Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Top Ten Reggae Albums 2015

The year in reggae 2015 was a fertile one, with modern roots reggae and crucial vintage reissues keeping pace with previous years, as some exciting new breakthrough artists added vibrancy to an already resplendent body of music.

Familiar labels, including VP, Pressure Sounds and Easy Star released some of the year’s best offerings indies like Jah Youth Productions, Nowtime Sound, Hot Milk and others did a fine job at releasing strong titles.

I was happy to see many of my favorites align with veteran industry player Rob Kenner at Billboard’s Reggae Top Ten for 2015. Generally, my tastes are closer to the independent titles covered into Reggaeville and United Reggae. The former publication is polling its readers on your favorite releases of the past year (voting ends January 10). In coming days I'll be adding comments and background information about some of these releases. For now,  scan your favorite music services for clips and enjoy this cool and deadly selection.

1. Jah Cure – The Cure (VP)
2. Mr. Vegas – Lovers Rock & Soul (MV Music)
3. Exco Levi – Country Man (Penthouse)
4. Morgan Heritage – Strictly Roots (CTBC Music Group / EMPIRE)
5. Michah Shemiah – Original Dread (Descendant Music)
6. Protoje – Ancient Future ( March, In.Digg.Nation Collective / Overstand)
7. New Kingston – Kingston City (Easy Star)
8. Mark Wonder – Scrolls of the Levite ( Nowtime Sound)
9. Alborosie – Dub of Thrones (Greensleeves/ VP Records)
10. Million Stylez –  Revelation Time (Adonai Music)

1. Keida – Ebb and Flow (Great Whyte Entertainment)
2. RC – Boss Man EP (K and R Production)
3. Gentleman’s Dub Club – The Big Smoke (Easy Star/ Ranking Records)
4. Mellow Mood – 2 the World (La Tempesta Dischi)
5. Anthony Que – Terrence Matthie (Black and Yellow Entertainment)

Music Works' Gussie Clark

1. Jimmy Riley – Live To Know It (Pressure Sounds)
2. Various Artists – Reggae Anthology: Gussie Clarke - From The Foundation (VP Records)
3. Mr. Spaulding – Twelve Tribe of Israel: Anthology (Hot Milk Records)
4. Black Symbol – Black Symbol (Bristol Archive)
5. Byron Lee & The Dragonaires – Uptown Top Ranking (VP)
6. Various Artists – Sherwood At The Controls: Volume 1 1979 - 1984 (On-U Sound)
7. Various Artists – Bunny 'Striker' Lee & Friends: Next Cut! Dub Plates, Rare Sides & Unreleased Cuts 
8. Various Artists – Reggae Anthology: King Jammy's Roots, Reality and Sleng Teng
9. Bob Marley & The Wailers – Easy Skanking in Boston '78 (The Island Def Jam Music Group)
10. Lynn Taitt & The Jetts and Beverlys All Stars – Hot & Rich Rocksteady (tie) / Hopeton Lewis – Take It Easy With The Rock Steady Beat (Dub Store)

1. Jah Sun & House of Riddim – New Paradigm (House of Riddim)
2. Rampalion – Inside The Kete Heart (Drug Recordings / VPAL Music)
3. Hot Rain – It Crazy But It Life (We Dem People)
4. E.N Young - Live Love Stay Up (Roots Musician Records)
5. Humble Servant Band – Greatest Gift ( One Way Records & Jah Youth Productions)
6. Earth Beat Movement – Right Road (Earth Beat Movement)
7. Mixed Culture – Movement In Roots (New World Sounds & Jah Youth Productions)
8. Blend Mishkin & Roots Evolution – Survival of the Fittest (Nice Up!)
9. Dubbest – Light Flashes (Dubbest)
10.  Lion D – Heartical Soul ( Bizzarri Records Srl)

Monday, August 31, 2015

"Well Done" – Kabaka Pyramid's New Video Produced by Jr. Gong

Watch the new video by rising singjay Kabaka Pyramid for "Well Done," produced by Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley. The tune is on Ghetto Youth International's On The Corner riddim.

In the song, Kabaka calls out careless, corrupt politicians and leaders who've ruined the world for personal gain.

