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".