[7 March 2004]
Back in my college days, I attended a Black Uhuru concert in St. Louis. I was interested in reggae largely because of the influence of punk bands of the day, such as the Clash and the Members, who were incorporating reggae into their own sounds. Uhuru was working with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the rhythm section responsible for laying down tracks on some of Peter Tosh’s best-known albums, including Equal Rights, Legalize It and Bush Doctor. As I listened to and watched the group play, the rhythms began to undulate and take on a life of their own, until the interplay of rhythm and vocal harmony became like some giant breathing organism that took its lifeblood from the bass and drums Sly and Robbie were laying down. It was all like the scene in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test that describes the Merry Prankster’s trip to the Cow Palace in San Francisco to see the Beatles. It’s true that the room was awash in a cloud of ganja smoke and that I myself had been imbibing prior to the group taking the stage, but that is not where this impression of the music as a living organism came from.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that Uhuru, along with Sly and Robbie, were adding new dimensionality to the sound of reggae by incorporating some of the textures and techniques of dub music. Since dub seeks not merely to replicate the live sound of an artist playing, but instead incorporates studio trickery and effects as an integral part of the music, it is a precursor to today’s turntablists and digital remixers. Even though Black Uhuru was making conventional records aimed at breaking them through in major pop music markets (chiefly the U.S. and U.K.), the incorporation of a more fluid rhythmic base and other elements borrowed from dub gave them an unique and sophisticated sound that went well beyond what most other reggae artists of the day were doing. The proof of this is the reissue of two of the most influential Black Uhuru albums, Sinsemilla and Red, as well as The Dub Factor, a true dub rendering of some of the group’s best-known music.
Originally formed in the 1970s by Derrick “Duckie” Simpson, the band began to take off in a serious way with the addition of singer and lyricist Michael Rose around 1977. A short time later they added American singer Sandra “Puma” Jones, a social worker who had migrated to Jamaica to sing and to get in touch with her African heritage. Sinsemilla was the album that got them signed to Island Records and which helped introduce them to an international audience. Though the group’s lineup had been solidified at the time of the recording of the album, Puma was for some reason not around at the time it was recorded, and so Michael Rose overdubbed the harmony vocals. Nonetheless, the album demonstrated that Rose was a formidable songwriting force, composing all the songs, many of which became Uhuru classics and staples of their live shows. “World Is Africa”, “Push Push”, “Vampire”, and the title track all stand out as reggae songs every bit as good as anything from Bob Marley or Peter Tosh. In addition, the group was adding many outside influences to the familiar reggae sound pioneered by Marley, including bits of funk and electronic dance music. Right from the echoing electric drum accents of the opening track, “Happiness”, it seems apparent that this is not the same reggae that American and U.K. listeners had become familiar with from repeated exposure to albums like Burnin’, Kaya, and Exodus. The remastered CD, part of Island’s “Reggae Classics” series, features two bonus tracks: a remix of the title track and a remixed version of a hit the group had in an earlier incarnation, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Both are dense sound-sculptures filled with the churning drums and percussion effects and time-stretching bass work of Sly and Robbie and are welcome additions to the original album’s track list.
On their next studio outing, 1981’s Red, is perhaps the group’s finest CD. Certainly it takes the next step forward from Sinsemilla, as Rose, Simpson, Jones, Sly, Robbie, and company create a sound that is equal parts reggae, dub, and Western pop/rock. “Youth of Eglington”, a militant song, could have been at home on a Clash album with its bouncy bass line overlaid by punchy keyboard and guitar chords. Rose’s harmonizing is very much in evidence here as well, adding more dimensionality to the band’s already vibrant sound. “Sponji Reggae” continues the highly modern sound, spiced by glockenspiel and paying tribute to the beauty of reggae and the integrity of its true practitioners. Simpson contributes to the album’s excellent batch of songs as well, collaborating with Rose on “Sistren”, a song in praise of the Rastafari female and the militant “Rockstone”. His own composition, “Journey”, is a defiant and percussive song that helps the album live up to its provocative title. Rounding out the set are Roses’ songs “Utterance”, “Carbine”, a warning about the dangers of living by the gun, and “Puff She Puff” a song that is lyrically obscure but grounded in the rhythms laid down by Sly and Robbie and the guitar driven cross-static. Through all of this, Michael Rose’s lead vocals, influenced by prolific reggae singer Dennis Brown, cajole, soar, romance, jab, sputter, and provide the necessary emotional connection to bring this music home to any listener, black or white, Jamaican or American.
In 1982 the group released Chill Out, which is very much on the same level as Red and which features the standout title track as well as “Right Stuff” and “Mondays”. By this time, dub was making significant inroads into the international music scene. The Clash had released Sandanista!!!, which featured a few experiments that made use of dub techniques, and albums such as Augustus Pablo’s King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Bass Culture had made the sound highly accessible to listeners in the U.K. It would take a number of years and the work of American pioneers like Bill Laswell to make dub a known entity in the U.S. In 1983, Uhuru submitted their already dub-influenced work to Paul “Groucho” Smykle for dub treatment. The resulting album, The Dub Factor, is a seamless mix that helps recreate the living musical organism that I experienced during the band’s live show, which was either in 1982 or ‘83. There are impressive dub remixes of “Big Foot”, “Youth of Eglington”, “Right Stuff”, “Puff She Puff”, “Wicked”, and “Sodom”. There is also “Cool Off”, a reworking of “Carbine”, and two tracks from other Sly and Robbie projects: “Destination Unknown” based on “Chill Out” from Sly and Robbie: A Dub Experience and “Fire and Brimstone” based on “Journey” from Raiders of the Lost Dub. There’s little point in describing the way that these particular tracks were transformed by Smykle, it’s something you just have to hear. Nonetheless, it does emphasize the way in which dub, as interpreted by Sly and Robbie, was integral to the sound of Black Uhuru’s regular studio albums as well as to countless other artists and bands, both inside and outside of reggae music.
Island’s reissue of these classic Black Uhuru albums (as well as of Chill Out and Anthem) are welcome additions to the library of any reggae fan as well as those who have become interested in dub, world music, and various forms of electronica. To listen to these classic albums is to be amazed at the way in which Uhuru, along with Sly and Robbie, anticipated so many developments in the modern pop/rock studio, which is one reason their music still sounds fresh and challenging today.