While the track has a serious message the rhythm track is bubbling and danceable, a potent combination from an artist who is setting a high bar for conscious, thoughtful reggae. Check the video below.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Portland In Dub: Sound System Seekers

Gulls Rhythm Force
Here's an excerpt from my Bandcamp profile of Portland, Oregon's Boomarm Nation label, which delves into the City of Roses' thriving indie dub and electronic bass movement. Read the full piece over on Bandcamp.

The stereotype is that on a visit to Portland, Oregon, you can expect to drink robust coffee, experience drizzly weather, and see a city teaming with single-gear bikes. But you can add another, perhaps unexpected, distinction to the City of Roses: dub capital of the United States. That’s right, the sound of Portland ripples with echo, and hefty bass loops emanate from studios, music venues, and living rooms all over town.

How did a musical style that originated in Jamaica gain a zealous following in the Pacific Northwest? Like London, Paris, and a few other locales, Portland has gradually developed a tight-knit community of dub and sound system culture-influenced labels, producers, and club nights. Portland natives have also embraced Jamaica’s DIY approach to studios, distribution, and dubplates. Visit PDXInDub, curated by Portland DJ Craig “Monkeytek” Morton, to find a cadre of imprints, podcasters, graphic designers, mastering engineers, and craftspeople, all making the dub heartbeat pump.

It’s also fitting that the city, which has a thriving, grassroots, indie/punk scene (think house shows, alternative venues, collaborative artist projects), would adopt an avant-garde approach to the genre. Theirs is dub music on the razor’s edge: a confluence of styles affected as much by Adrian Sherwood’s post-punk-influenced On-U Sounds or London dubstep crew Digital Mystikz, as it is by African music and the legendary Jamaican producer King Tubby. These sounds, along with drum & bass, UK steppers dub, garage house and other hybrid bass-driven musics, are unified under the international umbrella of “sound system culture,” a movement that galvanizes Portland’s disparate dub practitioners. Along with eclectic global influences, PDX producers embrace old and new technology, and formats, too—releasing tracks digitally, as well as on 7″ vinyl and cassette.

This expansive environment proved the ideal space for multi-instrumentalist/producer and Portland native Jesse Munro Johnson (a.k.a. Gulls) to launch the Boomarm Nationlabel in 2010. Founded as a blog two years prior, Johnson drew inspiration from similar sites devoted to exotic, worldly sounds like Awesome Tapes From Africa and Glowing Raw, along with emerging labels trading in global dance beats, such as Bersa Discos,ZZK, and Dutty Artz. Johnson juggles running the label with raising two sons, working his day job as freelance mixing engineer, performing live, and working for a friend’s food truck.

“I started the label as a means to release some of my own music in a series of 12″ records,” says Johnson. “Our first official release in 2010 was Gulls’ Mean Sound 12″, and as a label we very quickly grew into a more collaborative international affair.” Back in 2011, Boomarm collaborated with Portland’s Sahel Sounds and brought together a crew of producers to remix the Music For Saharan Cellphones compilation. Some of those producers, like Turkey-based El Mahdy Jr. and iSKELETOR, would later release solo projects on the label.

Continuing their international outlook, Boomarm Nation’s latest release,Her.Imperial.Majesty, is by mysterious Filipino collective Seekersinternational (SKRS), and exemplifies Johnson’s knack for finding subversive talent from anywhere in the world. Her.Imperial.Majesty is chock-full of arresting sound-clash samples, tape snippets, and skittering electronic beats—anchored by errant bass programming that somehow keeps the whole swerving concoction on the rails. Even the album’s title is subversive, taking a reverential reference to Ethiopian king and Rastafarian patriarch Haile Selassie and transforming it into what Johnson calls “a respectful nod to the power of the feminine energy and its root within us all.” Continue reading on Bandcamp

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Kabaka Pyramid & Iba Mahr Tour the US

Jamaica's Kabaka Pyramid and Iba Mahr embark on the "Young Lions" tour, taking their conscious revolutionary messages across the US from June 11 to July 13 2015. Backed by Kabaka's band "The Bebble Rockers," each artist heartically represents the roots revival movement with conscious lyrics and crucial music that echoes foundation reggae artists like Burning Spear, Don Carlos or Black Uhuru.

