Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Straight Out The Dub Box

I’m laughing at my reggae 7” 45 box. Not because it’s actually a converted blue rectangular plastic tool carrier that you might find at a construction site, but because I just restocked it with new riddims two weeks ago, and I’m already feeling like the selection it holds is inadequate. Such is the ferocious rate of new singles and dancehall riddims being pressed and recorded every week on that tiny rock in the Caribbean. But despite my exasperation to keep up with this week’s hot track, 2004 saw its share of tunes that took four or more months to gain popularity, and really ‘bus di dance. Of the latter, it’s Stephen “Gibbo” Gibson and the sadly deceased engineering great Erroll Thompson’s Hard Times version and Donovan "Vendetta" Bennett’s Drop Leaf that are still major riddims in the charts and dances of the world.

(Richie Spice)

And a watershead moment for reggae happened in 2004–it was the return of the singer. Richie Spice, I-Wayne, Bascom X, Jah Cure, Lukie D, Bushman and Da’ville all gave DJs like Capleton, Elephant Man, Assassin and Vybz Kartel a run for the riddim. DJ music has ruled dancheall since the early-90s, when Buju Banton, Bounty Killer and Beanie Man took the torch from Shabba Ranks and Ninja Man. But now, just like the US dollar against the Euro, a rebalance is taking place, with reggae traditionalists circling their wagons and putting more weight on songwriting and musicianship rather than recycling American rap copycat beats. So what’s good in the new crop of singles of the last few months? Let me run down just a few, and to make it extra hardcore for the DJ-fetishists, I’ll do so by riddim and bpm. Cho!

(Jah Cure)

Recent times have seen as many re-licks and do-overs of classic foundation and roots reggae tracks as original music. One of the better updates is the 70-bpm Tenement Yard (made famous by Jacob Miller’s hit of the same name) riddim on Heights of Heights label. Producer M. “Parrot” Johnson must have some good connections to rope in singles from the imprisoned Jah Cure, 5th Element, singer Richie Spice, Anthony B and even a track from Ele. The down side here: the bass isn’t nearly present enough in the mix–you’ll find yourself cranking it on your EQ. But its made up for with hypeness from General B, Sizzla and Norrisman.

(Gregory Isaacs)

Reviving classic Gregory Issacs hits for riddim tracks is always a safe bet (unless you have Gregory re-sing his original), and last year saw corkers on Night Nurse (a.k.a. , Germaican’s, Doctors Darling) and Soon Forward (by no fewer than two producers). On veteran producer Lloyd and Michael Campbell’s Peanut Vendor (a.k.a. Gregory's "Top Ten") riddim (73-bpm) you have a sweet arrangement of sax and a lazy eight-note bassline, plus singers like George Nooks (doing “Top Ten”), Nadine “Action” Sutherland (sounding a little thin) and London’s smoothest, Mr. Lloyd Brown (cop anything he sings on). Honorable mention at 73: Morgan Heritage’s “Hail Rastafari” (Lion Paw) and all the other great tracks on the Nine-Eleven riddim (Jah Cure, Natural Black, Warrior King, Luciano, Richie Spice and more).

There’s a slew of good tracks in the 75-76-bpm range right now (more on Reggae BPM Numerology in another post!) like Heavenless (a.k.a. Triston Palma’s "Entertainment" and Dennis Brown’s “Loves Got A Hold On Me”), but I’m gravitating to the lesser-known Life Is riddim on Long Flight Records. It’s a classic lovers one-drop composition with appropriately positive selections from Luciano, Glen Washington and Junior Kelly, (more on him in a bit). If we really wanna take reggae back to its halcyon days, we haffi “walk right een, like in a shubeen” (to quote the Frankie Paul smash)–in other words, do more late night lovers rock rub-in-the-corner-type afterhour dance nights.

(Bobby "Digital B" Dixon)

When the two seven’s clash–not the year 1977 immortalized in the song by Culture–but 77-bpm, there’s bound to be flames and fire! And sure enough, riddims come in bunches at this termpo: Mafia & Fluxie’s deep Tryin’ To Conquer Me update, plus the ballyhooed-on-this-blog “Welcome To Jamrock” by Junior Gong Marley and the international mega-smash Hard Times riddim with I-Wayne’s intense “Living In Love.” But again, let me dash it to the left with Bobby “Digital B” Dixon’s brilliant One For The Road, which showcases Capleton’s everlasting DJ prowess (and love of herb) on “Ton Load.” With Dean Frasier’s brilliant sax in the background and other live instrumentation, heavies like Anthony B, Morgan Heritage, Turbulence, Richie Spice and Ras Shiloh all touch it, but the choice cut for sure is the UK’s Chukki Star–his “Nuff A Dem” should produce multiple “forward”’s from any dancehall massive.

I could go on literally ten more pages plumbing the depths of this rundebwoy’s deep dub box–but yeow–in the interest of your corneas and (my) mental health, I’ll wrap this post up with a recent riddim that’s still got plenty of life, and should be huge with ‘80s rub-a-dub dancehall fans (think Channel One riddims). I’m speaking of First Name labels’ finely crafted 80-bpm re-lick of “Worries In The Dance”, which they call Imitation. The soulful Sugar Black, roots devotee Bushman, Buju, Junior Kelly, Spragga Benz (on the anti-violence tip) and Mad Cobra all give this riddim a boost. Water Pumpee, Cool & Deadly and Roun’ De Wirly–all dem dance moves a go come back when dem 'ere this!

(guess who)

Ill cover song of the moment? Da’Ville’s knock-off of Bryan Adams’ power-ballad “In Heavan” (81-bpm). Best riddim to skank it to? The Return (82) on Big Yard (even the Shaggy track is good). Roots revivialist? Back A Yard (82) on Maximum Sound. Selecta come again? Ain’t Nobody Else (83) on Penthouse (with Beres, Buju, Nadine and more), plus the aforementioned huge 85-bpm Drop Leaf (with Jah Cure’s “Longing For”) and a new-new-new re-do of the riddim that gave rise to the modern dancehall era, Sleng Teng (87) on Jammy$ of course (with a new Ninja Man and Sizzla). Newsflash: too new to bpm: Roots Tonic on High Score Music (with a mammoth Junior Kelly steppers track called “Rasta Should Be Deeper”), Mediatation on Stingray and a kinda forgettable Throw Me Corn on Digital B.

Capleton said “music is a mission, not a competition,” and I firmly back that statement. However, keeping up with dancehall riddims (and I touched on only roots and revival here) is more a Sisyphean task, but, on second thought, probably no different than customizing your car to the n-th degree, starting a knitting habit or trying to be a better golfer. There will always be something new to learn, and novel twists on a song for the ages. Or in this case, new riddims for years to come.

Find a tool box’s worth of 7’s at Ernie B’s Reggae Distribution, and turntablelab.com.