[6 September 2005]
Dr. Israel, the Brooklyn-based dub reggae artist, celebrates an international vision of the universe. He incorporates a worldwide range of styles and concerns into his reggae creations, from the jungle music of Asia, the drums of Afro beat, and of course the Caribbean lilts of Island music. The good doctor also knows how to borrow locally (as in New York City radio programming) and think globally. He steals the bass line from Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard” and substitutes the sound of a melodica (think Augustus Pablo) for that of the heavy metal band’s bluesy harmonica on the appropriately named “The Doctor vs. the Wizard”. The Rasta man also takes on punk. He collaborates with Rancid on “Coppers (Brooklyn Version)”, which differs greatly from the edition issued on Rancid’s Life Don’t Wait album.
This recently re-issued disc is a remixed and remastered version of Dr. Israel’s 1998 most notable release Inna City Pressure. The new record contains two bonus cuts of note, a gruff testament to the Brooklyn streets, “Jungland” and the slightly psychedelic ode to bondage and redemption, “Jacob’s Ladder”, but it’s the original material that provides the strongest attraction. The album has enjoyed a great reputation but has been hard to find for several years.
The modern production on all the tracks makes the bass and drum lines deep and resonant, which allow instruments with a higher range to sparkle. Israel’s vocals are placed in the forefront for maximum effect. Musically, Israel comes off as a commanding presence. He speaks with the authority of a higher power, which he frequently invokes as “Jah”, but he sometimes sounds like a man preaching to himself because he has little of substance to say. For the most part, Israel trots out tired clichés reggae-style. The doctor proclaims a one-world philosophy. He sings, “There’s no black white yellow red/ We are all shades of brown” on the song of peace, “Time”. The Rasta notes that, “Jah/ Jesus Christus Jehovia Buddha/ And Allah” are all the same on the anxious “Pressure”. But the Rasta really espouses a dualist view of the world, one in which the Earth is divided into us and them, good and evil, the righteous and the Babylonians, etc. This can lead to silliness, with cartoonish anthems to violent revolution, like “Revolution” or simple clarions to sista and brotherhood, like “Together”. Or this can beckon a deep collective memory of slavery, such as the martial cadenced “Survivor.”
One might think that a doctor from Brooklyn named Israel who sings a tune called “Survivor” which concerns enslavement and invokes the names of Moses, King David and Solomon would be making a modern day allegory, and that would be right-but not in the way one might surmise. Israel’s 20th century illustrations of injustice deal with the fates of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X (“The FBI shot Malcolm dead,” the Rasta boldly pronounces). Garvey and Malcolm stand in the pantheon of Israel’s theology on other songs as well. Taking Israel on his own terms can be difficult. He calls for the apocalypse on one song, “Armageddon Time” and peace and tolerance on another, “Israel”. Individually the tracks may make coherent sense, but as part of a larger album the lyrically contradictions become irksome. This problem seems especially noteworthy as the disc claims to be a concept album
Instrumentally, the music does all flow together, with flow being the operative word. Israel, who remastered the album himself, knows how to layer sounds together so that each one maintains its separate identity while contributing to a larger effect. The dub mix allows instruments to reverberate and echo into a spacious production scheme. The tracks contain a lot of rumbling percussion riffs and pinging instrumentals. For example on “Iron City”, Israel uses sparse repetitive sounds that echo and fade to mimic a sense of vast distances. The slightly exotic instrumentation recalls an Arabian setting. By the time Israel starts to croon the first line about the setting sun, the music has created a mental vision of a desert landscape. The Rasta employs similar techniques to construct other cerebral images on every cut. He can build an inner city ghetto or the mountains of Zion with equal aplomb.
Dub reggae does not have a mass audience. Israel’s talents demand attention for fans of the genre. Those not already appreciative of the style could skip this recording. The Rasta man preaches to the converted. The rest do not need help from the doctor.