Hear a clip from Kabaka's latest single "Well Done" below, and check Iba's great "Haile" and "Great Is HIM" tracks out now.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Noisy Goes 2Tone

Are you ready to skank again? Do you remember The Specials, The (English) Beat, The Selector or Madness? No? Don't worry, VICE Magazine music affiliate Noisy has rolled out their latest historical music documentary: Under The Influence: 2 Tone Ska.

The presentation covers British 2Tone ska music's broad impact on the wider world, from skinheads in China and stadium-bands in Mexico to America's "Thirds Wave" ska bands and today's practitioners. Rancid's Tim Armstrong narrates the proceedings, an apt choice given his front-row seat in 2Tone's evolution as a member of influential Berkeley ska-punk band Operation Ivy.

Punk vet Don Letts, The Beat's Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger and other seminal figures reflect on the music that would bring the races together via 2Tone's emphatic, political upbeat rhythm.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Big Sound: From Dublin to Brooklyn to JA

How do you make a big, big sound in reggae music?

Simple: take an Irish production crew, a legendary Brooklyn MC and a Jamaican dancehall veteran and you get the new single from Dublin's Dirty Dubsters crew.

"Big Sound," out now on Irish Moss Records, sees the Fu-Shickens' Chip Fu paired with Shaggy-collaborator Screechy Dan on a EP with remixes from eclectic beat genius DJ Vadim and jungle heavy Marcus Visionary.

The original mix rides a fat 90s-style dancehall hip-hop lick of Studio One's crucial "Far East" riddim; the Vadim mix is a steady bubbling downtempo track and Visionary's mix is punchy, peak-time drum & bass. The whole set is a DJ and dancer's delight–a positive party rocker. Have a listen below, crack a Guinness and say "cheers" to this cool collabo.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

5 Essential New Reggae Tracks

5 New Must-Hear Reggae Tracks. Bubbling under but worth repeat listens!

Ginjah "Africa Calling" Ginjah is probably the best vocalist taking inspiration from (and sounding more than a touch like) the late Garnett Silk. Others, including Singer Jah and I-Wayne, have their own takes and distinctions, but Ginjah embodies Silk's gentle vocal presence and soaring consciousness. Taken from the sunny riddim collection  Planet Reggae Rock Vol 1: Holiday Riddim "Africa Calling" features an inspired ode to the Motherland's glories over production that recalls Phillip "Fat Eyes" Burrell or Shane "Juke Boxx" Brown's best riddims. The vibe is joyful, and will definitely have you singing the chorus: "Calling, calling, I can hear Mama Africa calling for me..."

Mel Dubé "Extra Side" (video) This heartfelt lovers rock cut on JohnJohn's remake of the Water Pumping riddim shows this Canadian singer's sassy R&B-influenced approach. You can hear everything from Mary J Blige to Tessanne Chin in her delivery: its both earthy and powerful. And you can't go wrong singing over a classic Channel One-era rhythm; "Water Pumping" – memorably sung by Johnny Osbourne – was the pinnacle of rub-a-dub dancehall reggae and works its magic again via Dubé's confident track.

Protoje "Answer To Your Name" (Listen) Taken from Protoje's new album Ancient Future, this absolutely brilliant ska number is a fond nod to the great pre-reggae beat that Jamaica exported around the world. The song describes via clever wordplay a relationship set in early-70s Brixton, England, and the Prince Buster sample in the chorus seals the mood perfectly. Watch him perform it live on BBC 1Xtra!

Exco Levi "Country Man" (Watch) This is the title track from Exco's autobiographical new album. It serves a fitting introduction to the tour-de-force music that comes after. This track chronicles the differences between life in rural Jamaica, with abundant fruit trees and clean rivers to wash in, and city life in Kingston with its attendant perils. This album further chronicles Levi's country life via the songs "One Shirt," "One Room Shack" and "Suffering Man." Levi covers the Twinkle Brothers "Since I Throw The Comb Away"–a Rasta anthem long overdue for a tribute. The crisp production from Penthouse Studios' Donovan Germain couldn't be better. But really, Exco shows why he's won three consecutive Canadian Juno awards and quickly becoming roots reggae's most important breakout artist.

