Radio Riddler, the reggae production outfit formed by Brian Fast Leiser and Frank Benbini of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, are in London adding the final parts to their debut album ahead of its release next year. Purple Reggae, as it’s been tentatively titled, is a reworking of Prince’s seminal soundtrack Purple Rain and features a string of guest vocalists. For the duo it’s been a labour of two loves some five years in the making. Getting it right is important when you’re dealing with royalty.
"We’ve shown him ultimate respect," says Frank when we meet for burgers in a Wardour Street diner, "there has to be that because you’re dealing with the guy that made me want to play music" "You’re not going to do something better than him," adds Frank, "but you can do something that maybe he didn’t think of. We said let’s use all his production techniques from the period, but instead of it being all eighties let’s make it reggae. But we still want something that sounds like us. We’ve put our own slant on it."
"We’ve shown him ultimate respect - there has to be that because you’re dealing with the guy that made me want to play music"
"It’s something that’s gone on forever," says Frank. "You go to a Jamaican sound-system and there’ll be a guy there singing over a dubplate – singing an Elvis song or something from the ’50s. It’s a very traditional thing, to do a version of something in a reggae style. The history of Jamaican roots has been covering records."
Picking which record came to the pair in Prague, while stuck in an airport having missed the plane to their next FLC gig.
Frank: "We thought we had time! We were thinking and Fast mentioned Purple Rain – I bugged the hell out and said: ‘Yes, it has to be’!"
Fast: "I’m a Prince fan, anyone who says they aren’t a Prince fan doesn’t like music that much, but I’m not like Frank is – he’s a fanatic you know?!" Frank: "I won’t go into too much detail because it might come off as though I’m a bit nuts or something! I was turned onto him from an early age, from my parents, I’d sit down every day, watching video footage and trying to play drums like Sheila E and learning them songs." "I’ve been all over the world to see him; I’ve been in studios just because I know he’s used them, trying to get the different sounds that he’s got." I’m not left to take his word for it. A quick roll of his sleeve reveals lyrics from the Beautiful Ones tattooed on his right hand. On his shoulder a full colour portrait of a mid-eighties era Mr Nelson. And he always wears something purple – today a Yankees cap, a gift from his fellow Riddler. "It’s full on respect," adds Frank.
We walk through the afternoon sun to Dean Street Studios for a playback. The album is packed with guest artists and sweeps the subgenres; dipping into dancehall, Lover’s Rock and deep dub. While melodically faithful, songs from Prince’s 1984 masterpiece are given a style transformation their author would surely admire. Fast imagines Prince’s reaction: "’Hey they're my kids – you’ve taken my kids and now they’re potheads!’"
"I’ve been all over the world to see him; I’ve been in studios just because I know he’s used them, trying to get the different sounds that he’s got."
Approaching artists to guest on the record, the pair found they were not alone in their admiration for the eccentric star. Frank: "The first thing I said to singers was "are you a Prince fan, because if you’re not don’t bother replying!" That’s pretty much standard. If you’re not into Prince, don’t bother doing it."We’ve got some legendary people so far; Ali Campbell, Sinead O’Connor, Beverley Knight, this country’s greatest soul singer. Beverley is a super super Prince fan – on my level. You can tell – her version of Baby I’m A Star will knock your socks off because she knows every little detail, every word is perfect. We gave her a lyric sheet in the studio – she was insulted!" Fast: "It’s taken a long time to find the right people. It’s really important. Prince, he can hate it, and he will hate it probably, but he can’t fault the effort that’s been put into it." Other vocalists include Daniel Weetman of The Black Seeds, Naim Cortazzi and Frank himself. With a couple of guest spots still to be filled, the album’s release is expected early next year.
Radio Riddler performs Purple Reggae in its entirety for the first time at the One Love Festival in Kent, UK on August 12. "I think people will love the songs," says Frank, "they’ll know them and they’ll see what we’ve done with them. We’ve shown them respect. They’ll see we’re genuine, we’re doing it for the love of the music."
Radio Riddler's re-imaginings of Prince's seminal album are still under wraps, but you can hear their reggae treatments of Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye and Coldplay, to name just a few, on their Soundcloud page.
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