Family acts in music have always been huge: The Osmonds, Sylvers, Five Stairsteps, Isleys, Carpenters, and of course The Jackson 5/The Jacksons—who recently marked their 50th anniversary. Morgan Heritage is a family act and I’m willing to bet that you’ve never heard of the group. MH is Jamaica’s answer to the J5. Made up a five siblings, their father is reggae singer Denroy Morgan, who had a big hit in 1981 with the single “I’ll Do Anything.”
First released in 2015, Strictly Roots is the band’s 10th studio album and the first on their own label CTBC, which stands for Cool To Be Conscious (they recorded for the label VP during much of their success, but felt it was time to move on). After winning a Grammy Award in the Best Reggae Album category in 2016, the group decided to release a 2-CD deluxe edition, which celebrates the album’s success with previously unreleased tracks and remixes.
The original album (Disc 1) was comprised of twelve tracks in which Morgan Heritage takes the listener through peaks and valleys. In the song “So Amazing,” Morgan Heritage steps away from traditional roots and goes for a more top 40 sound. “So Amazing” could easily be played on a CW series:
In reggae, one always pay homage to Jah and Morgan Heritage sticks with tradition. In “Child of Jah” (feat. Chronixx) they explain the part Jah plays in reggae music and rastas to those who don’t know. On “Light It Up,” featuring Jo Messa Marley, they chant “this is reggae music.” Can’t do reggae without a Marley. After all, Robert Nesta Marley is the godfather of reggae. “Rise and Fall,” which discusses the cycle of life, has the typical drum & bass sound you hear in reggae.
“Celebrate Life” may be Morgan Heritage’s best track on this album. Again, Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” had to play a major part. “Celebrate the life you love / Celebrate the life you live,” Peetah Morgan & Grampson sing on lead vocals. If the group wanted to get crossover appeal, this would be the track to do it.
Disc 2 includes 3 additional versions of “Light It Up,” plus the pop-oriented “Come Fly” featuring the Celtic punk band Flogging Molly and the more traditional “Lion Order,” among others.
Morgan Heritage has won respect from the reggae community worldwide. Now that they are independent on CTBC, I expect them to take some risks and open it up. After all, they’re royalty. One Love.
This first, and likely, final full-length album by New York band The Frightnrs bears a moving story. Front man and vocalist, Dan Klein was diagnosed with ALS in November 2015 and had experienced his final moments of life during the recording and production of this album. To say he suffered would be an inaccurate illustration. It reduces every complex emotion he felt considering the inevitability of his fate. The Frightnrs—Rich Terrana (percussion and background vocals), and brothers, Chuck Patel (piano) and Preet Patel (bass and background vocals)—were determined to complete the album in support of Klein before he lost his physical ability to sing. Klein passed in June 2016, only a couple months before the album’s release.
Nothing More to Say is the first reggae album released by Daptone Records, managed by Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Smooth and with hints of vintage appeal, the album is a reminder of the Jamaican rocksteady sounds of Johnny Nash or Toots and the Maytals. Producer Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod upheld a vision of quality and integrity for the album despite the complicated circumstances that pressured its completion. Quoted from a New York Times interview on the album, Axelrod noted that he needed to select the best takes he could get of Klein’s vocals since he was unable to finish recording in the studio. Roth reflected on Klein’s vocals in the album, “In places he’s a little weak… but he’s singing from the heart.”
A snare cracks into a drum roll at the introduction of the first track, “All My Tears.” The song proceeds with a soulful wail supported by a firm backbeat and deep background vocals—in a way, announcing the band’s fraternal bond. Blended with haunting organ chords and muted electric guitar tones, each song feels fresh, though old-fashioned. Themes of love resulting in letdown, heartbreak, and mistake are prevalent in “Nothing More to Say,” “What Have I Done,” and “Looking for My Love.” In “Trouble in Here,” the Frightnrs maintain their smooth reggae back beat while adopting a blatantly blues style outfitted with harmonica solos and a 12-bar chord progression.
“Dispute,” the final track of the album, could stand alone with its distinctively crisp piano riff mixed with Klein’s reverberating vocals. Another similarly outstanding song is “Hey Brother (Do Unto Others)” for its charming syncopated chorus—“Do unto others, do unto others as you’d have them do, right back to you.” The Frightnrs also included two cover songs rich in R&B and soul flavor: “Gotta Find a Way” originally by Bob & Gene (1967), and “Gonna Make Time” by Saun & Starr (2015), who both record on the Daptone label.
What is especially striking in this album is Klein’s sincere falsetto vibrato and vivid lyrics in “Till Then” (quoted below) and “Purple.” He pries into the pain and anxious confusion listeners can only imagine he felt as his physical body progressively betrayed him:
Every day I wake it’s getting harder just to take, I try to fake a smile but nothing hides my sadness. Pretending that I’m fine, I’m only lying all the time, I’ve crossed the line from melancholy into madness. Till then I’ll wait, till you’ve reached my gate, lying every night, till you’ve blessed my sight.
The Frightnrs respect themselves and respect their audiences, a message Klein advocates. They do not mimic Jamaican accents or dress in their music because they know those actions would be unreflective of their own identity. This album is a testament to the creative power and aesthetic derived from Jamaican rocksteady music. As well, it will always serve to cherish the poetry and memory of Dan Klein.
Michael Franti & Spearhead are known for their brand of upbeat, socially conscious pop and hip hop-infused reggae. In their ninth studio album, Soulrocker, they continue to experiment with genre and beat, introducing electronic music to their repertoire. Though most of their records have been largely self-produced, they worked on Soulrocker with Jamaican producers Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, known for his dancehall sensibilities, and Swayne “Supa Dups” Chin Quee, who has worked with artists such as Bruno Mars and John Legend. Despite the new producers and beats introduced on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead continue to find innovative ways to keep their organic instrumental and reggae sound that fans have come to know and love.
In a single more akin to past hits “Say Hey (I Love You)” and “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like),” the upbeat anthem “Once A Day” is about unexpected moments in life, whether they are beautiful moments or “unexpectedly challenging.” Featuring Sonna Rele and produced by Supa Dups, this reggae jam is an infectious celebration of life and all its ups and downs. Franti wrote on YouTube that the song originally stemmed from how his family came together in the wake of his son’s diagnosis of a rare kidney disease, and hopes the song and video (below) can help people rise up, sing, and dance:
“My Lord,” “We Are All Earthlings,” and “Get Myself to Saturday” play with heavy EDM beats and synth, inspired by Franti’s love for Kraftwerk since he was seven years old. “Get Myself to Saturday” embodies the main message of the album, that throughout life’s struggles and personal longings for success, true happiness is found in giving back to the community and working for the greater good. The track is full of determination and hope, as Franti sings, “There is a part of me that can’t go on today/and there is a part of me that finds a way.”
Michael Franti & Spearhead have never been afraid of making political statements and being forthright about social issues, true to the messages of peace and nonviolence that come from Rastafari beliefs and from reggae legends like Bob Marley. “Good To Be Alive Today” is an acoustic guitar driven track that tackles everything from climate change and police brutality to drone strikes and ISIS. True to form, Franti infuses this sorrowful song with hope, asking people to remember the little “moments of victory” in life.
A personal favorite on the album is “Crazy for You,” a song about the power of loving someone amidst a seemingly crazy world of violence and political difference. The romantic declaration is accompanied by bright, staccato horns and a full unison chorus, and is made sweeter by Franti’s reference to the song as an ode to his wife.
Though some may be wary of the EDM elements on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead have always pushed the boundaries of reggae styles and popular music, and this album is no different. From joyful declarations of love to thought-provoking songs, Soulrocker at once fully feels the weight of a world prone to violence, misunderstanding and hate, while recognizing that joy and hope keep people motivated to create change. Franti’s hope is that everyone can become a “soulrocker,” what he calls someone who “lives from the heart with compassion for all, and who’s got tenacious enthusiasm for music, life, and the planet.”
In his native Argentina, Fidel Nadal is one of the most famous Afro-Argentine artists in popular music. Nadal’s success began with his band, Hasta Los Muertos—a punk outfit that was popular throughout Latin America in the early 1990s. Since 2001, he has crafted a solo career with a strong focus on reggae music.
