Features | Retconning

II: Roots Reggae and Dub

By Mark Abraham | 3 September 2006

Reggae musicians were, in the 1970s, simultaneously responsible for a sustained and coherent critique of the social and racial inequalities of a postcolonial Caribbean and often entirely misunderstood. Let’s face it: the devil-of-the-music-industry’s greatest trick was convincing the west that Bob Marley (at least once he had shed Tosh and Bunny) made feel-good music. And it was feel-good in the sense that it often celebrated the small victories and solidarities within communities still grappling with the oppression of postcolonial empire, and my point here isn’t that those of us in the west—regardless of ethnicity—should feel alienated from it, but so many Marleyfied college students of my acquaintance simply see it as fun, groovy music. Just another reason to smoke dope. That it certainly ain’t.

One of the most fascinating things about reggae in the ’70s, and you can attribute this to Rastafarian quotient or postcolonial anger or just plain social inequality, is just how damn uniform it is in its political intents, whether we’re talking the pop pretense of Susan Cadogan and Jimmy Cliff or the wordless dub play of producers Lee Perry and King Tubby. Certainly, there are problems, and the explicit homophobia and misogyny (not limited to, but especially in dancehall) tends to grate. But prior to the commercial explosion of “materialistic” dancehall reggae pioneered by Trinity and others in the late ’70s, somehow, in that nexus of geography and genre and generation, you can trace the explosive speeds at which roots reggae (and dub) exploded, fed upon itself, rearticulated itself, and exploded again, as the tireless tricks of dub producers meant to expand the envelope would suddenly find themselves employed in the service of mainstream pop albums.

Which, okay, I’m not going to argue that Jimmy Cliff’s Struggling Man or Toots and the Maytals’ Funky Kingston are, due to that pipeline, somehow shining exemplars of experimental fecundity; they’re pop albums, and damn good ones. But if you’re wondering why none of the artists I’ve mentioned so far (arguably the most popular, along with the influence of Desmond Dekker, in the popular consciousness) are on this particular list, it’s precisely because of the incredible range of roots reggae albums that come from the ’70s due to the genres explosive verve for experimentation. That range (which I’ve hopefully replicated here, even though I’m highlighting my own tastes) helps to dispel a second seemingly unshakable myth about reggae held by stoned casual fans: that it all sounds the same. Sure, the prevalence of the skank makes it obvious that what you are hearing is reggae, and the counter-intuitively propulsive one drop (the kick on the three) makes it function, but the kinds of noise that can collapse around either side of that three are endless, and in the fertile performance laboratory of ’70s reggae almost anything did, from the stark textures of U-Roy to the Jimi Hendrix riffage of Horace Andy. But even more interesting is the way musicians often played with the absence of a leading tone or beat, a vacuum which pulls you in to every measure, and one that sort of makes the head bobbing sitcoms associate with reggae kind of make sense. You sort of fall in, and with nowhere to start, you can only to follow. And since the musicians did that so effectively, here it might be good time to take a standing “o” for all the session bands that made this music possible, since, excepting the Upsetters, we aren’t really talking about the fabulous musicians involved with these projects, and they rock too.

Big Youth: Screaming Target (1973)

Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets might get name-dropped more frequently, but Big Youth (who screams, mumbles, and rhymes his way through this album) is just as important an early piece of the hip hop puzzle, and while U-Roy and others were doing it first and Linton Kwesi Johnson would refine this style, Manley Augustus Buchanan has got this shit down. He’s a descendant of the “sound systems” pioneered by Duke Reid and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, where portable block parties were instigated to build community around the growth of home-recorded reggae and, yes, for profit. The promoters, or djs, began to host the parties by speaking over the records, toasting the audience, that toasting got more elaborate, and artists like Big Youth, who got his experience with Lord Tipperton, picked up the ball and ran. You can hear the dubplates creaking on this album, employing early sans-cross fader techniques of winding between two records, the gaps sometimes showing beneath, snatches of other vocals spreading out behind Youth’s elaborate and charismatic wordplay. If their American contemporaries provided the poetic basis for hip hop mcs, it was artists like Youth who offered a template for the attitude, transferred through Kool DJ Herc to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. It works even if Youth’s style takes some getting used to, and I’m not really talking about the accent, but more about how half the time he just wanders off into scat-jazz excursions which, you know, are essentially incomprehensible but also somehow, once you get used to them, sound just as delicious as the concise observations he’s making about society and politics. And “Solomon A Gundy” is the best song ever to get away with a line like “ting a ling a ling dong ding.” Seriously.

