Natty Universal Dread, 1973-1979
(Blood and Fire)
A Jamaican Story
by Simon Reynolds
In Jamaica, the DJ isn't the guy who spins the records (that's the selector), it's the bloke who chats over the music. As misnomers go, it's a good one, though, since DJ is short for disc jockey, and the whole art of reggae deejaying is vocally riding the riddim--whether it's a loping nag as with the mellow skank of Seventies reggae, or a bucking bronco as with digital dancehall.
Alongside U Roy, Big Youth was one of the first and greatest roots-era DJs, his smoky voice unleashing a gentle torrent of prophecy and prattle: "one love" beseechings, get-up-stand-up exhortations, Psalm-like chanting, but also boasts, children's rhymes, laughter, shrieks and grunts. As a less musically compromised natty dread soul-Jah than Bob Marley, Big Youth was a potent icon of radical chic for white youth during the punky-reggae era; John Lydon was a fan, and even persuaded Virgin to sign the DJ for their Front Line reggae imprint. Songs like "Is Dread In A Babylon" and "Every Nigger Is A Star" capture the militancy of a period when Jamaica was feeling the cultural tug of postcolonial Africa while remaining geopolitically very much within the American sphere of influence/interference. Perhaps that's one reason Big Youth forged connections with the US's own black "enemy within", interpolating lyrics from the Last Poets into "Jim Screechy".
Worth acquiring just for the glorious rhythm tracks over which Big Youth toasts, Natty Universal Dread is Blood & Fire's best since their Heart of the Congos reissue, and typically for the label, this 3-CD set is a beautifully designed fetish object. Trojan's A Jamaican Story is a curious looking thing, by comparison. Culled from this veteran label's formidable archives, its cardboard chest contains 10 smaller boxes, shiny packets that look like bars of Ritter chocolate. Each of these three-CD micro-boxes is devoted to one era or aspect of reggae history: ska, rocksteady, lovers, DJ, et al. Unlike the Big Youth set's exhaustive annotations and accompanying essay, there's minimal information provided, just a rudimentary sketch of the specific genres. You don't even get dates of recording/ release, or the identity of the producer and the engineer who did the mix (absolutely crucial information with dub). Truthfully, it's hard to know who A Jamaican Story is targeted at. Reggae fiends will want Blood & Fire-style data overkill (plus those vintage photo overlays and deliberately faded-looking graphics that emphasise the sense of bygone times), while neophytes are hardly going to shell out a few hundred quid for this thirty CD colossus.
All that said, it's impossible to quibble with the quality of music here: Story is a treasure chest. Its span stretches from Desmond Dekker to Scientist, a sonic journey from ska's two-dimensional cartoon jerkiness to dub's haze-infused chambers of deep space. Story also serves to remind just how much Jamaican pop falls outside the rudeboy/rootsman dialectic---there's goofy instrumentals, novelty songs, topical social comment, pure dance music, and love song after gorgeous love song. What's faintly terrifying, though, is that, as crazily copious and encompassing as it is, A Jamaican Story still warrants that indefinite article: 500 tracks long, it only scratches the surface of reggae's ocean of sound