By Drew Ailes
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By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
Reggae original Eek-A-Mouse began wearing costumes long before anyone knew his nom de plume.
"I started doing that stuff back in Jamaica," he says of his often outlandish attire. "I'd just walk around town in that kind of stuff and people would think I was crazy, you know? Then I got my break in 1980-81, so I kept dressing up in my costumes."
Since those days, the very unrodent-like Mouse (he's 6' 6") has appeared onstage as a gladiator, a jockey, a Chinese coolie and countless other types. "This week I've been a pirate, a genie, a Mexican," he interjects in his richly accented patois. But he stresses that his favorite outfits are the ones with stories behind them--like the duds he wore to his Boston debut several years ago.
"I was driving a car in New York, making a ride with this guy with no license and stuff like that," the Mouse begins. "His car was not insured, and I left my ID at home. Then the police, they pull us over and thought we were a couple of bad boys. We were both from Jamaica and didn't have any IDs. I tell them I'm a singer, but they just want to know why two Jamaicans are hanging around without a license. They thought we were illegal, and they locked us up."
And locked up Eek-A-Mouse stayed; he was in the city's jail for two days, forcing the postponement of his first Boston gig. But imprisonment didn't stop him from putting on a show. "I was a singer in there too, yeah. I sing for them all night," he continues. "It was like a different audience, and I think to myself, `I'll get some new fans, you know?' Now I got fans in all places." And when he finally got to Boston? You guessed it: Mouse hit the stage in a prison suit, complete with plastic ball and chain.
This ability to have fun no matter what the situation may be the key to Eek-A-Mouse's appeal. His singing style, which drips with playful wit, tuneful melody and rhythmic bounce, probably would have brought him acclaim under any circumstances. But it's his voice--he sounds like a chronic helium abuser--and his endearing stage presence that have established his reputation as one of the most entertaining reggae performers around.
Born Ripton Joseph Hylton in the storied Trench Town ghetto of Kingston, Jamaica, the Mouse has been an entertainer for as long as he can remember. "I was singing in school from five years old, you know?" he claims. "When there was a concert in school, I was the one they'd call to sing all the while...I always loved singing. I was just monkeying around, and I didn't know it was gonna happen, but I guess even going to school, everybody knows the Mouse is a singer. It just comes naturally, you know?"
So, too, did his unique delivery. Though raised on the local sounds of ska, young Mouse enjoyed mimicking Nat King Cole and others--though naturally, "with a different kind of sound." Around 1978, he goes on, "I was walking down the road and I started making some funny sounds. My friends said it sounded nice, like some African-Chinese-Japanese singer. And I said to myself, `Okay, I'm gonna try that, then.' And it worked."
Two years later, Henry "Junjo" Lawes, then among Jamaica's leading producers, heard the nineteen-year-old Mouse ad-libbing on a neighborhood sound system. Impressed, he brought the singer into the studio and cut the single "Wa Do Dem." The song subsequently logged seven weeks atop the Jamaican music charts--but what made his name was his unplanned appearance at the 1981 Reggae Sunsplash festival in Montego Bay. "I went to the promoter and I told him, `I'm Eek-A-Mouse, and I want to perform for free,'" the Mouse recalls, chuckling. "He look at me funny and says, `Okay, you can play for free.' And I went up and did my songs." Accompanied by reggae gurus Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Mouse was an instant hit; he earned an encore and a following that has never left him.
Before long, so many vocalists were imitating Eek-A-Mouse's mode of combining deejaying and singing that it was given a moniker: "sing-jay." But in spite of the raft of impressionists, no one--not even the dancehall and ragga performers who acknowledge sing-jay's influence--has been able to reproduce Mouse's unusually percussive and nasal tone. "I sing in a style that's my own style," the Mouse maintains. "Other people, they do the sing-jay, but it's like `la-la-oh-yeah-yeah.' But I say `bong-bong-diddie-diddie-bong-bong.' No one sing-jay like the Mouse, but people hear something they like, they have to give it a name, and I like that. I think it's cool."
In spite of his pioneering efforts, Mouse's recording career has been checkered. Disc's such as The Mouse and the Man and Assassinator, from 1983, and 1984's Mouseketeer sold well, but 1990's U-Neek didn't quite match up. As a result, Black Cowboy, set for release in February on the Explicit Entertainment/Sunset Boulevard Entertainment imprint, will be the first Eek-A-Mouse offering in nearly six years.