He's not given many interviews, and so isn't well represented in print unfortunately. What we do know is that his real name's Richard Patrick Bennett, and that he's from Spanish Town, where he attended Crescent and Horizon Park schools. It was a school friend that dubbed him Charlie Chaplin, and the name just stuck. He then completed a course in electrical installation at the Spanish Town Community Centre whilst deejaying on one or two local sound-systems. This was in the late seventies, when Bob Marley was experiencing his first taste of international success; deejays like Big Youth, U Roy, and I Roy were signed to major record companies overseas, and Reggae was dominated by the sound of rockers.
His first real break arrived when he deputised for Ranking Joe on U Roy's sound-system, King Sturgav. This was in 1978, after Ranking Joe and Jah Screw had left Sturgav to rejoin Ray Symbolic. He received the princely sum of ten Jamaican dollars a night back then, but the experience gained from holding a mic alongside U Roy, the most influential deejay in Jamaica, and the man they called 'The Teacher', more than compensated. This was also true for fellow apprentice Josey Wales, and this same trio (together with selector Inspector Willie), would remain at the helm of Sturgav from thereon, despite all of them maintaining solo careers as well.
Chaplin's debut album, 'Presenting Charlie Chaplin', was released on Kingdom in 1982, and was the first to be recorded on King Tubby's new sixteen-track equipment. Its first two tracks, 'Mother In Law' and 'Nah Leave Me Chalwa', had been sizable hits, despite competition from better-known MCs like Yellowman, Welton Irie, and Lone Ranger. 'Mother In Law' had been his debut, and was an unflinching, yet humorous portrayal of domestic strife. His producer at that time was Roy Cousins, a former member of vocal group the Royals who was also based in Spanish Town. Cousins enlisted the Roots Radics for that first album and then followed it with a live Dancehall recording taken from a Sturgav session in Clarendon, with Chaplin toasting on the mic alone. It was the second live Dancehall set featuring Sturgav - 'Live At The Fish World Club, Negril', having been the first. Yet, it was 'King Sturgav Sounds Live At Clarendon, JA' that confirmed just how good Chaplin was in a Dancehall setting, and this at a time when MCs would regularly be expected to entertain the crowd for several hours at a time.
Josey Wales was absent from that session and U Roy wasn't deejaying on the mic too much either, which left Chaplin as the principal MC. It was from this period that his other name of 'Principal' took hold, although he's never been short of principles either, as the following extract taken from an interview with Tero Kaski in 1984 demonstrates.
'As long as Sturgav exists we will exist with it,' he predicted. 'We wouldn't leave it, cah we started with it, y'know? And is like U Roy only own that sound, but is we who run in, cah we buy records and we fix amp and take care of all, so we couldn't give it up so…'
He also talked about setting an example for the youths, and using his music to perform good works, rather than for the pursuit of vanity or fame.
'You have two kind of deejays,' he explained. 'You have some deejays where him just do it to hustle money, but you have some man where it's their work. That born inna them blood and them just a spread it to try and see it reach somewhere. I believe I'm that type of deejay, just like Josey Wales, Brigadier Jerry, and U Roy.'
Roy Cousins also produced his second studio album, 'One Of A Kind', which featured guest appearances by Junior Reid, Don Carlos, and Jim Kelly, whose younger brother Junior Kelly would later become a popular artist in his own right with songs like 'Love So Nice'. This album was released in the UK on Trojan shortly after the Sturgav set, and was again impressive with its array of Rasta chants and social commentaries, as well as songs praising his sound-system ('Sturgav Special'), a well-known Jamaican radio DJ ('Tribute To Super Don') and even a brand of soft drink ('Quenchie'). That he eschewed slackness, gimmicks, and gun lyrics when these styles were prevalent spoke volumes for this engaging young MC, whose own preferred method was just to be natural, and remain true to himself.
Inspired by British MCs such as Smiley Culture, his powers as a storyteller were showcased to even more vivid effect on his next album, 'Roots & Culture'. Released on Vista Sounds in 1984 and again produced by Cousins, it hosted the hit 'Diet Rock' - poking good-natured fun at overweight people - and then 'Entertainer', which he'd written about his initial trip to America. The lyrics on this track are unbelievably rich in detail, whilst 'Don't Leave Your Baby Mother' stands in welcome contrast to the love and leave them mentality expressed by so many other Jamaican artists.
His next stop was George Phang's Powerhouse label, where he joined artists like Michael Palmer, Barrington Levy, Josey Wales, and Sugar Minott in voicing some typically hard-hitting rhythms by Sly & Robbie. Chaplin recorded the album 'Que Dem' for Phang - 'Cue Dem' meaning to 'teach them', although the songs on it were clearly aimed at Dancehall fans, and by no means restricted to Rastafarian topics.
