Get Riddim: Pulse!

From March 1993, Tower Records PULSE!


On a global basis, Jamaican reggae-- and its mutant offshoot, dancehall--may be more influential than rock'n'roll.

If you're going to threaten me, it's best if you kill me," says Shabba Ranks in the croaking voice that's made him the top DJ--as Jamaicans call their singsong rappers--on today's dancehall reggae scene. "Where I'm from in Kingston, I used to step over dead body like in Vietnam, so threat ain't nothing to me. If they criticize one song, I go making another that will stick in their stomach so they will vomit, No one can compete with Shabba, because Shabba make the first move, Epic signed me because I was kicking the beat on the street."

You might call dancehall the Jamaican equivalent of hip-hop, but it's mure accurate to say that hip-hop is the American equivalent of dancehall, since it was invented by Kool DJ Herc, who adapted the mixing and rapping tradition of his adopted South Bronx. Jamaican DJs now collaborate with American rappers, but the connection actually goes back to the late '50s, when dancehall pioneers like Count Machouki and "Daddy" U- Roy picked up the jive patter of stateside r&b radio jocks like Tommy "Dr. Jive" Smalls and Douglas "Jocko" Henderson.

Like reggae itself, dancehall developed around mobile "sound systems" that trucked high-powered speakers to assembly halls and vacant lots, where DJs like Big Youth, Dennis Alcapone, Josie Wales, Brigadier Jerry, Eek-A- Mouse and Yellowman would chant in competition with the instrumental flipsides, or "versions," of current hits. Contemporary dancehall swaps messages of peace and love for X-rated "slack" Iyrics and gun songs, slamming reggae's syncopated lope into a jackhammer mega-mix of bass and drum samples. Having conquered the Jamaican charts in the late '8Os, it became New York's dominant jeep beat by decade's end.

Epic's 1991 release of Shabba's As Raw as Ever album triggered a feeding frenzy, as major labels scrambled to expose hip-hop and grunge fans to dancehall DJs like Super Cat, Mad Cobra and l9-year-old Buju Banton, whose gay-bashing hit "Boom Bye Bye" provoked the front-page headline "Hate Music" in the New York Post. But dancehall is no stranger to controversy. "You have the drug dealers with guns in the community, but when we DJ about it, they say we are promotin' it," says Cobra, who has successfully switched from gun songs to sex lyrics. "They say it is gangster music, but no music is responsible for no crime," claims Super Cat, who allegedly killed rival DJ Nitty Gritty in a shootout at the Superpower record Store in Brooklyn.

Not everybody in Jamaica supports the reggae industry," says Cutty Ranks, a socially conscious DJ who avoids sexual innuendo. "Some of the society, who claim they are the upper class, try to lick out against gun Iyrics. When guys like me DJ about guns, they say we incite the youth to violence, but I don't see it that way. The guys who bring the guns here and get the youth to fight with one another are the politicians, drug dealers and the big private sector. The cocaine and crack started coming here, and the youth start to smoke it, and the guys who give them the guns don't want to take the blame. So now they try to put the blame on Jamaican artists."

Maxine Stowe, the Barnard-educated niece of legendary Jamaican producer Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, signed Super Cat and Mad Cobra to Columbia. "When reggae artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh were exposed worldwide," she explains, "they were diluting the music, doing reggae-rock or whatever, so dancehall came almost as a reaction."

"Jamaican music turned inward after Bob Marley died, and the dancehall explosion came out of that inward search," says Chris Wilson of Rounder Records' Heartbeat label, which concentrates on roots reggae and its ancestors, ska and rock steady. "The Jamaican ghetto experience is really heavy, and dancehall music is like concrete."

"I don't really like the music that is coming out of Jamaica right now," demurs Winstun "Pipe" Mathews, lead singer of the harmony duo Wailing Souls, roots-reggae stalwarts who grew up with Marley and the Wailers in Trenchtown. "If you're not educating or making somebody happy, you're not really saying anything to me. The rap or DJ style is the in thing now, but still it is not as strong as the singing. But everyone has to survive, so there's a time for the DJ and a time for the singer."

Wailing Souls have also signed with Columbia (they're on Columbia's Chaos imprint), and their reggae- rock album All Over the World is selling better than their uncompromising roots music ever did. Old-timers like Toots "I am the roots" Hibbert still tour and record, and Bob Marley is more popular than ever, the only major rock-era artist besides Elvis to sell more records dead than alive. While Elvis worship is largely confined to the U.S. and Europe, Marley mania blankets the globe, from the Caribbean to the South Pacific.

