Original Bad Boys
The influence of Jamaican sound systems, DJs, and dub mixing on American rap music has been pretty well documented in recent years. Yet there’s another crucial way in which the Jamaican music scene provided a blueprint for hip-hop: the rise of the producer. In the 1950s and ‘60s, a few producers ruled the new Jamaican recording industry. Each had their own house band, stable of artists, label and studio, plus an image to match. As compressed and intertwined as the scene was, rivalries inevitably broke out. Producers engaged in “sound wars”—their artists would issue put-downs, boasts, and challenges on their respective records. These producers were not studio aces who were charged with making hit records for a record company; they were one-man mini-empires. Sound familiar?
The significance of early Jamaican producers is well known to reggae buffs and historians. With his pioneering mixing style, drug-casualty persona and popularity among the modern hip hop and electronica elite, one of these producers, Lee “Scratch” Perry, has even turned himself into a bit of a cultural legend. Many collections devoted to Perry and other individual producers have been released, but few have attempted to gather all of the major producers from a period and place their work in a historical context. Blessed Love: Jamaican Producers 1960-1969 does just that. It’s a monumental task, but proves to be well worth the effort.
In the early-to-mid ‘60s, Jamaican music was making the transition from uptempo, mostly instrumental, horn-driven ska to the slower, cooler, beat-driven sounds of rocksteady. Blessed Love catches this transition in full swing, and features some of the era’s best singles as well. Not surprisingly, Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd were the most prominent producers of the new rocksteady. Both had been huge during the ska era; the gunslinging Reid was the original “bad boy” while Dodd was the more mild-mannered yet fierce challenger with the Studio One label to his credit.
Both men had one overwhelming advantage over other producers—the Skatalites. Featuring future legends like guitarist Earnest Ranglin, pianist Jackie Mittoo and saxophonist Tommy McCook, the Skatalites were the most talented and prolific ska band around. They recorded and served as backing band for both Reid and Dodd; Blessed Love features one classic track for each producer. “Eastern Standard Time”, cut for Reid, and “Phoenix City”, cut for Dodd and credited to Roland Alphonso and the Soul Brothers, are thrilling two-minute blasts of horns and rhythm, taking Caribbean island music, American R&B, and blues, and adding that unique, distinct emphasis on the downbeat. The vocal tracks are no less seminal: the Techniques’s “Queen Majesty”, a Curtis Mayfield/Impressions cover, is considered to be one of the first rocksteady tracks, while Delroy Wilson’s “(I’m In A) Dancing Mood” introduces the sweet-voiced teenage star, a trend that would help give rise to Bob Marley’s Wailers among others.
With the rocksteady scene going strong, a wave of younger, start-up producers got in on the action. In yet another precursor of modern trends, most of them had previously been involved with Reid, Coxsone, and others before striking out on their own. Sonia Pottinger was the first, and, so far, only female Jamaican producer to make a name for herself. Although she’s not as well known as her male counterparts, cuts like Eric “Monty” Morris’s “Put On Your Best Dress” were favorites among reggae’s first DJs (the equivalent of modern MCs). Joe Gibbs and Bunny Lee’s work is represented by two tracks each, but the most prominent and successful of the “new” producers was Leslie Kong. With the likes of Desmond Decker (whose minor but still snapping “Intensified ‘68” is included here) and Jimmy Cliff, Kong helped make Jamaican music a major force in the UK. On Blessed Love, Kong is also represented by Toots and the Maytals’ immortal smash “Pressure Drop”, which helped introduce “conscious” reggae, and the Pioneers’ much-covered “Long Shot Kick the Bucket”.
Unlike their hip hop counterparts, Jamaican producers generally didn’t have much involvement in the actual creation of the music, instead providing funding and facilities while their house musicians did the arranging and manned the boards. All that changed with Lee Perry. He used the most limited of technologies to produce strange, echoing effects from drums, guitars, and feedback, making him one of the godfathers of dub production. His early productions weren’t quite so far out, but they’re still striking amid the smooth, fluid work of his contemporaries. Included here are three of his most noteworthy ‘60s tracks. The dive-bombing sax riff that cuts through the Upsetters’ “Return of Django”, along with its jovial, bouncy bassline, made it a UK Top 10 smash. The Inspirations’ more traditional “Tighten Up” was the namesake of Trojan’s landmark compilation series. Many critics agree that Bob Marley and the Wailers did their best work for Perry, and their very first track with Perry, “My Cup”, is stark and yearning.
In addition to the strong tracklisting, Blessed Love boasts excellent sound quality and informative liner notes. During the ‘60s, Jamaican music was dominated by crooners, love songs, and novelties in the American R&B tradition. Here is a great chance to experience that period before rude boys, Ras Tafari and ganja became the words of the day.