Musical Youth had a short but wildly successful run in the early 1980s. A reggae group of schoolchildren ended up releasing one of the biggest international hits of 1982, earning them a Grammy Nomination and seeing them top the charts in several different countries. Theirs is one of the coolest stories featured by VH1 in their one-hit-wonder specials. But how did some young kids end up releasing the fastest-selling UK track of 1982 and where did it end up taking them?
In this article, we’ll be discussing the history, meaning, and controversies surrounding Musical Youth’s hit song Pass The Dutchie.
The History of “Pass The Dutchie”
Musical Youth was formed in 1979 in Birmingham, England as a British-Jamaican reggae band that put together several hit songs like Unconditional Love, Youth Of Today, and Never Gonna Give You Up, but we’ll be focusing on their biggest hit in Pass The Dutchie. The band itself was made up of brothers, and each of the members was of Jamaican descent.
The track itself topped the UK Singles chart, as well as reaching number one in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, and New Zealand. In the US, it peaked at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number eight on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts. It was the fastest-selling track in the UK in 1982, selling over 100,000 copies in a single day.
Pass The Dutchie was actually Musical Youth’s first major single release after signing with MCA Records. It was adapted from the Mighty Diamonds song Pass The Kouchie and became ridiculously popular internationally. It also propelled Musical Youth to be the first black act to have a music video played on MTV, which itself was in its infancy in 1982.
The track saw a lot of changes. It originally was just a cover of the Mighty Diamonds song. However, the UK wasn’t about to let a bunch of grade school kids release a track about the ganja. So, the group ended up reworking it into their own song, with some changes we’ll go over momentarily, and separated themselves enough for it to be seen as an original work.
Musical Youth swapped out the word “kouchie” for “dutchie,” a word that sounded similar and fit into the rhythm, but wasn’t directly related to smoking marijuana. They swapped around more than just the word “kouchie” though. Throughout the song, verses had lines changed from the words “herb” and “leaf” to “food.”
Aside from those changes, the track remained almost identical. Here are some lines from the Mighty Diamonds’ song:
How does it feel when you’ve got no herb?
Them all have a leaf at the dreadlocks’ camp.
If you got no herb you will walk an’ talk.
Each of these was changed to the line “How does it feel when you’ve got no food?” It was a simple solution, yes, but it also removed most of the direct references to marijuana. By taking out those name-drops and references, the group of school-age kids were able to release the track on official markets without too much fuss from the public.
Musical Youth then extended the song, adding verses and references to the end after the original track left off.
After Pass The Dutchie was released, a music video was shot for the song by director Don Letts, the man who directed The Clash’s music video for Rock The Casbah. It was shot in segments, with the kid band members playing the track on the banks of the River Thames in London, seeing them arrested by a school official, then celebrating when they were found not guilty in court.
In the end, Musical Youth disbanded from a combination of group issues, poor management, and mental health struggles. It was revived by Dennis Seaton and Michael Grant in 2001, but this ended in another short run.
What’s The Real Meaning of “Pass The Dutchie?”
To get a good grasp of what the song is all about, you have to first examine the Mighty Diamonds’ track Pass The Kouchie—Kutchie and Koutchie are also acceptable spellings, so I’ll be mixing them up.
A “kutchie” is a pot that holds marijuana. It’s a slang term in Jamaica for the—pardon the sort-of pun here—pot that gets passed around holding the herb. It’s kind of one of the reasons why weed gets called pot in the first place.
Now, when Musical Youth made their song, they were all school kids between the ages of 11 and 15. So using the word “kouchie” wasn’t something they could directly reference when they covered the track. The group used a different word that sounded similar instead, “dutchie,” which is coincidentally another kind of pot in Jamaica. Later on, the term dutchie refers to a cannabis joint or a cannabis blunt rolled in a Dutch Master’s cigar.
One important thing to remember is that a dutchie pot isn’t traditionally passed around. It’s a big cooking pot you get food from, but there’s no reason to pass it from person to person. It did however fit in the song.
The meaning of “passing the dutchie” has gone through some changes over the years. It originally did allude to passing around a pot of cannabis in a smoking circle. It transitioned to meaning the sharing of food and took on a bit more of a spiritual meaning later on.
Food for the soul is also important, so many have interpreted the song as asking what it’s like to not feed your soul.
You can debate all day long if the track is actually about smoking the ganja or not. Perhaps the best way to look at it is that Pass The Dutchie is about food while the song it was adapted from, Pass The Kouchie, is definitely about drugs.
Controversies Surrounding The Song
It shouldn’t be too surprising that not everybody loved the fact that some young kids wanted to release a track about smoking marijuana. This, however, wasn’t the real problem with the song. It was inspiring for the kids, something they felt good about and wanted to cover.
They ended up changing the lyrics to the track, replacing lines as we discussed earlier, and releasing an international number-one song. But, the fact that the track was deemed an original work caused some problems later.
A brief explanation is in order here. I think everyone has seen a YouTube reaction video, where somebody watches another video and, well, reacts to it. The reason that many of those videos don’t get copyright claims and taken down is that the creators are adding enough of their own content to the videos that it makes something new.
There are thresholds and certain things they have to do to make it a viable video, mostly in regards to how much of the video is them versus just watching, but I digress. It’s complicated, but generally, you can use someone else’s work legally as long as you change it up enough that it can be recognized as something of your own.
In the case of the Musical Youth version versus the Mighty Diamonds version of the song, the Musical Youth version swapped lines out for ones referring to food and extended the track a bit. These changes were enough to find the song in a legally-okay situation, especially when it came to copyrights and royalties—in that Musical Youth could own it in part and collect money for the song without issue. There don’t appear to be any legal issues between the two music groups for the tracks.
Musical Youth did end up losing a court case though, which mostly pertained to the song Pass The Dutchie since it was their biggest hit that earned them the most money. The surviving members essentially argued in court that they received bad advice when it came to royalty money on the track, costing them all a lot.
Because the songs were so similar, the law firm, or Woolf Seddon specifically, had split the publishing royalties between the two tracks, effectively meaning it was too similar for Musical Youth to own the copyright alone because both songs would have to be subject to the same copyright.
A judge ended up ruling against the band, stating that the lawyers were not “in serious breach of their duties for failing to protect a distinctive copyright held by Musical Youth.” One of the reasons it was ruled this way was that Pass The Dutchie was just an adaptation of Pass The Kouchie.
So while Mighty Diamonds never went after the group for copyright and the track was generally seen to be altered enough for Musical Youth to release it and collect revenues, the similarities were used against it in court when describing the song as a distinctive copyright.
I am going to add here that there was no wrongdoing on the band’s part in adapting the song, and I can’t find anything about the Mighty Diamonds being upset, so don’t think they just ripped off the reggae group. They just had to share the copyright and royalties with Mighty Diamonds because the changes that made it a Musical Youth track weren’t enough to make it only theirs.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.