Tuff Gong/lsland/PLG's recently released, limited-edition four-CD box Songs of Freedom traces Marley's career from his first single in 1962 to his last concert in 1980. Among its revelations is the original ska version of "One Love"/"People Get Ready" (recorded at Coxsone Dodd's Studio One), which cops the intro from Benny Spellman's New Orleans classic "Fortune Teller," then bops to the staccato horns of the Soul Brothers band, while Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer alternate original verses with Curtis Mayfield's gospelly lines By comparison, the familiar 1977 remake from the album Exodus--a posthumous hit single in 1984 is a bland tourist jingle.

Joe Higgs taught the Wailers and Wailing Souls to sing and later toured with Marley and Jimmy Cliff, but today he's a bitter man, with only a handful of albums to s for a 33-year career. "In the time of ska, there was nobody doing anything consciously, in terms of a message," says. "Then it was slowed down to rock steady, but those people were doing things that the producers wanted them to do. My contribution was that I insisted on making my own songs. That's what I got Marley to do, and Marley became the most successful exponent of that awareness. But he didn't have a voice, so I had to show him. I gave him lessons for years. When I first started teaching Bob to sing, he was just Robert Marley, and he did his first record solo. He was the one who brought all these kids to me, and I'd rehearse them. I would sit down and jam with somebody and come up with some strong line, and they would complete the song and say that they are the sole composer. I didn't think it was an issue then. I had no idea these songs were going to be this big."

As Marley's roots reggae swept the U.S., producers like Augustus Pablo were using heavy echo and reverb to create a cavernous new sound called dub. Pablo's b-side rhythm tracks, featuring his own melodica (a sort of keyboard kazoo), became more Popular than the A-side vocals he produced for singers and DJs like Jacob Miller and Dillinger. "It was like a fashion," he says, "so everyone was going with it. In the beginnig, I used to mix the versions on my 45s that way, just naturally. And then I met King Tubby, and I started going out to his studio. He used to teach me on the mixing board, and we used to do experiments --dub mixes. Tubby and Upsetter--Lee Perry--used to do those things a lot."

Together with his partner, bassist Robbie Shakespeare, drummner Sly Dunbar became one of the most successful studio musicians and producers of the dub era. "King Tubby really started it," he says, "and then we picked up an it and took it to another level. I started producing around 197Z with a guy named Ranchie, the guitarist in a band we called Skin, Flesh & Bones. And Robbie used to play in the same club I used to play in in Kingston, so l would listen to his band and he would listen to my band. Then this producer called a session, and we both played, and everything was like magic. Robbie asked me to join him in Peter Tosh's band, after Peter left the Wailers, and we started from there."

Sly and Robbie's production and Island's promotion propelled Black Uhuru, a Wailers-like harmuny trio, to fame in the early '80s. Lead singer Michael Rose wrote catchy, conscious material like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and Puma Jones, a black American woman, added interational appeal. "She came to Jamaica on a social-work thing and then got involved with music," says Rose. "To tell the truth, she couldn't sing reggae that much, but she had a unique sound, something in between jazz and opera. It gave us a different flavor, a sound nobody ever heard before." But Rose left Black Uhuru in 1985, just as its Island contract lapsed, and Jones died of cancer in 1990.

"After Marley's death in 1981, you really didn't have anybody coming up in Jamaica doing roots reggae," says Murray Elias, who broke dancehall in the U.S. with his compilations for the Sleeping Bag and Profile labels. "The same artists continued, but there was no new generation. The bottom of that market fell out--creatively, aesthetically and commercially--and dancehall filled the vacuum. Dancehall underwent a transition in 1985 with 'Under Me Sleng Teng' by Wayne Smith, a record that used synthesizers and drum machines instead of live musicians. At that point hip-hop and dance-club DJs were beginning to play these records, and it was getting its first exposure to a black American audience. So I just took that concept and marketed it."

"I'm the first dancehall that ever did hip-hop reggae," says Louie Rankin, who's lived in New York since 1975. "'Typewriter' was number one for three months at the end of 199O, and then Shabba came with 'Trailer Load a Girls,' but it still wasn't as hip-hop as mine. Shinehead was doing hip-hop, but I'm the one that teach Shinehead how to DJ, and Shinehead's stuff was not breaking in the ghetto communities. I got Jamaica's top producers, Steely and Clevie, to do the title song on my album Showdown [on Mesa]. I've been in a showdown with Shabba before, and I knocked him out. I'm the undisputed, man. I will not back from any challenge."

