Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  Expert Witness
Books:
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Writings:
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Playboy
  Blender
  Rolling Stone
  Billboard
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
  Recyclables
  Newsprint
  Lists
  Miscellany
Bibliography
NPR
Web Site:
  Home
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
  Archive
Venues:
  Noisey
CG Search:
Google Search:
Twitter:

Reggae Be the Rage?

The only way to introduce reggae is with the reggae litany, reproduced here in digest form for your convenience.

American hits by Jamaican artists: Millie Small, "My Boy Lollipop"; Desmond Dekker, "Israelites"; Jimmy Cliff, "Wonderful World."

Reggae hits by American artists: Aretha Franklin, "Rock Steady" (questionable, since it was recorded in Miami with American musicians, but it's always included); Paul Simon, "Mother and Child Reunion"; Johnny Nash, "I Can See Clearly Now" and "Stir It Up."

Other American and British artists who have recorded in Jamaica: Cat Stevens, the Rolling Stones, Roberta Flack, Elton John (almost) and Uriah Heap (projected).

Plus a sample of auxiliary data. The Harder They Come, a Jamaican-made film about a reggae singer turned outlaw, played by Jimmy Cliff, has been well received here, as has its soundtrack album. The album is on a new, Capitol-distributed label called Mango, a joint venture of two English reggae enthusiasts, Denny Cordell of Shelter Records and Chris Blackwell of Island Records. Blackwell is a white Jamaican who is primarily responsible for the success of reggae in England, where it has been a major strain of popular music for four or five years. American labels are beginning to sign reggae acts. And Art Trefferson of Steady Records, a New York-based reggae label that he began five years ago, reports that the big orders are finally beginning to come in, $250,000 later.

According to reggae propagandists, the prognosis is obvious: Jamaican music is about to take the U.S. by storm. The music biz has been complaining about the new thing vacuum for years. What better to the fill the vacuum than a fresh dance beat from south of the coastline? But the music biz isn't so sure. All the major companies--Columbia, Warner Bros., Atlantic, Capitol and RCA Victor--are anticipating some sort of breakthrough. But no one is predicting a craze; if anything, the spacing of the American reggae hits, which have never come in clusters, indicates the opposite. And many agree with Bob Regehr, a top artist and repertoire man at Warner Bros.: "If they try to make a craze out of it, they'll kill it."

A genuine reggae fad does exist in Great Britain, but making an analogy would be irrelevant. There are enough West Indians in Great Britain--two or three per cent of the population--to make reggae the indigenous black music of the British Isles. The West Indians make up the substratum that supports the music, just as American blacks support soul music when it loses the white audience for a season. In any case, a fad isn't really desirable.

The reggae beat--that elusive Afro-Latin shuffle, simultaneously stiff and supple, like the nonchalant strut of the dance that goes with it--can be used and misused. Attach to any moderately attractive, appropriate and unfamiliar piece of material ("Patches" or "Montego Bay") and you have the beginnings of a British hit. The process isn't automatic, of course, but it doesn't inspire peak creativity, either.

In the U.S., however, peak creativity will be necessary. Stuart Love of Columbia Records, who imagines a new Jamaican star who can "write songs and perform them in a contemporary way with reggae rhythms," is thinking in the same superlatives as Bob Regehr, who says, "selection of material" is the critical factor. To a certain extent, the expropriation of Jamaican rhythms by white rock performers seeking variety will help break the music here. The new J. Geils Band hit is a reggae, and artists as diverse as Led Zeppelin and the Incredible String Band include reggae tracks on their most recent LPs. Gradually, the Jamaican beat is sure to sound less esoteric to both American record-buyers and to American radio programmers, who have long voiced vague complaints that it didn't fit their format. But that's all negative gain. The positive push will have to come from Jamaica.

Remarkably enough, the potential is there. The real secret of the island is not the beat, however infectious and malleable it may be. It is the concentration of hope and energy that the laid-back feel of the beat disguises. Jamaica supports the most active pop music subculture in the world. Because its music business is even more cutthroat and secretive than the music business here, hard figures tend to go soft under analysis. But Winston Ridgard, program director of one of Jamaica's two radio stations, RJR, is conservative when he estimates that about 30 Kingston-made single records and 30 imports are released every week. In the U.S., with 100 times the population and 1,000 times the gross national product, 125 singles per week is a generous guess.