In addition to his connection with Argentina, Nadal dialogues with the African Diaspora. Born to Afro-Argentine activist parents—his father was a filmmaker and mother a professor of anthropology—the musician’s Pan-African consciousness and Argentine identity blend throughout the newest of his seventeen albums, Tek A Ship.
For this effort, Nadal traveled to Kingston, Jamaica—the birthplace of reggae—to work with the legendary mastering engineer and producer, Bobby Digital. Joined by a host of Jamaica’s best reggae musicians, Tek A Ship is a groove-heavy performance with solid production. Nadal’s duet with reggae star Jah Thunder on “Ackee Tree” best represents the musician’s dual identities. Backed by a chunky rhythm and sunny melody, Nadal sings:
Soy Argentino/I am Argentine
El (Jah Thunder) es Jamaicano/He (Jah Thunder) is Jamaican
La verdad es que los dos somos Africanos/But the truth is that we are both Africans
But not all on Tek a Ship takes a tone of unified affirmations. The album’s opening track, “Confusion,” speaks of troubled times with images of violence, racism, and destruction from the United States, Chile, Nepal, and Jamaica. Despite the theme of things falling apart, Nadal remains musically focused and rhythmically poised throughout the track.
Much like Paul Gilroy theorized “the ship” in his seminal work The Black Atlantic, Nadal sings of taking a ship back to Ethiopia to see Haille Selassie on the album’s title track. Themes of Rastafarianism are central to Tek A Ship, and appear in “Vinimos para Ganar” (“We Come to Win”) and “Blessed is the Man.”
Throughout Tek A Ship, Nadal shows that the vibrations, melodies, and rhythms of his reggae are a vehicle to connect his identities and socially-conscious ideology. Lucky for our moving bodies and satisfied ears, we can be along for the ride.
A play on the classic “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” theme, Taj Weekes and his band Adowa’s fifth studio release, Love Herb & Reggae, is an effort to return to the roots of reggae by producing music filled with Rastafarian ideas of peaceful revolution. In this powerful album, Weekes brings his activism to his music, tackling social issues through smart lyrics and a progressive approach to reggae.
The themes of social justice are laid out on the opening track, “Let Your Voice,” which proclaims “let your voice be as loud as your silence.” Other songs include “Bullet From a Gun,” which begs for gun reform; “Life in the Red,” which warns about the destructiveness of capitalism; and “Here I Stand,” a story about the dangers of homophobia, which Weekes discusses in the following video:
There are also some more upbeat tunes on the album, such as the homage to the homeland, “St. Lucia On My Mind,” and the pure love song “Was It You.” While most songs don’t stray far from the more traditional reggae format that Taj Weekes & Adowa have presented before, Weekes claims to have made a breakthrough in his creative process, more carefully choosing chords and jumping from major to minor keys to match the topic and narrative of the lyrics with the melodies.
Legendary blues musician Bobby Rush recently celebrated his 82nd birthday, and his longevity in the industry is now celebrated in this compilation from Omnivore, covering 50 years of his recording career. Though born in Mississippi, Rush is closely associated the Chicago blues scene, where he relocated in the 1950s and performed with the likes of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf. This nicely packaged box set, titled after Rush’s most famous song, begins in 1964 with his early solo recordings and concludes nearly 100 tracks later with songs from his 2004 album FolkFunk, featuring guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Rush reinvented himself over the years, remaining relevant to younger generations through collabs with rock, soul, funk and rap artists. In the last decade he’s continued to release albums on a nearly annual basis, while earning a slew of awards and Grammy nominations. Chicken Heads serves as a fine tribute to the versatility of the “Dean of the Blues,” with remastering and audio restoration by Michael Graves, and a 32-page, full-color booklet with liner notes by Bill Dahl.
Over the past year we’ve covered some significant reissues from Arthur Lee & Love, the groundbreaking integrated rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1965 (see our reviews of Black Beauty and the band’s final album, Reel-to-Real). Now Rockbeat Records has assembled a 4-CD box set featuring 61 tracks recorded live over three decades, featuring Love as well as Arthur Lee performing with various backing bands, including several tracks recorded just prior to his death in 2006. We don’t have our hands on a copy of this nicely packaged compilation yet, but it will certainly be added to our collection. However, if you’re not a hardcore fan, we suggest you explore the studio albums first, beginning with Love’s groundbreaking third album from 1967, Forever Changes.
Formats: 11-LP Box set (standard or collector’s edition)
Release date: September 25th, 2015
One of the most handsomely packaged box sets this season is Bob Marley & The Wailers’ The Complete Island Recordings, released in celebration of Marley’s 70th birthday. Included are the nine studio albums recorded for Island plus two live releases (Live and Babylon By Bus). The numbered “collector’s edition,” which will set you back $650, features eleven 180g vinyl discs packaged in a velvet lined silver metal “zippo lighter” case, with bonus slipmat, photographs, and download code voucher. Since there’s no accompanying book, it’s difficult to justify the high price of the collector’s edition, so if your pockets aren’t quite so deep you might wish to consider the more moderately priced ($235) standard edition. Or wait until the albums are reissued individually (apparently in September 2016).
Reggae singer and guitarist Kingly T has been active in the genre for decades now, and the veteran’s newest record sees him creating a more obviously transnational project than his previous efforts. Having relocated from his home in Kingston to Indianapolis, IN, Kingly T’s band features himself and Anthony “Screw” Hunter, both Jamaican transplants, as well as bassist Dave Grove and keyboardist and Jennifer Grove, who are both Indiana natives. While the music pulls primarily from Kingly T’s own interpretation of reggae, the two Hoosiers both perform the genre with confidence and competence. A couple of the songs on this record, “Baby I Want You” and “Eastward Bound,” are older numbers that T has retooled for this release, while the rest of the album contains new compositions. T’s songs are often on the subject of interpersonal relationships, but dig into reggae’s socially conscious roots on tracks like “Teach Them,” the Afrocentric “Eastward Bound,” and the album’s title track.
The band lays into solid grooves throughout the course of Life in the City, animated by T’s guitar playing, with a jazz-inflected approach to reggae that falls somewhere between George Benson (most clearly heard on “Baby I Want You”) and Peter Tosh, whose influence permeates the rhythm guitar parts throughout the course of this record. It would be interesting to hear what this band is capable of in a less constrained context than a studio record—the teaser guitar and horn solos (played by Ryan Marsh on saxophone and Drew Darby on trombone) that permeate this disc leave the listener hungry for more extended versions of these songs.
Two episodes of the legendary television show “Rockers,” which was broadcast from New York City for over 25 years starting in the 1970s, have recently been released on DVD. The show was the first reggae music television series and helped introduce reggae to millions of music fans. Directed and hosted by Earl “The Roots Man” Chin, one of the most famous reggae deejays in the United States, “Rockers” featured interviews and performances by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Shaggy, and many other reggae artists.
The first episode released on DVD, Dennis Brown Live, features a 1999 performance of Brown on Spice Island in Grenada. Brown first became known as a reggae musician in Jamaica in the late 1960s, when he was only eleven years old. Later, Bob Marley said that Brown was one of his favorite artists, even naming him the “Crown Prince of Reggae.” This live performance features hit songs of Brown’s such as “Here I Come” and “Revolution.”
Gregory Isaacs Live includes interview as well as performance portions. Isaacs started out as a member of the Jamaican vocal trio The Concords, but after they broke up in 1970 he launched his own label, African Museum. He rose to popularity in the late 1970s in Jamaica and was nicknamed the “Cool Ruler” for his crooning vocal style, which he said was influenced by singers such as Sam Cooke and Percy Sledge. In Gregory Isaacs Live, Earl Chin speaks with Isaacs about his success, passion for people, and his preference for using live instruments to create music. The whole episode was shot in 2001 at Isaac’s African Museum studio in Kingston, Jamaica. Isaacs also performs his version of “House of the Rising Sun” and a special rendition of “The Border” with his son Kevin.
“Rockers” has also seen a revival through the recently released website, Rockers TV Media, which they call “the ultimate reggae website.” Here you can find clips from other episodes of the show, as well as links to new reggae music. There’s no news as to whether or not more episodes will be released on DVD, but these two programs certainly provide access to an important part of reggae’s history, especially its rise in popularity in the United States.