Through The Roots "Bear With Me" A hybrid roots reggae and EDM track, San Diego's Through The Roots show why they're one of the West Coast's most promising up and coming bands. The catchy track conveys a hopeful, positive spirit through times of adversity. And, actually, the band experienced just that recently when their tour bus caught fire and burned, destroying much of their music gear, laptops and more. But they are a band with a bright future, and keeping true to the "Cali Roots" vibe the "Bear With me" video (see below) was filmed in Santa Cruz, California, with great shots of the beach and coastline.

Video: Through The Roots "Bear With Me"

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Yabby You: Prophetic & Newly Respected

Below is an excerpt from my Yabby You Dread Prophecy review for Pitchfork. A new 3-disc box set is out now on Shanachie Records, the first US label to release Yabby You's music.

The new collection of Yabby You's great work during the 1970s and early 80s in Jamaica will hopefully shed more light on a cornerstone artist who has been vastly under-appreciated.

Dread Prophecy: The Strange and Wonderful Story of Yabby You 

Jamaican reggae artist Yabby You’s epic new three-disc box set opens with "Deliver Me From My Enemies", a song where his vocals ache with conviction as he interprets verses from the Book of Psalms. It’s the sound of an artist who had suffered and was suffering still, physically and economically, but not spiritually. This disposition endeared him to his ghetto peers even as he faced rejection from wider society. Though Sly & Robbie, the Clash and the Wailers bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett revered his music, Yabby You remained obscure to most reggae fans.

The searing work on Dread Prophecy: The Strange and Wonderful Story of Yabby You showcases an artist who deserves recognition on par with Bob Marley, Augustus Pablo or Burning Spear and hopefully elevates his legacy from its outsider status. Sadly, during his life, Yabby You (born Vivian Jackson) was doubly shunned: For being a dreadlocked youth who lived among Rastafarians at a time when they were despised by middle class Jamaicans, and also as an ardent Christian who rejected his Rasta brethren’s veneration of Haile Selassie as God.

Jackson’s story is one of a poor and sickly man who recorded with legends like the Skatalites’ Tommy McCook and iconic dub engineer King Tubby. He also produced brilliant music by Big Youth, Wayne Wade and Michael Prophet, all while marginally employed and restricted to crutches from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis.

In a way, Jackson’s physical suffering echoed his music’s serious content. Songs like "Anti-Christ", "Warn the Nation" and "Jah Vengeance" are rife with apocalyptic references from the Book of Revelations and Jamaican proverbs, chastisements and moral teachings. Similarly, his vocal harmony group the Prophets embodied their name. They sermonized against lasciviousness ("Carnal Mind") and warned of the end days ("Babylon a Fall").

Read the rest on Pitchfork.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Rare Roots & New Riddims + Eddie Goes One-Drop

New Kingston
2014 was dominated by US and Pacific Rim-based reggae-rock artists. The Green, Rebelution, SOJA and the Dirty Heads were the among the groups that outpaced strong releases from Jamaican acts like Sly & Robbie, Shaggy, Chronixx, and Duane Stephenson. Meanwhile, international artists like London's Hollie Cook and Canada's Esco Levi and Magic also made significant inroads with global reggae audiences.

2015 may see more of the same but perhaps it will be tempered by stronger output from higher profile Jamaican talents. Time will tell. In the meantime, here's a peak at notable new titles coming soon or ready for your listening enjoyment now.

Out now: Dub Syndicate's Hard Food, from the UK/Jamaica outfit founded by On-U Sound producer Adrian Sherwood and the tragically murdered Style Scott, former drummer with the Roots Radics band. The album features heavy cameos from Bunny Wailer, U-Roy and Lee Scratch Perry. Reggaeville has a heartfelt review, aptly placing the release into the important context it deserves. For more on Style Scott's legacy, view The Guardian's respectful obit.

Also out nowMarlon Asher Illusions, the latest album from the popular Trinidadian singer, famous for his hit "Ganja Farmer." British lovers rock singer Lady Lex has teamed up with rocksteady-influenced producer Peckings for Is This Love, a genuine set of songs built from original Treasure Isle and other rocksteady riddims. Canada's excellent dub-electronica producer Dubmatix is offering a free download from his latest release Mysterium Dub. And if a quality one-drop riddim juggling is your thing, grab the new Reggae Island Riddim that features Serani, Khago, Bugle, Nature and Dexta Daps among others.

