Monday, October 22, 2007

Junior Delgado - Sons Of Slaves

Junior Delgado
Sons of Slaves: Rebel Anthems from a Roots Legend
Trojan TJACD288

Junior Delgado, famed for his gruff yet warm voice, was a roots singer with a long career of both singing and producing, in his native Jamaica in the 70s and in the UK in later decades. "Sons of Slaves" is one of several retrospective compilations of his works which appeared after his death in London in 2005.

This compilation opens with "Africa We Are Going Home" by Time Unlimited, the group for which Delgado sang lead vocal on several tunes recorded for Lee Perry. "Africa" is an early Black Ark tune with a typically Upsetter skanking riddim and weird sound effects including scat vocal howls and screams. Delgado sounds strangely detached, yet delivers the repatriation lyric with conviction. (Some editions of this compilation apparently also include another Time Unlimited tune, "Reaction"; however, the one I have doesn't...)

The first solo Delgado tune included is the Rupie Edwards-produced "Run Bald Head", one of many Rasta-themed denunciations of the news of Haile Selassie's death as "baldhead"-spreaded false rumours, sung over the riddim of Slim Smith's "I'm So Proud". Also produced by Rupie is "Mi Nuh Matta", a DJ cut recorded by Delgado under his toasting pseudonym of El Cisco, also over Smith's "My Conversation", with Junior extolling the melody in a youthful yet old school style reminiscent of I Roy, with little hint of the stridency of his singing voice.

"Sons Of Slaves", however, is quintessential Delgado, and one of the heaviest of all Black Ark classics. Scratch's mixing is at its wildest and deepest, and Delgado at his most powerful and impassioned as he testifies to the living reality of slavery's legacy. "Are we not the children that run away from plantations?" he asks, before demanding freedom and justice and proclaiming the people of the African diaspora "like a roaring lion". Truly heavy roots, in a nearly 7 minute 12" mix complemented with sublimely deep and echoing dub. Following is a mellow yet righteous rendition of the 23rd Psalm, also recorded at the Black Ark with double-tracked sung and spoken vocals and upbeat yet evocative keyboards, showcasing the devotional side of Delgado's Rasta militancy. Perry's multi-layered mixing is nicely in evidence.

The rather sparser-sounding "Tition", produced by Earl "Chinna" Smith, is another of Delgado's best-known roots classics, a condemnation of political gang violence over a simplistic yet highly effective piano, guitar and bass backing, delivered with stern yet warm dignity. On the same riddim is the self-produced "Jah Jah Say", in which the depth and warmth of Delgado's uniquely gruff-yet-sweet voice is brought to the fore by ethereal backing vocals. The 12" version adds a beautiful, soaring trumpet solo, unfortunately uncredited, plus playful echo and percussion - guaranteed pure niceness.

The remainder of the tunes on this album are all self-produced. "Devil's Throne" is a joyfully triumphant cut of the classic "Creation Rebel" riddim, Delgado returning to his theme of affirming the identity and mission of the African people and proclaiming the inevitable victory of righteousness over evil. "The Raiders" (aka "No Warrior") is an upbeat anti-war tune, declaiming contemporary gang violence in the same breath as historical colonialism with customary warmth and conviction. This 12" version is not as long as the others, adding about a minute of toasting (uncredited, but presumably Delgado himself), rather than a full-length dub or DJ version - once again the theme of the toast is music as sound and power, sold as a panacea in ebullient huckster style with claims like "this ya sound make the cripple them walk, this ya sound make the dumb them talk"; a questionable hyperbole, but clearly delivered with affectionate, tongue-in-cheek intent.

So ends the 70s selection: the rest of the tracks on this set are UK self-productions dating from 1988. "Born To Be Wild" and "Gimme Your Love" are nice, yet unremarkable, lovers tunes, the latter enlivened somewhat with a slight hip-hop influence to its fast-paced, semi-digital beat; however, the lyrics are uninspired. "Hypo", however, is the equal of any of the 70s tracks here, a fiery, militant heavy steppers tune with real horns and Junior on top form, uncompromisingly chanting down the hypocrisy of the global political and economic system - "them feed Ethiopia, yet destroy South Africa... true them no know say rebel a destroy the city". The righteousness is not diminished by the slightly amusing image conjured up by the titular abbreviation. "Kill Nebuchadnezzar and let Babylon fall!"

Most of the remaining 1988 tunes are, however, somewhat lacklustre, with the majority being lightweight lovers lyrics over (sometimes slightly funk-influenced) digital riddims, with little to distinguish between them. The two which somewhat stand out are "Look At The Trees", a vaguely Pablo-ish feeling paean to nature with a bass-heavy riddim somewhat resembling early UK digi steppers, and "Mr Fix It", a lovers tune in a rather atypical mellow, crooning style which is an updating of the rocksteady classic "Do It Sweet", showing the surprising versatility of Delgado's voice, beyond the gruff, wailing style he was often typecast to. However, the rest suffer from a lack of sufficient distinguishing features to make them stick in the mind after listening.

Overall, "Sons Of Slaves" is something of a mixed bag, feeling unbalanced as an overview of Delgado's long and fruitful musical career (which also included experimentation with Indian-influenced, acoustic and trip hop styles); it could have profitably included some of the classic deep roots tunes that he recorded for producers such as Dennis Brown, Sly & Robbie and Augustus Pablo in place of the lesser 1988 tunes. The sleeve notes also frustrate somewhat by mentioning many crucial tunes not included on this compilation! However, it contains enough undisputed "rebel anthems" to be worth purchasing, if perhaps with a little caution exercised over its latter half...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lee Scratch Perry and Friends: Open The Gate

Lee Scratch Perry and Friends: Open The Gate
Trojan CDPRY2

"Open The Gate", sadly now deleted (although still fairly easily available second hand, albeit often at inflated prices), is a collection of some of the dreadest, wildest and deepest roots 12"es produced by Lee Perry at the legendary Black Ark, at a time when it had matured into its full potential as a place of hitherto-unparalleled experimentation and multi-layered, psychedelic Afrocentric esoterica. Almost everything on this compilation is difficult to talk about without resorting to an exhausting number of superlatives...

CD1 opens with Anthony Sangie Davis's revisited version of the earlier Perry production "Words", setting the mood nicely with its propulsive, percussion-charged riddim and righteous vocal, followed by Perry's alternately absurd and menacing toast, punctuated by trademark yelps and howls, while guitar and horns build again and again into manic crescendos. "Righteousness is a must, I and I gwan squeeze them pus..."

Devon Irons and Dr Alimantado's "Vampire" (a very different version to the 7" version by Irons alone, which can be found on Island's "Arkology" box set) is even wilder and deeper, probably one of the most magnificently intense productions of the whole Black Ark era. Biblical horns and chanted female backing vocals swirl around in the mix, everything overlaid with multiple layers of reverb and echo, while Irons delivers his dread warning to occultists, hypocrites and parasites. Dr Alimantado delivers one of his most rhythmic and authoritative DJ performances, seemingly picking up on Perry's own apocalyptic, stream-of-consciousness vitality, while the backing singers (probably Full Experience) chant in something which vaguely resembles Hindi. Bizarrely, the fade-out at what seems to be the end of the tune is followed by a repeat of its last few seconds, then the dub from the (much more sedate) 7" mix (apparently this is from the original 12", and therefore Perry's responsibility rather than Trojan's), extending the track time to over 10 minutes.

The 2 Heptones tunes which follow are relatively tame in comparison, but still fine examples of roots harmony, featuring different lead vocals. "Babylon Falling" is an uptempo tune with a joyful, celebratory mood despite (or perhaps because of) its apocalyptic lyrics, squelchy keyboards complementing the bouncy bass and percussion and ??'s raw, soulful lead voice. "Mistry Babylon" has a more wistful, elegiac tone, Leroy Sibbles taking the lead and sounding weary yet defiant: "I know your schemes, I know your plan, can't hold the Rastaman", the dub showcasing the trademark Black Ark swirling, mystical sound.

Sibbles's solo tune "Garden of Life" is next, another determined repatriation anthem with an aching, heavily soul-influenced feel to the vocal and an understated, delicately jazzy piano floating in and out of the foreground. The lyrics equate Ethiopia (albeit not explicitly named) with a paradise of harmony with nature; the dub (like many of Perry's, incorporating large portions of cut-up vocals) emphasises the metronomic drumbeat as well as the interplay of the piano and other percussion.

Carlton Jackson's "History", another undisputed classic, poignantly tells the story of African enslavement and personal survival through self-education, conflating the individual "I" of the narrator with the collective "I" of the African-Jamaican people. "Since 1655 we have been working on the same plantation, chanting the same recitation". Jackson condemns the trickery of the capitalist system (using one of the best examples of the universally popular metaphor of Israel's exile in Babylon) while joyfully proclaiming that "the Rastaman first bring civilisation". History indeed. In one of his most subtle yet strong riddims, Perry envelops the listener in warm, uplifting keyboards and bass.

