He’s always ready to draw from decades’ worth of classic Jamaican sounds in the service of his own cutting-edge recordings, the music of the extended Marley family, and hits by international artists like Lauryn Hill and Joss Stone.
Of this generation’s great reggae drummers, Wilburn “Squidly” Cole is the link between old and new—between the roots reggae of Jimmy Cliff and the dancehall and hip-hop of Damian Marley and Nas. His father, StrangeJah Cole, authored the prototypical reggae hit “Bangarang,” and his uncle Tabby is the lead singer of the legendary Jamaican group the Mighty Diamonds.
“Getting into drums is acknowledging music through my skins,” Squidly says. “I’m just coming from all those people that played music when I was a kid, that I’ve known, a lot of them dead and gone, so I play with them in my mind. And I see it as a gift. All these people are in my head when I’m playing music. I’m not saying I’m playing their beat, but with the thought of them, knowing that them played all the music that really made me who I am. It’s my intention to keep them alive.”
Cole was on the road with Cliff at fifteen, and he first toured the U.S. with Black Uhuru’s Mykal Rose at seventeen. He became the “house drummer” for the Marley children, first joining Ziggy’s Melody Makers to play on the Chris Frantz–produced One Bright Day album in 1989.
With Damian Marley, Cole produced the hit “Me Name Jr. Gong,” from the 1996 album Mr. Marley, and he played on and coproduced Marley’s Grammy-winning Halfway Tree and Welcome to Jamrock albums. (Cole’s playing on Jamrock is particularly lesson-filled, including the complex but laid-back groove on “There for You,” the aggressive take on “We’re Gonna Make It,” and the slamming fills and great broken hi-hat work throughout.) Squidly was at the helm of Julian Marley’s Lion in the Morning and Stephen Marley’s Mind Control, and he also played on the Damian Marley/Nas collaboration Distant Relatives.
The drummer has the skills to cross over as well—he coproduced Lauryn Hill’s cover of “Turn Your Lights Down Low” on the Chant Down Babylon Bob Marley remix album, and then appeared on the vocalist’s smash solo record, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. He also performed on Amy Winehouse’s first LP, Frank, and on Joss Stone’s Mind, Body & Soul.
Cole’s solo debut, 2009’s Babylon Days, explores the soul realm on “In My Dreams,” hip-hop on “War and Violence,” and electronica on “Star of the Show.” His 2011 follow-up, Blood Line, features the hip-hop/dancehall fusion of “Rub a Dub Have the Power,” the disco-dub flavor of the title track, and the positive message and rock-solid rimshots of “Words to Survive.”
Now the singing drummer is preparing his third solo album, Reggae College TT. The TT stands for Trench Town, the famously talent-heavy neighborhood in Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston. “Growing up in Trench Town,” Cole recalls, “my yard was a dance. All the artists of that era—during the ’60s, in ’70, ’71, ’72, ’73—used to come to my yard. This album I’m dedicating to all of the musicians who make reggae music possible. The ones that died, you know, I wanted to write things and credit them. All the years I’ve been playing, it’s not me—it’s all of these people inside of me.
“I take it real serious,” Squidly adds. “I’m one of the musicians that keeps the library of music in my brain. When I was a kid I used to be a student of this. I know every studio in Kingston. I know who played what, who produced, who arranged. All of these things is my thing.
“This is what I love about music. This is why I’ve become a producer. You have to know the fundamental and the formulas. How did Sly [Dunbar] and them make all of these hits? What them use, what kind of instruments? What kind of drums—Syndrums? And who’s the engineer that mikes up these drums and creates sounds on all of these hit songs?”
Cole takes an open-minded approach to music that has helped him master many grooves. “The first time I come to America,” he says, “I’m touring with Mykal Rose, and we’re playing all the Sly and Robbie [grooves] live. So my music can’t be no personal thing. I play Sly licks, I play Santa [Davis] licks, I play everybody licks. I can’t just play the way I play. I wanna play some people’s beat that I find interesting, and I do that very well, you know.
“Sly could play the great roots-rock reggae,” Cole says, “but Squidly can play ‘Reggae Night’ and ‘Sitting in Limbo’ and ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want,’ which is pure soul disco. That’s the reason that I stand out in my time. Most of the drummers in Jamaica were just strictly roots reggae. We were the kids who were listening to [sings] ‘Looking for some hot stuff, baby, this evening’—you know, Donna Summer. On the new album you’ll hear one called ‘Strictly Rub a Dub a We Are Playing Tonight,’ where I drop with three different feels combined. I’m like, Whoa, dancehall, Trinidadian, and R&B flavor in one—this is history! When they hear the melody singing and the beat and the bass line, people are going to freak out.
“The music is universal,” Squidly continues, “even though we’re from this reggae line and one-drop scene, yeah? That’s how I become who I am in this music today. That’s why Ziggy Marley called me in 1986, and Junior and Stephen Marley. These guys know what I’m capable of. I am the one who taught them how to make recordings.”
Cole built his own recording space in Kingston in 2005, naming it 100 Studio. “There’s a lot of things that we’re doing new about this spiritualistic cultural music,” he says. “I am from Channel One studio, RJR, Dynamic—more than Tuff Gong. I’m not saying that Tuff Gong wasn’t the main thing, but I’m more into the other studios, because the other studios have this uncommercialized sound.”
Though Cole is proud of his own accomplishments as a producer and multi-instrumentalist, the drums remain at the center of his art. “On every album I try to do a drum song,” he says. “On the first album it was ‘Beating Up Di Drum Again.’ On my next one, in between parts I’m putting live drum fills, like a hip-hop line and a one-drop. I want to make sure a song has strength without anything but the drums—it could be played with just the drums playing every part.”