[7 October 2010]
San Francisco, fall 2003: this reporter finds himself in nothing resembling a good way. Work and love thin on the ground, trying to construct a better existence from the perspective of a windowless, closet-sized hotel room. Music, being an essential part of my life, certainly played its part in getting me over and through. At times like these you can almost believe that the music beam from Bill Burroughs’s Nova Express does exist. Those rare occasions when you’re not simply hearing, but listening to a song, absorbing it into your core being.
In this instance, it was a song on a CD borrowed from the most important building in town, the local public library. The disc was The Mighty Two, a compilation of tracks by Jamaican production duo Joe Gibbs and Errol Thomson. The song was the Mighty Diamonds’ “Ghetto Living”: “You and me and she got to make it / We‘re tired of ghetto living…”. Maybe I was living in a two-star roach trap at the bottom of Haight Street, not Trenchtown, but the Diamonds’ sweet, Impressions-styled harmonies were psychic nourishment all the same. “Ghetto Living” was genuinely inspiring in its message of rising above one’s present circumstance, difficult though it may seem.
You don’t see Joe Gibbs’s face on many t-shirts, yet his production work, in a career spanning two decades, was as important to reggae as any pronouncements from Saint Robert Nesta, as crucial as anything by fellow board jockeys King Tubby and Lee Perry. While, admittedly, Gibbs was perhaps not the eccentric sonic visionary that Scratch or Tubby were, he did enable work that adeptly covered reggae’s stylistic and ideological bases.
Gibbs assembled a CV of records both chart-troubling and mind-expanding. On the aforementioned Mighty Two alone, one finds Gibbs classics as varied as Dennis Brown’s high-stepping “Money in My Pocket” (and its equally genius MC coda, Prince Mohammed‘s “Cool Runnings”) and the conscious, fire-and-brimstone growl of Prince Far-I’s “Under Heavy Manners”. Gibbs also knew his way around cardiac-serious dub excursions, as evidenced by the African Dub series of discs.
The 12” Reggae Discomix Showcase series compiles Gibbs productions from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. During this period Gibbs made full use of the club-friendly 12-inch format, segueing the standard vocal version of a given song into its inevitable MC/rap extrapolation, or ‘toast’. The added bass range of 12-inches was also pushed by Gibbs to its full advantage, and whether they’re about roots evangelism or sexy seduction, one can’t imagine a Kingston dance floor being empty with any of these tunes pumping.
Volume 4 may have a few too many Michael Jackson covers for one’s liking, but this is made bearable by gems like Hortense Ellis’ take on Ann Peebles’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain”. An otherwise standard lovers’ rocker like Wade Brammer’s “My Love” is enlivened by Lui Lepke’s hilarious rap “Can’t Take Mi Landlord”. Trinity, the MC whose “Three Piece Suit” spun off Althea and Donna’s enduring “Uptown Top Ranking”, puts in a few appearances of varying quality on both volumes; so do the single-entendre tag team of Kojak and Liza.
A real shock comes with Volume 5’s inclusion of one Naggo Morris’ slowburning “Su Su Pon Rasta”, which in 1976 became the sonic springboard for “Under Heavy Manners”: a huge hit whose sloganeering value was not lost on members of the Clash. (Diehard Strummer/Jones fans might also wish to check the similarities between the cover photo of their “White Riot” single and that of Gibbs’s 1976 album State of Emergency.)
Similarly surprising to fans of both reggae and ‘70s punk is “Dreader Mafia”, Snuffy and Wally’s toast of Earth & Stone’s “Ring Craft” and for all intents a song the Patti Smith Group was known to drop into early live sets (as “My Mafia”). Meanwhile, Prince Mohammed shows up on the coattails of Carl Brown’s devotional “Let the Power Fall”, while Errol Scorcher holds up the slackness end of the spectrum with “Under Me”, toasting Icho Candy’s “Captain Selassie”. The cover songs included are also a delight, with Paddy Ranks’s delirious MC-ing of Carol Gonzales’s turn on a Stephanie Mills classic; likewise for Joe Tex and U Black’s trading off on Ruddy Thomas’s version of Smokey Robinson’s “Being with You”.
At their best, the selections on this latest pair in Gibbs’s Discomix Showcase series evoke in one’s mind open to such sounds back then—someone just becoming familiar with the delight, sensuality, and all out uniquely JA groove—fond and lasting memories. Or at least encourage the dusting off of dancing shoes, all the better to bust those old Water Pumpee and Electric Slide moves.