The tune that was the other side of the same original 12" follows, Junior Delgado's magnificent "Sons Of Slaves", taking the same message and converting it into one of the dreadest, most impassioned deep roots anthems ever recorded. Delgado's raw, gruffly militant hollering vocal charges the lyric with an inimitable urgency, while the wildly, elliptically swirling mix and the dark, insistent bassline are among Perry's (and thus reggae's) deepest and heaviest, pouring all the pain and transcendence of the African diaspora experience into a fiery black ocean of sound, demanding both recognition and liberation. "Are we not the children who ran away from plantations?"

The final track on CD1 is Watty Burnett's "Open The Gate", a fantastic eschatology of repatriation which matches any of the previous pinnacles reached on this compilation. "A time will come when every fig tree will find its own vine" - Burnett's deeper-than-deep bass voice carries an authority bordering on the terrifying, and the martial horns sound like they are blowing down the walls of Jericho (one of the greatest epic, cinematic horn riffs in reggae). The mix is another deep, esoteric wild one, with clashing cymbals, super heavy Tubby's style echo and strange, fuzzed-out background noises all adding to the psychedelic intensity.

On CD2, things are a little less intense. The Mighty Diamonds' "Talk About It" starts as a laid-back love song with a curiously melancholy feel to it, over a typical Upsetter skank, before mutating in the second half of the 12" mix into one of Scratch's truly odd experiments, with a speeded-up, distorted sample of (apparently) Perry's children chanting nonsense phrases overlaying an oddly stop-start, minimalist cut-up of the mix. Eric Donaldson's "Cherry Oh Baby" is an endearing update of the lightweight 60s love song into one of those light-yet-complex skanking tunes which show the mellower, more nostalgic side of the Ark.

Watty Burnett returns in a mellower mood for "Rainy Night in Portland", an adaptation of ??.s soul classic "Rainy Night in Georgia", with the US place names appropriately replaced by JA ones. The sweet eccentricity and the comforting side of Perry's deep, warm mixing form a counterbalance to the anguished intensity of much of the rest of the set, music melted down as finely as on tunes like "Sons of Slaves" or "Open The Gate" it is charged up.

Horace Smart's "Ruffer Ruff" is a different kind of intense, a poignant tale of sufferers' reality presented with stark simplicity against a backdrop of subdued piano and swirling percussion that testifies to pain while acknowledging hope; one of Perry's most moving downtempo tunes, the dub emphasising the bluesy vulnerability and simplicity of the just-slightly-off-key melody.

"Nickodeemus" by the Congos is a tune which was left off the original LP release of the incomparable "Heart Of..." album (although included as a bonus track on the Blood & Fire CD re-release). Little needs to be said of the perfection of the harmonies or Cedric Myton's angelic, soaring falsetto. This is a shimmering, downtempo tune with an ecstatic feel, syncopated drumming which rolls along in an improvised-feeling way giving it an almost jazzy feel. The lyrics derive (somewhat unusually for a Rasta group) from the New Testament, but are rendered almost immaterial by the gorgeousness of the delivery and of the mixing.

"Know Love" by The Twin Roots is another tune with a familiar religious theme and sweet, if rather more understated, harmonics. The groove of this one, punctuated by staccato trumpet, stays in the background for the most part, but gets developed a bit with some, again rather jazzy and improvised-feeling, keyboard parts and lots of multi-layered reverb and echo in the dub (one of the longest on the album at over 9 minutes).

Perry's own "City Too Hot" is a change of pace, with the original madman half-singing. half-toasting his warning of the evils of the city over an effects-heavy, elephantine skank that is indeed "too hot", with a lazy yet passionate trombone solo adding emphasis before getting deconstructed, like everything else, in the reverb madness, along with typical Perry scatting and distortion making cymbals sound like industrial pipes hissing and snare drums almost like tablas. "I and I a go cool out upon the hilltop..." Perry continues in a sing-song fashion, with Full Experience returning on backing vocals, for "Bionic Rats", another gleeful condemnation of exploiters and hypocrites. "Jah Jah set a super trap to catch all you bionic rats..." Perry almost acts more like a bandleader than a producer/vocalist, interacting with the players of instruments in a way that feels simultaneously spontaneous and incredibly tightly planned, and dubbing out his own vocals with joyful abandon while mixing Biblical with comic book imagery in a way that effortlessly blends the sublime and the ridiculous.

Junior Murvin's "Bad Weed", a return to the "Police And Thieves" riddim which Murvin voiced with different lyrics at least 3 times, closes the album (in a longer version than that on "Arkology"). Murvin's occasionally grating falsetto is probably at its most pleasing to the ears here, counterbalanced with the heavy, fuzzy bass as he uses the evergreen gardening metaphor for yet another lyrical attack on hypocrisy, aided by Perry's famous cow sound effect and floaty bass backing vocals somewhere far back in the mix.

This is a collection of some of the most perfect music ever to come out of Jamaica, and just about the only Perry compilation not to have a single dull or misconceived track on it: just pure, distilled transcendent genius from the depths of the Black Ark. For those who cannot get hold of it, the majority of its tracks are available (if not always in exactly the same forms) on other LPs or compilations; however, it is definitely time for a campaign to get Trojan to reissue this one soon!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Horace Andy: In The Light/In The Light Dub

Horace Andy: In The Light/In The Light Dub
Blood & Fire CD BAFCD006

"In The Light/In The Light Dub", dating originally from 1977, is a US/Jamaican collaboration between the legendary, unearthly-voiced Horace "Sleepy" Andy (who prior to this album had been mostly a singles artist) and New York-based producer Everton DaSilva, using mostly JA musicians but aimed at least partly at a NY audience, presented here by leading UK reissue label Blood & Fire with the vocal and corresponding dub albums together on one CD.

"In The Light" opens with one of Andy's best known hits, "Do You Love My Music", a rousing celebration of the power of reggae music accompanied by punchy horns and a virtuoso, rock-styled guitar solo by Andy Bashford (reminiscent of the likes of Hendrix or Santana). In retaining and celebrating the spirit of prime Jamaican roots while adding a noticeable dose of US influence, it nicely prefigures the vibe of the album.

The following track, "Hey There Woman", is perhaps a little over-similar to that preceding it, and due to its rather slight lyric is thus nice but forgettable; nonetheless, it has first-class musicianship, and the best is yet to come...

"Government Land" (aka "Government Man") is one of the heaviest of all Horace's roots tunes (and one of his personal favourites, according to interviews), a passionate condemnation of the enclosure of land with a resounding anarchist message delivered n typical spine-tinglingly unearthly style: "How long can you keep up this, government man? You know you can't fool wise man, you will run away in the end". The horns flow like a mighty river and add to this tune's majesty. An all time classic.

"Leave Rasta" is much lighter in tone, despite its serious anti-persecution lyric, with its joyful vocals and bouncy riddim., but it's light without being lightweight. "Fever", a reworking of an earlier version recorded for Studio One, is also a lighter moment, and has the somewhat tinny, synth-dominated sound of a lot of New York reggae, something that is often a bit of a turn-off for fans of heavier JA roots; nevertheless, the style fits well with Sleepy's voice, even if it adds little to the original version.

The title track "In The Light" is another example of a light and airy tune with a rootsy Rasta message, testifying to childhood miseducation and misconceptions about African history and Rastafari. Again synths are dominant, but the bass is warm and live and Horace's voice has its trademark ecstatic quality.

"Problems" is a welcome return to deeper, darker roots territory, riding a captivating version of the "Mr Bassie" riddim, with a high-pitched yet foreboding synth taking the role of the melodica. "Everyone got problems, who will solve them?" "If I" keeps the mood with probably the darkest and bass-heaviest riddim on the set, grinding bass and reverberating percussion underpinning a darkly testimonial lyric about the lies taught by the Babylon system and the need to overcome such false teachings that recalls early Black Uhuru: another heavy roots classic to nearly equal "Government Land".

"Collie Herb" is another laid-back, blissful-sounding tune with a lot of synth and a bouncy vibe, extolling the praises of a well-known sacred plant in terms that are well-trodden but perennially (like the plant itself) popular. "Men fight against it cause it give us wisdom and overstanding, men fight against it because when we smoke it we deal with peace".

The closing track, "Rome", is another of the highlights of this set and another of Horace's highest-ranking roots classics: a powerful, poignant repatriation lament (yet generalisable to a critique of the whole of industrialised society), with the man's vocals at their sweetest and most yearning, dreaming of a utopia "where the air is fresh and clean, far from all these polluted cities". Understated guitar and melancholy melodica add to the tune's anthemic status, and let the album close on a fittingly elegiac note.

While the vocal set has a noticeable tension between the deeper, heavier roots tracks with live horns and the lighter, happier tunes with a very strong NY synth sound, "In The Light Dub", mixed by Prince Jammy, in fact comes across as a much more cohesive set, with Jammy's (soon to become King) bass-heavy mixing seeking out the unifying rather than the dividing elements of the individual songs. Much of the top end is stripped away, while judicially applied doses of echo and reverb, in a seamless updating of the classic Tubby's style, retain the sweetness of the arrangements while adding thunderous resonance. The result is that an album that could seem rather "bitty" with the vocals alone becomes much more of a fully coherent whole with the addition of the dubs.

