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.

Ire Feelings (also released in 1990) begins with the title track (a UK single hit in 1974), a very well-known dub with its repeated ‘skenga’ vocalising over the basic rhythm track: one of the few cases where the dub is more readily recognised than the original vocal track (maybe the other such case is Augustus Pablo’s King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown, the familiar dub of Jacob Miller’s Baby I Love You So). Ire Feelings is followed (contrary to the track listing on the sleeve) by Feeling High, a dub of a dub (and the ‘b’ side of the Ire Feelings single). Next comes the song that begat all this: Johnnie Clarke’s Everyday Wondering, a tuneful but surprisingly modest sort of song to bear the weight of an entire history of reworkings. From then on, it’s further dubs-of-dubs as Rupie Edwards takes us deeper into the rhythm: Buckshot Dub is held together at some points only by drum and echo as everything else fades away with no trace of the original vocal, the spaces in the music forming part of the overall pattern; Spangy (and especially Spangy Dub) then gets the whole thing rocking again with a different vocal and a straight-on direction. Milton Henry adds both a different tune and vocal over the rhythm in What Can I Do. Mister Bojangles’ Ten Dread Commandments reminds us initially of Prince Buster in its intro, but then it becomes clear that the commandments are meant seriously, while the rhythm stays very much in the background.

All this was a good while ago. But the release in 2006 of Fisherman Style by the Congos ‘and friends’ links straight back to the origins of the analog rhythm album in the real Rupie Edwards tradition, and brings it right up to date in a new two-CD collection. Here, the Congos’ classic Fisherman (see also separate feature) provides the rhythm track for more than twenty new recordings by venerable reggae names like Horace Andy, Max Romeo and Gregory Isaacs plus a newer generation such as Manchester’s Country Culture and East London’s Mr Raggamonica, effectively linking past and present. What do they do with the original track?

Max Romeo’s Give Praises is definitely a standout song, rightly selected for inclusion as the additional video track on disc 1. It sits atop the basic rhythm and remains true to the spiritual basis of the Congos’ original, as does Horace Andy with his sweet and unashamed homage to Love Love Love. U-Roy provides a decidedly more fish-oriented interpretation in Fisherman Style, with some characteristically energetic deejaying over the vocal and instrumental track, noting along the way that ‘if a fish would keep its mouth shut it would never get caught’. On the second disc, Lutan Fyah’s striking and fluent Whitewash Walls reflects the sober feel of more recent and angrier times, while the sentiments of Ricky Chaplin’s Behold Jah Live and Al Pancho’s Enjoy Your Blessings bring us back to the themes the Congos started with. The set closes with the excellent Upsetters’ (Lee Perry) dub of the original Fisherman track.

Without doubt, Rupie Edwards set all this in motion. Albums where all the tracks make use of the same rhythm are now commonplace, especially in dancehall, and the link to the wider field of dance/deejay is obvious, given that so much can be added in both the live and studio setting to a basically good rhythm. But the Congos’ release suggests something extra: that a classic rhythm from the original roots era can today be the basis of a collection with contributions from both old and new generations of reggae musicians, looking to the future.

Album Details:

Let There be Version (Trojan Records, CDTRL 280, 1990) is the expanded UK CD re-release of the original Yamaha Skank.

There is more than one album called Ire Feelings: the 1975 album of that name (Cactus Records, CTLP 106) is not a rhythm album, it’s a collection of songs following on from the single success of the eponymous track. The rhythm album of this name has itself been through more than one release: the album in this feature is the 22-track single-rhythm release called Ire Feelings: Chapter and Version (Trojan Records, CDTRL 281, 1990).

Fisherman Style by ‘the Congos and Friends’ (Blood and Fire, BAFCD 050, 2006) comprises 22 newly recorded versions around the existing Fisherman rhythm, together with the original track by the Congos and its Lee Perry dub; it consists of two CDs, each with enhanced video footage from the recent recording sessions.

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