[16 October 2008]
The Mighty Two are gone. Earlier this year when Joel Gibson, better known as legendary producer Joe Gibbs, succumbed to a fatal heart attack, reggae music lost one of its most prolific and dedicated enthusiasts. His death came right as VP Records began its arduous process of archiving the contents of the Gibbs vaults, excavating material which had long been dormant since a 1982 lawsuit nearly ruined him.
His long-time partner Errol Thompson, the other half to the superhero-like Mighty Two, passed away in 2004. Together, the duo produced and engineered a smattering of hits from the likes of Dennis Brown, the Heptones, Pete Tosh, Junior Byles, the Mighty Diamonds, Big Youth, Culture, and Black Uhuru. Gibbs himself died with more than one hundred Jamaican number one hits to his name. Yet the music community, which usually explodes with hyperbolic discourse at a revered figure’s passing, has been relatively mum about Gibbs and the Mighty Two’s influence.
Perhaps this is because, as the liner notes of VP’s latest collection Scorchers from the Mighty Two points out, Gibbs was always more of a businessman than a producer or experimentalist. He was more Berry Gordy than Lee “Scratch” Perry (his one-time collaborator who penned the scathing “People Funny Boy” about Gibbs, parodying one of his biggest hits, the Pioneers’ “Long Shot Kick the Bucket”). Though Gibbs was never interested in expanding reggae’s palette like Perry or his dub pioneer peer King Tubby, he also didn’t have any desire to consolidate his records into a signature sound like Gordy did with Motown, either. In fact, Gibbs changed his tune frequently. But when he did, he followed trends rather than starting them, opening dozens of imprints off of the larger Joe Gibbs empire to cover the vast territory he sought to colonize.
Gibbs’s bottom line was always making hits. And he was damn good at it, whatever the style of the time was, be it rocksteady, roots reggae, lovers rock, dancehall, or dub (his earliest record label was perhaps appropriately named Amalgamated Records). Scorchers from the Mighty Two integrates both hits and obscurities from each of those genres and sits them side by side, but it remains clear that even the songs that didn’t chart (Junior Murvin’s “Cool Out Son”, Slyford Walker’s “Jah Golden Pen”) are still worthy of the title “scorcher”. With a rotating house band (The Professionals, Gibb’s version of the Funk Brothers or the MG’s) and several in-house producers at his disposal (of whom only Thompson ever got credit), Gibbs ran a solid book of business and made some extraordinary music along the way. His meteoric rise saw him turn a tiny radio repair shop with a small local record selection into a global empire spanning Jamaica, the U.S., and the U.K., where he recruited the hottest talents to his doorstep using little more than the quality of his catalogue as a persuasive stratagem.
Gibbs was also terrific at ripping people off. And though it may be hard to believe, I mean that as a compliment. American and British music subcultures tend to get caught up on intransigent intangibles like “authenticity” (“their sound is so raw and real”) or dexterity (“and they play their own instruments”) to try to distance their intimate appreciation of music as a sound art from its applications as a commercial medium (even though very few acts are actually innovative or singular in the grander layout). These hypotheticals were rarely issues in Jamaica, an impoverished nation of little over two million (slightly less than the population of Chicago), where soundboy/MC culture developed out of frugality and necessity rather than utility. Much like in early hip-hop, those who couldn’t afford instruments in Jamaica sang or talked over records. Mimicry soon became the sincerest form of flattery, and the approach trickled up to the era’s richest stars.
Having the population of a large city, Jamaican musical culture was incestuous. Everybody knew each other, covered one another’s tunes, used the same backing band or producer, sampled each other’s good rhythm tracks, and filched ideas from the American and British imports. Reggae culture in Gibbs’s time was like a big dysfunctional family, a community that had its quarrels and rivalries to be sure, but too small and like-minded to facilitate a corporate litigation state. To illustrate how tight the reggae community was, when Gibbs recruited Thompson to be his right-hand man, the two were actually working across the road from one another in rival recording facilities.
When listening to a compilation like Scorchers from the Mighty Two, ownership of a certain piece of music seems like a quaint and inconsequential idea. There’s a communal spirit that reigns, be it in Marcia Aitken’s sweet soulful take on Alton Ellis’s classic “I’m Still in Love With You” or George Nook’s subtly synth-laden version of Little Roy’s “Tribal War”, both fantastic renditions. Or Dennis Brown’s revisitation of his own lonely anthem and anticapitalist prosody “Money in My Pocket” (which made the UK Top 20 on its second go-round), itself the lyrical kin to “Can’t Buy Me Love”. Or “I’m a Natty” by Jacob Miller, a prequel of sorts to “I’m a Rastaman” by Miller’s later group Inner Circle, the former track having the distinguished honor of culling Perry back to Gibbs’s studios for a characteristically oddball, if somewhat dated, electronic sensorama after a bitter seven-year absence.
The liner notes for the album are full of a web of connections that would, in many American musical subcultures, read like a litany of fraud, but here sounds like a community of engagement. And when it comes down to it, these aren’t American Idol karaoke renditions. Each track adds to its own genealogy significantly by its vocal, instrumental, and aesthetic variations, like early rock ‘n’ roll’s many covers.
It’s a shame, then, that the track that gave Gibbs the most grief, J.C. Lodge’s unlicensed cover of country artist Charley Pride’s “Someone Loves You Honey” (which is the final track on the two-disc compilation), is one of the most tepid tracks to appear on Scorchers. The early ‘80s Mighty Two productions are afflicted by a malaise that struck all reggae at the time. Extra money meant better recording equipment and crisper sound, lending to an aesthetic shift from room tone and reverb to airless studio precision better suited to white tie vocal pop standards than sun-soaked street music. The title of this compilation indicates one of older reggae’s best qualities, namely that the recordings are made so economically that the mix itself sounds burnt or scorched. You can feel the Jamaican sun in them. The space between the offbeat on those wonderful tracks seems to be more pronounced only because it was too damn hot to let the notes sit for a whole or half note. Once the productions started becoming air conditioned, it became hard to tell the Jamaican originators apart from their American exploiters (UB40, the English Beat, etc.). Scorchers keeps this weakerlate material to a minimum thankfully, opting instead to offer up quirky eighties club classics like the brilliant minor-key ska “Uptown Top Ranking” by Althea & Donna (two of the earliest female MCs).
Scorchers from the Mighty Two is an optimum place to start exploring the back catalogue of a pair of vital, often underappreciated figures in music. With barely a mis-struck note to be found, Gibbs’s ear remains a sacred organ in musical history, even if it often only engaged in distribution rather than creation (his “production” credits often consisted of little more than financing albums) or variations on proven formulas (like the covers, version, and ripoffs). The proof is in the pudding, the mellifluous crooners, the rubbery basslines, the afflicting riddims, and Thompson’s mixology.