Originally posted on an iWeb log on Tuesday, October 8, 2002
A compilation of conscious roots reggae
Back in the mid 90s I started making reggae a regular part of my musical diet. Sure, I owned the requisite Bob Marley recordings and some Police / UB40 stuff before that, but this is where I dove into the deep end. I was hanging out in a friend’s record store and he was playing some great 70s reggae on the store stereo with delightfully dependable regularity. I started asking questions, he started playing more, and before I knew it we were both placing special orders from obscure little labels in order to satisfy our seemingly unending cravings for the stuff.
By way of introduction, let me put what I refer to as “reggae” here into perspective with its various relations. This will be an intentional oversimplification so I apologize if this is already common knowledge for you. I prefer what is generally called “roots” reggae. This is reggae with that familiar “rock steady” beat that you hear on nearly every Bob Marley record. (Difficult to describe in words, but just about everybody knows it when they hear it.) The lyrics very often deal with Rastafarian beliefs, nature, and/or the struggle of the Jamaican people. It is often very uplifting, even for a white guy from the Midwest. That these often dirt poor, oppressed people can write songs filled with such hope gives me pause when I am tempted to complain about something relatively trivial in my own life. The roots sound is usually in no particular hurry to get anywhere, either, which is something else I appreciate more with each passing busy day. Some bands are still creating roots reggae to this day but most of what I listen to was recorded in the 70s or early 80s.
One close cousin of this type of reggae is called dub. I’m not sure how it started, but it amounted to studio (then tape) manipulations of existing recordings using echoes and loops and usually only short snippets of the vocals. Dub versions of
songs were often recorded on the B-side of reggae 7" singles. The only good example of this that I managed to include on this first Book of Rules mix comes during the last half of The Jolly Brothers’ “Conscious Man.” A guy named Lee “Scratch” Perry was the producer on that one and had a penchant for creating dub versions of many of the songs he recorded. In the 80s and 90s, dub moved into the world of electronic music and, to some degree, fueled some of the more dance-oriented electronica.
Vocal reggae took off in a different direction, too. The next big thing in Jamaican music was called Dancehall. This was significantly less socially conscious music, dealing instead with issues of love and lust. The familiar “rock steady” groove of roots reggae gave way to more beat and less groove, heavy electronics moved in, and vocally there was much less concern about harmony and melody. Dancehall is what gave birth to rap, if that helps you put your finger on it. I don’t care for much of it and none of it is included here. If you’re curious, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Another type of music that is often lumped under the reggae section in music stores is ska, which was actually a bit of a precursor to roots reggae. This often utilized a much faster, almost “skippy” beat that Jamaicans slowed down by at least half to create the rock steady beat. Horns are also often used in ska, although they were not always by its original practitioners. English and American bands ranging from The (English) Beat and Madness to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones latched on to ska as their musical base, and the fastest ska became appealing to kids who were into punk. Today, you can find ska just as easily near the punk section (if indeed your neighborhood store has such a section) as you can the reggae section.
I think that covers at least the major variations. Personally, I never strayed too far from roots reggae and never felt the need to stray. Besides a love of the music, over a year of pretty serious roots reggae listening culminated in two things: a trip to Jamaica and my compilation of three 90-minute cassette tapes of the best of what I was hearing. I called this series of tapes The Book of Rules, after the title of a Heptones song that seemed to sum up much of what appealed to me about the music. I made copies and gave them out to a dozen or so people and these were met with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Fast forward only a few years and seemingly everyone (including myself) has abandoned cassettes for CDR technology, and my Book of Rules tapes find home in a cardboard box somewhere. At times I thought about making a Book of Rules CD or two, but the belief that it would have been for my benefit only was not enough of a motivator to sit down and try to recreate the compilations. However, a few of the recipients of the original tapes have asked me recently if I have any of that music on CD. Hence, the first Book of Rules mix CD in what I hope will be a series of several.
I certainly don’t expect anyone to hear this and get a full-blown reggae jones like I did. However, you might find this a pleasant listen on a hot summer day with your favorite iced drink nearby. If you get at least that much enjoyment from this compilation then it will have been worth it. Here’s what you’ll be hearing:
1. Redemption Song – Bob Marley
2. Peace Talks – Bunny Wailer
3. Right Time – The Mighty Diamonds
4. Prophesy – Little Roy
5. Book of Rules – The Heptones
6. Nuh Fe Run Down – Lee “Scratch” Perry
7. Conscious Man – The Jolly Brothers
8. Declaration of Rights – Johnny Clarke
9. Forward Unto Zion – The Abyssinians
10. Judgement Coming On the Land – Misty In Roots
11. Rivers of Babylon – The Melodians
12. Zion Gate / Every Wicked Crawl – Horace Andy & Jah Stitch
13. The Way of Light – Big Youth
14. Iron Sharpen Iron – Culture
15. Bredda Gravalicious – Wailing Souls
16. Vampire – Devon Irons
17. Fisherman – The Congos
18. Many Rivers To Cross – Jimmy Cliff