[7 May 2007]
Rather than projecting the illusion of generic integrity, David Rodigan, well known for his radio shows on the BBC, Kiss, and BFBS, teams up with DJ Sting International to provoke a conversation as much as tell a story about reggae’s geographic and creative mobility. Any compilation is also necessarily an interpretation of a movement, a decade, or a genre—its origins, its evolution, its significant moments, its most endearing influences. What this latest in the BBE/Rapster “Kings Of” series argues, if one can be allowed to use such a word in relation to a compilation, is that reggae’s development has been as turbulent as the social circumstances out of which it emerged.
It is in the interest of preserving such turbulence, perhaps, that the compilers arrange the tracks non-chronologically. While Rodigan’s first disc privileges the roots reggae of the ‘70s and Sting International’s second disc the reggae/dancehall of the ‘80s, tracks released in the late 1990s shift seamlessly into tracks released in the late 1970s. Far from having a jarring effect, the compilation’s eclecticism suggests that reggae’s evolution has been anything but straightforward.
The Abyssinians, a now defunct band that originally consisted of Jamaicans Bernard Collins, Donald Manning, and Lynford Manning, kick off the compilation with reggae’s unofficial anthem, “Satta Massa Gana”. The song was initially recorded under the title “Far, Far Land” in 1969 at Clement ” Sir Coxone” Dodd’s legendary Studio One in Kingston, Jamaica. A better introduction to The Kings of Reggae is unthinkable, for, in addition to situating reggae’s roots in Rastafarianism, the song unwittingly pays homage to the compilation’s title in its praise of the King of Kings. From the Abyssinians Rodigan takes listeners to Dennis Brown, the “Crown Prince of Reggae”—or so he was dubbed by Bob Marley. As with the Abyssinans’ opening track, “To the Foundation” sports reggae’s Rastafarian roots, highlighting the genre’s fundamental engagement with spiritual themes. Aswad, a band so named for its blackness, builds on Brown’s foundation with their acclaimed 1976 release “Back to Africa”. Notably, the UK-based band was the first to be signed to Island Records, a label that would eventually be held accountable for its shameless commodification of reggae. Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey” constitutes the compilation’s fourth track. Both Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley had a great influence on Spear, the former for his philosophies of self-sufficiency and the latter for his music. Naming himself after independent Kenya’s first Prime Minister, Jomo Kenyatta, Spear dedicated himself, as did Garvey, to the distribution of positive, Rastafarian messages.
Proving that reggae is not solely the purview of Kings, Rodigan includes Marcia Griffith. The choice makes sense. Not only is Griffiths hailed as the “Queen of Reggae”, but she was also one of Bob Marley’s I-Threes. Yet the choice of track points to the compilation’s unpredictability, as well as its tendency to include rare treasures alongside canonized classics. The predictable choice might have been “Feel Like Jumping” or the Nina-Simone-inspired “Young, Gifted and Black”. Instead, “Dreamland” seduces with its irresistible harmonies about the land “so far across the sea”. Richie Spice’s and Chuck Fender’s notable 2004 “Freedom” further inflect roots reggae with contemporary concerns, thereby showcasing the protest for which the genre is known. From there, Rodigan takes listeners to Osnabruck, Germany, with the Gentlemen, who, along with Barrington Levy and Daddy Rings, brings “Caan Hold Us Down” to the table. The German singjay holds his own with his fellow reggae artists, suggesting that reggae is not a genre reserved for blacks any more than it is a genre reserved for men.
Junior Murvin’s falsetto voice pleasantly intrudes with “Police and Thieves”, an international hit to which the Clash and Boy George have paid tribute. As with many of the other tracks on this first disc, the song protests slowly and firmly the actions of those who threaten the peace. Born in the parish of St. James, Jamaica, Jimmy Cliff asserts the need to fight against oppression with his “The Harder They Come”, released in 1972. In that same year, he played the lead role of Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin in the Jamaican film The Harder They Come, a film which, in keeping with the song, captures the will to transcend poverty. John Holt’s “Police in Helicopter” likewise harks back to the policing of Rastafarianism in Jamaica. “If you continue to burn up the herbs”, Holt croons, “we gonna burn down the cane fields”. Freddie McGregor’s “Big Shipz” dampens the potentially negative images of preceding tracks with a positive image of a journey across the sea. Also released in 1982, the song represents McGregor’s roots phase. Undeniably one of the greats, his career started at Studio One at the age of seven. Today he dabbles in ska, rocksteady, dancehall, and dub. (He was recently featured on Dubmatix’s 2006 Atomic Subsonic.) The Congoes follow up with a celebration of the ordinariness of reggae’s heroes in “Row Fisherman Row”. As Rodigan’s last word, it works. The Congoes close on a high note and employ a call-and-response tactic that reflects the conversational effect of the compilation as a whole.
Betraying the fact that The Kings of Reggae is compiled by two DJs, there is some overlap between Rodigan’s first disc and Sting International’s second. A producer, arranger, composer and writer as well as a DJ, Sting International is no stranger to the reggae/dancehall scene. He started out as a soundsystem, touring local dancehalls in Brooklyn before moving up to mainstream clubs such as Manhattan’s The Underground and radio shows on Kiss FM. Like his co-compiler Rodigan, he is dedicated to the global broadcast of reggae in all its forms. Therefore it should come as no surprise that John Holt reappears on Disc Two with his 1970 “Love I Can Feel”. This lovers’ rock piece jives well with another of Rodigan’s choice artists, Dennis Brown, whose “Caress Me Girl” and “Here I Come” share equally in the R&B rhythms of reggae’s romantic side.
Sting International makes good on Griffith’s promise of a Utopia where all can have fun. Exchanging the serious strains of Disc One for tracks that explore other aspects of black experience, the second disc provides some relief. Yellowman’s “Over Me” is a prime example. Released in 1982, the song represents the Jamaican artist’s successful attempt to turn his greatest weakness into his greatest strength. Afflicted with albinism, the aptly named Yellowman countered stigma with a finely tuned penchant for raunchy performances. His raw sexuality, punctuated by cocky kissing sounds in the chosen track, provoked fellow nationals to label him a sex symbol. Yellowman eventually became the most marketable reggae star, both in Jamaica and internationally.
Of course, Yellowman’s career could not have thrived without the likes of dancehall pioneer Josey Wales, whose “Mi Have Fi Get You” counters the arrogant nonchalance of “Over Me” with a lively DJ chat. The dancehall sounds of Ranking Dread, Little John, Coco Tea, Tenor Saw, Toyan, Sammy Dread, and Lone Ranger also contribute to the compilation’s brighter side. Notably, Sammy Dread was one of Britain’s first dancehall artists. “Rude Boy” speaks to the potentially volatile nature of his circumstances and gestures toward reggae’s roots in Jamaica. This is where the compilation largely succeeds: it effectively creates a dialogue between seemingly incongruous tracks. The inclusion of Josey Wales and dancehall DJ Lone Ranger not only makes for a dialectical mix, but it also reminds listeners of reggae’s engagement with the culture of the United States. Wales takes his name from Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw, and Lone Ranger from the American TV show of the same name.
The influences here are diverse and insinuate that reggae is a collaborative effort. No reggae compilation can be entirely comprehensive or satisfactory, given the genre’s diversity. These reggae/dancehall specialists have nevertheless concocted, to borrow the words of Yellowman, some “ketchup” definitely worth consuming. Recommended for the amateur and seasoned connoisseur alike.