by Simon Reynolds
So much of the fabric of modern pop originates in reggae. Dub's
ganjadelic echo-effects anticipated the remix-mania of today's club
music, while the slurred gibberish of DJ talkover is one of the
sources of rap. Right now, dancehall's ragga chants and fidgety
production is influencing emergent British genres like Apache
Indian's bhangramuffin and jungle (a manic offshoot of techno).
And I have a farfetched theory that the yodelling falsetto of
Morrissey (who once declared "reggae is vile") has secret links with
the milky chirruping of Junior Byles and Barrington Levy.
"Tougher Than Tough: The Story Of Jamaican Music" (Mango/Island)
traces the evolution of reggae from 1958 to the present. It starts
with the 78 rpm proto-ska of the Folkes Brothers' "Oh Carolina" and
ends - four discs and 95 tracks later - with Shaggy's 1993 ragga-
remake of the same song. Reggae's roots lie in American soul and
R&B, but as with most pop breakthroughs, mimicry led to mutation, as
Black American dance was subtly warped in synch with the Caribbean
vibe. Ska's jerky pulse and rocksteady's chugging grooves both have
the same monochrome sound and upful aura as Wilson Pickett or Booker
T & The MG's, but Jamaican musicians shifted emphasis from the
downbeat to the 'afterbeat', and thus created a New Thing.
As rocksteady evolved into roots reggae and dub, the Jamaican
elements became more defined: the bass became more pronounced and
melodic, while producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry used reverb to
heighten the music's spatiality. In the '80's, reggae went digital,
just like US black pop from swingbeat to rap. But dancehall, argues
Linton Kwesi Johnson in the box set's hefty booklet, is at once
futuristic and primal: a cyber-pagan resurrection of the ritual beats
favoured by African cults like Etu and Kumina.
What Johnson and other commentators shy away from is the role of drugs. Most crucial
shifts in pop history have occurred when drugs interface with
technology to make possible new forms of listening. Just as
psychedelia coincided with the arrival of LSD and stereo/8 track
sound, similarly 70's dub had everything to do with marijuana's
heightening of sonic dimension and depth.
In the Eighties, Jamaica became a stop-over in the cocaine trade routes; this probably has something to do with ragga's jittery beats, apoplectic vocals and gangsta
vibe. Throughout its history, reggae has oscillated between two
extremes, symbolised by the rude boy and the natty dread: between
macho swagger and mellow spirituality, ghetto survivalism and Rasta
dreams of escaping to a halcyon homeland (Zion).
Crammed with great songs, Disc 4 agitates against the notion
that reggae declined musically in the Eighties as the fire of
militant spirituality faded.
Nonetheless, Disc 3 surpasses the rest, covering reggae's commercial and aesthetic zenith from 1975-81, and ranging from the luscious pop of Gregory Isaacs and Sugar Minott to
the apocalyptic dread of Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time" and Max
Romeo's "War In A Babylon". While the bubbling rhythms of Black Uhuru
and Junior Delgado are dub-inflected, there's not enough pure dub
here for me. Why no Augustus Pablo, Prince Far I, King Tubby or Mad
Professor? Then again, as Island supremo Chris Blackwell points out,
Jamaica has the highest per capita rate of musical output in the
world. Inevitably, as massive as it is, this compilation could only
scratch the surface. Which it does quite superbly.