Singles-wise, there's some strong offerings out now, including Sevana Siren's sweet lovers rock track "A Bit Too Shy," produced by Winta James & Protoje for In.Digg.Nation Collective/Overstand Entertainment. On a similar tip is Germany's Sara Lugo featuring Protoje on "Really Like You," feel good reggae at it's best. Lugo's Hit Me With Music album is out now.

Phil Watkis has a sincere one-drop track in "Falling For You." His voice recalls smooth '90s/00s romantic crooners like Beres Hammond, Lloyd Brown, Sanchez or Tony Curtis. For something a little bit rougher, yet still harkening back to classic digital dancehall, Serocee's "Rude Boy Selection" has it all: A Tenor Saw sample, rude low-end bass and gruff, baritone-timbre lyrics.

January 20
Northern California's Jah Sun  has linked with top-flight Austrian band and production team House of Riddim for New Paradigm. You can hear a killer album preview on Soundcloud. The album features solidly build modern roots reggae and conscious lyrics from this rising young sing-jay. 

More established but always innovative, Italian/Jamaican artist Alborosie releases Sound The System Showcase, a dubby discomix rework of his most recent album. The new version features extended mixes and dubs.

January 27
Easy Star Records had a lot of big records and success in 2014, releasing new titles from Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad and Backbeat Soundsystem. Now the label has signed Brooklyn's New Kingston and will release Kingston City. This brother-led group bring an innovative new school approach to live roots reggae – a little like Morgan Heritage or Steel Pulse but definitely pushing their own aesthetic.

While he had a long and prolific comedy and movie career, Eddie Murphy is evolving into quite a legitimate reggae singer. "Oh Jah Jah" is his best song to date, a slow one-drop roots track that would sound right at home on a Midnite album. The single is out digitally January 27.

Premier UK label Pressure Sounds reissues a heavy album, Consider Yourself, by The Inturns on vinyl and digital formats. This vocal trio, produced by the great Phil Pratt, featured Viceroy's cofounder Wesley Tinglin on lead vocal. His passionate delivery was probably only bested at the time by Dennis Brown.

February 3
February 6 marks the celebration of what would have been Bob Marley's 70th birthday. The Marley Estate and Universal Music plan special releases throughout the year, commencing with Bob Marley & The Wailers Easy Skanking in Boston '78 (Tuff Gong/Universal), a previously unreleased live set with accompanying Blu-Ray DVD. The show includes classics like "The Heathen" and "War" with the Barrett brothers rhythm section and I-Threes on backing vocals. Classically Wailers, at their prime. 

African reggae has a long and fertile history with stars like Alpha Blondy and Lucky Dube garnering global acclaim. To this fold comes Ghana's Selasee Atiase & Fafa Family and their new release Time For Peace. My friend Garrett Baker summed it up nicely like this: "Ghana. A proud kingdom that’s flourished in the decades since independence. It’s the home of highlife, the musical style that spread all across Anglophone West Africa before taking a turn for the global. And highlife, sweetly blended with reggae and soul, is the root of Time for Peace, the new album by Selasee & Fafa Family."

February 17
Later in February Bay Area rocksteady soul crooner Rusty Zinn releases The Reggae Soul of Rusty Zinn. Zinn is a talented and experienced live musician and reggae fan to the core. The album should introduce his talents to many new ears. 

Turning back the clock to Jamaica's most fertile era of roots reggae, the Yabby You's retrospective Dread Prophecy is released on Shanachie. For those unfamiliar with Yabby You's legacy, he was a hugely influential singer and producer in the '70s who worked alongside King Tubby and produced great tracks by Big Youth, Trinity and Michael Prophet. Get to know this roots icon!

And speaking of rare roots music, a real gem drops on the 17th with the ultra-rare reissue Red by Bunny Lion (a alias of the DJ Puddy Roots of Killamanjaro & King Jammy$ sound systems. Produced by the great Linval Thompson (Johnny Clarke, Rod Taylor, Mystic Eyes) the album charts a crucial moment as roots reggae was transitioning to what would become rub-a-dub style dancehall. Check a preview below.