The life of Ranking Dread is a tale right out of a film noir. Whether cutting his teeth in Jamaica with the Ray Symbolic sound system while involving himself with infamous gang leader Claude Massop, or achieving widespread fame in London with the label Burning Sounds and simultaneously living a life of murder and drug dealing, or attempting to gain refugee status in Canada while at the same time allegedly slashing his girlfriend’s face with a knife. Emerging from a mysterious background where even his real name continues to be called into question, The Jamaican toaster who doubled as a criminal eventually met his fate in 1996 at the hands of another prisoner. Or maybe it was poisoning. Whatever the reason, this Robert Johnson-esque mythology reflects our deep need to know every detail in the lives of legendary artists. While the exact background and history of Ranking Dread may be forever held in question, his talents as a brilliant lyricist and personality are undeniable—while difficult to separate a musician from real-life actions, Ranking Dread nevertheless provided a number of hits over his career to earn significant fame. Oddly enough, however, a series of his albums remain hard-to-find entities, relegated to high prices among record enthusiast websites. A gritty 1970s roots reggae concoction of Ranking Dread’s lyrical mastery with Linval Thompson’s production expertise, Girls Fiesta is one such album that has been given the proper reissue treatment. With extensive liner notes provided by reggae historian and author David Katz and beautiful remastering by Nick Robbins, Girls Fiesta is a great example of a well-deserved reissue.
Girls Fiesta is roots rhythms at its finest. Ranking Dread headed to the UK in the 1970s after several run-ins and shootouts with Jamaican police placed him in the top 10 most wanted criminals. Eventually finding his way to east London, he aligned himself with the Burning Sounds label. Working with the famous musician and producer Linval Thompson, Girls Fiesta provides an array of deep, heavy rhythms from Thompson himself, the majority coming from Love is the Question, released that same year. There are also a host of older rhythms, such as “I Love Marijuana” on “Marijuana Soul” and “Can’t Stop Natty Dread” on “Kilburn Lane.” Similarly, Ranking Dread gives each track its due, effortlessly toasting with a sense of familiarity and ease. There’s less of the comedic vibe Ranking Dread is known for, but the serious nature of the album is anything but a hindrance. Common roots topics are confronted in the typical style, but with a good amount of creative presentation to make it truly unique. “Poor Man,” “Natty on the Rock/Death Trap” and “Kilburn Lane” stand out as big-time hits from the album.
Girls Fiesta stands as a classic mix of strong rhythms supplemented by the abilities of Ranking Dread to put a new spin on the tracks through his one-of-a-kind toasting technique. What’s more, an extensive history of Ranking Dread, explaining cultural and historical influences of the man’s life, provides plenty of background for what made the man and the music. With a lost treasure finally restored, Girls Fiesta stands out as another deep roots reggae classic.
Hailing from England, Jamaica and Anguila, Black Slate is a global phenomenon formed in reggae’s second home: London. Touring as a backing group to acts like Dennis Brown and Ken Boothe during the 1970s, Black Slate also performed extensively as an independent act until calling it quits in the mid-1990s. However, they returned in 2013 with the majority of their original members to release their first album since Get Up and Dance (1995). On World Citizen, Black Slate recaptures the original sound that made the group a force to be reckoned with. Maintaining a perfect blend of solid instrumentation with vocals that sound as fresh and powerful as they did in the 1970s, Black Slate offers another great contribution to the contemporary reggae scene. Strong tracks include “World Citizenship,” “Mozart in Trenchtown,” and the beautiful “Living in the Footsteps.”
Following is the official video for the single “World Citizenship”:
The Heptones will forever be in the pantheon of legendary Jamaican vocal groups. With a busy and very prolific career in the 1960s through the ‘70s, 1979’s Good Life would be the group’s eleventh album, although the second without original member Leroy Sibbles, who had earlier left to begin a successful career as a solo artist. With Naggo Morris taking over for Sibbles, there’s a noticeable shift in comfort. The group doesn’t sound as tight as with Sibbles, although “Can’t Hide From Jah” and “Natural Mystic” allude to a start of adapting to the changes. While not necessarily a reggae classic by any means, Good Life still brings a selection of strong tracks and reggae history from the beloved Heptones. Thanks to VP Records, the album is finally available on CD.
The gritty, raw talent on Youthman: The Lost Album highlights the missed opportunity for a truly gifted musician to shine as a result of inept record company practices. With his music spread over a host of singles across several labels, the heavy roots reggae musician was unable to gain a strong foothold on the British reggae scene. Working with the likes of Jah Bunny and Ras Elroy, songs such as “The Wicked Them” and “Jah Guide Over Me” makes you wonder how such songs never received much airplay in their time. Packed with all sorts of goodies, like additional dub versions and disco mixes, Youthman: The Lost Album is an underground reggae classic that is finally receiving it’s due.
The Jamaican-born, but Massachusetts-raised Mighty Mystic has been making waves in the reggae charts, and for good reasons. With the hit single “Cali Green” making its way onto an upcoming VP Records release and Concrete World debuting at #6 on the Billboard Reggae Chart, the world is beginning to take notice. Speeding up the tempo a bit and adding in some tinges of rock and electronic influences, coupled with the all-important vocal talents, Mighty Mystic has created a contemporary reggae hit in Concrete World.
In addition to “Cali Green,” notable tracks include the title track as well as “Mr. Big Man.” While reggae has a great deal of dedication to the past, Mighty Mystic has proven that reggae is still alive and well in the new millennium, and continues to be an important form of musical expression.
Curaçao-based Kuenta i Tambú (KiT for short) has been making waves since a feature in the December issue of Rolling Stone on their song “Waya Waya” brought the music of their small island into the spotlight. Located a hop and a skip from Venezuela, KiT is a group that has taken traditional genres and added the contemporary sounds of electronic dance music. Combining the percussive tambú with the electronic music native to Dutch clubs, Tambutronic is an album that can’t be truly summarized by just a song or even a handful of tracks. Rather, the whole album flows flawlessly together to create a highly entertaining party album that is sure to bring even more creativity and imagination into the active electronic music scene.
Take a listen to the first single off Tambutronic, “Jackhammer”:
The Trinidad-American artist Juakali has had a profound impact on the dubstep scene. Heralded as “the voice of North American dubstep,” Juakali has helped fuel a rising popularity of the music among American audiences. Flawlessly melding the deep, gritty bass-heavy tone with a singjay style, Juakali’s newest release, Feathers Too Bright, continues to build on the success of the artist’s previous slew of singles and EPs. For those interested in a creative approach to the dubstep scene, Feathers Too Bright is a brilliant place to start.
Check out the first track off the new album, “Bad Mofo”:
The career of Jamaican musician Desmond Dekker is closely connected with the United Kingdom. Dekker was one of the earliest reggae musicians to make a huge splash outside of Jamaica, with hits like “Israelites” and “007 (Shanty Town)” beloved by skinheads and the larger pop culture alike in the late 1960s.A ska revival in the late 1970s—led by assorted 2 Tone acts such as The Specials and Madness—catapulted Dekker and his contemporaries back into the spotlight. While mainly specializing in Post-Punk and New Wave acts, Stiff Records looked to capitalize on the renewed interest in ska and quickly signed Dekker in the early 1980s to a contract that resulted in two full albums and a host of singles. Unfortunately, the releases didn’t catch on and quickly faded into obscurity, as low sales brought Desmond Dekker’s brief time with Stiff to an end. But such music can’t stay lost forever. Pressure Drop has for the first time on CD released Dekker’s complete works on the Stiff Records label, providing an accessible and concise look into another era of the famous musician’s career.
Dekker’s first full album release through Stiff, Black and Dekker, reworked several of his early hits into a style more suitable for the 2 Tone ska revival. Generally, this meant a more rock-flavored tinge and a “busier” sound. For example, the original 1968 and updated 1980 versions of “Israelites” have several key differences. While the original was laidback and reserved, with the band keeping a steady rhythm throughout, the updated rendition has drums opting for a driving beat through the hi-hat and snare, as guitar is replaced by vocals imitating the instrument. In a clear attempt at connecting with huge acts like The Specials and Madness, there’s a saxophone solo in the middle that further stresses a more rock-oriented sound. The same holds true for older hits such as “007,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “Rude Boy Train” and “Lickin’ Stick,” as well as new compositions. Though the album went largely unnoticed, hardly making a dent in the UK charts and only reaching the Top Ten in Belgium, sales were strong enough to warrant a second album, 1981’s Compass Point.