Particular highlights include the especially masterful use of reverb for dread ambience in "Government Dub", "Dub The Light"'s transformation from "light" to "heavy" by means of the same reverberating power, and the all-out bass assault of "I&I" (the dub to "If I"), surely one of the heaviest, most uncompromising "classic style" dubs of all time; however, even a relatively dull track like "Hey There Woman" is turned into something arguably more satisfying than the original, and the whole set is probably one of the few dub albums to stand not just as an accompaniment to its vocal counterpart but as a fully satisfying work in its own right.

While a slight departure from much of the rest of their output, this is yet another essential release of classic 70s roots from Blood & Fire Records, and a very good intro both to the works of Horace Andy as a whole (although purists might argue it should be second to his Studio One output and/or his mid-70s work for Bunny Lee) and to the emerging New York roots scene of the late 70s (which later evolved into the Wackies and later digital sounds). Exercise a little caution for a few of the "lighter" vocal tracks if you like it dark, but purchase without hesitation for several uncontrovertible, transcendently heavy roots classics.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Various - Trojan Dancehall Roots Box Set

Various Artists
Trojan Dancehall Roots Box Set (Trojan CD TJETD243)

This Trojan box set is somewhat better packaged than some of the earlier ones (altho still in the same cheap cardboard box), with slightly more informative sleeve notes and somewhat more track information (unlike, for example, the Roots or Rastafari box sets, this one credits producers), and only one mis-titled track. It also has a somewhat tighter focus, with tracks chosen, as the title suggests, from the period when roots was beginning to evolve into dancehall, but focusing on rootsy lyrical themes.

The artists included range from veteran roots harmony trios, such as The Viceroys, The Mighty Diamonds and Israel Vibration, to well-established solo singers such as Barry Brown, Cornell Campbell and the ubiquitous Johnnies Clarke and Osbourne, newer-at-the-time dancehall singers such as Little John and Tristan Palmer, and DJs represented by Prince Far I and Charlie Chaplin. Producer-wise, most of the big names of the era are represented, including Junjo Lawes, Linval Thompson, King Jammy, Jah Thomas, Bunny Lee, Winston "Niney" Holness, Roy Cousins, Tapper Zukie and others. Despite a few obvious omissions (no Michael Prophet or Barrington Levy for example), the set is a fairly good representation of its era.

Starting with the established roots acts, the Viceroys represent with 3 Linval Thompson produced tunes, "We Must Unite", "They Can't Stop Us Now" and "I'm Toiling On", all messages of determination for unity voiced in their typical understated style; not tunes that instantly grab the listener, but ones which prove to be solidly crafted roots. The Wailing Souls tunes here are also Linval's productions: "Face The Devil" has a "folky" vocal style over interesting syndrums, but relatively little strong song structure, while "Mr Big More", a more developed tune, is a mellow yet moving condemnation of the rich and powerful storing up wealth while "the masses cry every day", off-key piano perfectly enhancing its plaintive yet determined mood.

The Mighty Diamonds' Tappa Zukie produced "Morgan The Pirate" is one of the strongest tunes on the set, with a bass-heavy steppers riddim and impassioned cultural lyric about the "forgotten" black heroes of Jamaican history, in extended version with an uncredited DJ (possibly Tappa himself) tearing it up in live sound system style and extending the history lesson into an analysis of capitalism from buccaneers and slave traders right down to record label "pirates". Utterly essential. The Diamonds' other two tunes here, "Leaders of Black Country" and "Bad Boy", are less heavy but still strong, the first calling down politicians to take notice of poverty and violence, while the latter, very reminiscent of earlier Wailing Souls tunes, likewise addresses gun-toting youths.

Israel Vibration's Junjo-produced tunes showcased here have the same mellow yet dignified and deeply moving roots vibe as their earlier Tommy Cowan-produced material, from the steely righteousness of "Jah Jah Rock", with its piano and organ riffs and Biblical lyric, to the much lighter yet equally devotional "Praises Unto Jah"; however, their real gem here is "Jah Is The Way", simply one of the most moving things they (and therefore any reggae act) recorded, the trio showing their unparalleled ability to turn a sternly monotheistic lyric into an incredibly poignant message of humanity and hope. "We living in poverty, too much gravity, can't get to move irie, the system is too clever, but it won't be for ever... Jah is by my side, he will provide". Powerful indeed.

So far everything has been fairly straightforward roots, hardly deserving of the "dancehall" tag. The solo singers here have somewhat more of an early dancehall style: Barry Brown, for example, contributes "Lead Us Jah Jah", with its stepping riddim and funky horn riff, "Living As A Brother", with its trademark Linval/Scientist dubby mixing and reality lyric, and "Mr CID", on a cut of the "Big Big Girl" riddim with militant double-drumming, which uses a curious effect of the vocal suddenly moving from the left to the right audio channel, all in his trademark energetic, rough yet melodic voice which typified the raw, inventive vibe of the early 80s.

Mikey Brooks's "One Heart" would be a nicely brooding roots anthem if it wasn't marred by a homophobic and sexually conservative lyric; however, unlike so many later tunes, it's just about possible to dismiss those aspects as peripheral to its central anti-Babylonian message. His "Money Is Not All" is, however, fully right-on and righteous, chanting down the financial system to rousing horns, while "Living My Culture", like the others self-produced, celebrates those who struggle for consciousness.

Dennis Brown is also represented by self-produced tunes, of which "Unite Brotherman" is an uptempo, joyful call to end fighting in typical slick-voiced style, while "Little Village" is one of Dennis's most powerful and impassioned roots anthems, a vision of a utopian village community in contrast to "the selfish mentality facing reality these days", that his conviction makes sound plausible; it's also presented in extended version with an extra 2 minutes of dub. Gregory Isaacs is also present and correct with the Sly & Robbie produced "Slave Driver", a fairly straight steppers re-cut of the Wailers classic, and "Motherless Children", whose hard-hitting poverty lyric delivered in deceptively mellow style combined with a syndrum-propelled riddim is reminiscent of his "Mr Isaacs" album.

Sugar Minott contributes "We Are Going (Back Home)", a cutting repatriation lyric over a funky Niney-produced version of the classic "Java" riddim ("Leaders of the world, you think you're progressing, but I know you're depressing"), and the pious "I Want To Know (Only Jah Jah)", while Cornell Campbell is best represented by the moving sufferers tune "The Judgement Come", with its poignant, lilting off-key piano and typically mannered, aching vocal recalling the early roots era; "Right now we a suffer, what next is to come?". His "Fight Against Corruption", on a minimal Bunny Lee recut of "Beat Down Babylon", is relatively lacklustre, but "Got To Tell The People", while also fairly lightweight, nicely showcases the other, more celebratory, side of his soaring voice.

Earl Sixteen, better known perhaps for his material voiced for Augustus Pablo, is represented here by 2 Roy Cousins produced tunes, the slightly Barry Brown-styled "Jah Is The Master", which uses the riddim of the Royals' "Path I Have Taken", and "Crisis", another faith-in-tribulation lyric over a powerful, uptempo piano and organ fuelled riddim, with heavy, dubby percussive echo, which is also used for Charlie Chaplin's DJ cut "One Of A Kind", on which he again praises Jah and extols unity in ebullient, "metronome" style. Chaplin's "Walk With Jah", also a Cousins production, has a much mellower and more typically early dancehall feel, reminiscent of U Brown or Jah Thomas productions (and also seems to feature an uncredited DJ, possibly Clint Eastwood, in combination).

The only other DJ on this compilation is Prince Far I, whose tunes here are all self-produced, and feature typically abstract and fractured bass-heavy riddims and the Prince's inimitable, unmistakeable gruff and almost hallucinatory talking/chanting style. "Working For My Saviour" has Far I intoning warnings to "pick your choice" between heaven and hell, while "What You Gonna Do On The Judgement Day" is similarly apocalyptic yet eccentric, with the preacher conflating musical and eschatological allegiances, asking "Are you gonna rock and roll the same old way, or do the funky or reggae?". Most striking of all, however, is "Every Time I Hear The Word", with Far I's vocal style almost approaching that of a dub poet like LKJ or Mutaburuka, and Nyabinghi style slow, heavy drumbeats accompanied by a jazzy trumpet solo floating somewhere in the background; probably as far from "dancehall" as anything from Jamaica got during that era.

Of other roots-era singers, Leroy Smart is here represented by his jaunty and playful-sounding (despite its lyrics) self-production "Too Much Pressure", and Johnny Osbourne by two King Jammy-produced tunes, the similarly light and bouncy "Can't Leave Jah" and the funky, righteous "Live Right" (given greater urgency by its fevered harmonica playing, probably by Osbourne himself), and the fairly forgettable Junjo-produced ganja tune "Bring The Sensi Come" (one of 3 rather incongruous-feeling herb tunes seemingly tacked on at the end of the compilation). Linval Thompson, as a singer, however, is not; the tune credited to him as "Jah Loves Us All" is, in fact, "Jah Love Is With I" by Johnny Clarke. It is, however, a nice steppers tune in typical later Clarke style.