Keith Hudson: Flesh of My Skin Blood of My Blood (1974)

I suspect most Hudson fans might go for Pick a Dub (also 1974), but I just can’t get over the opening two-punch of “Hunting” and “Flesh of My Skin,” the former a wild excursion into wiry guitars that must have influenced XTC’s early work and the latter a pleasant romp through the lightest part of dub territory that gets immediately flipped for an even dubbier version on “Blood of My Blood.” Hudson was known as the “Dark Prince of Reggae,” and he already had an impressive resume before his two seminal albums, unleashing a first-recorded U-Roy on the world in 1969, but it was tracks like “Fight Your Revolution” and “Talk Some Sense (Gamma Ray)” that show exactly why Hudson helped shaped the dub movement; the cyclical intonations of the former and the cat’s cradle of instrumentation of the latter are such hot laboratories of noise that it’s difficult to keep up. Of course, by ’74 Lee “Scratch” Perry was already actively involved in dub work, and King Tubby would be making his ascension the following year, but neither, in those early years, managed to sound like they were having as much fun with the format as Hudson. Check “My Nocturne,” which is like the dub version of the entire Jimi Hendrix secret wah-effects arsenal, or his fantastic cover of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” where Hudson actually makes Dylan better by kind of showing how silly Dylan could be, and in doing so making Dylan’s words even more sincere.

Augustus Pablo: King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown (1976)

Dear every person who thinks the melodica is a silly instrument: Horace Swaby is going to kick your fucking ass. And while East of the River Nile (1978), where he uses it a lot more, is equally seminal, this King Tubby-produced manifesto is often better. Tubby, fresh off his newfound success as a taste-making producer, took Pablo’s dreamy landscapes and engineered them as urban renewal projects, wonking the country right out of them by turning them inside out. It doesn’t matter where you look; Tubby’s stealing stray notes and beats and delaying them over top of the rest of the piece, fluctuating the volume of different parts wildly, and throwing counter measures against the skank like people could dance forwards and backwards at the same time. The band sounds like an army of ghosts. The horn section (the same as on Hudson’s Flesh of My Skin) often gets cut off mid-riff, allowing only echoes of their phrases to flit along with the band. Earl “Chinna” Smith’s guitar sounds like it’s being phased they way he flits in and out of the mix, but it’s all being done with volume and cut-n-paste, and drummer Carleton Barrett is made to sound like he has about sixty arms. On the few tracks where Jacob Miller’s original vocals still actually appear, he gets the exact same treatment. But even with Tubby’s essential production, if it wasn’t for Pablo’s compositional ability (as well as his willingness to have that shit torn to shreds) the trickery wouldn’t mean anything. Pablo’s songs work like travelogues, like you’re out for a walk and everything that happens gets a melody or a beat to react to. Like the weird skit on Sesame Street where the dude with the yo yo explains to the kid with the bike how to get back home? Except, it’s all weird and beautiful just-around-the-corners, and no solid destination in site.

Max Romeo & the Upsetters: War Ina Babylon (1976)

Everytime I listen to this I think I have a new favorite track. Maxwell Livinston Smith’s cadence on “my father’s house of worship / has become a den of thieves” on “Stealing in the Name of Jah”; the vocal interplay, squirrely guitars, and sustained hats of “Tan and See”; the brilliant social commentary of “Uptown Babies Don’t Cry”; the ‘Ye sampled Hova-riffic intro from “I Chase the Devil”; the gritty contradictions of the title track. That’s just a boring list, I know, but I really can’t recommend the shear power of the composition alone on this album enough. That Romeo was already notorious for his first single “Wet Dream” (after a British radio ban he claimed it was about leaky roofs, which…silly, but also really kind of cute) only made the sheer political scope of the record more shocking; between the hard-edged religious themes and nuanced portrayal of the effects of poverty and colonialism, War Ina Babylon is a political statement matched only by the serious chops of backing band Upsetters and the production of Lee Perry. Exodus (1977) is a great album, sure, but Romeo doesn’t give you the downtime of pleasantries like “Jammin’” and “Waiting in Vain.” From the opening hypnotic notes of “One Step Forward,” this album is about demanding retribution, and all through writing really delicious pop songs. The most straightforwardly beautiful album on this list.