On Compass Point, Dekker sought a change from the 2 Tone sound, adopting differing contemporary styles. His decision to record in the Bahamas, away from the influences of the UK scene, facilitated this change in direction. While the majority of the album is rooted in reggae, there are allusions to American rock and R&B. “Cindy” is the epitome of every ‘80s rock song, while “That’s My Woman” is the same idea, only this time it has an electrified, funky R&B edge. The most interesting and strongest track is the dubbed-out “We Can and Shall.” If I hadn’t know any better, I would have thought the song was produced by the great Adrian Sherwood—the heavy emphasis on incorporating African rhythms and sounds, along with tinges of Lee “Scratch” Perry through the use of roaring lions and tweeting birds is absolutely crazy in the best of ways. While the rest of the album is overall a very accessible collection of songs, “We Can and Shall” is a quick flash of odd brilliance that’s gone as quick as it started. Regardless, Compass Point was unable to garner any major attention, and Dekker was subsequently dropped from the label soon after.
It’s a shame that Dekker’s four-year stint went largely unnoticed by the general public at the time. After Stiff Records was unable to produce profitable releases, Dekker declared bankruptcy in 1984. Keeping himself afloat solely through live performances for the rest of the decade, Dekker released only one album, a live performance, during that period. Dekker’s luck would change, however, in 1990 when a Maxell TV advert used his song “Israelites,” catapulting him back on the scene. Working with the Specials in 1996, Dekker continued to perform, introducing a new audience to his music. While leaving this world too early in 2006, Desmond Dekker nonetheless continues to be appreciated for his musical talents and amazing voice. Black and Dekker: The Complete Stiff Recordings 1980 – 1983 is a wonderful addition to Dekker’s catalog, showcasing an interesting reinterpretation of assorted hits and original creations reworked for a 2-Tone generation.
Roaring Lion is the latest in a series of releases from Pressure Sounds of rare 1970s cuts from Lee “Scratch” Perry’s work in his homemade studio the Black Ark. The “Black Art” mentioned in the subtitle is one of the labels Scratch used for releasing and distributing purposes. According to the accompanying booklet by Jeremy Collingwood, the selections on this disc were recorded or remixed in 1976 and were never included on any album or other commercial release. Included are “a dozen tracks straight off a single master dub tape” along with some previously unissued selections. These tracks are all heavily dubbed with even more than usual of the sound effects, distortion, and multiple tracking for which Scratch is justly famous. Having never been issued, most of these tracks are not mentioned in the various Perry discographies, but given the helter-skelter nature of record keeping in the Jamaican music industry of the time, and at the Black Ark in particular, this is not all that surprising. These recordings originally appeared on dub plates intended for use by the local sound systems in Kingston’s outdoor street parties and dancehalls.
Strong bass lines were a must, not only because they define reggae and dub, but also to carry the sound long distances in order to attract crowds to the sound systems’ set-ups. As Collingwood notes, “Scratch employed an ever changing cast of musicians,” so individual credits are hard to assign, but the bass players listed are Boris Gardiner from Scratch’s house band the Upsetters, and a young Robbie Shakespeare who became half of Sly & Robbie, among the best known bass and drum contingents in reggae, and world music stars in their own right. Augustus Pablo’s eerie melodica riffs and Vin Gordon’s evocative trombone stylings twist through the mixes, while Scratch, Skully, and Sticky add their trademark percussion lines. Backing vocals are provided by the members of Full Experience featuring Aura Lewis and Candy McKenzie, both of whom have seen vintage recordings they did with Perry finally get issued in the last few years. With the constant re-releasing of Black Ark obscurities being done by various labels, Scratch’s works would seem to never be entirely lost. The tracks collected here were intended for immediate, very temporary duty with the sound systems with no thought given to preserving them in a more permanent medium. Consequently the sound quality of the surviving source material is a little bit rough and noisy in places, but in its way this only enhances the murky and mysterious mood the songs set.
“By 1976 Perry was helping to transform [dub] into an art form and he was beginning to create several different dub mixes of each rhythm [i.e., instrumental track].” This “re-mixing strategy meant he could offer different product to UK companies and exclusives to Sound Systems” for “several hundreds of pounds for each dub plate.” Scratch’s income was greatly augmented by this practice giving him the wherewithal to, among other things, buy more studio gadgets to augment the Black Ark’s recording capabilities. Most of the songs on this album are re-cuts of previous recordings. Therefore familiar bits, beats, and melodies rise and fall in the individual mixes, sometimes identifiable and sometimes not, possibly because some of these intricate creations are dub versions of previous dub versions of earlier recordings. Three Jah Lion cuts are included: “Truth and Rights” and “Generation from Creation” have him toasting over Winston Heywood & the Hombres’ “Backbiting” and “Africa.” The song “Roaring Lion” contains the quintessentially Scratch lyric “When the lion roar, the weak heart tremble,” which Jah Lion delivers with gusto. Rather than a re-cut, this track appears to be a Jah Lion/Upsetters original with tasty dub effects (including a very nice melodica line) added to the mix. Jah Lion was Jah Lloyd when he recorded for other producers (including himself), but Scratch credited him as Jah Lion. Scratch’s universe does not always correspond to mundane reality, then and now. Other highlights include “Emotional Dub” by Junior Murvin (based on his “False Teaching” from the Police and Thieves album) and “Rocky Road,” which starts with a vocal line “from unknown vocalist” and segues into “a rhythm dub of the Fantails’ ‘Stand & Look.’” That Fantails’ number was originally recorded at King Tubby’s studio for sound system operator Fatman who “requested that Tubby make use of a phaser in an effort to emulate Perry’s Black Ark sound.”* Then there’s a previously unreleased dub of Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic,” which was “cut for Jah Wise’s Tippertone Sound,“ and is “the original dubplate mix of what became one of Bob Marley’s most iconic tunes when re-recorded for Island” Records after Bob signed with Chris Blackwell’s label. “This early take was made more eerie than the later version on Marley’s Exodus album by the inclusion of a haunting male chorus that Scratch overdubbed at a later session with the Meditations; Marley was not present when the harmonies were laid.”** This version of “Natural Mystic” was “never officially completed”** so this is the first non-bootleg release of it to be available.
Collingwood asserts the selections contained here “are real ‘smokers’ delights’ as they weave patterns in glorious swirling and bouncing rivers of sound.” Of particular interest to the smokers might be “Loco Negril,” Scratch’s maximally dubbed version of an Althea & Donna song (“Going to Negril”) that sounded a lot like their mega-hit “Uptown Top Ranking.” Scratch gave it a full dub treatment not unlike how he created “Disco Devils” from Max Romeo’s “I Chase the Devil.” Eerie sounds, echoes, ethereal horns, and a particularly booming bass line turn the song into the reggae equivalent of psychedelic rock. “Anasawa Dub” and “Dub Dyon” are further dubs on the dub track called “Dyon-Anasaw” on Scratch’s Return of the Super Ape album. “Beat Down Comrade Man” is Junior Byles’ revoicing of his own “Beat Down Babylon,” recast as a political endorsement of 1970s People’s National Party leader Michael Manley. Perhaps American political campaigns might be improved by introducing dub techniques to campaign songs. Also included are “Big Gal Sally” and “Big Boy Wally,” spirited dubs of Scratch’s “slack” masterpieces “Big Pussy Sally” and “Big Cocky Wally.” The altered titles may reflect the less salacious lyrics presented here, but the lyrics are tamer mainly because so much of the vocals drop out of the mix or are distorted beyond recognition. Artistic in its own way.
Scratch’s work at the time (“fueled by spliffs and rum and rum and spliffs”) “wrapped up political and cultural voices in a dense ‘dub-reggae’ sound: a sound that came to define the Black Ark.” Shortly after these tracks were recorded, Perry would leave Jamaica because of the violent political and social milieu that was a consequence of the ongoing street war between the two major Jamaican political parties—a phenomenon described in Scratch’s biographical opus “City Too Hot” (a 1977 single later re-released by Mojo Magazine). Scratch is still active, recording and touring, but sounds like these gems from the Black Ark have never been equaled and probably never will be. Thanks to Pressure Sounds for bringing them back.
* from People Funny Boy by David Katz, p. 320.
** from People Funny Boy by David Katz, p. 268.
All quotes not otherwise attributed are from Jeremy Collingwood’s booklet and liner notes.