Only a few vocalists featured on this compilation, then, actually started out as new artists in the dancehall era. Don Carlos was a veteran singer with earlier incarnations of the Wailing Souls and Black Uhuru, but rose to fame as a solo artist in the early dancehall style. His "Tribulation" is a justified killer, with its anthemic melody and message of overcoming struggles through self-consciousness and determination, and his instantly recognisable voice (halfway between Michael Rose and Cornell Campbell) over a solid and nicely mixed Bunny Lee riddim. "Sweet Africa" is a playful rockers tribute to music, sensi and the idealised motherland, while "Natty Dread Have Him Credential" is a laid-back celebration of the fame and recognition achieved by the reggae movement.

Anthony Johnson, another exponent of the nasal "Waterhouse" style of dancehall singing which achieved prominence in the early 80s, provides the effectively brooding warning "you've got to be sure of Jah Jah loving" in "Jah Love (Know Yourself Mankind)", but is rather less effective on the perhaps overly happy-sounding tribute to fallen heroes "Follow Them Footsteps", which in fact treads ground that is already over-trodden. His ganja tune "What Kind Of Herb" is also perhaps somewhat cliched, but does at least have a suitably smoky feel and a vocal with conviction. The similarly-styled Little John rides typically mellow and bass-focused Junjo riddims on the police-teasing "Mr Babylon" and the faith-inspired "Jah Guide I", the latter, a cut to Barrington Levy's "Sister Carol", having particularly nice echo- and effects-laden mixing which almost overshadows its vocal.

Tristan Palmer is possibly the least accomplished vocalist featured here, with his very obviously off-key singing style. However, he manages to overcome lack of proficiency with charm, and contributes strong tunes. "Peace And Love In The Ghetto", while some might call it irritating, is undeniably catchy and has a joyful, irrepressible horn melody, while "Time So Hard" shows him to be capable of a more serious style, with a sufferer's testimony lyric over a tough horns-fuelled Jah Thomas cut of the "Letter To Zion" riddim (much later borrowed for Morgan Heritage's magnificent "Crystal Ball"); "Got To Praise Jah Jah" is, however, a somewhat maudlin and forgettable, though still pleasant, devotional song. The final tune of the box set is weed anthem "Sensi Man" by relative unknown Bobby Melody, a somewhat more memorable cut to the same riddim as "Bring The Sensi Come"

All in all, this set is varied yet cohesive, and is a decent, if necessarily incomplete, snapshot of the more cultural material of the early dancehall era. Several of the tracks on it are available on other Trojan compilations (somewhat inevitably given Trojan's seeming obsession with recycling, re-recycling and re-re-recycling the same material as many times as possible), but this one is good value for money and a worthwhile introduction to this period of music for any interested roots fan who does not already own many of these tracks. Recommended alongside Roots Records' "The Lion Roars", Pressure Sounds' "When The Dances Were Changing" and Greensleeves' "Biggest Dancehall Anthems 1979-82".

Various - The Lion Roars

Various Artists
The Lion Roars (Roots Records, RJMCD101)

The Lion Roars" is a collection of productions from the early dancehall era by U Brown and Jah Thomas, both of whom are/were better known as deejays, but also created a substantial and influential body of work as producers, taking their place in the evolution of sound system reggae from roots to dancehall alongside the likes of Junjo Lawes, Linval Thompson, Channel One and Prince/King Jammy. The sound on this compilation is broadly similar to that of the Pressure Sounds compilations "When The Dances Were Changing" and "The Crowning Of Prince Jammy" and the Greensleeves compilation "The Biggest Dancehall Anthems 1977-79", in fact many of the tunes on it using the same riddims as those on the latter (which mostly consists of Junjo productions).

Barry Brown's "Movements of Jah" kicks off with a high tempo recut of the classic "No No No" riddim, with Barry wailing in typical righteously charged style about the well-worn but always fresh subject of triumph over sufferation through the power of a vengeful creator God. Anthony Johnson's well known sound system favourite "Gunshot" is reminiscent of Michael Prophet's "Gunman", with a similar combination of serious anti-gun lyrics combined with a sweetened delivery over a bouncy, jaunty major chord riddim. Early B's "History of Jamaica" is a typically witty, fast-paced recitation of patriotic facts over a classic minimalistic early-80s style drum and bass with the odd echo effect.

The mood is taken downtempo for Steve Knight's mellow love song "Love You Endlessly", a fairly generic lyric enlivened by upful guitar and a punchy horn riff, and Al Campbell's "Words Of My Mouth", another update of a vocal he cut several times for various producers (sometimes under other titles such as "Wicked Feel It Now"). These fairly unassuming tunes, however, are vastly overshadowed by Junior Keating's sublime "Conquering Lion", one of the most powerful and moving repatriation roots tunes of its era - deeply dread and hands-in-the-air devotional in its message of hope in the face of sufferation, and reminiscent in sound of Studio One roots at its best - simply one of the heaviest late roots era tunes around.

The next few tunes are more typical early 80s dancehall fare, with Jah Thomas's own "Dance On The Corner" an enjoyable but generic deejay cut of "Real Rock", while "African Jump" by Bongo Herman is an echoey, percussive instru/dub in the vein of much Scientist and Roy Cousins material. "There's Much More To Live" by Vincent Taylor (lead singer of The Revealers) has a dark, rootsy riddim reminiscent of early Jammys productions, tempered by Taylor's meditative vocal and some backing/harmony vocals harking back to the 70s, while in contrast "Leave The Badness Alone" by the relatively unknown Singie Singie has a much later feel than most of the material on this comp, being strongly reminiscent of the post-Sleng Teng style epitomised by Pressure Sounds' "Firehouse Revolution" release (review soon come!), with a sing-jay style vocal similar to the likes of Red Rose or King Kong, fast, skippy drum machine riddim and percussive cut-up vocal samples.

"Palaving Spree" by Ranking Toyan is another solid loverman deejay tune in typical Toyan style, while Carlton Livingston's "Ram Jam Session" joyfully advertises the dancehall over a slow but bouncy version of the "Answer" riddim. "Steal Away Girl" by Sugar Minott is another good vibes lovers tune, while "Baby I Love You" by Delroy Wilson is a sweet complaint of lost love, but over a similarly mellow and bouncy riddim ensuring the mood remains "nice" rather than turning tragic, and Johnny Osbourne's "Take Me To A Rub A Dub Session" returns to the theme of extolling the niceness of the dancehall-ruling and people-pleasing sound.

Dickie Ranking's "Too Much Badness" is another strong anti-violence lyric using the same deceptively minimal riddim as Yellowman's "Mr Chin", nicely embellished by plenty of echo and satisfying percussion floating in the background, while hornsmen Bobby Ellis and Deadly Headley provide a playful yet meditative instrumental to U Brown's (oddly not included) "Weather Balloon", aptly entitled "Blow Your Balloon", and nicely showcasing the "light", yet satisfying brass arrangements (taking over from the more sombre traditional roots sound) that exemplified the early dancehall era. The selection closes with Brown's self-produced "Jah Is My Father", a half-sung reiteration and celebration of monotheistic faith that manages to be witty rather than preachy in the best unpretentious 80s "reality" deejay style.

The problem that many of these tunes have is that, while undeniably nice and showcasing nicely the raw yet light, playful and humorous yet still musically solid and stripped-down, bass-led early dancehall style, they are so typical of it that they tend towards the generic, with nothing to really distinguish Jah Thomas's and U Brown's production styles from one another or from any of their major contemporaries - thus, the tunes which stand out by virtue of slightly differing in style or having particularly strong messages in "word sound power", such as "Conquering Lion", "Movements Of Jah", "Gunshot" and "Leave The Badness Alone", are instant stand outs whereas the rest somewhat blend into each other. However, this compilation contains enough outright killers and has consistent enough quality among the non-stand-out tracks to still be definitely recommended for anyone into the roots-to-dancehall period of music, and is complemented by extremely nice artwork and comprehensive sleeve notes (although they don't include, slightly annoyingly to me, original release dates for each track (which are presumably all taken from 7")), making the apparently new Roots Records reissue label one to watch out for...

Sylford Walker & Welton Irie - Lamb's Bread International

Sylford Walker & Welton Irie
Lamb's Bread International (
Blood & Fire BAFCD033)

Re-released in 2000 by Blood & Fire Records, this is the original "Lamb's Bread" album by Sylford Walker plus corresponding DJ cuts by Welton Irie, all produced by Glen Brown and released as singles between 1978 and 1982, and it's classic late 70s style, just-pre-dancehall-era roots music with tough horns, heavy basslines and powerful vocals to rank alongside anything from Lee Perry, Bunny Lee or Yabby You of the same period. Lyrically it's a mixture of some deeply dread reality reasoning and the slightly strange and random, with first class DJing by Welton Irie adding commentary both deep and humorous which riffs on the original vocals, snippets of which are preserved throughout the dub tracks that he toasts over, making this one IMO one of Blood & Fire's most solid releases.