Burning Spear: Man in the Hills (1976)

It’s a toss-up between Marcus Garvey and this for Winston Rodney’s best album, but I tend to like the restrained sonics here a tad more. Taking its title (and a lot of lyrical content) from the free villages that formed from escaped slaves living in the hills of Jamaica (where the Rastafarian movement was historically born), Burning Spear ties his music very closely to the history of the community, working to reproduce the history and the traditions of Jah. It’s not that his music is more relevant than his peers, but few composers are as able to evoke the lineage of reggae as the culmination of a spiritual and communal movement like he is, and to do so while simultaneously pushing enevelopes. In fact, this album embodies that cusp, glorifying the rural living of those free men while allowing its musicians to add urban tones of rock and dub to the mix (especially Chinna’s lead guitar), tapping into long-term political and social themes by approaching everyday situations, and rearticulating the rage of Marcus Garvey as a more nuanced indictment of postcolonial Jamaica while making the overall product more accessible.

Upsetters: Super Ape (1976)

Let’s start with the cover…did any of you ever watch the show Popular? Remember when fabulous butch teacher Bio Glass (Diana Delano) tells Sam that she got a lower mark than Brooke because of their respective lab report’s packaging? Bio, who is licking her lips throughout: “at one point I sat on her leather-encased report and pretended I was driving a Lexus.” Of course, this simple joke turns into a morality play about student’s inner/outer beauty and Bio’s fetishes, but I’m here to tell you: the album art for Super Ape will give you (and your record collection) a similar sense of superiority. It’s so good you may never need to actually listen to the album, since it’s both aesthetically brilliant, sci-fi/comic campy, and entirely political, rearranging racial propaganda of the early twentieth century into a massive “fuck you” to the establishment. And since the visual statement is so strong, it’s sometimes hard to tell how much this album’s attraction depends on its politics and how much is musical. I mean, practically it does both, given that the album sounds like humidity. It will melt snow and kill you if it is too hot out. It wants you to sweat inside it; it’s cramped, claustrophobic, and damp. It’s a fucking nightmare, really, but the covenant of Black Ark dub is a revelation in its expansive experimental scope, Perry’s victory over the studio that allowed him to improve on bascially everything he’d been testing out in the years previous, and a band that had reached the height of their powers. I don’t even know what else to say about this; it probably won’t be your favorite album on this list, but it’s by far the most important, since everything you love about house, techno, Bristol, post-Eno ambient, post-punk starting with PIL, post-rock production, postcolonialism, hip hop, reggae, dub, awesome drumming, anti-imperialism, and racial activism is right here. Just stick it on you coffee table or pin it to your sleeve — instant street cred, I promise, without the embarassment of melting everybody in a ten foot radius of a stereo you might be playing it on. Use with serious caution.

Culture: Two Sevens Clash (1977)

This is my favorite reggae album; this is the album that I’m most likely to pick off the shelf. There’s the obvious attraction of the harmony vocals of Joseph Hill, Andrew Walker, and Kenneth Days. Hill’s lead vocals especially are some of the more nuanced in roots reggae; I’m not knocking the Congos, but they spit the styles of songs between them, whereas Hill fluctuates between charisma, sincerity, anger, and coyness, often in the same song. Then there’s the clarity of the instruments. Even if the mastering of this recording still bears the scars of analogue recording (the thing creaks all over the place) the arrangements are sparse enough to allow pianos, guitars, percussion, and bass to pull off the reggae/dub hybrid many of these songs work upon without sacrificing the trees for the forest. Much of that has to do with Joe Gibbs, his production more polished than Perry or Tubby but still grungy enough that this album basically created the Clash. Or punk. Or something like that. I mean, you can ignore the abject hyperbole if you want, but you can’t ignore how good and consistent this album is. And while normally I frown on the whole reggae-and-punk-don’t-make-great-albums- because-they’re-singles-genres argument, it does carry some weight. Doesn’t matter here, though; Two Sevens Clash is brilliant front to back, furrowing into the Rastafarian apocalyptic superstitions implicit in the title and coming out the other side as a heartening statement of hope and celebration. Even if this were a ranked list, this would still be number one.

