"Honestly, I really don’t remember the first time we played in Florida,” says Roger Lewis, the leader of Inner Circle, speaking remotely from Miami. “We used to do it a long time ago, come up from Pensacola, go up to Tallahassee, that club down there — it’s still there.”
Inner Circle is still here, too, a remarkable feat of longevity in an industry that is completely different than it was when they first started, or even just a few years ago. “Brevard County,” interjects his younger brother Ian; his thick patois imparts a level of class and sophistication to those two words, unlike anything such a place deserves.
One of the most important reggae bands of all-time, Inner Circle returns to Central Florida this weekend to headline the Florida Jerk Festival. It’s a big deal for the area, which is studded with expats from the Island community, as well as their descendants.
“Florida has always been big for reggae,” says Roger, “and always growing.”
But it’s not just about the music, as the festival will shine a light on the Jamaican expat community in Central Florida and their art, their fashion and, especially, the food.
“In the culture of the Caribbean,” Ian says, “the food is very, very, as they say in Spanish, ‘muy importante
’. We coined the phrase ‘Ital food.’ Food from the ground, natural, no pesticides, no fertilizers. The media took the narrative and spun it into what?” Both brothers respond in unison: “Organic!”
Recalling the long, strange history of Inner Circle is a challenge for even their most astute fans. The band has existed in several different incarnations over the years. They first made their name backing up the Chosen Few, before an eight-year run with the late great Jacob Miller. This was when most people outside Jamaica got their first taste of their sound, and their herculean work ethic, as they released a series of albums in the late 1970s for Capitol and Island.
Their debut single, “Why Can’t I Touch You,” was released in 1970. At least 50 other singles have followed, with the most recent track dropping earlier this month. “Riches Wii A Pree” was originally released in January, in collaboration with Teejay, and now the remix is out, with a special guest appearance by Snow, the white Canadian whose 1992 hit “Informer” brought reggae to the suburbs, much the same as “Ice Ice Baby” did for rap. But the crossover appeal is nothing new for them. In fact, they practically invented it.
Inner Circle was easily the second biggest reggae act on Earth, besides Bob Marley, but the entire scene was soon to be decimated. Miller died in a car crash in March 1980, causing the band to collapse for several years. The Lewis brothers then moved to Miami, which has remained their base of operations ever since, and together they weathered the subsequent storm that ran through the Jamaican music scene.
With Marley’s death in May 1981, reggae had lost its two biggest stars within 14 months, but it wasn’t over for them. Inner Circle was officially rebooted in 1986, and it
was this version of the band that achieved their greatest success.
Their most famous song, of course, is “Bad Boys,” which was initially released as a single in 1987. It didn’t get much traction then, nor upon its first reissue on their Bad to the Bone
album in 1992.
Then the TV show Cops
debuted in 1989, as a flagship of the nascent Fox Network, and one of the show’s producers was a fan, so he picked “Bad Boys” as the theme song. The effect was similar to how Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” became identified with Married With Children
By 1993, with the show firmly entrenched in popular culture, many of the viewers started connecting the dots between the show and the band. The single (and then the Bad to the Bone
album) became a must-have item, and for many Americans, this is how they learned that reggae went deeper than just Marley. By that point, a whole new generation of artists were on the scene, taking Jamaican music to the masses, most notably Buju Banton, Shaggy and Shabba Ranks, all huge in that era.
Inner Circle were thus able to achieve international fame twice, a full 15 years apart, with many of the same personnel, but in totally different ways. Where once they were pioneers of the sound, overshadowed by bigger names, now they were the big name, benefitting from the young talent whose own success was achieved on their shoulders.
Inner Circle thus came full circle, and it’s been pretty much smooth sailing ever since.
Given the vast array of music the band have issued and reissued over the years, it is virtually impossible to know exactly how many tracks the members of Inner Circle have recorded in their roughly 54 years in business. Not even the founders know, because they never cared to count. In those early days of the Jamaican music scene, very few people thought of themselves as architects of a movement that would transform global culture.
Certainly, none of them ever expected to still be alive and playing music in the year 2022, let alone touring the world for adoring crowds. They were only 16 and 14 at the time, and their bandmates were even younger. No one is thinking long-term at that age.
One can only speculate, but at their age, and with their level of success, Inner Circle will surely never have to work again. But they will never stop, because they never did, and that is exactly why they are still here, making new music, new fans, new friends.