The opening cut "Give Thanks & Praise" on the Dirty Harry riddim is oddly cut short at only 2 min 11, but Welton's version "Rolling Stone" is full single length, and emphasises the heavy heavy "Dirty Harry" bassline. "Lamb's Bread" is a righteous herb defence tune, with Welton continuing the theme telling of the "little dread by the name of Fred", ghetto reality tale of imprisonment for selling herb. There follow 4 cuts on the truly mighty "Cleanliness Is Godliness" riddim, a crazy, supercharged steppers with an irresistibly catchy horn riff - simultaneously as wacky as anything from the Ark and as apocalyptically heavy as anything from Yabby You - the former aspect being emphasised on the frankly odd "Cleanliness Is Godliness" itself (with Sylford singing about "bits of paper littering the ground", altho i guess you could work it vaguely into the environmental reasoning of several tracks on this album) and the mildly slack "Stone A Throw", and the latter on the magnificently dread "Babylonians" and "Jah Come", the latter with some of the dreadest lines of any Dj tune: "If New York should get a tidal wave/slave master would haffi let go every slave/and then we woulda know the good, the bad and the brave/and all grave digger woulda dig a lot a grave/say many are called but few chosen/cah some a dem a wolf in a sheep clothing" (shades of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina)... "can't go to Zion with your carnal mind/your carnal mind you better leave that behind/can't go to Zion in a Land Rover/it a go lick and turn over"... straight to the American head!

"My Father's Home Land" is a typical, mellow repatriation tune, while the well known club steppers anthem "Deuteronomy" is a slightly odd recitation of books of the Old Testament, with its DJ version "Black Man Get Up Tan Up Pon Foot" another call to arms for repatriation. "Eternal Day" is another judgement lyric on a more downtempo riddim ("Forward The Good"), but the closing pair of tunes on the "Slaving" riddim, "Chant Down Babylon" and "Ghetto Man Corner" are the set's other true high point, with Sylford invoking the creative/destructive power of music-as-gnosis to literally knock down the walls of oppression and Welton again providing hardcore lyrical reasoning, effortlessly fusing testimony of ghetto living with environmental critique: "Long time I an I down here a suffer/cause in this land of wood and water/all I see is car and manslaughter/so nice up the ghettoman corner"... another blazing tune to match the likes of Yabby You's "King Pharoah's Plague" for both bass and horn musical power and social-ecologist lyrical eschatology...

All in all this is one of the heaviest late roots period albums out there, and enhanced immeasurably by the addition of the perfectly complementary DJ cuts to 6 of its original 8 tracks and the extended versions of the other 2, weighing in at over an hour of crucial music. No lover of bass-heavy, politically conscious late 70s roots should be without this... to quote the title track, "Dis ya one yah never do no one no wrong!"

Ranking Joe - Zion High

Ranking Joe
Zion High (with Black Uhuru, Dennis Brown)
Blood & Fire BAFCD043

This release is a kind of a companion piece to Blood & Fire's earlier Dennis Brown CD "Promised Land", consisting mainly of Ranking Joe's versions to the same riddims, with a few other Dennis Brown produced tracks thrown in. As such it perfectly represents Joe's massively influential "bong-diddley" DJ style at the moment when heavy sound system roots was just evolving into the beginnings of dancehall.

The CD opens with "Zion High", a version of Dennis's "Home Sweet Home", followed by the dub of the same tune. Ranking Joe takes a simple repatriation tune and transforms it into the first of several of his trademark mind-boggling lyrical workouts, effortlessly freestyling so many rhymes in one breath that it leaves even the listener breathless. The dub is minimal but showcases Brown's strength as a producer as well as legendary vocalist. "Fire" is likewise a version of "Well Without Water" from the same album, Joe gleefully throwing nonsense rhymes into the mix while testifying of the fate of Babylon while losing none of his impact due to the amazing power of this, like so much roots music, to speak of death and destruction while imparting an unshakeable feeling of righteous joy, even delight at the fall of the downpressor and ultimate victory of those who survive and strive for freedom.

The mood is continued with "Bubbling Fountain", an impassioned Dennis Brown vocal not previously released on any album, which does not disappoint with its uptempo bubbling riddim, wild jazzy horns and of course Dennis's impassioned vocal. "Love Jah" its version again showcases Joe's unstoppable mic skills (despite its relatively unedifying Haile Selassie praising lyric). The mood is lightened on "Round The World", a track not corresponding to any identified vocal, with its mellow rockers vibe and soaring saxophone.

"Rent Man" and "Wood For My Fire" are two heavy Black Uhuru tracks, with BU as always sounding like no one else. "Rent Man" passionately chants down parasitical landlords: "You won't get no money for this bad living...", while Joe reclaims the right to live free from exploitation with dread conviction: "Natty dread a the owner fi him yard", a message with heavy resonance in this time when communities like St Agnes Place are being brutally evicted by the forces of Babylon. "Wood For My Fire" (whose bassline is very similar to the Wailing Souls' "Bredda Gravilicous") is likewise a passionate testimony of survival through poverty brought about by economic brutality: "The sun should be shining, but it don't shine no more/Because of wicked men and people/Who make Jah children eat from the rubbish bag...", while Joe's version "Sufferers Skank" is one of his heaviest, chatting pure reality... tunes to rock the squat party and the protest camp! Between them is "Carpenter", a joyful tribute to the struggles of all working class people whose labour contributes to positive livity (again, i'm not sure what the original vocal is, tho it's not Dennis Brown...)

Finishing off the album are two tunes already released on the "Promised Land" CD, "A Cup Of Tea" and "Slave Driver", and their versions (i'm not sure if the vocals are actually the same versions as on "Promised Land" or alternate versions - the track times are slightly different, but they don't sound particularly distinct from the "Promised Land" versions...), preaching different parts of the same message, of mutual aid in its simplest and earthiest form (even if the killing and eating of fish is morally questionable, the resonance of food as community stands up to any analysis well enough!), and of defamation and judgement by fire to all perpetrators of human exploitation, combined with a heartfelt testimony to African diaspora history over a rumbling steppers reworking of the Marley-written anti-capitalist anthem.

This set is essential and needs to be purchased alongside its sister release "The Promised Land" (which is BAFCD039). Together they capture a crucial moment in the evolution of both the musical (from 70s rockers and steppers to darker, "bubbling" 80s righteous dancehall) and lyrical (from more otherworldly/cultural/spiritual to earthy, immediate ghetto-political) consciousness of reggae music. More fire!

Various - If Deejay Was Your Trade

Various Artists
If Deejay Was Your Trade: The Dreads At King Tubby's 1974-1977 (
Blood & Fire, BAFCD001)

This was the first release on the seminal Blood & Fire label, and laid the groundwork for many of their other releases, including full-CD compilations of several of the artists featured on this set. It's a compilation of tracks by various old school DJs over mostly Bunny Lee riddims at King Tubby's studio, and showcases the versatility of the original DJ style.

First up, appropriately for a tune based on such a cornerstone of reggae, is Big Joe's "In The Ghetto", over a deadly, thunderous version of Bunny Lee's cut of "Satta Massagana" (i believe the vocal is from Johnny Clarke). Joe chats solidarity in the face of sufferation in a blistering celebration of sound system culture. Next is I Roy's equally heavy "War and Friction", a heartfelt anti-violence plea over Yabby You and Tommy McCook's meditatively dread "Death Trap" instrumental, with dark clashing cymbals and snippets of McCook's trumpet sounding almost like a melodica: crucial!

Little Joe's "Tradition Skank" (i'm not sure if this is the same Little Joe who later became Ranking Joe) is a repatriation lyric over a joyful recut of Burning Spear's "Tradition", while Tappa Zukie's "Jah Is I Guiding Star" is a version of the Horace Andy tune of the same name, taking a distinctly darker tone with his biblical-meets-blaxploitation lyrics reminiscent of The Last Poets ("automatic people with remote control" deriving, possibly via Big Youth, from "Mean Machine"'s refrain of "automatic push button, remote control") and typical strained, almost gasping delivery.

Most of the remainder of the tunes are less memorable and arguably not so heavy as those first 4, but still all feature nicely dubbed examples of Bunny Lee's hit formula of riddims, and varied lyrics ranging from the boastful to the biblical to playful interpretations of proverbs and nonsense or nursery rhymes. "The Barber Feel It" and "Bury The Barber", continue the long and surreal saga of mid 70s tunes attacking barbers for cutting off dreadlocks and spinning out extended stories of victory over them (also to be seen on many other tunes, such as "I Shot The Barber" on Dr Alimantado's "Best Dressed Chicken In Town" album), while Jah Stitch's "Greedy Girl" arguably lowers the tone slightly with its retread of the possibly misogynistic, or at least cynical, "Shine Eye Gal" lyric over Horace Andy's "Don't Try To Use Me".