Congos: The Heart of the Congos (1977)

Like Culture, the Congos focused on vocal harmonies and more regulated and emphasized roots backings, dragging Perry from the dub hole he’d been digging since ’74. Which isn’t to say that this album is some traditional masterpiece—Perry, by this point, could turn anything on its head, and the Upsetters were equally confident by the time they all set to work on The Heart of the Congos. The attraction of this album lies somewhere in that pairing of traditional composition with the experimental leanings of its producer, but just as it wouldn’t be right to think of this as an anti-Super Ape, neither should this simply be viewed as a slighly happier Super Ape with vocals. Instead, what you get is songs like “Fisherman” and “Congoman,” the former of which turns roots reggae inside out and the latter of which must have been the fakebook the Talking Heads worked from for “Born Under Punches.” You get brilliant vocal performances on “Open Up the Gate” and “Children Crying.” You get the deeply spiritual coos of “Soddom and Gomorrow” and “Ark of the Covenant,” the latter of which may have the most awesome vocal arrangement of any song ever. You get the Miracles-ready falsettos of “The Wrong Thing.” In short, you get one of the most fantastic reggae albums ever, and while Two Sevens Clash will always have the edge in my estimation because of that unidentifiable punk quality, this is the pop roots reggae landmark for composition, production, and and singing. It’s one of those perfect unions of all the right ingredients, and of course (like with basically every other group Perry worked with) it all fell apart over royalties, and this magic would never be captured again.

Althea and Donna: Uptown Top Ranking (1978)

Entralled with Trinity’s “Three Piece Suit,” teenagers Althea Forrest and Donna Reid wrote “Uptown Top Ranking” as a response. The success of the single (it scored them a number one hit) led to an album, and if a bunch of dreaded men ripping on systems of inequality is awesome, then two teenage middle class women doing it must be even better, right? Predictably, this has been treated like the …Baby One More Time (1999) of roots reggae, for right and wrong reasons. For all the critics who argued that this was two middle class kids acting like they shared in the social inequalities facing other reggae musicians (good point), there are haunting tracks built around repeated phrases like “the west is gonna perish” (“The West”). For all the critics who claimed this was an exploitation, or obvious chart-bait (probably…), the riddims provided by backing group the Revolutionaries seem to synthesize all of the more experimental trends of the decade’s dub. You can hear Perry (those reverbed toms and subterranean bass lobs) and Tubby (the thickets of instrumentation sliding all over the place) throughout, even as the two vocalists stay in thick harmony over the top. For all the (male) critics who said (and say) that Forrest and Reid were just teenage girls…well, they can just shut up. Forever. I mean, yeah: we could get into all sorts of complex textual readings concerning Joe Gibb’s intentions in recording this stuff in the first place, or the reasons why the single was so popular, but whether the promotion and acceptance of “Uptown Top Ranking” hinged on their looks or age (or the exploitation of), but it’s to Althea and Donna’s credit that they never sound like a passive product-placement. There is anger here, there is religious conviction, there is postcolonial angst, and whether their social status earned them the right to sing about it or not, that doesn’t make this a novelty item. I mean, one of them got kicked out of high school for it. That’s hardcore!

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Dread Beat an’ Blood (1978)

Somewhere, right now, Johnson is writing poems that are better than yours, intoning them in his deep voice over his morning coffee or tea, perhaps slightly disturbed that those intonations basically provided the template for Shaggy, but still content that he could record such enduring pieces of art, and this one in particular, which has a band that seemed ready to accent every important phrase with a cymbal crash or a dub interlude. Dub poetry expanded the concept of the sound system into something more abstract. I mean, Johnson isn’t really more political than Big Youth; he just sounds way more into the politics, actually crafting songs out of them instead of free ranging over the top. Johnson works through the everyday lives of African-Jamaicans in England, crafting specific stories with a verve comparable to that of Burning Spear. Meanwhile, Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell is along for the ride (he produced both Cut and Y (both 1979), thus making him the producer of my two favorite punk albums ever), engineering the dub breaks throughout in a way that allows the dissolution of the music to reflect the social ills Johnson relates. The slightly clearer production here, relative to most of Perry’s work, will also make it more obvious how dub influenced British electronica. Those drum breaks and the quicker guitar rhythms that sail over sporadic bass lines are the template for stuff like Tricky and Portishead, and the new intentional silences and instrumental tricks (unlike the format-necessary interuptions of Screaming Target) expanded the template for budding hip hop producers and djs. And that weird marionette-like cover is just creepy, which totally captures the tone of the album.