Wednesday, July 14, 2004

On Dub, Roots and Rockers

I've always been partial to reggae; it wasn't your garden-variety dilettante appreciation (ergo start with Bob Marley's Legend, stir in some Jimmy Cliff, a few scoops of maybe UB40's Red, Red Wine) but my love wasn't as informed as others. Sure, I knew about the importance of ska, Rastafarinism, Peter Tosh, the influence of say Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions (see One Love/People Get Ready), that it was producer-driven, that the Riddim was the thing, that the soundclash and dancehall were what mattered... But that's because I'm a music junkie - digression: Nick Hornby's High Fidelity was written for people like me - digression on digression: the movie version didn't grab me as much as the novel, I thought the whole point was the incongruity of the British boy/man in love with 'black' soul music who would go back and forth with you about Alexander O'Neal's Hearsay album and the Minneapolis sound; John Cusack transplanting the movie to Seattle is ok but having the music taste be grunge and standard Elvis Costello, Velvet Underground fare lost me (the complexity of the character came from the fact that his taste was 'complicated' thus justifying his snobbishness).

Back when I was "comping" for WHRB, Phillipe headed up the reggae department. He gave the lecture - a full afternoon worth, almost 5 hours of crate digging for the most obscure Desmond Dekkers, Lee Perry or King Tubby track and a whole historical lesson about reggae, its various trends, adaptability in short. He had a theory about the acceptability of reggae to the mainstream i.e. Bob Marley being picked up/marketed by the record labels instead of Peter Tosh who he thought was more vital.

Hmmn.. Anyway, I listened to the lecture and was able to pass the comp, not because I had absorbed anything he laid out, but mainly because I happened to have been playing KRS-One's The Bridge Is Over and a Sly and Robbie track he hadn't heard before when he had come in to the Radio station (the dank basment of Memorial Hall). He thought I knew my reggae for some reason.

At the time, I was more interested in the soul side of things (Isley Brothers, Teddy Pendergrass, The O'Jays, Marvin Gaye), and seemed to be spending most of my money on the Swingbeat men (Guy and Teddy Riley's various projects, Keith Sweat, Al B. Sure, New Edition etc) and of course on hip-hop (Native Tongues, Kool Moe Dee, Public Enemy) like everyone else. I did follow reggae/dancehall but I comped more for the club classics angle and Street Beat (the hip-hop show that spawned The Source magazine). Back then (1991-5), the first sustained incursions of Dancehall were hitting clubs in the US and so Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton, Supercat (especially Supercat) were my main things. Like everyone else, I loved Dancehall but I could only stand it in moderation ("DJ, half and hour of dancehall is enough, give me some hip-hop or soul classic"). Phillipe believed that you needed a good couple of hours to really appreciate the music and the message... I think commented about the influence of Ganja in Jamaica on this aspect of the reggae culture. I'm sure marijuana mellows and slows you down...

In any case for some reason, I've gotten into a reggae phase of late and have been buying up a bunch of Dub, Roots and Rockers. Walking around London last week, this was my soundtrack/playlist:

I only knew Burning Spear from "Mi Gi Dem" from 1992, which I played a lot on my show. I know that he was very influential in Jamaica: his consciousness, talk about Marcus Garvey, Rastafari, and the old 'Slavery Days' and that his concerts were almost religious experiences. I clearly missed out on him; this is such a strong compilation. He certainly took the mantle from Bob in the late 70s. He takes his time and does a slow burn. It's hard to pick highlights since almost everything is a classic, here goes though: all the tracks from the various Marcus Garvey albums ('no one remember old Marcus Garvey"), Nyah Keith, Make We Dweet. Social Living is now certified as my favourite dub song. I need to get the original albums.

Dennis Brown - Crown Prince of Reggae, The Best of Dennis Brown

Dennis had so many grooves, this compilation only covers his Island years so I'm going to be buying a lot more of him. There are so many songs that he graced. I'm reminded that Finlay Quaye Massive Attack covered Man Next Door which I loved. Dennis's original is simply perfect I can't say much than that: the groove, the voice, the melody, the strange effects in the background, the social commentary about the neighbour from hell:
he gets in so late at night
always a-fuss and fight
all through the night
I've got to get away from here
This is not a place for me to stay
I've got to take my family
and find a quiet place

I remember seeing Beres with Nana Twum-Danso at the Roxy in Boston. One of the few times I joined her and Phillippe on their reggae expeditions. I had fairly low expectations (Lovers' Rock wasn't quite my thing) but his show made me a believer. The best part was towards the end, around 1am the lame people at the Roxy wanted to shut down the concert (Boston is lame like that) but then Beres went into a zone and refused to stop. The thing to note is that he's going blind and so no one was going to drag him off the stage. He kept a groove up for the next 70 minutes bringing out not just all his hits but also throwing in the odd curveball those old songs that you loved. It reminded me of how A.B. Crentsil would throw a verse of English nursery rhyme (say 'London Bridge is falling down') in the middle of a long highlife jam and it would make perfect sense.

His voice is a weapon, borne of experience, it's slightly brassy with just enough to make you feel his pain or let him into the door, or bed. A great compilation showing why he is the ultimate loverman of rockers.

Conscious roots by the stongest and longest lived reggae band, I'll just mention that 'Satta Massagana', 'Jah Glory' hit the spot. Their version of The O'Jays' Now that we found love was their breakout international hit, pretty much the prototype for the Heavy D's cover in the 90s. I would have liked more of their early work however, there's a little too much of their overpolished 80s stuff.

Their impact on reggae is that of Caribbean immigrants to the UK. Their riddims were not exactly nostalgic of the Jamaica some of them had left, it was hinted at but reinterpreted. It's the exile theory I guess; the epitomy of Rastafari - once removed (first they have to return to the Caribbean, before they return to the promised land on Africa). I think of them as the precursors to UB40. A solid collection.

The Dub band par excellence. With Sly and Robbie as your rhythm section, you can't go wrong what with all their skewering of the sounds (gunshots as your percussion, car horns for your chorus). They were the first reggae band to win a Grammy which says it all. This double album captures their essence. The strong lyrics and blend of voices (they almost sound like family) I think it was important to have the female voice in the mix. All the tracks from the Dub Factor and Chill Out are dub as its best.

Along with Dennis Brown, the voice of reggae for the past 30 years. There was a lot of craft in his songs (see Black a Kill Black, Mr Cop or Rough Neck). For some reason, I first heard the Kruder and Dorfmeister remix of Night Nurse, 20 years after the original, which stands as as one of the great bedroom come-ons of all time with the plaintive voice:
tell her try her best just to make it quick
woman tend to the sick
for there must be something she can do
this heart is broken in two
tell her it's a case of emergency
there's a patient by the name of Gregory

Night Nurse
only you alone can quench this here thirst

old WHRB basement
About the comp
WHRB, Harvard's radio station, has a very long and involved process--they call it a "comp"--that involves extensive training, music "assignments" (e.g., listen to the Germs' first album until you love it), and music history "tests" (e.g., "How much heroin was in the Germs' Darby Crash at his time of death?). Four months after this sort of hoop-jumping, you are most likely rejected by fiat anyway, because the old music director decided he didn't like you. But if you should pass the test, becoming the next music director is a long process of connections, self-aggrandizement, and self-proclaimed non-conformity.

Dub, Roots and Rockers, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note

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Anonymous said...

ism and schizm
rastafari is neither

Anonymous said...

Supercat - he da don dadda. yeah man that dood has serious flow. supercat and tenor saw are both strong favourites.