The first collection to feature Studio One's house band will please collectors, but may baffle neophytes.
Like any good hit factory, Studio One had a house band. The record label, which some have called the "Motown of Jamaica", came into its heyday with the emergence of reggae. During the late '60s, the Studio released thousands of 45rpm singles, a corpus many consider the core of the reggae canon. And on the majority of those records, a handful of studio musicians, collectively known as the Sound Dimension, recorded the backing track.
Like Booker T and the M.G.s, the Stax Records house band, the Sound Dimension released a number of singles under their own name. Jamaica Soul Shake, Vol. 1 is the first collection dedicated solely to the music of the band, who never released a proper album. (Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, Studio One's founder, maintained strict control over reissue rights for his label's catalog until his death. Only two labels, Soul Jazz -- who released this collection -- and Heartbeat, have been given permission to reissue Studio One recordings.) Unfortunately, the record is more of a curio for collectors than it is a satisfying introduction to the Sound Dimension.
In Jamaican music, a measure of an artist's influence is easy to come by. In a process known as "versioning", Jamaican artists re-use entire songs, recording new vocals over existing backing tracks ("riddims"). Count the number of times a tune has been "versioned", and you'll have a rough idea of its influence. By that measure, the Sound Dimension is among Jamaica's greatest bands. Dozens of Sound Dimension tunes have lived on as riddims decades after they were recorded.
Take, for example, the song "Real Rock". Your favorite reggae song might be "Real Rock" in one guise or another; it's one of the two most frequently versioned tunes in Jamaican history ("Stalag 17" by Technique All Stars being the other). Even those with a passing familiarity with reggae have heard "Real Rock": it's the riddim for Willie Williams's hit "Armagideon Time", which has appeared on the soundtrack to the movie Ghost Dog and the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and was covered, with typical overwrought reverence, by the Clash.
"Real Rock" has endured because it is so supple. It was co-written, like most of the Sound Dimension's tracks, by Coxsone Dodd and keyboardist Jackie Mittoo, who, as a former Skatalite and member of the rocksteady outfit the Soul Vendors, had participated in each of the major shifts in Jamaican musical style. "Real Rock" works because Mittoo virtually wrote himself out of the song. Relying on the rhythm instruments, guitar, drums, and, most importantly, bass, to carry the tune, Mittoo's keyboard joins the end of each measure, drifting from the ether, to provide a melodic counterpoint and a rhythmic emphasis. The keyboard only sounds half there; dubbed casually as if it came from a different tune. "Real Rock" is mesmerizing as a result and, due only in part to its ubiquity, sounds like the archetypical reggae riddim.
"Real Rock" does not appear on Jamaica Soul Shake, Vol. 1, and this omission should give you an indication of whom the record is for. Soul Jazz assembled the tracks with the myopia of an expert. You are already supposed to know who the Sound Dimension are. You are supposed to know their big tunes by heart.
To be sure, there is some classic material here. "Full Up", a jaunty rhythm complete with breakbeats and a meandering Mittoo melody, has been versioned numerous times, most memorably as Freddie McGregor's anthem "Africa Here I Come". Dennis Brown versioned "Upsetter's Dream", and gave it a new life as the "Love Me Forever" riddim. But these tunes are overshadowed by the context: they are scattered among the band's marginalia, Jamaica-only singles, tunes that never hit. The result is paradoxical. While the material collected here is great, its obscurity leaves the misleading impression that this is an album of journeyman tunes, apprentice work.
The Sound Dimension had a shifting roster of performers, and Jamaica Soul Shake, Vol. 1 gives the band's most talented members the opportunity to impress. Band members such as saxophonist Cedric "Im" Brooks and drummer Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace (whom film fans know as the rakish hustler in Rockers), didn't even perform on "Real Rock", but their contributions are all over this recording. Brooks's saxophone serves more than once as surrogate vocals, most movingly on the tracks "Rathid" and "Bitter Blood". Wallace provides breakbeats on "Federated Backdrop" that you could slide right into a James Brown tune.
But, it's the oddball tracks such as "Baby Face", which marries a strident burru backbeat to a whistling, Motown organ line; "Holy Moses", with its whimsical sound effects; or "Doctor Sappa Too" and its frenzied toasting that make Jamaica Soul Shake, Vol. 1 worthwhile. These tunes convey a groping, experimental sense that would not be possible a few years later, in the 1970s, after reggae drew its aesthetic boundaries and Kingston descended into politically motivated gang violence.