Generation from Creation / Jah Lion & the Upsetters
Big Boy Wally / the Upsetters
Beat Down Comrade Man / Junior Byles & the Upsetters
Stand and Look / the Fantels
Rocky Road Dub / the Upsetters
Natural Mystic / Bob & the Upsetters
Anasawa Dub / the Upsetters
Dub Dyon / the Upsetters
Emotional Dub / the Upsetters
Dub Stand / the Upsetters
The other Pressure Sounds releases in this series are: Sound System Scratch (2010), The Return of Sound System Scratch (2011), High Plains Drifter (2012) and The Sound Doctor (2012). They all feature rare and obscure 1970s cuts from Scratch, mostly from the Black Ark.
Creole Soul, the fourth album as a leader from Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles, is a warm and satisfying listen. Unfailingly lyrical, this is contemporary jazz refracted through the lenses of reggae and calypso.
Charles displays an agile, buttery trumpet tone, whether trading solos with saxophonists Jacques Schwarz-Bart on tenor and Brian Hodges on alto, or simply stating a beautiful, unadorned melody, as on the covers of Bob Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low” or Mighty Sparrow’s calypso number “Memories.” Every track demonstrates the trumpeter’s predilection for memorable melodies, and the soloists, while always technically challenging and rhythmically exciting, never stray too far off the harmonic pathway. “Green Chimneys” by Thelonious Monk gets reimagined as a punchy calypso, while Dawn Penn’s 1967 rocksteady hit “You Don’t Love Me” goes the other way, receiving a funky, Jazz Messengers-esque hard bop makeover. The first-class rhythm section—Obed Calvaire on drums, Kris Bowers on electric piano and piano, and Ben Williams on bass (with guitarist Alex Wintz joining on a few tracks)—lays down deep, lush grooves throughout, from the spirited opener “Creole” to the happy closing calypso of “Doin’ The Thing.” Jazz was once one of the country’s most popular forms of music; with Creole Soul, Etienne Charles has shown that it can still, all at once, move your feet, make your heart thump, and engage your brain.
Mixing soulful vocals with their own interpretation of reggae, R&B greats Musiq Soulchild and Syleena Johnson unite for an album of soulful music. Taking a more pop-oriented route, 9ine contains infectious beats and enchanting lyrics that are sure to keep you humming a song for the rest of the day. Take a listen to the first single off the album, “Feel the Fire,” and hear for yourself:
The ambient, East-Meets-West mix of instrumentation and electronics has proven to be a potent formula for Bombay Dub Orchestra. Formed almost a decade ago, the band continues their success on their newest release, Tales From The Grand Bazaar. Bringing in musicians from across the globe— including India, Turkey, the United States, the UK and Jamaica—the years-long project has ultimately culminated into a solid, yet very creative techno-dub release. With the addition of traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, the trance-like feel put out by the electronic instrumentation is complimented by the likes of the ud and qanun. Coupled with the dark, heavy bass and drums by famous Jamaican session musicians Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, the continuous groove at the outset blends into a ceaseless stream that blends into one, uninterruptible creation. From start to finish, Tales From the Grand Bazaar flirts with a host of unique sounds and instruments that blends the electronic with the traditional, and is effortlessly combined and mixed in such a way that is extremely listenable, and easily enjoyable.
The late 1970s were a critical and extremely creative time for the development of dub music. The Revolutionaries, comprised of the amazing talents of Sly Dunbar, bassist Lloyd Parks (later augmented by Robbie Shakespeare ) and Tommy McCook, among others, helped to churn out some of the most unforgettable dub tunes of that era, and of dub music in general. Likewise, Linval Thompson, after teaming up with renowned producer Bunny Lee, began to establish himself as an extremely talented musician as well as producer. Thus, the combination of an adept studio band with an equally gifted producer was a match made in heaven. However, as often happens, essential recordings disappear or are lost to the passage of time. Boss Man’s Dub, released at the height of dub excellence in 1979, was one such album, resulting in its incredible rarity. But after decades without a proper reissue, Hot Milk has brought this old classic back into the spotlight. Now this remarkable album that collects dub versions from the likes of Freddy McKay, Michael Black, and Anthony Johnson as well as Thompson himself, can once again be enjoyed to the fullest.
It’s a cover of a Delfonics’ tune that first introduces the listener to Boss Man’s Dub. Thompson’s dub version of the classic “La La (Means I Love You)” is warped and formed in a way that preserves the solid horn section, as Thompson’s vocals come together with guitar right before the bass hits and takes over. As Thompson continues with scattered vocals and the temporary chorus, keys are dispersed throughout along with the twang of guitar. Continuing along, Freddy McKay (of “Picture On The Wall” fame) gets a dub interpretation on the rare track “Gonna Be Sorry,” with lazy horns maintaining a solid groove that periodically combines with guitar, while bass and drums keep the slow yet energetic track moving forward. Rounding out the original tracklist is none other than Anthony Johnson, riding the Declaration of Rights riddim on “Africa.” Though drums oddly dominate the intro, the bass brings in that ever-familiar line while guitar and keys compliment where necessary to create a tight, but unfortunately short track.
Boss Man’s Dub is an album well overdue for a reissue. The delightful dub rendition of “La La (Means I Love You)” and the somewhat melancholy horns on “Gonna Be Sorry Dub” make these two tracks alone worth a definite listen. The remastering of the album is phenomenal, with subtle sounds that further showcase the extraordinary sonic layers that dub versions are capable of. And for those wanting even more, this release features two equally-compelling bonus tracks: Sammy Dread’s dub version of “Morning Love” as well as the famous Cornell Campbell performing “Wherever You Need Me.” Boss Man’s Dub is another solid album released by the folks at Hot Milk, who are among those leading the way in amazing reissues of once-lost albums.
The music that helped to welcome Jamaica’s independence from Great Britain in 1962, known as ska, was heralded as the first uniquely Jamaican music to come out of the country. Indeed, the walking bass line and emphasis on playing the upbeat which characterized the music eventually paved the way for subsequent genres including rocksteady and reggae. However, ska was not an overnight creation. Before the optimistic tones of independence, Jamaica fell in love with American rhythm and blues, brought to the island via Jamaican seasonal workers. Finding this dance music extremely infectious, local acts began incorporating elements into their performances. And for Jamaicans leaving their country to find work in places such as the United Kingdom, the demand for the music of their homeland grew significantly. This demand ultimately culminated in the formation of the English record label Blue Beat, which became famous for releasing some of the earliest Jamaican R&B and proto-ska tunes.
Over the past few years, the importance of Blue Beat has been recognized by the various labels compiling and re-releasing material from the Blue Beat catalog. Not Now Music is one such label, releasing a slew of singles with the goal to ultimately make available all A & B sides—an essential task for Jamaican musical history. The third set in their series, The History of Blue Beat: The Birth of Ska BB76-BB100 contains all A & B sides from the 76th to the 100th Blue Beat singles.
Through these songs, some of the earliest hints at what would eventually become ska emerge. Piano and guitar will periodically play strictly on the upbeat. In fact, some of the fathers of ska are featured on this compilation: Derrick Morgan, Alton Ellis, and even Prince Buster indirectly through Busters Group. Early Blue Beat songs alluding to the ska format include Derrick Morgan and Yvonne’s “Meekly Wait,” where the guitar rides out the entire song playing solely on the upbeat. But just as one is introduced to this new form, the accompanying B side “Day In Day Out” returns to an American-style R&B ballad. What is probably the most unique and interesting song on this compilation, however, concerns the Winston & Roy track “Babylon Gone,” featuring Count Ossie. This song is one of the earliest musical mentions of the Rastafarian “Babylon” and includes African drums in a Niyabinghi style which, as Rastafari became more prevalent in the Jamaican music scene, was evermore incorporated into popular reggae songs. The B side, “First Gone,” is even crazier— the rhythm and blues side of things is even more pronounced, yet the African drumming continues throughout.
While this set only covers a very small part of the Blue Beat catalog, it’s enough to convince this listener that the influence Blue Beat had on later Jamaican genres was both crucial and undeniable. Additionally, through the release of these compilations, there is indeed a clearer picture of the birth of ska. The Blue Beat singles showcase a turning point away from a Jamaican copy of rhythm and blues to the creation of the first truly unique form of Jamaican music .
