By ROB KENNER
Wycliffe Johnson, an innovative composer and producer known as Steely, who held sway over two decades of reggae music, died on Tuesday in East Patchogue, N.Y. He was 47 and lived in Kingston, Jamaica.
The cause was a heart attack following pneumonia, said his daughter Kerry Johnson. He had moved to Brooklyn this summer for treatment of kidney problems related to hypertension and diabetes, she said, and died at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital several weeks after surgery for a blood clot in the brain.
The reggae world knew Mr. Johnson as Steely, a boisterous producer with a larger-than-life personality and a belly to match. Best known for his role in the team Steely & Clevie, he was equally influential in his early work as a sideman, and helped to transform reggae at several stages, from roots to dancehall to digital.
An expert keyboardist who worked with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer, Mr. Johnson worked at seminal Jamaican recording studios like Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, Lee (Scratch) Perry’s Black Ark and Sugar Minott’s Youth Promotion. By some estimates he participated in more sessions than anyone else in the history of reggae.
Born and raised in the same Trenchtown streets as Marley, Mr. Johnson was largely self-taught. When he was 12, the drummer Cleveland Browne, known as Clevie, invited him home for daily rehearsals with him and his brothers. “We basically learned together,” Mr. Browne said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “Steely became like part of the family.”
As a child, Mr. Johnson would hang around Channel One Studio in Kingston, fetching drinks for the influential drum-and-bass duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, known as Sly & Robbie. When those two left Channel One, the band the Roots Radics, with Mr. Johnson as keyboardist and chief arranger, became Jamaica’s most in-demand rhythm section.
In the early 1980s Mr. Johnson and the Roots Radics pioneered the muscular, stripped-down reggae sound that would come to be known as dancehall, performing on records like Cocoa Tea’s “Lost My Sonia,” Freddie McGregor’s “Big Ship,” Yellowman’s “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng ” and Michael Prophet’s “Gunman.”
A few years later Mr. Johnson helped revolutionize the sound of reggae again. While other musicians resisted the digital tide of the 1980s, Steely & Clevie embraced it, pushing the technology of the day to its limits. At the studio owned by the producer King Jammy, in the Waterhouse neighborhood, the two worked with the engineer Bobby Digital and the songwriter-producer Mikey Bennett to record a vast catalog of hard-hitting “ana-digital” (part analog, part digital) instrumentals like “Punany,” “Cat’s Paw” and “Duck Dance” — all of which are still recycled by younger producers more than 20 years later.
Mr. Johnson’s digital bass lines and graceful keyboard riffs invested mid-1980s dancehall — in its so-called computerized style —with melody, groove and an unmistakably human touch. The two also laid down rhythm tracks for top dancehall labels like Penthouse, Techniques and Music Works. By their accounting, they worked on 75 percent of the hit reggae records of the late 1980s.
After Steely & Clevie left Jammy’s to start their own record label, bearing their names, in 1988, Mr. Johnson established the Silverhawk sound system, named after a favorite motorcycle. As a kind of mobile discothèque, the system offered a peerless selection of exclusive records, serving both as a promotional tool and as a laboratory for testing street-crowd reaction to songs being considered for release.
Mr. Johnson produced career-making records for luminaries like the crooner Gregory Isaacs and the dancehall star Super Cat, whose hit “Boops” spawned many imitations, including the 1987 Boogie Down Productions rap classic “The Bridge Is Over.”
Signing to a publishing deal with EMI in 1990, Steely & Clevie also collaborated with international acts like Billy Ocean, Heavy D, Caron Wheeler and No Doubt. They scored a Top 40 hit in the United States with their 1994 revamping of Dawn Penn’s Studio One classic “You Don’t Love Me (No No No)” and reached the Top 5 in 2004 with another vintage reggae remake, Sean Paul and Sasha’s “I’m Still in Love With You.”
Besides his daughter Kerry, Mr. Johnson’s survivors include four other children, Shae, Shanice, Daniel and Cailon, and his mother, Alice Johnson.