Reggae's Northern Renaissance: Globe & Mail

Reggae's northern renaissance

Far from its island roots, the summer of 2001 is turning out to be high season for Jamaica's most famous export, writes ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN

TORONTO -- Shaggy's favourite number is 10. That's how many millions of copies of his latest album Hotshot have been sold around the world -- more than any other album this year. Shaggy is the biggest thing to happen to reggae music since Bob Marley.

But he didn't get that way by rocking the clubs of his native Kingston, Jamaica.

Shaggy, who turns 33 in October, left Jamaica for New York when he was a teenager. The former U.S. Marine and Gulf War veteran says he wouldn't have had anything like the success of Hotshot without the cultural diversity of a New York life, and the hip-hop sensibility of his New York producer, Shaun (Sting) Pizzonia.

"There's no reggae format on the radio, so you have to find a way to bridge the gap and get in, and the way we do that is to use samples and beats that fit their formats more," Shaggy said, during a visit to Toronto to shoot a video for European TV. "I keep the reggae feeling through the sound, or the language, or the bass lines, and Sting, who's a real DJ at heart, drops the beats."

The result has been the reinvention of reggae as a mass-market pop form, and the reiteration of a basic truth about Jamaica's most famous export. Central as it may be to the island's life and culture, reggae has always needed a northern component to be heard on the world's radio.

Even Bob Marley, whose music still stands for millions as the essence of reggae, needed some strategic tweaking in the northern hemisphere. His big breakthrough came only after his music had been carefully adapted by Island Records producer Chris Blackwell in his London studios.

"All those pianos and organs and guitars that were overdubbed were not done by Bob Marley and the Wailers," Shaggy said. "They were done by session musicians in London who were brought in to give the music more of a rock sound, that would fit on the radio at the time."

The summer of 2001 is turning out to be high season for a reconsideration of what reggae is and has been, especially in the clubs and records stores of the north. Shaggy's Hotshot is approaching a full year in the Top 10 in Canada and several other countries. And Bob Marley's output, 20 years after his death, is the focus of an unprecedented number of retrospectives and tribute albums.

JAD and Koch International, the Marley family label, have launched a 10-disc series that covers Marley's recordings up to 1972, when he signed with Island. Universal, which now owns the Island label, is releasing remastered versions of five Marley discs next week, in addition to a recent compilation of 20 of his biggest hits. Koch also has Shakedown: Marley Remixed, the first authorized dance-club album drawn from the catalogue of the world's second most-bootlegged artist (after the Beatles); and Verve has put out A Twist of Marley, 13 jazz versions of his songs by a group led by guitarist and producer Lee Ritenour.

More specialized reggae labels have released many other recent discs spanning reggae and its forerunners ska and rock-steady, and the more mechanized forms of dub and dance-hall that have succeeded it. Peter Tosh, Horace Andy, Dennis Brown, Desmond Dekker and Gregory Isaacs have all come back to the record stores in style. Trojan, a major Jamaican label, has just released a 30-CD retrospective of 500 tracks by all the big names in reggae.

One of the most intriguing -- and beautiful -- new albums is Darker Than Blue: Soul From Jamdown, 1973-1980 (Blood and Fire). It's a collection of cover versions of American soul tunes by Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, John Holt and Delroy Wilson, all of whom were stars of the soulful rock-steady scene that flourished in Jamaica during the seventies. They covered American tunes because that's what Jamaican musicians have done ever since U.S. radio signals started drifting across the Gulf of Mexico. Ska, reggae's up-tempo forerunner, was in part a Jamaican adaptation of the R&B sounds played by stations in Louisiana.

The flow in the other direction has been at least as significant. Marley's success prompted covers of his songs by rock musicians such as Eric Clapton (I Shot the Sheriff), and more recently by hip-hop groups like the Fugees (No Woman No Cry). Other groups, from punk pioneers the Clash to Canada's Big Sugar, have incorporated reggae elements into a rock idiom. Hip-hop itself is a child of reggae and its derivatives. Jamaican DJs were the first to start talking, or "toasting," over the music they played, and the first to start stripping and remixing the instrumental tracks to support the kind of extended patter that, in North America, became rapping.

Ironically, stations and labels that now make millions from rap and hip-hop are wary of reggae and dance-hall music as made in Jamaica. Reggae fans in the Toronto area found that out the hard way last winter, when they tried and failed to get more of their music on the city's new urban station, The Flow 93.5.

"A lot of the reggae community initially thought we were rejecting them," said Michelle Price, The Flow's American-born program director. "But we were just looking for reggae that could fit our profile, which is mostly R&B and hip-hop." With a few exceptions, such as Juno-winner Lenn Hammond and Sonia Collymore (whose cover of Faith Hill's Breathe was a top reggae single last year), many Canadian artists didn't make the cut, either because they were too close to the Jamaican sound or not up to the quality of American R&B.

At The Flow, you won't hear tracks by dance-hall star Bounty Killer in rotation with Shaggy's It Wasn't Me, or with Kardinal Offishall's Toronto-centric BaKardi Slang, even though the Toronto rapper's music shows a pronounced dance-hall influence. As with Shaggy's reggae-pop, it's all in the strength of that Jamaican flavour, and the way it's used to spice a familiar genre.

"Kardinal is getting his break because he's using a lot of dance-hall beats," said Spex, host of The Flow's Sunday reggae program, Riddim Track. "I don't think he'd be where he is now if he had just gone with straight hip-hop."

Much of Spex's playlist comes from new singles by the likes of roots-reggae newcomer VC (By His Deeds) and dance-hall star TOK (Shake Your Bam Bam), both of whom have a huge following in the reggae scene. Neither is likely to make any mark on the mainstream without some strategy for appealing to ears attuned to other sounds.

"I write a lot of hard-core dance-hall numbers for artists in Jamaica," said Shaggy. "But could I do dance hall in its authentic format and market that in North America? No one's going to buy it. . . The language and the culture are so different. I can't take that and drop it in people's laps and hope they'll accept it."

"If another reggae band is ever going to break in North America, it will have to happen outside the reggae circuit," said Kevin Lyman, a concert producer who runs the Bob Marley Days festival in Los Angeles every winter. This summer, Lyman is betting that reggae's reputation as outsiders' music will help ease the way for Morgan Heritage, a roots-reggae band performing on Lyman's Warped Tour, the raucous punk festival that's expected to play for 450,000 fans in the U.S. and Canada by the end of the summer.

Morgan Heritage, made up of five offspring of singer Denroy Morgan, is another example of reggae's deep northern roots. The band members were all born in Brooklyn, and had never been to Jamaica until six years ago. Now they're one of the most prominent groups in a recent revival of the kind of socially conscious reggae championed by Marley, and especially Burning Spear (Winston Rodney). The band's smooth sound and close harmonies, as heard on their recent album More Teachings, on the VP label, recall the vocal style of the rock-steady period, mixed with elements of North American folk.

A further incursion of reggae into the expanding soul-music scene could be on the way. Hip-hop, which burns through beats and flavours almost as quickly as the dance halls of Kingston, also seems ripe for more artful fusions by rappers such as Kardinal.

"Reggae is the future of R&B and hip-hop," said The Flow's Spex. "A lot of those songs now have reggae slang, a reggae beat, reggae foundations. Reggae can only get bigger."

Copyright (C) 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.

Posted: Thu - February 13, 2003 at 04:17 PM