BlackBook Interview: Island Records Legend Chris Blackwell on U2, Cocktail Culture + His Beloved Jamaica

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If Chris Blackwell needed an introduction, it’s only because he’s spent a career making other people famous. Indeed, he signed towering legends to his Island Records label: Bob Marley, U2, PJ Harvey. He would ultimately oversee hundreds of millions in album sales, from artists of wildly different styles and ideologies.

Eventually, his love of the actual island life led him to launch Island Outpost in 1991, a hotel company that, no surprise, completely turned the idea of the Jamaican resort on its head – and whose properties would go on to include The Caves, Strawberry Hill, Goldeneye Hotel and Resort and the Fleming Villa.

 

Goldeneye

 

 

Of course, more than any other place the world, the singular island of Jamaica has held a special spot in his heart in the decades since he first visited. So perhaps it was inevitable that he would also put his magic touch on the Caribbean nation’s signature spirit; and this year mark’s the 10th anniversary of the launch of his namesake Blackwell Rum – a portion of whose sales goes to Island ACTS (Assisting Communities Toward Strength), an organization which seeks to improve local island communities.

As Blackwell Rum was a sponsor of November 28th’s BlackBook Presents inaugural gallery opening, we caught up for a chat with the legend himself.

 

Are you still inspired by new music these days?

It happens now and again; but I’m not spending all of my time in it obviously. It’s changed in some ways for the better, some for the worse.

What specifically?

Well, it’s no longer about albums anymore, it’s mostly about singles. But I do love Chronixx, the Jamaican rapper. Do you know him? There’s a kind of a great balance to his music.

What’s your involvement in the hotel company now?

I am mostly still involved, yes. It exists because over the years I would just buy property, mostly in Jamaica, with the specific intent of opening hotels.

Back in the ’70s British kids fell in love with Jamaican music. What does the place mean to you now?

You know, I just really do love it there – it’s such an exceptional island, with its different races and religions. It’s had a very strong sense of culture dating all the way back to the 1500s. It was once one of the biggest ports in the world, all the maritime countries came to Jamaica for trade – it was as important as New York.

And the music, of course. 

Right, reggae has to continued to grow and grow around the world.

You launched your namesake rum ten years ago.

Well, Jamaica is blessed with incredibly rich soil, there are so many different plants and fruits. And while they also have the best coffee and cocoa on the world, they are obviously known for their great rum.

 

Your family was in that business, no?

Yeah, and going way back, rum was always the drink. But ours is the smoothest – and, I’m not really allowed to say this…but you don’t get a hangover from it.

That’s a pretty attractive feature. But inexpensive rum can have a bit of that…metallic taste. Yet yours is sold at a very reasonable price point, and tastes like it should be more expensive.

Well, our rum is not aged for a very long time; you can charge more if it’s aged.

Do you feel like the rampant cocktail culture draws attention away from the pleasure of just sipping it neat?

Well, you definitely touch on something. If you’re marketing it for cocktails, you’re not really tasting the rum. That’s why we don’t sell a lot of it to bars – we want you to buy it in stores.

So, going back to music – I’m curious about something. What did you think of the U2 / Apple Songs of Innocence debacle back in 2014?

Oh, that was a huge mistake. It might have been a good idea if they hadn’t forced it on everyone. Their only other mistake was the marketing of [1997’s] Pop, and the whole “Popmart” concept – for which they didn’t have any input from us.

Well, the Apple thing…it just seemed like U2 were sucking up to a big corporation, when they were always absolutely their own people.

Yes, I believed in them completely because of how real they were – and because of their passion. From the start, I wanted to follow their direction, and let them be in control of their own destiny. It worked, obviously. They also quite literally had a lot to do with changing Ireland.

They still mean a lot to you, surely.

You know, I can’t even remember us having any real arguments. They were always such honorable people, and I’ll always love them.