The album is finished off with the 70s DJ scene's two "Princes", Prince Jazzbo, who hits back in his battle lyrics against I Roy by accusing him, rather surreally if not misogynistically, of being a "gal boy" and "not sure if you are a man or a woman" (this strange accusation of transgenderism accompanied by half-deranged laughter), then rather more consciously chatting herb lyrics and ghetto memories over a very mellow, head-nodding Treasure Isle recut riddim, and the indestructibly dread Prince Far I, who bookends the album with a track as heavy as the one that started it, another version of "Deck of Cards" (retitled "Shuffle & Deal") over a hallucinatory dread riddim with powerful tension-building piano and guitar snippets (possibly produced by Linval Thompson rather than Bunny Lee).

The packaging is slightly crude compared to later Blood & Fire releases (tho still way ahead of most reggae reissue labels) and certain information may not be perfect (all tracks are credited as Bunny Lee productions, despite the I Roy track being a well known Yabby You riddim), but this is still a nice and easily recommended collection of original deejay style. These guys could rip the mic long before hip hop culture had been dreamed of...

Augustus Pablo - Classic Rockers

Augustus Pablo
Classic Rockers (Island RRCD 52)

This collection brings together a somewhat mixed bag of Augustus Pablo productions (including his own instrumental and other people's vocal tunes) from the late 70s and early 80s (with, confusingly, some late 80s/90s copyright credits, but these are obviously false from the artists and style of the tunes). It gets off to a good start with Jacob Miller's justifiably famous "Baby I Love You So", whose relatively slight lovers lyric is massively overshadowed by its massive roots riddim and inspired melodica backing. Its dub, "King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown" (which gave its title to Pablo's most famous dub/instrumental album), is even heavier, a masterpiece of Tubby's style reverb, echo and haunting chopped-up bits of vocal and melodica solo - one of the definitive classic 70s dub tracks.

"Isn't It Time To See" by the group Tetrack (often mis-credited as "T.E. Track") is another strong roots tune following the same vocal-over-melodica formula, with a heavy sufferers lyric complemented perfectly by Pablo's impassioned backing. "Isn't it time to see... that you can't run away from reality". The next track, "Jah In The Hills", is Pablo in full transcendent solo style, his inimitably haunting and urgent sound showcased nicely by both his soaring melodica and the warm, deep bass and dubbed-out percussion characteristic of his productions.

"Can't Keep A Good Man Down", a cover of a Dennis Brown tune by The Immortals, has similarly nice production, but the somewhat staid and formulaic vocal fails to do the lyric justice: possibly an example of a lyric and/or melody not entirely suited to the Pablo rockers style. Paul Blackman's "Earth Wind And Fire" (nothing to do with the funk band) is, however, an undisputed, if somewhat understated, classic - an almost ecstatic vocal with a typically spiritual message floating above a deep downtempo bassline counterpointed by piano chords and then dubbed into echo oblivion.

Leroy Sibbles's "Love Don't Come Easy" is a recut of a song he originally recorded at Studio 1 with the Heptones, and is mellow and likeable but fairly unremarkable, picking up somewhat when the melodica comes in; however, more truly heavy roots soon follows...

Earl Sixteen's "Changing World" is another highlight, his impassioned vocal sounding both pleading and, in the great roots fashion that Pablo was such a master of, simultaneously celebratory and foreboding of apocalyptic revelation. "It's a new day dawning, and it's a new feeling", for real. Junior Delgado keeps up the mood with "Blackman's Heart", his strident yet emotion-laden voice, perfectly suited to this plea for justice and freedom, building to a magnificent, almost-yelling crescendo along with Pablo's uptempo melodica backing.

Hugh Mundell completes a trinity of transcendent roots tunes with "Jah Says The Time Has Now Come", on which Pablo swaps melodica for his other speciality, piano, with which he conjures up a dark, swirling righteous mood; the "Blessed Youth" is on top form lyrically, both declaring the time for revolutionary unity and chanting vengeance down on "all who have their hands stained with blood". All three of these tunes typify Pablo's deep roots approach at the start of the transition to the dancehall era.

Two Delroy Williams tunes and their dubs follow: firstly "You Never Know", a lovers lyric which, along with its perhaps overly simple and synth-reliant backing, lacks conviction in comparison to the previous uncompromising works of righteousness. Its dub also adds little besides echo, making it a strange choice for inclusion on this compilation. "Stop The Fighting" is somewhat better, if not reaching the heights of some of the other tunes here, with a very uptempo (for Pablo) riddim and a strong anti-violence lyric: its dub, however, is also fairly unremarkable (the melodica master seemingly choosing instead to play synth keyboards on this brace of productions).

The set closes with two more melodica instrumentals, both in the "Far East" style inspired by Pablo's affinity for Chinese and Japanese music, although very different in mood. The almost childish simplicity of "Suki Yaki" comes across as sweetly eccentric rather than lazy, and its mood is one of Pablo's most uncomplicatedly joyful, while "Eastern Promise" is a much darker and more complex tune, with plenty of righteous urgency but still an improvisatory, playful feel.

This selection could have done with leaving out the fairly uninspired lovers tracks to fit in some more of Pablo's deeply spiritual rootsier productions (for instance, Sister Frica's truly wild and out-there "One In The Spirit", or some more of his works with Junior Delgado or Hugh Mundell): however, there are enough heavy slices of rockers vibes here for it to deserve its title. Its biggest problem, however, is that it's on Island, meaning that on an average home hi-fi it's almost impossible to get the bass beyond barely audible without turning the overall volume up to distortion levels (although this CD isn't as bad for this as some earlier Island reissues). As an introduction, however, it's decent, but leaves the discerning listener wanting more...

Various - Champion Sound

Various Artists
Champion Sound (Virgin France, 2001)

This Virgin CD has to be one of the odder reggae compilations out there: all the tunes on it are authentic rather than cheesy reggae-pop, yet it seems to have no coherent focus at all in terms of era, lyrical content or production style, ranging from roots and lovers to dancehall and hip-hop/reggae hybrids and from 1969 to 2000...

It opens with Buju Banton's semi-acoustic "Untold Stories", which would probably be a better choice as a closing track. Buju's gruff vocal possibly sits somewhat at odds with the folky guitar vibe and hard-hitting yet elegiac lyric of ghetto life, but the tune is an undisputed classic (despite disappointing many people who picked up his "Til Shiloh" album expecting more of the same, and got a mostly mediocre dancehall album, admittedly with a couple of dancehall classics, but with nothing else remotely resembling this track).

Johnny Clarke's "Come Back To Me" is a 1983 Ariwa tune, and typical of that label with its lovers lyric combined with a hard, dubby UK riddim. It segues nicely into Barrington Levy's very heavy Linval Thompson produced "Poor Man Style" from the same year, with its heavy piano riff and anthemic poverty lyric delivered in Barrington's unmistakeable voice. "No matter what they say, we've got to make it..." Deep bass and nice Scientist style echo make this tune essential for any connoisseur of early 80s dancehall roots.

KC White's "No No No", another tune with a heavy piano riff (something of a theme on this set, in fact about the only discernible theme) is a rootsy Gussie Clarke produced version of Dawn Penn's Studio One(?) classic, in typical 70s rockers style.

U-Roy's "I Got To Tell You Goodbye" is a good example of his late 70s DJ style, with him joyfully chatting and scatting his way over a dub-enhanced version of a previously-mellow lovers tune, reverb and snatches of vocal winding their way through his toasting in typically satisfying style. His Tappa Zukie produced combination tune with Beres Hammond, "Putting Up A Resistance" (supposedly from 1994 but sounding much older), is similar, with Hugh easily overshadowing Beres's impassioned but melodically weak vocal.

Capleton's "Danger Zone" is a nice 2000 style piece of menacing dancehall roots, the Prophet managing in typical style to make a gruff, unmelodic singjay style into something righteously and almost transcendently charged with emotion, over a robotic-feeling update of the riddim of Welton Irie's "Working Class". Sizzla continues the vibe with "Whether Or Not", a more melodic yet equally spiritually charged singjay tune on a powerful, meditative Xterminator riddim. Both tunes are essential examples of the Bobo Dread vibe when it was still righteous and untainted by accusations of slackness and misogyny.

Whitey Don's "Murderer" is from an era of reggae (the early 90s) that i know very little about, but it would fit in easily with early 80s selections, with a righteous lyric condemning crack dealers as "vampires sucking the blood of the sufferers", a nice Steely & Clevie riddim with spooky piano and brooding trombone, and Whitey's vocal style reminiscent of both Eek-A-Mouse and Barrington Levy, only a slight hip hop influence making it feel somewhat newer.

It's followed by a much more obviously hip hop influenced track, Royal Fam feat. Mighty Jarrett's "Acid", with its brooding beat and almost G-Funk style string sample. It's credited as having come out in 2000 on Wu Tang's label, and Brooklyn gets a mention, so perhaps it's a JA/US collaboration.