There are few groups that have been together for as long as The Mighty Diamonds. Formed in 1969 in the Trenchtown area of Kingston, Jamaica, the group has played to countless audiences over the world throughout their 40+ years of performing. The amount of material they have released over the years is just as impressive, practically equal in number to the years they’ve been together. But with such an extensive catalogue, the albums will eventually be lost to time if no reissues are forthcoming. But leave it to the minds over at Hot Milk, who have given the proper treatment to two rare Mighty Diamonds releases that have finally been put onto CD. Coming off last year’s release of Keith Hudson’s Torch of Freedom, Hot Milk’s latest project is a double album release of the vocally smooth and instrumentally sound Planet Earth and its dub accompaniment Planet Mars Dub.
Hot Milk has opted for the intertwined version of both albums, with the dub version following immediately after the original reggae version. It’s refreshing to listen to this method, since hearing the reggae version seamlessly flow into the instrumental dub version leaves an appreciation of not only the vocal talents of the Mighty Diamonds trio, but also the instrumental virtuosity of the Icebreakers. Dub versions echo the same laid-back style of the Mighty Diamonds, though with a more barebones approach to the reworking of the songs using reverb, echo, and delay as the main driving forces for each mix. And suffice to say, this preference was a great choice as it allows the album to flow from song to song at a perfect pace. But not enough can be said of the Mighty Diamonds, whose vocals throughout both albums show them at the height of their career in the late 1970s. “Let The Answer” is indicative of the whole album: tight vocalization, beautiful lyrics, and strong musical accompaniment.
The remastering work of Hot Milk is absolutely flawless, giving nothing but love and devotion to a release that had unexpectedly been lost for so long. Additionally, liner notes provided by reggae expert John Masouri give a concise overview of the long and brilliant history of The Mighty Diamonds, and an in-depth look at the album itself. Hot Milk continues to release great material, and this reviewer waits for whatever grand ideas Hot Milk has in store for us for the rest of this year.
As one of the many roots reggae bands to make their way out of Bristol, England, Black Roots emerged in the ‘80s as one of the most important and influential groups on the British reggae scene. With albums such as their self-titled 1983 debut and 1984 release The Front Line, named after a British sitcom for which the band composed the theme song, the deeply political and raw music of Black Roots was something truly unique. So it was an unfortunate turn of events in 1990 when the group disbanded, ending a significant period in British reggae. The band remained quiet for over a decade, not releasing any material or appearing to be on the verge of a reunion. But in 2012, there was news that several of the original members were coming back together, and this ultimately culminated in On the Ground, the first album of original material since 1990’s Natural Reaction. On the Ground is a return-to-force of ‘80s-era Black Roots music, and the accompanying dub mix only exemplifies the group’s instrumental talents.
The first thing one notices about On the Ground is how tight Black Roots remains, regardless of their nearly 20 years hiatus, as well as the unfortunate loss of bassist Derrick King in April 2011. But the band has made a speedy recovery, playing with the same deep and dark roots from the days of The Frontline and Black Roots. From the opening tracks “I Believe” and “Long Long Ago” they make it seem as though On the Ground is an immediate follow-up to albums produced when the group was at their peak in the 1980s. But while the deep, heavy sound is still present, there has been a change lyrically to something more positive and optimistic. This is by no means a negative change, and in fact the songs are expertly written, addressing issues ranging from helping and actively changing society to making it through a broken system.
The aforementioned hard-hitting tracks of On the Ground are given even more emphasis on the album’s accompanying dub release. Louis Becket, known for his work with groups such as Misty in Roots and Culture, is on the mix with Black Roots, reworking fifteen of the original album’s seventeen songs. Pushing away the extensive use of various effects, Becket mainly preserves the traditional elements: drum, bass, echo and reverb. However, there is another addition to the formula, one which is executed fantastically: the horn section. “Militancy Dub,” for example, exemplifies their talents exceptionally well, sounding tight and focused with plenty of drive to give the tracks, and others like it, that unique dub sound. Other strong tracks include dub mixes of “Slavery,” “Struggle,” and “Call Me Out.”
Although as is often the case for an original strong reggae release, On the Ground in Dub goes to show that the accompanying dub releases can be nothing short of fantastic. And in the hands of an experienced engineer like Becket, the album lives up to its greatest possible potential.
Sugar Shack’s mission to resurrect and promote the once-forgotten thriving Bristol reggae scene in England continues to be a monumental task that has culminated in a series of releases, bringing the English city into the general mindset as an area thriving with deep roots reggae. The dedication is partly seen from their rediscovery of Jashwha Moses, a musician from the late 1970s who was practically lost to the general consciousness. Painstakingly compiling rare material, their work eventually paid off in last year’s release of Joshua to Jashwha –30 Years in the Wilderness. This year, Jashwha Moses finally returns with No War on Earth, an album full of all-new material. The end effect is an album maintaining the old roots reggae feel whilst mixing with new and creative musical ideas.
As you get deeper into No War on Earth, you begin to wonder just how Jashwha had been forgotten in the first place. “Good Over Evil,” with anti-racism lyrics given further strength through a thick, dark sound that is only exemplified by the dub version that follows. The attention to detail in classic roots reggae is just as present in “No Weep” and “No War,” but Jashwha has a talent for expanding beyond tradition. I can only describe the track “Power Crazy People” as robotic dub; Jashwha manipulates his voice over multi-layered instrumentation and effects that sound practically haunting in the best way possible. The following track “Steel (Version)” only makes it better, as the same modifications to Jashwha’s voice are complimented by a strong driving beat and staccato moans that sound as though the song is a mash-up of roots reggae with Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” off Head Hunters.
While Jashwha Moses effortlessly preserves the traditional roots reggae sound, his ability to expand to incorporate new and interesting sounds in the music sets him apart from others. With No War on Earth, the revival of Jashwha Moses, and in a greater sense the Bristol reggae scene, has begun.
Bad Brains has the misfortune of being a band whose place in history was crystallized and immortalized about 30 years ago, as rough and tumble break-through Black artists in the D.C. hardcore scene. Bad Brains the historical object, however, has never stopped Bad Brains the band from performing and recording with an ever changing line-up.
Into the Future is the group’s seventh release and, while definitely nowhere near a reclamation of former glories, is probably their best album in at least the last ten years. Famed, crazed frontman H.R. is back in the lead with his stream of consciousness yelping, growling and shouting. The band’s foray into reggae tinged metal has been scaled back and glimpses of their original hardcore style can be felt throughout. Bad Brains completists will want to purchase this album, and perhaps people interested in the idea of Bad Brains who were not intrigued by the abrasive, non-stop sound of their 2003 release “Banned in D.C.” Hardcore purists, however, should probably keep pretending the last 30 years didn’t happen.
Drawn from various groups throughout the Los Angeles area, the 17 musicians that comprise the reggae soul band The Lions have one goal in mind: to create their own classic soul reggae album. With influences ranging from the Upsetters to the Roots Radics, The Lions want a signature reggae sound that’s full of accidental moments of brilliance, whether it’s an interesting mistake by a band member or the blowing of fuses mid-recording. With This Generation, The Lions indeed pull off a great combination of soulful, moving reggae tunes.
The albumstarts off interestingly enough with “Bird on a Wire,” which transitions from a country folk-infused guitar riff into a reverb and echo-filled reggae jam with the amazing vocals of Malik “The Freq” Moore (The Bullets). This is followed by the title track, as Moore now trades vocals with Master of Ceremonies Black Shakespeare, the energetic “toaster” of the group. With great contributions from all members of the band, especially that of the horn section and organist Dan Hastie, “This Generation” is a compelling single and video:
It’s a good indication when you have difficulty selecting the best tracks on an album, and for This Generation nothing is closer to the truth. “New Girl” brings back an old rocksteady groove led by James “#1” King on alto saxophone, while the melancholic “Padre Ichiro” encapsulates a lost relationship with the lyrics “Padre Ichiro told me something my eyes start to see / She loves the marijuana more than she loves me.” But while it’s not possible to discuss every song in great detail, The Lions do, in fact, have very fews faults, if any. Full of classic sounds remade in new and exciting ways, This Generation is definitely one of the top reggae albums to look for this year.
