What You Can Do With a Little Casio and a Lot of Talent
King Jammy, or Prince Jammy before he was “promoted”, is most famous for ushering in the digital era of reggae music. No genre of popular music made it out of the 1980s untouched by the revolution in easily-accessible, relatively inexpensive synthesizer technology, and reggae was no exception. If you’re put off by the chattering, digitized, often cold nature of many of today’s Jamaican sounds, you have Jammy to blame more than anyone. Then again, blaming Prince Jammy for schlocky reggae is like blaming Miles Davis for smooth jazz. It couldn’t have happened without him, but he set the standard from which everyone else fell off.
Actually, Jammy (born Lloyd James) had spent the second half of the ‘70s honing his skills with dub prime mover King Tubby. In 1985, relatively unknown singer Wayne Smith and a friend picked up a cheap Casio keyboard and used one of the preprogrammed rhythms as the basis for an anti-cocaine song called “Sleng Teng”. The tune was brought to the attention of Jammy, who presided over a re-recording and released the track on his own label. “Sleng Teng” was a Jamaican dancehall sensation; in terms of its impact on the sound and production of a particular type of music, its closest parallels have to be considered M/A/R/R/S’ “Pump Up the Volume” and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”. Literally overnight, the paradigm for Jamaican music had changed (reggae would soon give way to its digitized offspring “ragga”) forever, and Jammy’s legendary status was cemented.
An exhaustive, multi-volume inventory of Jammy’s work, Selector’s Choice, is slated for December, 2006 release. As a primer, VP issued King at the Controls in July. It’s interesting to note that its subtitle, Essential Hits From Reggae’s Digital Revolution 1985-1989, is at least partially inaccurate. King at the Controls actually includes a handful of noteworthy pre-“Sleng Teng” Jammy productions dating as far back as 1978, making it the must-own choice for a single disc collection.
From a musical standpoint, King at the Controls is all over the place—from rootsy pop to dancehall to quirky ragga, performed by everyone from veterans like Dennis Brown and John Holt to up-and-comers like Shabba Ranks and Cocoa Tea. This scope and variety are the best testament to Jammy’s skills behind the board, because everything’s good. The instrumentation—digital or analog—is tight, crisp, and clean. Jammy is an expert at incorporating deep, steady basslines and reverb effects (held over from his dub days with Tubby) with straightforward vocal arrangements, creating a truly unique, timeless sound.
One curiosity is that in terms of technology, the early digital productions from ‘85 to ‘88 sound about five years behind British and American synth-pop. The chattering handclaps, punchy rhythms, and squealing analog synths of “Sleng Teng”, Super Black’s “Deh Wid You”, and Brown’s “The Exit” are reminiscent of Human League or OMD circa 1980. Consequently, more traditionally-produced songs like Black Uhuru’s “I Love King Selassie” from ‘78 and John Holt’s version of “If I Were a Carpenter” from ‘82 actually sound more recent than some of the later productions. Despite lots of “doom-doom-doom”-ing syndrums on the post-‘85 stuff, only the goofy, sexual synth-funk of Junior Reid’s “Boom Shack” could be called dated.
As far as picking out highlights, the quality here is so consistent that that’s just a matter of taste. Coincidentally, the Uhuru and Holt selections provide a couple of the set’s strongest melodies and vocal performances. Johnny Osborne’s crooning is butter on dancehall hit “Water Pumping” from ‘83, while Nitty Gritty’s “Run Down the World” from ‘86 predicts the moody downtempo electronica of trip-hop. And it’s easy to forget that “Sleng Teng” was such a smash not only due to its revolutionary production, but also because it was a helluva tune.
King at the Controls proves that Jammy was a master of the trade, regardless of the tools.
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