The next 3 tracks are all covers of soul/funk tunes dating from 1974: Ken Boothe's "Is It Because I'm Black" is a dark, menacing and passionately charged version of ?'s classic, aided by a fiery yet majestic horn arrangement and a sizzling (unfortunately uncredited) trumpet solo. Bunny Rugs's "Be Thankful" is apparently a pre-Black Ark Lee Perry production, though having relatively few of his eccentric signature touches: it's a relatively straight re-tread of the original, with a nice head-nodding funk vibe. In contrast, Al Brown (and Skin Flesh & Bones)'s "Here I Am Baby" is a much more radical reinvention, with a wild, propulsive speeded-up version of the Al Green tune with added horn and drunken organ riffs rendering it a dancefloor killer.

Peter Tosh's "You Can't Fool Me Again" (with its bizarre subtitle "Straight To Rag-Jah-Rabbit Head") is the earliest tune included, from 1969; its vocal verses interrupted with rewinds and portions of piano instrumental add an offbeat charm to its (typically Tosh) forcefully militant anti-Church lyric.

Sugar Minott's "Crazy Soundboy", while undated, sounds early 80s, with a typical soundboy battle lyric and joyful horn riffs over a riddim cheekily adapted from a Bing Crosby children's song about an ant (only in reggae does this kind of thing work...), a very nice addition to reggae's canon of playful adaptations. Continuing the vibe is Yami Bolo's magnificent "When A Man's In Love", one of the greatest cuts to Winston Riley's classic Stalag riddim, and one of Yami's first recordings (from 1985, when he was only 15), his infectious scat vocal clearly a massive inspiration for 90s jungle tunes and the raw excitement in his voice making the sound reminiscent of a rammed live dancehall session. Definitely one of the highlights of the compilation.

Garnett Silk's "Complaint" is another wicked 90s tune, with an otherwise unprepossessing abstract digital beat transformed by his soaring and impassioned vocal, rendering the whole greater than the sum of its parts. This solo Garnett version is IMO superior to the Buju/Garnett duet version to be found on Buju's "Til Shiloh" album.

The remaining 3 tunes are all straight dancehall, in contrast to the various esoteric and rootsy vibes previously displayed. Wayne Wonder's "Keep Them Coming" nicely showcases his voice, but doesn't say much lyrically, while Mr Easy's "Everyday" is a nice uptempo weed tune with an almost techno-influenced riddim, but the pick of the 3 is probably Sean Paul & Mr Vegas's "Hot Gal Today", a wickedly humorous, if arguably somewhat sexist, duet with a semi-operatic scat chorus, militant percussion and electro-style synth riff on a riddim possibly loosely based on "Revolution", but heavy whatever its provenance.

If this review seems fragmented, it's because the compilation is; its randomness is perplexing and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to its track selection. However, it contains enough classic cuts, albeit from widely different vibes and eras, to be well worth purchasing, if only for its tracks to be ripped and re-compiled in more appropriate contexts...

Black Uhuru - Black Sounds Of Freedom

Black Uhuru
Black Sounds of Freedom (Greensleeves GREWCD23)

Black Uhuru have a justified reputation as one of the darkest and most uncompromising of the internationally successful roots groups of the late 70s and early 80s. They went through several different vocal line-ups, but most of their most crucial works were produced with lead singer and prime lyricist Michael Rose, a man whose very personal blend of spiritual militancy and dread paranoia gave the classic Uhuru a unique and unmistakeable, almost gothic and industrial vibe, creating (aided by the inimitable drum and bass duo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, who were essentially part of the band) some both rock-audience-friendly and truly deep and dark roots.

"Love Crisis" was their first full-length album, recorded for Prince Jammy in 1977 with the vocal line-up of Rose, Duckie Simpson and Errol Nelson. After the group achieved international popularity with their Island albums such as "Red" and "Sinsemilla", Jammy remixed the album and re-released it in 1981 as "Black Sounds Of Freedom", by which title it is more widely known. This CD reissue from Greensleeves collects both versions of the album, along with DJ cuts to 3 of the tunes by U-Black.

The original version of the album opens with "Crisis For Love", which despite its lyrics is surprisingly cheerful and upbeat, more resembling a mellow Wailing Souls or Israel Vibration track than the typical Black Uhuru sound. The mood soon gets sombre again, however, with the moving, elegiac feel of the anti-war classic "Satan Army Band", a powerful lament showing Rose can do "understated" vocally as well as he can "strident" (although its ambience is somewhat broken by the rather puzzling lyric mentioning a "hot cross bun").

"Tonight Is The Night To Unite" is one of the tunes on this set most typical of what would become the familiar and unmistakeable Black Uhuru sound, with Rose's trademark scats and vocal interpolations getting their first proper airing, on a prescient lyric of determination in the face of suffering. "Eden Out Deh" (presumably a mis-spelling of its intended title, as the lyrics refer to "heathen", not "Eden") continues the militant theme: despite the enemies everywhere, "our revolutionary spirit has come a long long way". Sly & Robbie's rhythm section (a massive, if often uncredited, influence on electro, industrial and similar movements) ensures the dread mood is kept up.

On "Sorry For The Man" Rose turns his hand to relationship matters, but of course keeps things dark in tone with his pitying condemnation of an ex-lover: whether you regard the lyric as misogynistic or just angsty, it's a long way from standard "lovers rock". "I Love King Selassie" is probably Uhuru's best-known early hit, a devotional song to the Ethiopian ruler which (in one of the great paradoxes of the Rastafarian movement), despite the irrationality of its own basic premise, produces some great attacks on religion and superstition: "Useless praying to the spirits, for the spirit is within the flesh of I and I". Sly's metronomic drumming is particularly impressive here.

"Natural Mystic" is a nice cover of a tune whose lyric, in Rose's hands, sounds like it was written for Black Uhuru; he also admirably refuses to attempt to imitate Marley vocally as too many artists do when covering his songs. The horn section of the original is replaced by a nice piece of organ courtesy of Winston Wright.

"Hard Ground", one of the standout tracks of the album, has one of the darkest, most powerful sufferers lyrics in the whole of Jamaican music; a tale of homelessness and hopelessness that even dares to question the faith in God that infuses Black Uhuru's (and so many reggae artists') entire body of work: "All my life I've only known misery - it seems as if Jah Jah really has forsaken me". Guitar, organ and piano enhance the mood, and Rose gives one of his most characteristically doom-laden vocal performances: a stunning, uncompromisingly dread tune that easily cements Black Uhuru's reputation as the darkest and most daring band in roots reggae.

"African Love", a song first recorded by UK band The African Brothers, but significantly lyrically retooled by Rose and Simpson (to include typically Uhuru references to Satan and revolution), is another effective transformation of an existing song into the Uhuru style; without knowing the African Brothers version, it would be hard to tell it was not an original. The closing "Willow Tree" is a partial adaptation of Rose's earlier "Born Free" (recorded for Yabby You), a plea for an end to ghetto violence that shows how Rose can make even the words "peace and love" sound foreboding of doom.

The remixed version of the album (presented first on this CD) is not in fact vastly different from the original: the track order is changed so that it begins with the big hit "I Love King Selassie", and the general feel is slightly slicker and less raw, but the biggest change is the overdubbing of Johnny Osbourne's harmonica, which, while not as intrusive as, for example, the rock guitar overdubs on the remixed version of The Wailers' "Catch A Fire", clearly sounds like it was not part of the original recording, and changes the mood of some tracks slightly, adding urgency but removing some of the depth and seriousness; there is little to choose really between the two versions, but IMO the original "Love Crisis" is slightly superior.

U-Black, a toaster with a somewhat U Roy influenced style, contributes versions to 3 of the tracks from (presumably the later version of) the album, "King Of All Time" ("I Love King Selassie"), "Crocodile Style" ("Hard Ground") and "Love You Girl" ("Sorry For The Man"), which are fairly unremarkable but nice additions for any selector wishing to extend the riddims, "Crocodile Style" with its dubby echo and ebullient lyric condemning hypocrites in politics, music and love being probably the best of the bunch.

Overall, while the relatively small difference between the two versions of the album makes this CD feel rather repetitive, it is still an essential purchase for allowing the listener to decide hir own preference of the available versions of one of the strongest and deepest late 70s roots albums, and making both easily available in good sound quality for the first time. None more Black.

Barrington Levy - Englishman/Robin Hood

Barrington Levy
Englishman/Robin Hood (Greensleeves CD 509)

"Englishman" and "Robin Hood" were originally 2 albums recorded for Junjo Lawes in 1979 and 1981, and this Greensleeves reissue combines both on one CD. The packaging is minimal to say the least, with absolutely no sleeve notes or information beyond band credits, and looking like it was badly photocopied, but the sound quality of the CD is fine (far better than many), and the value for money of the package cannot be faulted. (Greensleeves has apparently reissued "Englishman" again as a CD to itself with some bonus tracks, so this 2-for-1 issue may now have been deleted.)