Ben Sokolov's independent Signet label, with DJs like Shaggy, Rayvon and Bajja Jedd, is on the cutting edge of New York's dancehall scene, "The rhythm track is the backbone of the whole industry," gays Sockolov. "If it's a hot rhythm, everybody wants to get on it. There are rhythms that have hundreds of peoplc recording on them. What Steely and Clevie do is build rhythm, just like SIy and Robbie. All the rhythms have names: We did a record 'Big Up,' and it's come to be known as the Big Up rhythm, but it was based on an old Jamaican r&b record called 'Lockjaw,' so it used to be the Lockjaw rhythm. And then there's 'licking' rhythms, where someone comes along and copies the rhythm."

"With the proliferation of sampling, the producers try to make it as difficult as possible," says Michael McDonald, who engineers at HC&F Studios in Long Island, where DJs like Shabba, Super Cat and Buju Banton have recorded. "They put a whole lot of vocals inside the rhythm track, or they do some funny stuff to it, like lots of vocals in and out."

David Sanguinetti is head of marketing for New York-based VP Records, which (with Washington, D.C.-based RAS) is the principal distributor of Jamaican dancehall. "You get different songs, like 'Murder She Wrote' and 'Bam Bam,' all on the same [Sly Dunbar-produced] rhythm," he says. "Those records brought on a whole new dance, the bogle. It was started in Jamaica by a guy named Bogle, and now it's the biggest craze in the dancehall"

Starting with his l982 hit "African Princess," Frankie Paul has forged a career singing smooth, soulful "lovers' rock" in the face of the dancehall explosion. But like fellow crooners Barrington Levy, Cocoa Tea, Beres Hammond and Trevor Sparks, he's had to make concessions, collaborating with DJs and rapping himself in melodic "singjay" style. "If you don't say something about the rude boys these days, it won't hit the market," he complains. "But we're just getting into the DJ stuff for a little while. We're trying to get back on a trend where sirlgers sing about reality. I did straight r&b before, and I'm trying to get a deal with some big company now, so that we can be recognized in the r&b field as well as the reggae field. I love singing about reggae, but r&b is my favorite."

Veteran singer Mikey Dread recorded with the Clash and now works with Izzy Stradlin, but his latest solo album, Obsession (Ryko- disc), is straight roots reggae, though in a contemporary vein. "I'm trying my best to makc reggae internationally accepted and appealing," he says "In Jamaica, the atmosphere make you want to listcn to music louder and more aggressive. But foreigners are influenced by what they hear on the radio, and the A&R people don't live the roots like we do, so you have to polish up the sound for them. I've got to move up with the technology and still maintain the roots, but when I play live I still use the acoustic instruments."

Roots reggae has found fertile soil in Africa, especially Nigeria, where Majek Fashek, Nigeria's biggest reggae star, grew up listening to Marley and Jimmy Cliff. "Reggae music comes naturally to African people," he says, "because it's African music. Reggae music is music for the oppressed, it's a music of hope. Most African youths play reggae music now. I do my own style of chant, from the African perspective, and I use the juju drums; that's what makes it full African music. So it has finally come back to the roots. The cycle completed."

If Columbia's recent signing of dreadlocked DJ Tony Rebel is any indication, dancehall itself may be returning to the roots. "Artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh paved the way for us," he says. "That's why we have to show honor to their work. There's a whole lot of roots artists now, and I mean fresh ones. Garnet Silk is the new sensation in Jamaica and he's strictly singing about God. So it's just a matter of time. Some slack DJs were made very popular, so the youths were carried away by that. Most of them will tell you that they wanted to DJ the good side of the music, but nothing good comes easy."

For the moment, however, slackness prevails, Mercury has signed boglemeister Buju Banton, while Cobra and Super Cat cavort on MTV. Still, no major label has landed Ninjaman, the rudest of the rude boys, who's considered too wild to handle. In his absence, Shabba rules the roost, but even he has a social conscience of sorts: "Shabba sings about sex," he says,"but you better protect yourself, because when the bomb takes a hold you, you don't say Shabba give it to you. The greatest sex is safe sex-- Shakba says that. Put that in red ink. Right on, popcorn. I'm out of here, I'm gone. Boom bye."


New York-based journaiist Larry
Birnbaum writes about world (and other)
musics and hosts a weekly world-music
radio show on WYNE-FM 91.5.

Posted: Thu - February 6, 2003 at 05:59 PM