Music

Junior Delgado: Sons of Slaves

Trojan marks the 2005 passing of a reggae great with a crass, ill-conceived bait-and-switch.

Shame on you, Trojan Records. We expected better. Since your recent purchase by the Sanctuary Records Group, you’ve been spruced up, cleaned up, and generally rehabilitated to the point of threatening to become the best reggae re-issue label around. So why this shameless bait-and-switch?

Yes, Junior Delgado died last year, and he was one of the more overlooked roots singers from the 1970s. He definitely made a mark as a singer, writer, and producer, and also for his outspoken political / social commentary. And he persevered as the music around him changed, even collaborating with progressives like Adrian Sherwood and taking part in a well-received remix project.

He’s as deserving as anyone of a memorial compilation. But not like this.

We do appreciate, however, your including clean remasters of some of Delgado’s best early work. We didn’t even know that before going solo he was a member of a group called Time Unlimited. Thanks for including their “Africa We Are Going Home” and “Run Bald Head”, two politically-charged, hard-hitting songs that, from Delgado’s opening scream, showcase solid, infectious roots rhythms and Delgado’s unmistakable, half-spoken rasp of a voice.

Thanks also for including several samples of Delgado’s early work with his mentor, Lee Perry. It’s been said that Delgado did his best work with Perry, and we can hear why. The reading of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) is absolutely haunting, with Delgado’s multi-layered delivery, warbling box organ, and that rusty Upsetters rhythm. And of course there’s the title track. Who else besides maybe Peter Tosh would have had the guts to ask, “Are we not the sons of slaves?”, and then have a chorus enthusiastically reply, “Yes we are”?

We just love that the snarling attitude and nihilism of “Me Nuh Matta” foreshadows the punk rock movement. And we appreciate getting to hear what a competent producer Delgado became. Surely you noticed that the1979 track “Devil’s Throne” is of the same quality and charge as the Perry and Rupie Edwards-produced tracks. When you subtitled the album Rebel Anthems from a Roots Legend, you must have had lyrics like “The righteous one is coming / To conquer the Devil’s throne” in mind.

Early mentoring by Lee Perry…roots reggae…a political bent…1970s…Delgado’s story sounds awfully similar to that of Bob Marley and the Wailers in those respects. So why did Marley go on to become a household name while Delgado sought refuge in England?

Well, Trojan, we don’t get a chance to answer – thanks to your shameless bait-and-switch. Maybe you thought we wouldn’t notice, or hoped we wouldn’t care. As if the Linndrums, electronic handclaps, and smooth rhythms didn’t tip us off. We had to look pretty hard at the liner notes to see that fully half of this collection is made up of tracks from 1988! What the hell? Must we run down all the archival (not to mention ethical) sins you’ve committed here?

First, you’ve skipped nearly a decade in Delgado’s artistic development. Or, as these tracks suggest, decline into slick, radio-friendly reggae. Second, you’ve sold out the album’s title. How is a song like “Born to be Wild,” with lyrics like “Don’t go, baby / Because I love you so” a “Rebel Anthem”?!? And there’s a handful more like it. Did you think that as long as you ended the album with a song called “What’s the Matter With the People” that we wouldn’t take note of the middling schlock inbetween? And that’s another thing: You’re purporting to celebrate Delgado’s legacy, but you’ve done so by highlighting some of his least memorable material.

Most of this 1988 stuff was previously unreleased, you say. Well, there was a reason for that. And save it for the box set, already. Don’t shove it off under the guise of a concise retrospective.

You think you’re so coy, Trojan, dressing Sons of Slaves up in classy packaging, papering the inserts with vintage photographs -- even making a case in the liner notes that Delgado never succumbed to the stereotypical later-career struggle for artistic vitality, when the music clearly reveals otherwise.

Who do you think you’re fooling?

Trojan Records, shame on ye.

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