Memories of Merciless (and the ‘country artiste’ label)

Merciless album cover
Merciless (Photo credit: Merciless Twitter)

I have two outstanding memories of recently deceased deejay Leonard ‘Merciless’ Bartley, one of which does not include his physical presence. Starting with the latter, in the mid-1990s I went on a bus in Kingston. This was when the ‘quarter million’ and ‘Shaka’ buses ruled the city’s streets and the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) was a few years of complaints about a system which was perceived to be the fiefdom of Ezroy Millwood in the future. Everyone was seated when I stepped up and, of course, bass-heavy music was being played and the heads were nodding to Shaggy’s ‘Boombastic’. But when Merciless’ ‘Mavis’ was mixed in there was a visible perking up. There was singing along up to the line “Mavis want a man that is romantic”, but the commuters’ voices drowned out the deejays on the “well!” which followed. That was the power of the voice of a man known for his multiple bars of lyrics compressed into just two syllables of one repeated word.

The other outstanding Merciless memory comes from a Reggae Sumfest Dancehall Night which I covered in the early 2000s and his death shortly after the staging of Sumfest 2022 is one of those strange twists of fate. His famed facing down of Ninja Man, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer at Sting 2000 was still fresh enough in dancehall fans’ minds to have him in the feuding mix, although the main battle was of course between Beenie and Bounty (or was it Bounty’s brutalisation of Vegas that year?). Merciless came on stage with a couple of camouflage clad young men in tow, but they were the first to flee when the bottles spinning in the air towards the stage. The concert ended prematurely, there were gunshots on the outfield and the blame was put squarely at Merciless’ feet, undeservedly so. Sumfest went as far as announcing an intention to ban Merciless from future stagings, which was unjust. He was just the least of the troublesome ones, who the festival could do without and has done just that.

Inevitably, when an entertainer does the downs and is forgotten in the wave of nostalgia about the highs, some real, many magnified. In Merciless’ case, the emphasis has been on Sting 2000. His mauling at the hands of Kiprich at Sting 2011 and gutting by Ninja Man and Gully Bop at Ghetto Splash 2015 seem to have been conveniently overlooked, at least publicly. The latter was especially bad, as at many points Merciless just sat there and took it without responding, raising questions about his state of mind.

It was a sad state of affairs for someone who had roared onto the scene in the 1990s and made an impact, despite being immediately labelled a Bounty Killer soundalike. I got the sense that he was excluded from dancehall’s real elite, not only because of his vocal similarity to Bounty but also by embracing the ‘country’ label at  time when Kingston was the be all and end all of Jamaican popular music. Apart from a few exceptions like the Grove Studio in Ocho Rios, it was the place where all the recording facilities were, from Penthouse to Shocking Vibes, Tuff Gong to Mixing Lab, Arrows, Exodus and Kilamnjaro for dubplates especially. The dancehall artistes came mainly from Kingston inner cities or Portmore – or moved there. Merciless, on the other hand, proclaimed himself “the warring don from Claaarendon”. Unlike Bass Odyssey sound system based in Alexandria, St Ann, which promoted itself as coming from “way out in the country”, Merciless did not have a rural show circuit which he could dominate. Bass Odyssey still does not play repeat, prominent dances in Kingston and has not only survived, but prospered.

Merciless was not in that position and it did not help that he presented himself in dress and speech as less than hip to the city life.

Things have changed significantly since digital technology made smaller studios possible (and commonplace), software advances have allowed music creation with limited talent and training, as well as online outlets (free, like YouTube), available at the tap of a few keys, emerged. It does not matter where in Jamaica someone is making music from, as the MoBay surge with people like Tommy Lee in the earlier part of last decade, Bushman with his determination to stay in St Thomas and the current St Mary bush movement of Yaksta exemplify.

In that sense, Merciless was ahead of his time in sticking to his rural roots. That is not a part of the Merciless post-death narrative, but it should be acknowledged. As with many people who are among the early ones to do what eventually becomes normal, this has been overlooked. Even Peter Tosh’s pioneering role in marijuana use has not been given sufficient credit.

It is the technology which brought me my last impressions of Merciless, deejaying about who could call “bad man phone” at Boom Box Tuesdays and an extended interview with the Teach Dem YouTube Channel. He seemed in much better shape mentally, his voice was as imposing as ever and the rhymes were clicking. Then the news of his death, a country man staying at a cheap, temporary Kingston base. Isn’t it an irony that the warring don rom Claarendon died in the city?

My memories of Merciless are of a strong voice and headstrong ways. In some quarters that would be the makings of an icon. For Merciless, they were barriers to genuine stardom.

Mel Cooke covered Jamaican entertainment as a print journalist for almost two decades, overlapping with his MPhil research on dancehall and experiential marketing with the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI, Mona, where he is now working on a PhD while lecturing in the Bachelor of Arts, Communication Arts and Technology (BACAT) programme at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech, Ja.).

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