." However, he reasons, "If I went to jail for it then I can talk about it."
Back in Jamaica in 1982, he began to record more and more including making a bootleg record of Aretha Franklin performing at the Jamaica World Music Festival. This stint in Jamaica didn't last as long. "I got into a fight with my landlord and that caused the police to become involved which caused immigration to become involved which meant that I got deported. It seems that's one of my big claims to fame - lots of Jamaicans have been deported from Canada but not so Canadians have been deported from Jamaica."
His history with the Toronto reggae scene really picked up when he got back "When I got back to Toronto somehow I got plugged into working with Blue Notes Toronto. Blue put on a whole bunch of concerts at the Masonic Temple and he hired people to video them. I was one of those people. Having just come back from Jamaica I would go over the opening acts and say 'hey, check for him, he's really good'."
"That was the beginning of what at that point was the Livestock Band and became the Hit Squad. Eventually there was a shooting - it was a really good show with Barrington Levy and Horace Andy. When the shooting happened Horace Andy was on stage. He's singing into the mic then you hear this crack and boom! He's down on the ground level, still singing into the mic, then another crack and he runs off the stage sideways, still singing. After that people didn't want to go to the Masonic Temple as much."
Long before Zoom recorders, his tools of the trade were "the bag camera, it was the early days of video and I had a video camera and I got my friend to make an extension for the video monitor so you could have the zoom controls in your lap while the camera was in the bag, there was a hole in the bag. It worked really good for the Copa because you could get right up on the balcony and get in front of the stage. It took three people to carry in all the equipment - the VCR, the battery packs and mics and you had to sneak all this into the club."
This led to CIUT in 1986, where he began an open format Saturday overnight show. By 1990, Saturday nights on CIUT kicked off at 7pm with Dhantal Radio, playing soca, chutney and bhangra followed by pioneering hip hop broadcast The Masterplan Show at 8:30, then Patrick Roots' Reggae Riddims from 10PM until midnight.
"I came on after them" DB says "that's a lot of why my show became a Jamaican show. You had the whole of Patrick's audience there - why would you make them turn it off?"
In the days before FLOW, this was the longest and most widely available stretch of Black and Caribbean radio programming in Toronto and DB became a celebrity of sorts, his nerdy wit always bringing surprising knowledge, context and analysis to his many of hours of live recordings.
"Somewhere along the line Revelation band said they wanted to be on the air and I said well there's implications here - mostly we were doing instrumental stuff or singer songwriters (live on air) so I was a bit concerned there were no monitors. They said we'll bring our own monitors. Because Revelation played live on the air, next thing Tabarruk wanted to play and then Rockstone and those three sort of came in and out a few times. For some reason or another I was getting in trouble with the station, and they didn't want me to put live bands on the air anymore."
"So the people from Revelation had this rehearsal hall place on Oxford St. and said hey, we can do it from here. So we rented a Bell line and we started putting on live bands all night on Saturday night from 26a Oxford. We weren't having much luck getting an audience. So all the sudden we started selling booze and kaboom!"
For a while, Lionheart was one of the city's premier boozecans, and became an anchor destination for downtown reggae and the evolving African music scene. While everyone who was there remembers its vitality and incubation of singers and players alike, the reality for DB was "It's another one of those situations where everybody was out there and I was locked in this little room doing a mix. Being DB Hawkes I don't spend a lot of time on the physical plane."
Needless to say, a live broadcast of DIY reggae music after hours in Kensington was pretty edgy for a mass medium, and this added to the excitement and prestige for bands to be represented both at the venue and on the air. The DB Hawkes cultural feedback loop really kicked into maximum effect at that point, although Lionheart itself "eventually got busted, live on the air! I had to sneak out pretending I was part of the audience and go back to the radio station."
His reputation spread quickly even among foreign artists. "First time I met Sugar (Minott), I was setting up stuff (in a club). Someone came up to me and said Sugar wanted to speak to me. I figured he wanted to know what the deal was with the recordings, stuff like that. I get to the dressing room and he says 'I just wanted to thank you in person for everything you're doing for the Jamaican community'."
Around town, DB would record at the BamBoo, the Real Jerk spinoff the Jerk Pit (on Richmond St.), the Rivoli, El Mocambo, Apocalypse Club (now El Convento Rico) but also venture further afield to shows and festivals produced by Jones and Jones or Rasta-focused events at Jane and Finch, Rexdale and into Brampton produced by Iley Dread.
"He was putting on shows for his people. Anybody could come if they wanted but as far as he was concerned, his people were shut out of bars (due to the perception that reggae crowds weren't heavy drinkers) so he set things up so that it would work for a Jamaican audience and he'd put them in a place where Jamaicans lived. He would rent these halls like the Golden Palace. Iley would rent one, then move to another place. He'd put on these shows that were about 4-5 hours worth of entertainment. I remember several times people saying to me 'I'm really glad that you came up to our part of town.'"
He also started recording Afrofest at this time, and his dubwise mixes on CIUT often sounded better on the air than the mix coming out of the mains at Queens Park. "Invariably people would show up and say it sounds really good on the radio and I got here and was disappointed. I started noticing people wearing headphones at Afrofest." These broadcasts leveraged CIUT's huge reach into southern Ontario to drive the success of the festival which now draws over 100,000 people each July.
The gear, cab fare and post production costs didn't finance themselves. "Herb money does come into play" he says, matter-of-factly about the ganjanomics behind the music. "It's financed most of the shows I've recorded to some degree or another. Or at least made them better." DB's standing in the community also came about because he fulfilled another valuable purpose: a connection.
"Not all promoters are willing to take care of those things, so DB Hawkes walks in. I try my hardest to always have the best herb in town. I started realizing that if I could come up with good enough herb, as good as they could get back home or better then people would start mentioning it to other people. After a while it sort of became a standard thing. From my point of view, I'm doing a recording: you want happy artists! It's worth the money! One of my favourite quotes is from Ken Boothe who took a draw and said "that's SINGING herb."
This is the contradiction of DB Hawkes. Nobody doubts his agreeableness, knowledge, and selflessness in having advanced the Toronto reggae scene, but he's been on the wrong side of the law and subject to occasional mental instability for quite some time. It's needless to pass definitive judgement on whether he's a good or bad guy, only to reiterate that it takes all kinds of people to foster a scene. This business has seen far worse intersections of drugs and music.
DB is not as active as he used to be. He's been busted many times. An in-studio altercation led to him being banned from CIUT in 2007 and though he's back on the air, his broadcast is no longer presented live. He produces his radio show at home in his cluttered apartment, with master tapes, CDRs and so forth peeking out from all surfaces. His archives consist of the stuff under his bed: 16 milk cartons filled with tapes, topped by a plywood board.
He's no longer online, and despite the temptation to call him a bootlegger, DB has never resold or traded many of materials, so most of his collection remains private. He speaks of applying for grants to get things organized and out in the world, though nothing's imminent. Whatever happens, he'll push forward lest he get caught up in the present closing in on him.
Though it hasn't always been the case in his long and winding journey through life, DB has people around him to help him pursue options. Good will is out there in the community he helped to build.
"Most, including I, would love to spend some time in his archive. You would most definitely hear the good, bad and ugly as he records it all. Club Ned is where you can hear it. He is always pleasant and willing to help. Stay strong D.B. I man respect your contribution" - Michael St. George.
Writing by David Dacks.
Posters courtesy of Reggae Toronto, group shots by Steven Cogdell, the festival shot of DB by Michael Stohr
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