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Easy Stars the Hard Way: Arranger Michael Goldwasser speaks on Thrillah

article by John Powell

The Easy Star All-Stars are likely best known for Dub Side of the Moon, a reggae tribute to the Pink Floyd masterpiece. The All-Stars began as a studio band for Easy Star Records, operated by Eric Smith, Lem Oppenheimer, Remy Gerstein, and Michael Goldwasser.

Michael Goldwasser is responsible for arranging the classic albums for the reggae collective. These albums include Radiodread, Lonely Hearts Dub Band, and the recently released Easy Star’s Thrillah.

Easy Star All Stars | Thrillah

While the band is comprised of some amazing northeast musicians, and the reggae grooves continue in high-energy live performances, Michael is the one behind the scenes- certainly not the face of Easy Star, although an integral part as arranger and producer.

In excitement for the Thriller tribute record, Michael sat down to discuss the new album, Easy Star’s beginnings, and much about what goes on behind the scenes. As an Easy Star All-Stars fan, I found his knowledge exciting and his insight quite entertaining:

Was there any song on any of the albums that was difficult to arrange for the All- Stars?

Well, I don’t like to use the word “difficult”. I’ll say they were all challenging in their own way. On this album, in particular, one of the challenges wasn’t musical, it was philosophical: will our fans accept Easy Star All-Stars starting an album with a song that isn’t reggae? I like to think Yes. Fans of the All-Stars, and music fans in general, are actually more open-minded than the industry or radio would lead us to believe.

To me, it’s about good music that makes people want to dance or enjoy themselves. Once I get over that hump and say, “You know, I just have to do the arrangement that I think is right for this song,” that makes sense to me. Because even Michael Jackson in the court of law was found to have borrowed from the song “Soul Makosa” by Manu Dibango, which was from the mid 70s, that’s where he got “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma ma coo sas.” Once I could make peace with myself and realize people are going to get it, I could let the arrangements flow.

With our previous albums we were taking music that wasn’t very danceable and making it danceable by adapting it to reggae. With this album, we’re starting with material that is very danceable, and I had to find a way to write arrangements to make it danceable in a different way.

Take the song “Beat It”: Michael Jackson’s version is a faster tempo, higher energy. I conceptualized our version when I was thinking lyrically how it applies to Jamaica, which has been plagued by gun violence since the 70s because of political things going on. The violence has negatively impacted Jamaicans, and thinking about “Beat It” as an anti-violence song, slowing it down, making it more dread, something that will get people moving to the groove, but also feel the heaviness that violence has done to Jamaica.

All our albums have different challenges. When we did Radiodread more than half the songs aren’t in 4/4 time, or they have songs where it switches time signatures every two bars, even. It was good to wrap my head around. I don’t think there was any reggae not in 4/4 time until our arrangement of “Money” on Dub Side of the Moon, which is in 7/4.

Michael Goldwasser | Easy Star All Stars

This is a funkier album that’s a bit more playful than any other Easy Star albums. How was it for you picking Thriller to arrange?

It was really fun for me as a fan of the original album and a fan of Michael Jackson as an artist. We try to make every album different, so it’s no surprise it’s very different from Dub Side of the Moon. It has playfulness to it even though there is a dark side to the original album that I think we brought out even more in our arrangements.

And Thriller also gave us the opportunity to explore other aspects of reggae, which is that black American music, and R&B specifically, were very important to the history of reggae. A lot of the early popular Jamaican music, starting with ska in the early 60s, was very informed by American R&B, and still is today. Modern R&B and hip hop are very influential in Jamaica as well.

I find that a lot of fans in the US who are fans of the current crop of reggae bands like Rebelution, SOJA, and The Green- they sometimes see reggae through the prism of these American reggae bands, who are more rock influenced in ways, and they know Bob Marley, but they don’t really know the place of R&B in reggae history. I’m hoping people will hear this album and get the connection between reggae and R&B: the first song on the album is straight-up Afrobeat, to get the connection between Africa, Jamaica, American black music- they’re all connected. People forget that, and compartmentalize too much, missing the bigger picture, how all this music comes from the same place.

How did the Easy Star players react when you said you were going to do Thriller?

I think everyone was excited. That’s one of the great things about doing these projects, is, not only am I able to write interesting arrangements as tribute to the originals, but also getting to work with this collective that we call Easy Star All-Stars, and seeing how each musician interprets their parts.

Thriller is so popular that people may not take it seriously, but as a producer I can say it’s an amazingly produced album. It’s an album I enjoyed for 30 years, and not until working on this project did I really pick it apart in terms of production. All the things Quincy Jones did were groundbreaking in certain ways. He set a standard.

I know it caused me to go back to the original and appreciate it lyrically.

One thing I enjoy about the songs on Thriller is there’s several songwriters involved. Michael Jackson wrote five of the songs and he had a certain style. Then Rod Temperton, who wrote several songs on Off the Wall and who had a group called Heat Wave in the 70s that had a lot of hits; his style is different from Michael’s both rhythmically and harmonically. There’s one song co-written by James Ingram and Quincy Jones, another by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis from Toto, so it’s a nice blend of songwriting styles. Therefore, as the arranger/producer it makes my job more interesting. I mean, there are plenty of great albums out there written by one person, but I think variety in songwriting approaches can make for a more exciting album.


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