'I see myself as a preacher and a teacher,' he told Trevor Riley, who wrote the liner notes. 'A lot of youths do not go to school and so the only way for them to learn is by listening to music. I want to use my songs to educate the youth.'
The standout tracks on 'Que Dem' included a recut of 'Diet Rock' voiced over Pat Kelly's 'Talk About Love' rhythm, a humorous swipe at 'Coco Dealer Brown', and then 'Unfair', which documents his treatment at the hands of an ungrateful woman. Some of these tracks can be found on the Sonic Sounds' album 20 Super Hits, which compiles material recorded for various producers between the mid and late eighties. He, Josey Wales, and Brigadier Jerry would regularly perform together during this period, and their appearance at the JA Reggae Sunsplash of 1984 is now legendary. Charlie's dynamic stage presence that day even prompted the release of an album 'shared' with Yellowman called Slackness Versus Pure Culture, although Yellowman was signed to CBS by then, and had already left the Dancehalls far behind. Not so Chaplin, who together with his two sparring partners, continued to be seen as a standard bearer for real, authentic Reggae Dancehall, despite the challenge they faced from more gimmick-driven MCs, and also the British invasion spearheaded by fast style exponents like Philip 'Papa' Levi.
In 1989 Chaplin signed with US label RAS for a series of albums that would find him maintaining his usual high standards for well over a decade. The first of these was a 'live' set recorded at Dynamics studio in Kingston during January of 1989. Charlie had recently starred at a show in Port Antonio, which was a fundraising event for victims of Hurricane Gilbert. RAS Records' Dr Dread was in the audience that day, and as 'Cool The Violence' and the title track of this album demonstrates, his instinct for showcasing Chaplin in a Dancehall setting would prove infallible as the Principal fired off non-stop lyrics on a whole raft of different subjects, all of them characterised by his distinctive humour. A year later and his next album, 'Take Two', repeated the same formula, and to equally impressive effect. No less than four of those tracks are reprised on 'DJ Roll', which he recorded in front of another enthusiastic crowd at Dynamic. Two veteran MCs, Prince Jazzbo and Jah Thomas, were among those loudly voicing their appreciation that night as Chaplin flung down rhymes over a selection of classic, old-time rhythms, as heard on tracks like 'Weeping And Wailing', 'Mad Chaplin', and 'Throw Some Corn'.
For their follow-up set, RAS and the deejay reverted to a more usual studio format, except with Chaplin at the mic, 'usual' is hardly a fitting term as he breaks out into a wonderful pastiche of Chicago blues on 'Singin' The Blues', touches on a little gospel with 'Revival', and then delivers strong reality lyrics on 'Cry Blood' itself. Although recorded outside of the hype surrounding Shabba Ranks and other, more fashionable MCs from Jamaica, albums like 'Cry Blood' revealed a deejay still brimming with mic skills, and with plenty to say. Such qualities were again showcased on 'Old & New Testament', which RAS released in 1992. Chaplin's individual blend of humour and culture again enlivens songs like 'Tell Me If Me Wrong' (telling the story of a dance in Westmoreland), and 'No Profit', on which he revives lyrics first heard on 'What Kind Of World'. The difference is that he's rapping them on this version, as well as deejaying. 'Chalice Contest' is another memorable track from the 'Old & New Testament' sessions, as Chaplin gives a cinematic account of a spoof ganja-smoking competition.
Whilst Dr Dread produced the majority of his earlier sessions with RAS, Chaplin now increasingly produces himself. His last album for the label, 'Too Hot To Handle', was produced in collaboration with Robbie Shakespeare, and favours a more modernistic approach than heard previously. This was the sound of a man keeping up with the times, and slotting that peerless mic technique over (then) state-of-the-art Dancehall rhythms. Rasta themes had been relegated to the fringes of the music by then, yet the ever-faithful Chaplin is quick to reassert his cultural roots on 'Not A Bag Of Locks' and 'Big Move', and also counter big-hitting deejays such as Super Cat (then ruling the dancehalls with songs like 'Don Dada') on 'Ruffian'.
It's this capacity to keep abreast of current trends whilst cleaving to the best of authentic Dancehall tradition that has ensured Charlie Chaplin's popularity over the years. In-between recording the occasional studio session, he and Josey Wales still perform with Sturgav, which is another reason why his rapport with the Dancehall public remains so strong. MCs like them are now considered foundation artists where Reggae Dancehall's concerned and Charlie Chaplin's artistry will never be in doubt, and he remains one of Jamaica's finest-ever deejays.