[20 September 2007]
When you’re talking reggae - not ska, not dub, not dancehall, definitely not reggaeton, but pure roots rock reggae music, it usually boils down to two formats.
You have your happy island reggae, the kind that’s played at corporate parties, at all-inclusive resorts on the coast of Jamaica, Carnival cruises and Jimmy Buffett concerts before the Coral Reefer Band comes out, personified by that one scene in Ghost World where those two white hats pass by Enid and Becky in that eatery and one says to the other, “You wanna go check out some reg-gay?” Morgan Heritage, post-Earth Crisis Steel Pulse and late-period Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh are the primary touchstones of this particular strain.
Then you have your dirt floor “rockers” reggae, with its rugged, organic yet soulful feel rooted in the echo-based parameters of dub, exemplified on such classic albums as Peter Tosh’s Legalize It, Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey, the Rockers soundtrack, Toots and the Maytals’ Funky Kingston and Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves just to name a very select few. However, one cannot even breathe a mention of roots-era reggae without speaking of the music of Joseph Hill and his harmony group Culture, one of the most crucial groups to come out of Jamaica in the 1970s. Sure, they were a bit lighter and brighter than their Trenchtown brethren. As a matter of fact, in the last twenty-odd years, Culture has pretty much been one of the worst perpetrators of that corny, cruise ship vibrations, particularly in the ‘80s with dreadful (pardon the pun) albums like Lion Rock (1981) and Culture in Culture (1986). This, in turn, draws all the more light on their early works, the most notable being, of course, 1977’s Two Sevens Clash, celebrated this year by Shanachie Records with this gorgeous deluxe edition in celebration of its 30th anniversary. Or rather, the anniversary of the title’s reference, which alluded to 1977 (particularly the date 7/7/77), long believed by the Rastafarian culture to be the year of the apocalypse and kept Jamaicans the world over in a state of fear and preparation all throughout the mid-‘70s.
Two Sevens Clash’s uplifting title cut, which in fact celebrated the aspects of the apocalyptic date, reminded Rastas that the apocalypse was to be a reason to rejoice in the liberation of Earth’s misery and finally being welcomed into the eternal light by their beloved Jah. Just one the many reasons why this deeply moving and spiritual record received the praise it did. Hill’s lyrics were as potent to the Rastafarian faith as the Louvin Brothers or Johnny Cash’s were to Christianity in the States. He wrote songs that stayed true to the prophecies of the Hallie Selasie and Marcus Garvey, duly exemplified on such uplifting hymns as “Black Starliner Must Come”, referring to Garvey’s fabled Black Star steamship, which would have provided a black-owned direct route to the Motherland for African people living in the Americas, and “Pirate Days”, which offers a history lesson on the Arawak Indians, the original owners of Jamaica before the British invaded and occupied the island.
Sure, the songs on here may not have been as hard hitting as they were on Black Uhuru’s Red or Big Youth’s Screaming Target. But under the careful hand of reggae super-producer Joe Gibbs, who employed reggae session masters The Revolutionaries to lay down the tracks for the album, the music of Two Sevens Clash ensured Culture kept both feet in the dirt as their hands reach up to the heavens. As far as Robert Christgau’s claim that this is the greatest reggae album of all time, there’s certainly a legion of longtime fans of Bob Marley’s Burnin’ and/or Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come who may rebuke such a lofty claim from a cagey old codger like our distinguished, self-appointed “dean of music journalism”.
Nevertheless, Two Sevens Clash is truly a moving and powerful testament to the Jamaican culture highly worthy of this most essential reissue, which expands the original album to include rare 12” dub remixes of such key tracks as “Seen Dem a Come” and “I’m Not Ashamed”, especially following the tragic, sudden death of Joseph Hill from liver failure last August in Germany after collapsing onstage while in performance. Let’s hope that the powerful messages of peace, love, and faith he so poetically postulated through his music continue to cut through the thick skins of ignorance and imperialism in time for the next clashing of the sevens.