Hey Punk . . . Get Riddim! is one high-concept compilation. As its title and cover art suggest, the disc is a sampling of reggae and dancehall tracks directed at a young punk audience. The thinking behind this bold marketing move is that reggae played a significant role in the original British punk movement, so it will therefore find a receptive audience with today’s punk kids. The problem with this theory is twofold: First, today’s generation of punks probably doesn’t know most of the British bands who influenced its favorite artists, let alone the Jamaicans who influenced the Brits, and secondly, it’s debatable how big an influence reggae had on punk in the first place. The most commonly cited example of reggae’s influence on punk is the Clash, who not only incorporated the sound into originals like “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” and “Straight to Hell”, but also covered classics of the genre like “Armagideon Time” and Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves”. The Slits are perhaps a more convincing example of British punk with a Jamaican influence, but other examples are few and far between. Where, for example, is the reggae influence in the music of the Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie & the Banshees, or Subway Sect?
The argument for a connection between the two genres developed primarily due to the influence of Don Letts, a boutique owner, filmmaker, artist manager, musician, and DJ who spun records at the short-lived (from January through April 1977) but influential Roxy in London. At the time of Letts’ residency behind the club’s turntables, punk had not attracted much record label interest, so there were few punk records to spin. At a loss to find punk to play, Letts spun reggae discs instead. As Letts himself has said, reggae and punk audiences were “like outlaws banding together”, sharing a spirit of rebellion if not much musical similarity. Interestingly enough, Letts released a compilation of reggae tracks for punks in the UK in October, just a month before Hey Punk hit stores in America. Even if the musical connection between reggae and punk isn’t as strong as Letts would have it, his Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown is bound to find an audience with punk fans curious to know what a typical night at the Roxy sounded like.
Hey Punk is a different story altogether. What’s most confusing about the album is that it features both old and new reggae and dancehall artists, and not in chronological order. It’s unclear what the goal of the collection is, since it doesn’t present an overview of the reggae that influenced British punk, or a look at the progression of reggae music. It does, however, contain some great songs, despite their dubious presentation. Lee “Scratch” Perry’s loping “Come Along” provides a solid example of the dub style he helped pioneer, which was a huge influence on the Slits, prompting them to reinterpret their material for their debut, 1979’s Cut. Gregory Isaacs, a pioneer of the soulful, romantic “Lovers Rock” style, is represented by the great “Rumors”, which also displays some of the outlaw spirit Letts talks about: “Please mister officer, let go me hand / You don’t know me and you don’t understand”. Sugar Minnott’s “Herbsman Hustling” deals directly with the stress of living outside the law: “I know it’s my neck I’m risking / But you see that’s my daily living”. “Pumpkin Belly”, a 1985 track by the late Tenor Saw, shows the transition of reggae into electronic sounds, with its fuzzed-out melody and synthesized beats.
The problem is that these songs don’t have a lot in common, coming as they do from different eras, styles, and thematic points of view. Still, there’s not a poor track in the bunch, so if you’re one of the uninitiated looking for a nice reggae sampler, you might give it a go. If you’re a punk fan looking for proof of reggae’s influence on your favorite genre, however, skip it and buy Letts’ compilation instead. It might not convince you of the “very parallel existence” between punk and reggae that the makers of Hey Punk claim, but it will at least give you a history lesson on what the English punks listened to before punk records existed.