All this has happened since the early '50s, when Jamaican popular music was a version of calypso called "mento" that went almost unrecorded, while the radio played American and English pap for an audience dominated by a small white minority (whites, near-whites and Asians make up less than ten per cent of the population) and a larger white-identified middle-class brown and black minority.


At night, however, Jamaican receivers picked up music from Miami, New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville, where a mail-order record store named Randy's began to get orders from Jamaica for American rhythm-and-blues artists like B. B. King, Fats Domino, Chuck Willis and the like. Their records were heard on a people's music network of jukeboxes and traveling sound systems--amplification systems that would set up wherever there were enough customers to pay for a dance.

What happened next was ska, a fast-paced shuffle music with the kind of Caribbean cross-tempo that is always called Latin but is really African. Its staccato beat is described by Rex Nettleford, leader of Jamaica's national dance troupe, as defining a perpendicular within the circle of mento. Duke Reid, a veteran sound-system man and record producer, thinks ska represented a reaction against the hard edge of rock and roll that was replacing shuffle r&b on the American stations. Byron Lee, the bandleader who owns Jamaica's biggest recording and distribution complex, Dynamic Sounds, cites Bill Doggett and Bill Black as major influences.

Ska was the music of the slum dweller and the poor peasant. The first ska records, done on a primitive one-track set-up owned by Ken Khouri, whose Federal Records is Dynamic's most powerful competitor, were disseminated over the people's network. Not until the upsurge of national pride occasioned by independence in 1962 did ska get on the radio. Soon after Edward Seaga, an early partner of Lee's who was the new government's first minister of culture, brought ska artists, including Jimmy Cliff, to the New York World's Fair. At about the same time, Chris Blackwell made a hit out of "My Boy Lollipop," whereupon Atlantic Records, hurting for new product, tried hard to make ska happen in the U.S., and failed.

It was over the next five years that Jamaican music assumed its current shape. First ska transmuted into rocksteady, which was much slower and had a more complex and sharply accentuated bass-line. Rocksteady speeded up around 1966 to become reggae, a term now applied even to music that sounds like ska or mento, although it denotes only a medium-tempo music with a characteristic light syncopation produced by a subtle--in fact, deliberately unobtrusive--interplay between drums, bass, and guitar. The high-pitched beat of the guitar, often played with almost metronomic steadiness, indentifies reggae even more surely that the heavy bass.

The reggae beat goes with any kind of music. It can be sensuous or wooden, sophisticated or jingly. There is uptown reggae--epitomized by Byron Lee, who appeals largely to middle-class Jamaicans and who is compared to Herb Alpert for more than his business acumen, and soft-sell ballad singers like Ken Lazarus and Ernie Smith. And there is downtown reggae--rougher, more political and more sexual like that done by the Wailers and Dennis Brown. There is country reggae--robust, optimistic, more rhumba-like in its rhythms--and [ . . . ?]city reggae--angular, skeptical, more blues-like. And there is Jamaican reggae, which whatever its lapses is always genuine, and British reggae, which appeals to Jamaicans who are partly integrated into English life and to English kids for whom reggae is often code word for dirty music.

Beneath its casual surface--the chief engineer and the head of Caribbean distribution at Dynamic sat around watching me interview the boss, an expenditure of man-hours that would never occur in the States--the Jamaican music industry seethes with desperate competition and pure, undifferentiated activity. Every sound system man and retailer tries his hand at producing, and because the unemployment rate in Kingston is 20 per cent, many young men (women singers are rare) dream of cracking poverty with a hit song--a record that sells 5,000 or 10,000 copies and has a half-life of about three weeks.

But accounting procedures and copyright precedents are notoriously murky. Piracy and bootlegging are not only common but inevitable. A young man who gets past the auditions and obtains a royalty deal, instead of the flat $20 or $50 payments that are still common, has no way to make his breakthrough profitable, unless he scores often enough to win a personal audience. Even then he is liable to get reamed.

