It is Trojan Records’ 40th anniversary. In order to celebrate this auspicious occasion, the label has commissioned Radiohead guitarist and dub reggae aficionado Jonny Greenwood to contribute a selection of relatively obscure Trojan tracks to the Artist Choice Jukebox series. In addition to signaling the importance of the label’s own contributions to the development of reggae from 1968 to the present, this latest in Trojan’s anniversary series delightfully defies the rigidity of musical canonization. There are no Bob Marleys here; rather, Greenwood has dug deeply into Trojan’s archives and engineered a compilation that speaks volumes about reggae’s lesser known movers and shakers. Jonny Greenwood is the Controller, a title borrowed from the first and last tracks of this tightly structured and pleasurably unified disc, presents reggae at its best.
That said, this is not a “best of” compilation. Greenwood makes it clear in his detailed liner notes that listeners are invited to explore: “...and if you hear a voice or a style that you like, then you’ll find hours more of great recordings out there. Happy digging!” Indeed, it takes all of my might not to rush out to the nearest used music store to do just that. Greenwood’s selection from and interpretation of reggae’s varied journeys around the world is successful largely because it invites us to move beyond the surface mainstream to take a closer look at what is often overlooked. The quality of the recordings offers the impression that they were recently dusted off and reproduced without the help of a controlling middleman. A pervasive sense of immediacy takes us back to the pioneering days of reggae, when the studio itself was employed as an instrument.
Framed by Linval Thompson’s “Dread Are the Controller” and Scotty’s “Clean Race”, this compilation reminds us of the power politics which the genre engaged from the get-go. Rastafarianism, a religious movement inseparable from the inception of reggae, tended to symbolically counter-act the oppressive actions of the police and law courts in Jamaica. Later, the development of rocksteady, dancehall, jungle and dub contributed to the creation of new layers of dissidence that allowed for more explicit and empowering articulations of postcolonial resistance. The Heptones’ “Cool Rasta” may provide the illusion of passivity, with its gently melodic worship of Jah, but Greenwood’s selections repeatedly return to the violent, political contexts from which many reggae artists hail. Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Black Panta”, for instance, integrates the sounds of sirens to underline the urgency of musical intervention in a society where blacks are racially profiled, incarcerated and condemned. Likewise, Johnny Clarke’s “A Ruffer Version” uses instruments to mimic the sounds of machine guns, highlighting the significance of reggae’s activist agenda. The marginalization of blacks in Jamaica, the UK and elsewhere is made palpable in these tracks, which maintain that the reggae artist will continue to use the genre to make his or her voice heard. “Look sport,” says Scotty during the break in the last track, “the next time you decide to cut a record, you see, just remember: everything has to pass through me. I make the hits, not the public. I tell the DJs what to play, you see.”
But there is more to reggae than politics. Derrick Harriott’s “Let Me Down Easy”, a cover of Van McCoy’s original, pays homage to African-America to foreground the universal importance of that feeling we call “love.” “Break it to me gently,” Harriott croons, “baby say it slow.” The disc certainly does tell us, slowly and sweetly as it happens, just what reggae of the past has to offer us in the year 2007. There is enough variety on this disc to please everyone, whether they are familiar with the genre or not. Marcia Aitken seduces with her lilting admission of resilient emotion, Lee “Scratch Perry” with a highly textured story about “Bionic Rats”, and Scientist, Jammy and the Roots Radics throw us into outer space with the resounding minimalist dub “Flash Gordon Meets Luke Skywalker”. Greenwood’s compilation, in other words, is as playful as it is serious. His chosen tracks reverberate throughout the body, reminding us in the end that there is more to reggae than more polished “best of” compilations might suggest. As for Trojan, their 40th anniversary is served well by Greenwood, for whom the figure of the dread controller has undeniably exerted considerable influence. In his introduction to the disc, he explains that “Jamaican reggae is the style of music I always reach for when ranting to friends about there being so many great recordings in the world.” And this is, perhaps, the guitarist’s strongest message: contemporary music in many of its forms remains indebted to reggae, a genre that has never concealed its own indebtedness to forms received from other places. Listen and dig.