Photo credit: Cris Frisina
The golden messenger of the whistle the leader continues with som’s helpe sweet Jamaican soundds.
I’ve listened to a lot of music over the past year and a half, and most of it was reggae. Specifically, the songs I listened to were of the roots or Rastafarian devotion variety, recorded roughly between 1970 and 1985 in Kingston and the surrounding area, Jamaica, but sometimes also in small makeshift studios in Toronto or New York. York. I’ve been drawn to reggae music since the day I left high school with my friend Aaron Thompson and he played me his brother’s Burning Spear copy. Marcus Garvey while we were smoking cigarettes around his pool. In retrospect, it was a bit like tripping over the Rosetta Stone on my first day as an intern on an archaeological dig. Marcus Garvey remains, in my opinion, one of the highlights of recorded music – a haunting, gleefully righteous, deeply funky melodic elegy about slavery, liberation, joy, and faith. A bell rang that day which continues to vibrate in my life.
In my early twenties and seriously collecting records, we were in the midst of one of the first golden years of reggae reissues, led largely by the late Blood & Fire Records, an iconic label whose images cover alone was a seal of approval for reggae newbies and serious heads. It was around this time that I bought King Tubby’s Freedom Sounds in Dub, a collection of deeply hallucinogenic and hypnotic reworking of tunes from the chests of Bertram Brown’s Freedom Sounds label. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the world of dub music, a subgenre of reggae in which multitrack recordings, usually songs already released, are recycled, remixed and processed with shimmering layers of reverb and of delay. Then they are filtered until it becomes difficult to determine where the original version ends and where the dub version begins, as on “Ites Green and Gold” by Johnny Clarke and “Rebel Music” by Bob Marley. The vocals are often removed and sometimes new melodies or new instruments are added, essentially creating an entirely new song. Like playing music on the phone, it can become difficult to remember what the original melody was. I can think of at least half a dozen different songs that are built on Lloyd Parks’ “Slaving” beat – my favorite being Sylford Walker’s “Chant Down Babylon” – with completely different melodies and lyrics. Tubby, born Osbourne Ruddock in Kingston, Jamaica, elevated this type of remix to major art. This is the reason why his name is King.
Shortly after purchase Sounds of freedom, I was rummaging through the dusty Discount Records trash cans near Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa when I found Trojan Records’ Upsetter box, a classic collection containing three of producer Lee “Scratch” Perry’s debut records with his band The Upsetters. It was almost time for the store to close, and I could tell the teenager behind the counter wanted to get rid of me so he could lock up. “How much does it cost?” I asked in as neutral a tone as possible, not wanting to betray my excitement.
“How many records are there?” He replied without interest.
“Three,” I said, holding my breath.
“Ten cents per record. Thirty cents.
I paid with two quarters and walked out, as if I had just robbed a bank.
If King Tubby’s offerings are the equivalent of hydroponic weed grown with almost surgical precision for maximum existential impact, then Perry’s music – especially the material he recorded in his haunted Black Ark home studio – more like wild-grown psilocybin mushrooms. By that I mean he’s unpredictable, temperamental, chaotic, gnomic, sometimes darkly funny or afraid of claustrophobia. In my opinion, no collection is complete without a copy of Heart of Congo, a strange record that Scratch produced around 1976 for the Rastafarian harmony duo Les Congos. Heart of Congo is, in essence, a gospel record that moves in a wet rhythm under dark and ominous clouds; it looks like it was made at the end of time, and its odd mix of joyful devotion and Old Testament apocalypse is totally unique. Lee “Scratch” Perry’s chests appear to be bottomless. I recently discovered a recording of his title Megaton Dub– after being a fan for over two decades – that I would put up with the best of his work. And labels like the great Pressure Sounds have created a cottage industry by collecting their most obscure singles for compilations like Roaring lion and The return of Scratch Sound System, all of which are worth hearing.
What Tubby and Scratch – and indeed everyone who made reggae records in Jamaica in the 1970s, as far as I know – share a deep affinity for thePocket groove known as one-drop, in which the bass drum emphasizes the third beat and the rhythm dances on the top hat. For an American drummer, it can feel like playing backwards. The other day my 12 year old son and I were listening to a Mighty Diamonds record and he said, “All these drummers play the same beat, don’t they? He could hear how central one-drop was in the world of reggae.
Last year I went further down the reggae rabbit hole than ever before. Part of the reason is that it was like a beautiful world to lose myself in for a time that seemed to bring only bad news. Getting into the weeds with any subject is like learning a language, and reggae is no different: the deeper you go, the more nuance you hear. Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace plays his drum fills in a loose and elongated way that sets them apart from those of Carly Barrett or Sly Dunbar. Bullwackie’s production technique is different from that of Niney, Phil Pratt, or Glen Brown. It’s a fun, albeit arcane, knowledge to possess. It’s been a year of great discovery for me, and I feel like I regularly stumble upon masterpieces, like “Put These Fools” just from The Tidals or “Creation” by Itopia, which I don’t had never heard before. Any record head knows this type of joyous fervor.
It is important to recognize that as a white American man, I have been the beneficiary of the oppressive systems against which much of the most powerful reggae music, certainly of the roots variety, works in opposition. When Yabby You sings “Chant Down Babylon Kingdom”, he talks about the dismantling of the evil institutions of white supremacy that allowed black people to be mistreated and murdered by the police. He sings about being denied even the most basic human rights in broad daylight. As a reggae fan who happens to be white, this is good and necessary to keep in mind.
At the same time, so many of the themes tackled by reggae – persistence, hope, liberation, justice and devotion – felt more deeply universal than ever in the past year. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to it day after day; Reggae offers the most informative and cutting-edge commentary on what it means to keep going. In a year of so much suffering, individually and collectively, this was the soundtrack I needed. And in 20 years, if someone asks me how I got through the year of the global pandemic, I will say, “I listened to reggae music.
MC Taylor’s project Hiss Golden Messenger released their latest LP, Quietly Blowing It, in June. Taylor’s curated reggae playlist appears below.