"Englishman" is the rootsier of the 2 albums lyrically, but "Robin Hood" probably has the edge on it in terms of production, with a more fully developed Roots Radics sound. Both albums, however, showcase a typically Levy mixture of roots and lovers material in a pre-digital dancehall style, and as such fit almost seamlessly together.

"Englishman" opens with its title track, one of its more uptempo tunes, and an affirmation of unity between nationalities which is also a celebration of Barrington's international popularity , on a tough rockers riddim enhanced by Ansel Collins's tense organ playing.

"If You Give To Me" and "Sister Carol" are nice but unremarkable lovers tunes which likewise have that warm, organic Radics rub-a-dub feel, while "Don't Fuss Nor Fight" is a plea for non-violence in the dance which is also a deeply laid-back celebration of "sweet reggae music, what the people them want". "Look Girl" gets even more laid-back, with only some sharp syndrums to counter the overwhelming mellowness.

The mood soon changes to one of roots determination, however, with "Look Youthman" with its tougher, semi-steppers riddim and righteous lyrics warning the youths while exalting the Creator. However, the real roots highlight of the album is the haunting "Send A Moses", with Barrington's trademark yearning vocal stretched out over a slow, plaintive riddim to powerful and moving effect, offset nicely by bluesy guitar and echoing cymbals.

"Black Heart Man" (no relation to the Bunny Wailer song and album of the same name) keeps up the mood, with Chinna Smith's guitar again employed to poignant effect over Levy's impassioned defence of Rastafari against false demonisation as child abductors and abusers. "Money Makes Friends", another attack on hypocrites, is voiced over what sounds like a curiously slowed-down cut of "Real Rock". "Bend Your Back" is, again, nice but unremarkable, dealing with the perennial dancehall topic of popular dance moves.

"Robin Hood" is massively dominated by its title track, a truly awesome dancehall roots killer with a deeply dubby, anthemic riddim (taken from another Barrington tune, "Warm and Sunny Day", which was produced by Linval Thompson, and in fact retaining its "day" backing vocal), and Levy at his most impassioned chanting down petty gangsters who rob the poor instead of redistributing wealth like "Robin Hood, who steal from the rich and build the poor more". A powerful, staccato horn riff and inspired, echoing mixing by Scientist lift this tune easily into the ranks of the undisputed classic.

The rest of the "Robin Hood" album shares the horns (which are unfortunately absent from "Englishman"), but fails to reach the same heights of lyrics or arrangements, being dominated by lovers tunes; however, Barrington's varied and inventive lyrics manage to lift such material above the banality of much of its kind, and the riddims are nice throughout. "Rock and Come In" has a horn arrangement somewhat similar to "Stalag", while "Love Sister Carol" is a much-versioned tune with a jaunty, joyful trumpet riff.

"Gonna Tell Your Girlfriend", while dealing lyrically with jealousy and infidelity, has a steely bass and vengeful horns suited to a deep roots tune, and the anthemic tone continues on "You Come To Ask Me What Is Love", with Levy pondering the nature of love and concluding "love is happiness", while once again Scientist finishes the tune with a nice helping of echo. "Why Did You Leave Me" is more minimal, without horns but with very dubby mixing, showcasing percussion and bass.

"Many Changes In Life" centres on Barrington's often-returned-to "when I was a youth... now I am a man" lyric, echoing also the changes in Jamaica due to the economic crisis, a searing bluesy steel guitar again enhancing the mood despite being low in the mix. "Na Broke No Fight Over No Woman" has a similar dark and uncertain mood, with Levy's voice floating hauntingly over the mix, despite rather dismissive lyrics.

"When Friday Come" is a sardonic reality lyric, a tale of working all week and getting no pay, yet with an almost jaunty tone, while "Like How You Kiss And Caress Me" returns to a mellow lovers mood, yet with enough authority in its heavily echoing drumbeats to close the album.

Overall, while lyrically this is a very mixed bag, the mood of the whole CD is cohesive, tho nothing else on it reaches quite the killer status of "Robin Hood". The latter album is noticeably more impressively mixed than the earlier, showing the development of Junjo's and the Roots Radics' sound, but both nicely capture the period when roots was transforming into early dancehall. This is a worthwhile purchase if still possible to track down in its 2-for-1 edition...

Babylon: The Original Soundtrack

Dennis Bovell/Various
Babylon: The Original Soundtrack (EMI/Chrysalis)

The 1980 film "Babylon", directed by Franco Rosso and starring Aswad's Brinsley Forde, was a seminal work of black and working-class British cinema, and one of if not the best film about reggae sound system culture. The release of its soundtrack was also a landmark in the history of UK-produced reggae, and is a mixture of tracks featured in the film and original (mostly instrumental) tracks created by producer Dennis Bovell for it.

The LP opens with 3 Yabby You tracks: firstly, the familiar but inexhaustible "Deliver Me From My Enemies", a piano-led deep roots classic which can also be found on both the Blood & Fire compilation "Jesus Dread" and the album of the same name. Michael Prophet's "Turn Me Loose", which to my knowledge is not available on any other LP or CD, is a relatively laid-back (but still dread) tune with prominent trumpet and the Prophet pleading convincingly for freedom from the economic system. "Free Africa" is in fact the dub of that tune (the vocal can be found on "Deliver Me From My Enemies"), and is one of Yabby's dreadest late 70s productions, with its deep bass and forceful yet elegiac horn riff. "I am not preaching racial discrimination, I am only seeking human rights".

I-Roy's "Whap'n Bap'n", a Bovell production from a somewhat experimental funk-reggae album by the DJ originator, has Roy calling out political leaders over current and enduring crises in a sometimes half-singing style over warm yet punchy staccato horns: it is telling how many of the countries he mentions are still sites of imperialist conflict. So far, impeccable dread credentials; however, Cassandra's "Thank You For The Many Things You've Done" is a weak point in the album, being a somewhat lacklustre lovers tune (although representative of a very popular trend in the UK at the time, presumably hence its inclusion here).

The dread vibe picks up rapidly again with Aswad's two outstanding tunes here, however. "Hey Jah Children" is a pulsing, percussion-heavy and echo-laden work of real innovation, with a sound which incredibly strongly foreshadows the UK and European digi-dub vibes of the 1990s, as well as the work of JA digital producers such as Digital B or Xterminator, showing how massively influential and ahead of the game the often overlooked 70s and 80s UK roots scene was. "Warrior Charge", while nearer to the typical sound of its time, is rightly a classic and perennially revisited instrumental, with trademark blazing syndrums and one of the all-time great horn riffs.

The remaining 3 tracks on the original LP are Dennis Bovell's original instrumentals made specifically for scenes in the film, and represent a fusion of reggae and ambient film music similar to that achieved in funk and soul by the likes of Isaac Hayes with "Shaft" and Curtis Mayfield with "Superfly". "Beefy's Tune" has a jaunty rhythm and a somehow very British vibe, perhaps recalling, with its joyous trombone, the traditional Northern English brass band, yet still retaining just enough of the sense of dark, urban drama. "Manhunter" goes for a classic film noir soundtrack vibe, with James Danton's sensual jazz saxophone solo recalling the likes of John Coltrane as well as of Cymande, similarly jazzy piano and bass masterfully completing the effect. "Jazterpiece" is, as suggested by its name, another jazz-reggae fusion, with call-and-response trumpet and sax over a skanking rockers rhythm alternating with improvised percussive breakdowns.

The CD reissue has 7 more tracks by Bovell and/or his Dub Band as bonus tracks, including alternate versions of "Beefy's Tune" and "Jazterpiece". "School Skanking" is another soundtracky but upbeat instrumental, with Julio Finn's bluesy harmonica taking the lead. "Living in Babylon" and "Runnin' Away" are vocal tracks, both credited to Bovell himself, although the lead vocal doesn't sound like the same man on both of them, leaving the identity of one or the other vocalist a mystery; "Living in Babylon" sardonically describes life in a Britain full of cold war paranoia and hostile to any non-white inhabitants, and serves as a fitting coda to the film, while "Runnin' Away" is a jaunty, light-hearted, almost 60s-style number with a tongue-in-cheek optimism.

"Chief Inspector" is another horn-led instrumental, with an edgy, dubby vibe and harmonica and guitar complementing the impassioned lead trumpet. "B Flat Reggae Concerto" is a very mellow, synth-led piece with a slightly mock-classical vibe in its imitation of a string section. The "reggae version" of "Jazterpiece" is essentially the "jazz" version with the wilder percussion solos removed, while the long version of "Beefy's Tune" again differs fairly little from the shorter version, but nicely rounds off the album with its somewhat more leisurely and extended take on the groove.

Overall, this CD release is something of a mixed bag, but definitely worth getting, and still holds together as an album without requiring the listener to be familiar with the film. While the instrumentals dominating the latter two thirds do blur into one another somewhat if listened to all in one go, and the JA tunes at the beginning in consequence seem rather randomly tacked on, everything on this CD is quality music, whether you are a fan primarily of film soundtracks or of reggae.