March 10
East London band The Skints mix reggae with other urban styles on their new album for Easy Star produced by Prince Fatty (Hollie Cook, Horseman etc). Infused with a punk and hip-hop attitude but solid reggae chops, the Skints unite myriad British sound system culture elements in a vibrant live presentation. Think The Clash mixed with Dizzy Rascal. Also in March Konshens' brother Delus releases a new album Public Relations.

Coming soon: A reissue of Black Symbol's absolutely killer self-titled Black Symbol on Reggae Archive Records, a division of the ever-active Bristol Archive label. Like fellow Brits Misty In Roots or Jamaica's Twinkle Brothers this band specialized in truly "dread" heavy roots reggae. The singer has just a touch of Burning Spear's inflection, while the band fills in the spaces with superb guitar, organ and percussion-driven reggae. Each track on the album features a dub version.

PS: For more news, check out Clash Magazine's latest reggae round-up featuring new releases, videos and Jamaican event reviews.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Full Up of History: Bunny "Striker" Lee

Pressure Sounds, England's foremost vintage reggae reissue label, issues their latest collection, Full Up, highlighting the career of the prolific Bunny "Striker" Lee.

These "early reggae productions" harken from a time when Jamaican music was still transitioning from genteel and soulful rocksteady sounds into faster, more insistent uptempo reggae.

The slower "one-drop" reggae beat was still a few years off, but tracks like Stranger Cole's "When I Get My Freedom" convey a roots-era conviction. In contrast, other tracks simply play on the television and movie interests of the day ("Payton Place," Death Rides A Horse.")

The Independent newspaper recently ran an excellent profile of the producer. This excerpt, chock-full of facts, give you a taste:

He created the “flying cymbal”, or “flyers”, the stripped-down crash of a high hat, first played by drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis on Johnny Clarke’s 1974 hit “None Shall Escape the Judgement”. “Flyers”, one of reggae’s most distinctive sounds, was inspired by Lee’s love of fried chicken wings. The famous one-drop snare drum stroke made famous by Bob Marley’s 1979 cry “Feel it in the one drop” was invented much earlier, claims Bunny. It exists on Bunny’s late-Sixties hit for Max Romeo, “People Get Ready”.

And some words from the the Pressure Sounds press release:
Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee ‘Mrs Pottinger used to call me “the ghost that haunts the studio”. Man would say “how come you have so many baby mothers? Where you get the time?” Because I was always in the studio.’

It is July 2006 and I am working on a recording session for Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee for the first time. Bunny has arranged for 5 different singers to come round to my tiny bedroom studio in Dalston to voice some tunes, and as he is running late we have started without him. The first singer up is struggling to nail the tune after five or six takes, when Bunny and his entourage arrive in a flurry of laughter and multiple ringtones. Immediately the level of energy and excitement in the studio is ramped up. Bunny shouts a few words of encouragement and the singer nails his performance in the next take. From then on the session moves quickly, with Striker offering gentle guidance, the occasional suggestion for lyrics, and frequent cries of support: ‘G’wan, you great!’ 

After 3 hours all the tunes and a version are recorded and mixed, and two weeks later the songs are out in the shops on seven inch vinyl. It has been an archetypal Bunny Lee session, quick and spontaneous, getting the best out of all involved. No one leaves with money in their pockets, but some have been given rhythm tracks for their own productions, and all are walking just a bit taller than when they came in.

Rewinding to February 1968, a slim and dapper young Jamaican touched down for the first time in an icy, snowbound Britain. Bunny Lee had achieved instant success at home with his first releases the year before, but did not have the funds to compete for airtime with the established Jamaican producers. He had now come to London to do business with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, and immediately saw that the rewards from the English market would be key to his success in Jamaica. By building business relationships abroad, Bunny could gain a competitive edge over his rivals that made up for his lack of finances. And so began an intricate process of international networking that continues to this day.

Errol Dunkley ‘Bunny Lee come from England with that word “reggae”. Him say the record companies in England would like the beat to be a little faster.’

Full Up is available now as a digital or vinyl release.