What remains so astonishing about the ska and rocksteady music made at Clement Seymour “Sir Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One in the ‘60s and ‘70s isn’t its innovation, but rather its effortlessness. These days, it’s impossible to identify mid-tempo Jamaican archetypes as radical or fresh, because they are just that: archetypes permanently embedded in the consciousness of popular music and culture. Perhaps, more significantly, this music was never marked with “newness”—its natural, patient sound is something that had always existed, a manifestation of human movement extracted at last, not an unknown thing that had to be learned over time.
Though Dodd helped create the template for reggae out of his love for American R&B—which he imported to Jamaica while working as a DJ and sound system operator—he drained his product of all urgency and agitation, instead favoring post-fever moodswings and groove-laden comedowns. A track like Soul Agent and the Soul Defenders’ “Popcorn Reggae”, for instance, is the exact opposite of James Brown’s “Mother Popcorn”; their executions of the same titular image couldn’t have employed more noticeable discrepancies of pace and stress, even if the former learned of rhythm hounding from the latter. This music, built on a strapping skeleton of adamant bass lines, puckered guitar upstrokes, and to-the-point rimshots, continues to sound like it should have been produced in a community of hammocks or under heavy hypnosis.
Studio One has been called the “Motown of Jamaica”, but Dodd was more like Sun Records’ Sam Phillips than Motown’s Berry Gordy. Like the hallowed connection between rock ‘n’ roll and Phillips, contemporary Jamaican music stems from Dodd’s detail-oriented cultivation of not only a genre, but an entire culture. Many of reggae’s major figures (Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown) were discovered and/or produced by Dodd, while others (producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, for one) were shown the ropes while under his watch.
The legacy of Studio One and Dodd has been canonized over the years by Rounder Records’ Heartbeat imprint, including three “best of” volumes—The Best of Studio One, Full Up: More Hits from Studio One, and Downbeat the Ruler: Killer Instrumentals from Studio One—that serve as introductions to well-known and obscure sides alike. Heartbeat’s new four-disc The Best of Studio One Collection box set collects those three compilations, newly remastered and appended with previously unreleased tracks, and adds a fourth disc, Rebel Discomixes, an admittedly slight and inessential volume of six extended remixes. That latter disc aside, The Best of Studio One Collection boasts some of the best music in reggae’s developmental period. The Best of Studio One is a cross-section of exemplary cuts, ranging from the obvious descendents of vocal-group R&B (the Cables’ “Baby Why” and Alton Ellis’s “Can I Change My Mind”, which arguably tops Tyrone Davis’s classic version) to songs that would become resilient backing riddims for future hits (John Holt’s “A Love I Can Feel”, the Lyrics’ “Music Like Dirt”). Full Up deepens the soul music debt with male-female duet tracks like Bob Andy & Marcia Griffiths’s “Always Together”, not to mention the production allusions to Phillips and Sun with slapback echo effects utilized on Winston Francis’s “Mister Fixit” vocal.
Downbeat the Ruler (named after Dodd’s nickname in the Jamaican sound system world) emphasizes the instrumental contribution of Studio One house bands like Sound Dimension, whose “Real Rock”, “Heavy Rock”, and “Rockfort Rock” are definitive examples of gritty Jamaican rhythm in the rocksteady era of the late ‘60s. As with any workmanlike house band of the studio systems of old—Booker T. & the MGs, the Funk Brothers—the players that Studio One featured were both solid accompanists and unwitting architects. Such truths are evident in the humble and utilitarian performances that all the musicians deliver throughout the disc, forgoing any harebrained excursions into importance to make room for tightly-packed groove mining. Downbeat the Ruler also capitalizes on a bounty of rarities by groups like Soul Vendors that had been previously unavailable on CD: their “Darker Shade of Black” shares the headspace of the era by cribbing the melody from the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”, while “Swing Easy” infects its impeccable groove with shadowy, trenchcoated drama. It’s all great stuff, from these rare instrumental sides to big tracks like Willie Williams’s “Armagideon Time”, all of it riding crests of distinguishable rhythm and all of it effortless. The superfluous Rebel Discomixes notwithstanding, The Best of Studio One Collection is an excellent place to begin a Studio One education—indeed, for those hesitant and curious listeners, it may be all they’ll need.