Trojan Sound System

The sound system was the way in which reggae promoters and producers of the 1960s brought their music directly to a Jamaican audience not yet plugged into any national infrastructure. By creating a powerful sound system, fired up by its own generator, the new wave of producers and DJs managed to reach a mass audience at first-hand and, at the same time, blast their rivals out of the way. In using more than one deck, in presenting recorded music as a ‘live’ performance, and in DJ-ing over the rhythm until a new music emerged, the sound system pre-dated the way in which later generations of dance and club DJs would use both the subtleties of the mixing desk and the power of sheer volume. Within reggae – where this all began – the sound system was an essential part of the experience. The manner of transmitting the music to its audience was crucial to how the music itself developed, the medium being the message, to use a cliché. Continue Reading “Trojan Sound System”

The Congos

Heart of the Congos was a seminal reggae album, highly influential but relatively neglected in the UK. Originally released in 1977, it is a classic ‘lost’ album of reggae, unavailable for almost twenty years. Notable for the distinctive production of Lee Perry, his trademark sound and dub production values are present throughout. Since its reappearance in the 1990s on CD, Heart of the Congos has continued to enjoy a cult status as a landmark album. Is this reputation justified?

The strength of the album lies in three factors: Lee Perry’s considerable influence over the instrumentation and the sound; the quality of the songs; and the unusual vocal style of the Congos themselves. They were essentially a vocal duo, their songs driven along by the voices of Cedric Myton (falsetto) and ‘Ashanti’ Roy Johnson (tenor), with backing from Perry’s Upsetters lineup of the time, in a who’s who of reggae musicians: Gregory Isaacs, the Meditations, members of the Heptones, Watty Burnett, Boris Gardner, Ernest Ranglin and Sly Dunbar. Given all this, it is puzzling that the album has been a footnote rather than a headline in the various histories of reggae. Partly it could be that the brand of reggae on offer didn’t correspond with the commercial priorities of the time, but the main reason seems to lie in contractual issues arising from Lee Perry’s dispute with Island Records. The album thus became unavailable until it reappeared in the mid 1990s. Continue Reading “The Congos”

Who Is Don Letts?

How to assess the influence of Don Letts – previously known as the ambassador of dub reggae, associate of the Clash, film maker and DJ – on roots music in a career spanning four decades?

Originating from Brixton, Letts started out in the London fashion and music business before making a name for himself as a DJ in the late 1970s. His role as a DJ at the Roxy in London around 1977 was pivotal in bringing together two strands of British music of the time: the predominantly white new punk music (itself drawing from existing American influences, including Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls and, earlier still, the Velvet Underground) and the predominantly black reggae tradition (drawing directly from its Jamaican origins) which was expanding rapidly into studio experimentation with remixing and dub. The two musical elements came together in venues like those in which Letts promoted and celebrated the sound to an ever-expanding audience. He associated closely with the Clash, and the influence of the differing musical traditions upon them is clearly heard in their direct use of reggae-based rhythms alongside a standard rock instrumentation. A track like their White Man in Hammersmith Palais pretty much sums it all up. Continue Reading “Who Is Don Letts?”

Let There Be Versions

The rddim album – the single-rhythm reggae album, either wholly instrumental or with a number of different vocal tracks – is now well-established. Its origins lie in putting together the series of dubs, versions and remixes of a single vocal track – typically spread across the ‘a’ and ‘b’ sides of various 7” releases – into an album format. An entire album consisting of the same rhythm track, extensively deconstructed and reconstructed, was a revolutionary development at the time, and it’s still going strong, especially in the various digital rhythm albums released for the contemporary dancehall market. It’s useful to have a look at this by focussing on two of the key rhythm albums that started this trend, plus a newly recorded double-CD based on just one classic track.

Rupie Edwards’ Let There Be Version (the 1990 reissue of Yamaha Skank, which had originally been released in 1974) was the landmark album that kicked off this tradition. It begins with, and derives from, Slim Smith and the Uniques’ loping and laid-back My Conversation, a standout track in its own right. Its basic feel is more reminiscent of the regular dance rhythm of ska than reggae, together with a vocal borrowing from US soul. An intriguing track to use as the basis of a one-rhythm album, the other versions on the fifteen track album (twelve on the original release) more than do it justice. Following on the initial vocal track, 100,000 Dollars (credited to Rupie Edward’s ‘Success Allstars’, ‘Success’ being the name of his record store and label) is a brass-led instrumental version, drawing even more clearly from the ska tradition. Doctor Come Quick adds echo and deejay-vocalising by Hugh Roy Junior over a dub treatment of the rhythm, and so the versions and explorations continue to the conclusion. There are several highlights; Tyrone Downie’s instrumental Tribute to Slim Smith is led by an organ (Yamaha?) quite obviously on loan from Phoenix Nights; Doctor Satan Echo Chamber, again by the Success All Stars, is pure stripped-down instrumentation; while Yamaha Skank by Shorty the President adds both deejay vocals and snatches of an entirely different vocal track to the original. The legendary Heptones add Give me the Right, again a completely different song grafted smoothly onto the basic rhythm. President A Mash Up the Resident by Shorty the President may be a little more widely known than the other versions here, not least for its manic whistling backing. Continue Reading “Let There Be Versions”

Easy Star Lonely Hearts Dub Band

From the New York band, with its fluid and illustrious membership, comes the latest in its series of reinventions of classic British rock albums. After Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the Easy Stars tackle the Beatles, and not only that, they cover in a roots style the peak (for many people) of the Beatles’ achievements, Sgt Pepper.

It’s impressive on an immediate level. The packaging is Sgt Pepper-era inspired, lovingly crafted in style and tone, although that familiar bass drum on the cover now seems to have acquired a marijuana leaf within its design. The music throughout features those background noises and crowd effects that were part of the feel of the Beatles’ album, and there is a remarkable attention to detail in referencing the past, although presumably without the need to use the primitive tapes and loops of the Abbey Road studio and its four-track machines of the 1960s. Continue Reading “Easy Star Lonely Hearts Dub Band”

Easy Stars All-Stars

With the impending release of a new album from New York’s Easy Star All Stars, it’s the right time to take stock of their unique take on reggae reinvention of classic rock albums. Has it all been a joke, and, if not, is it any good?

Thus far the Easy Stars have chosen two classic British albums, and peculiar ones too. Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ are not just British, they are very English, rooted in the heart of Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire. This is the thoughtful sound of middle England, contemplative student rock from the 1970s and 1990s respectively. So what is an American East Coast reggae collective doing with this source material, and where has it taken it musically? Continue Reading “Easy Stars All-Stars”