An added complication is that there are many kinds of hits in Jamaica. In the U.S., a top seller will be played on a radio station between 10 and 40 times every 24 hours, but in Jamaica, where two AM and two FM frequencies serve an entire population and the most popular show on the radio is a soap opera called Portia Faces Life, only a few songs can be heard more than twice a day. Many of these will be soft soul records from the U.S. (the Stylistics, Jermaine Jackson) or reggae remakes of material as un-Jamaican as Rick Nelson's "Garden Party," on which the name of Bob Dylan (read from a lyric sheet?) is pronounced Die-lan.

Radio exposure is coveted. When a show highlighting independently distributed records was killed at one station, a group of toughs vandalized the studio. But many songs, especially the political ones that come naturally to a population as depressed as that of Jamaica, are disseminated primarily at dances, bars and on the streets, over record-store loudspeakers.

Yet dozens of artists have thrived on this confusion. Ill-paid and without contractual surety, they absorb the energy and digest the influences, frequently becoming producers and label-owners and retailers in the process. There are groups--Maytals, Wailers, Pioneers, Heptones, Maytones. There are deejays, the new wave of Jamaican vocalizing--most prominently Hugh Roy and Big Youth. And above all, there are the male solo singers, a bewildering welter of them--Bob Andy, Ken Booth, Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, Eric Donaldson, Alton Ellis, Boris Gardiner, Ken Lazarus, Ernie Smith.

Some of them emigrate to England, where the market is bigger and the money is better, and many others are interesting only in the Jamaican context. But without doubt a few, or maybe more than a few, could create their own style of American soul singing. Potentially, Jamaica is just like Detroit before Berry Gordy invented Motown. Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and maybe Diana Ross are down there, if only someone can identify them.

The only candidate for the Jamaican Berry Gordy to emerge thus far is an affable, sharp-witted former real estate dealer named Dicky Jobson, who represents Chris Blackwell in Jamaica. Jobson's strategy is to push not reggae but Jamaica. He manages the Wailers, the finest of the downtown city reggae groups, but he has also brought Lorna Bennett, a law student who has had a Jamaican hit with Dusty Springfield's "Breakfast in Bed," and Joe Higgs, a veteran entertainer reminiscent in style and substance of Richie Havens, to the label. He wants to break reggae in the U.S. by way of FM-airplay, concert-tour route of the white groups.

Most American observers feel that if reggae is [ . . . ]strongest appeal will be pop--"Reggae is really the ultimate Muzak, completely unintrusive without turning to mush," says one enthusiast who insists that his opinion remain anonymous. Yet most seem to disagree with Jobson about how to achieve that acceptance. They maintain that reggae must break like all black music, via soul crossovers. Beginning with the substantial West Indian population in cities like New York, Toronto and Miami, they believe the music can get onto soul stations and then sell to the white Top 40 audience. That was how "I Can See Clearly Now" began, and now a record called "Soul Jamaica," by Carlton Moore, has broken onto the play list of New York's biggest soul outlet, WWRL, from the weekly West Indian show, hosted by Jeff Barnes.

Denny Cordell, Blackwell's partner in the Mango label, takes a middle view. His shelter label has released seven reggae singles, and all received equal attention from white FM and black AM stations. But Shelter's promotional strength is among the FMs, who favor Cordell's partner in Shelter, Leon Russell, and none of those singles sold more than 50,000.

Maybe the truth is that reggae is going to have to change if it is to reach America. Jeff Barnes believes that the Wailers' rhythms are too slow to reach the black audience. Jimmy Cliff and Ernie Smith have both signed with Warner Bros., and although Bob Regehr insists that they can--in fact, must--retain their Jamaican identity, both are canny enough as performers to make a few subtle changes on their own. The Maytals, by general consensus the finest act in Jamaica--leader Toots Hibbert is a singer-songwriter I would judge the equal of Otis Redding--already bombed here. Shelter's biggest reggae hit was "5446 Was My Number," one of Hibbert's greatest songs. Then again, the Beatles didn't do so well first time around.

But to think about reggae in terms of the Beatles is to fall back before the craze propagandists. We don't need a craze. But we could always use new voices in American music, and the voices are down there if we find the way to hear them--strong, relaxed, inviting us to dance.

N'day, May 4, 1973