Reviewed by Ian Hallagan
Note: For those wanting more from The Lions, Stones Throw will be releasing a 45 box set including the entire album as well as four original “dub versions” only available in this format. You can order the collection here.
Barrington Levy has a storied career that began in the late 1970s. Throughout the 1980s, while the transition from reggae to dancehall spelled the end for some Jamaican artists, Levy met the challenge with hit after hit. Working with the likes of the Roots Radics and with support from famous producers such as King Jammy and Scientist, Barrington Levy was one of the best known performers not only in Jamaica but throughout the reggae universe. Taking it upon themselves to showcase the best period in Levy’s career, VP Records has released a two-disc compilation, entitled Sweet Reggae Music, of the various hits released over a five-year period, beginning in 1979 when Levy was only 15. Sweet Reggae Music is a fantastic compilation that an artist like Barrington Levy truly deserves.
The 40 songs compiled on Sweet Reggae Music are all hits, beginning with Levy’s early introduction into the global scene. “Don’t Fuss Nor Fight,” off of 1979’s seminal Englishman, cemented a career in the UK that would only increase in popularity with the abundance of chart toppers released throughout the 1980s. Other notable tracks include “Shaolin Temple,” “Sister Carol,” and “A Yah We Dah.” And this is only the first disc. Disc two continues much in the same vein as the first, cramming in a fantastic mix of hits. “The Winner,” “Mini Bus,” and the dancehall favorite “Under Mi Sensi” help bring Sweet Reggae Music to its end. It was a hard choice to simply pick out the favorites on each disc; there is absolutely no time wasted with weaker tracks or fluffing the album with unnecessary remixes. Each song is Barrington Levy at his greatest, and VP Records has done a great service in accumulating so many strong tunes. If there’s one compilation for those interested in delving deeper into reggae and dancehall, or simply those wanting to find a comprehensive collection of Barrington Levy’s greatest hits, then Sweet Reggae Music is the go-to set.
On a street in downtown Manhattan lies Miss Lily’s, a Caribbean-themed diner host to several traditional West Indian dishes from jerk chicken to oxtail and curried goat. And just next to this diner is the artistic section: Miss Lily’s Variety. Carrying all types of Jamaican vinyl, from the bare essentials to those hard-to-find collectibles, Variety provides several other artistic creations and a rotating program of West Indian-themed exhibitions. But although Miss Lily’s has expanded beyond that of a diner, one thing is still more important above all else: family. Bringing together all people, regardless of nationality or ethnicity is the key to Miss Lily’s success; Jamaican icons like Jimmy Cliff and Beenie Man have made appearances at what has been described as a “Jamaican Embassy” in Manhattan. This same concept of family is key to the business’s first release via VP Records, Miss Lily’s Family Style Vol.1. By compiling a selection of songs that you might hear echoing throughout the diner and store, Miss Lily’s hopes to bring its own sense of family, albeit an audio version, to everyone across the globe.
Each track, featuring contemporary reggae and dancehall tunes, blends effectively to create a lively and energetic album. Big names abound on Family Style, with an eclectic mix of both relatively new and seasoned acts. Buju Banton and Wayne Wonder’s “Bonafide Love,” Gyptian’s “Hold You (Hold Yuh),” and, my personal favorite, Gappy Ranks’ “Pumpkin Belly” brings the homey and inviting mood right through your speakers. The fifteen tracks featured on Family Style all aim to create a sense of a larger family, and the sentiments are echoed to greatest effect. But that’s not all. For those wanting even more from Miss Lily’s, included is a mega mix of tunes by DJ Max Glazer, guaranteeing that if the food is as good as the music, then Miss Lily’s should be your first stop in Manhattan.
The first release from the new reggae/dub/dancehall reissue label Hot Milk aims to be a big one with Keith Hudson’s Torch of Freedom. Initially released alongside other Hudson classics such as Pick a Dub (1974) and Flesh of My Skin, Blood of My Blood (1974), Torch of Freedom (1975) fell into relative obscurity as the forgotten gem of the Jamaican producer/singer/songwriter’s solo career. Maintaining that dark, sinister sound that only Keith Hudson could conjure up, the album finally gets the reissue treatment that it so greatly deserves.
Listening to Torch of Freedom, it’s hard to comprehend just why it took so long for it to be reissued, as the album contains a wealth of signature Hudson creations. With the famous Soul Syndicate, along with Robie Shakespeare and Candy McKenzie, among others, providing their limitless talents, the haunting instrumentation meshes with Hudson’s often hard-to-decipher, yet elegant lyrics to create an emotional, hard-hitting album. For a more thorough understanding of his music, take a listen to the track “Turn the Heater On” (track 8) and compare it to the dub version, “So Cold Without You” (track 9).
Hot Milk Records has come out swinging with this amazing reissue of an album that, until now, had been an almost unattainable commodity. Keith Hudson is really on top of his game, and fans of “The Dark Prince” can finally rejoice. I eagerly await what this new label has in store for 2013.
Lee “Scratch” Perry has been quite busy for a Septuagenarian artist. End Records has released a collaboration between Perry and ambient house institution the Orb, The Orbserver in the Star House, Trojan Records has released a two-CD set of 1970s-era extended dub mixes from Perry’s legendary Black Ark studio, Disco Devil: the Jamaican Discomixes, and Pressure Sounds has a new release of obscure Perry cuts, The Sound Doctor. All are worth a listen.
The Orb maintains a fluid membership—this time out it’s comprised of mainstay Alex Paterson and frequent contributor Thomas Fehlmann. Having already collaborated with Pink Floyd alum David Gilmour and Rickie Lee Jones, Paterson and crew are used to creatively sharing their soundscapes. Jones’s sampled vocal propelled the Orb’s best known song to date, “Little Fluffy Clouds” (from the album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld); on The Orbserver in the Star House, Scratch voices a modified update, “Golden Clouds,” in which he describes the Jamaican skies in similar terms to Jones’s disquisition on the Arizona skies she remembered from her childhood there. Perry is in wonderful voice, playful and engaged, as he is on most of the album. Following is the video of “Golden Clouds” (also the name of the house in Jamaica where Ian Fleming wrote many of the James Bond novels):
“Soulman,” also released as a single, is a moody dub workout with tasty rhythmic touches and an insistent beat. It may be based on Perry’s version of “Soul Man” (from his 1974 album Double Seven), which was a recasting of the Isaac Hayes/David Porter song popularized by Sam and Dave, but any similarity here to that original is tenuous. It opens with some elemental philosophizing by Perry before sailing away on a bass groove. Perry and the Orb also present an updating of the Junior Murvin hit (co-written, produced, etc. by Perry) “Police & Thieves,” that benefits from an imaginative mix that lends it a wistful tone that still retains a good deal of the original’s 1970s punky reggae feel. The song also features an extended toast by Perry, ruminating on street politics and a new generation dealing with “police and soldier in the street … killing the children one by one.”
Composer credits for the rest of the set go to Paterson, Fehlmann, and Perry, and the compositions share familiar attributes: booming bass, on- and off-beat percussion tracks layered over the mix, inventive found sound samples, and spotless production. “Ball of Fire,” it should be noted, has absolutely no connection to Jerry Lee Lewis, but features Scratch scatting over bubbling electronica. “Man in the Moon” is another Perry-as-resident in outer space rap about things celestial, eschatological, and musical. “Ashes” has a striking, minimalist feel, its brief duration dominated by an otherworldly rap from Perry over a collection of exotic percussion lines. And “Congo” is a more amplified skank of a similar nature.
Perry has engaged in interesting collaborations throughout his career, releasing music made with Jamaican and British producers like Niney the Observer (George Boswell), King Tubby (Osbourne Ruddock), Mad Professor (Neil Fraser), and Adrian Sherwood at various times over the years. More recently he has collaborated with Moby, Ari Up, George Clinton, Keith Richards, and the Vienna-based dub act, Dubblestandart. Not all reggae fans, nor even all Perry aficionados like Perry’s later day collaborations, and this set is no exception, though this particular collaboration seems more developed than some previous ones. The interaction between Perry and the Orb seems to be fairly symbiotic, with the vocals not only making linear sense, but sounding as if they belong with the music they accompany. Individual listeners’ mileage, as they say, may vary.
The set list: Ball of Fire; H.O.O.; Man in the Moon; Soulman; Golden Clouds; Hold Me Upsetter; Go Down Evil; Thirsty; Police & Thieves; Ashes; Congo.
This is another reissue from Trojan Records, and it contains many gems from Perry’s heaviest dub period, a style he could explore much more fully in his homemade studio, the Black Ark. “Discomix” does not necessarily refer to Studio 54 style relics of the 1970s. In the Jamaican sense, they were extended 45 rpm mixes issued on 12” vinyl, which “vastly improved the dynamic bass and treble ranges” available for producers like Perry to work with. “Sound quality had always been of vital importance to Jamaican sound system operators where the bass was supposed to be felt in your chest rather than merely heard.” Scratch and his bass players like Boris Gardiner, did their best to deliver that sensation, and in the process created a sort of psychedelic reggae that fit the times well.
The set list includes some of Perry’s finest efforts: “City Too Hot” describes the deteriorating situation in Jamaica in the late ’70s as the island was beset by warring political factions, especially in Kingston. “Roots Train” and “Rasta Train” are entirely danceable and both feature notable toasting (i.e., raps) by Dillinger and Doctor Alimantado. “Open the Gate,” Watty Burnett’s song about repatriation, has ethereal effects throughout and may contain the most crash cymbal strikes of any single recording by anyone. And the title track is Perry’s notorious reworking of Max Romeo’s “Chase the Devil” (a.k.a “I Chase the Devil”). The entire cut is drenched in dub effects and saturated with layers of percussion and echo. The version of Devon Irons’ “Vampire” included here is probably the longest, most relentlessly dubbed version of this frequently-recorded song. Ethereal horns flow through the mix and Perry stops and starts instrumental parts, once again playing his mixing board as if it were a musical instrument as Irons sings about collaborating with the Biblical prophet Obediah in capturing and burning the vampires that beset the righteous Rastas in Babylon. As Doctor Alimantado observes near the end of his rap, “You’ve got to be clean / To rally ’round the red, gold, and green.” A truly majestic cut.
Still, there is a downside to this package. While many of these songs aren’t available elsewhere in precisely these versions, Trojan has issued many of them on previous Perry collections like Open the Gate and Arkology. By and large the versions presented here are the longest, most complete versions, but there are further Scratch rarities out there that Trojan might consider for future releases. However, issuing important songs in multiple packages is just another characteristic of the reggae biz.
The set list:
Disc 1: Norman / Max Romeo & the Upsetters; Bad Weed / Junior Murvin; I Forgot to Be Your Lover (a.k.a. To Be a Lover) / George Faith; Know Love / Twin Roots; Rainy Night in Portland / Watty Burnett; Disco Devil / Lee Perry & the Full Experience; City Too Hot / Lee Perry; Words / Sangie Davis & Lee Perry; Roots Train / Junior Murvin & Dillinger.
Disc 2: Open the Gate / Watty Burnett; Neckodeemus / the Congos; Rasta Train / Raphael Green & Doctor Alimantado; (Ketch) Vampire / Devon Irons & Doctor Alimantado; History (of Civilization) / Carlton Jackson; Sons of Slaves / Junior Delgado; Party Time / the Heptones; Free Up the Prisoners / Lee Perry; Garden of Life / Leroy Sibbles.
Pressure Sounds has issued another collection of truly rare Perry cuts, most of which have only appeared on vinyl—and in Jamaica for the most part—before now. Like previous Perry packages Sound System Scratch and The Return of Sound System Scratch, the sound of these early recordings has been greatly improved by modern technology, but still, in this case, there are a few places where unpleasant noises not intended by the tricky producer intrude. But all in all, this is a highly listenable set with some intriguing stuff, though probably best-suited for intense Perry fans.
The set list:
Oppression / Delroy Butler; Army of Love / Junior Byles (previously unreleased); Wam-Pam-Pa-Do / Dillinger; Sound Doctor / Bobby Floyd; Doctor Skank / Young Dellinger; Horny Train / The Upsetters (exclusive dub plate mix); Do Good / Al Maytone; Different Experience / Brother Roy; Smiling Faces / Tinga Stewart; Smiling version / Hux Brown Group; Be Prepared / Keith Poppin; 006 / U Roy; Key Card / Lee & Jimmy; Domino Game / The Upsetters; Message to the Nation / Tony Fearon; Dub Message / The Upsetters; Water Your Garden / The Flames; Standing on the Hill / Chenley Duffus; Start Over / The Gatherers; Its Impossible / The Ethiopians; Grandfather Land / Jah T; King of Kings / Pat Francis; King of Kings Version / Upsetters; To Hell and Back / Count Stocky & The Upsetters.
Tarrus Riley is a second generation reggae star. His father, Jimmy Riley, had a string of reggae hits in the 1970s, working for a variety of Jamaican producers including Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Duke Reid, and Bunny Lee before becoming an accomplished producer in his own right. Whereas Jimmy Riley recorded in ska and rocksteady along with reggae, Tarrus’s recordings are generally in the roots tradition of Bob Marley or Dennis Brown with most of the lyrics centering on appreciation of Jah and living a spiritual life, or the social conditions that continue to bedevil the sufferers in the Rasta community in Jamaica and elsewhere.
Tarrus Riley’s new album Mecoustic features slow, heartfelt songs with excellent production values that provide a very clean overall sound with full-range audio response that emphasizes the top end as well as the bass, which is not always the case in reggae. This provides clarity to Riley’s soaring vocals and emphasizes the tasteful orchestration in the production. The focus is on lyrical songs of devotion with soulful backup vocals and appropriately spare arrangements. This is about as far as one can get from dancehall or dub while staying in the reggae idiom, so rather than a party scorcher, this is a set for contemplation and appreciation of Jah and his love.
Highlights include Tarrus’s duet with Jimmy Riley on “Black Mother Pray,” “Marcus Garvey” (not the Burning Spear song, but another fitting tribute to the prophet of Rastafari), and a duet with the sultry and expressive Cherry Natural on “System Set.”
Following is a live television performance of “System Set” (sans Cherry Natural):
A timeless collection and likely a crowd pleaser, Mecoustic should add to Tarrus Riley’s string of chart toppers.
The complete set list: Larger Than Life (4:36); Black Mother Pray (ft. Jimmy Riley) (4:46); She’s Royal (4:13); Devil’s Appetite (4:10); If It’s Jah Will (3:57); Marcus Garvey (5:24); Eye Sight (4:36); Paradise (5:07); Pick Up the Pieces (6:11); One Two Order (4:00); System Set (ft. Cherry Natural) (4:56); Africa Awaits (5:51); Other Half (3:43); Eye Sight (Bonus Track, 0:42); Whispers (5:42).
2 Tone Gone Ska presents a collection of popular second-wave ska songs from the legendary 2 Tone Records label filtered through a first-wave context. In other words, it’s as if the Specials and Madness were based in Kingston during the 1960s. This mood is effectively captured by the Phoenix City All-Stars, who rework these British hits into a classic Jamaican musical form.
Comprised mainly of instrumentals, 2 Tone Gone Ska is a return to a time when ska helped usher in Jamaican independence in 1962. Starting off with the Madness hit “One Step Beyond,” an entire horn section now takes over for the sole sax lead in the original. The song, and for the most part, the album as a whole provides a much heavier sound than the originals. With a prominent swinging bass, less trebly keyboards, and a fuller horn section, these songs have been completely overhauled. Through the layer of instrumental tracks, two songs emerge that contain impressive vocals by the famous Jamaican singer Dave Barker of Dave & Ansel Collins fame. Although now 63, Barker sounds just as talented as he did on Double Barrel with his renditions of “Tears of a Clown” and “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down.”
Following is the album trailer:
With a host of skilled musicians and seasoned vocalists on board to lend their talents, 2 Tone Gone Ska is an album that can easily be listened to on repeat for several days. With each listen the songs get increasingly stuck in your head, as I found myself whistling “Ghost Town” on more than one occasion. However, the album’s eight tracks measure up to being only a little over 25 minutes, which perhaps necessitates its being on repeat. This is a little disheartening, since there is so much good material that could have made its way onto this compilation. What about a cover of “Night Boat To Cairo?” Or a classic ska rendition of “Do the Rocksteady?” Whatever the reason, it is hard to deny that 2 Tone Gone Ska makes up for the short runtime with a talented group of musicians who have a great understanding of ska and are able to make unique interpretations of these classic second-wave ska hits.