Friday, January 26, 2007

Reggae music is awesome

I'm reading an amazing book right now. It's put out by Rough Guide, a record company that specializes in World Music. When you get a CD of African music, it's wuite likely that Rough Guide has something to do with it. The book is called A Rough Guide To Reggae, and it's fascinating.

For anyone who cares even a little about reggae, or knows the name of one reggae artist whose name doesn't start with Bob and end in Marley, this book is a gem, and I've never read anything so complete on one subject before.

I consider myself somewhat of a student of reggae, but it turns out that what I didn't know could fill a book. This book, it seems. Oh, I knew all about Prince Buster and U-Roy and the Skatalites and Joe Gibbs' No Bones For the Dogs, but this Rough Guide to Reggae makes it clear that their stories are every bit as interesting as their music.

Today's rappers have nothing on the deejays and ska artists of 1960s-70s Jamaica when it comes to being hardcore and having street cred. There were "sound systems" in Jamaica at the time. These were owned only by well-to-do promoters, and it was the only chance people had to hear the music. So dances would be set up here and there around, say, Kingston or Clarendon. And the competition between each sound system and their owners was intense.

Deejays would talk over the records, which were mostly rythm and blues records they managed to get in from the States. There was almost no original Jamaican music at the time. But the deejays were not just speaking, they were watching their backs, because the rival dance promoters were sending their street gangs around to disrupt the competition and destroy their party. Murders were rare, but they happened, and the violence was, frankly, amazing to read about.

So eventually they discovered that there were talented performers right there in Jamaica, and it would be cheaper to have them cut records there, rather than trekking all the way to the US to search local underground record stores for the latest Otis Redding albums. But how do you get a chance to be one of the stars who records an album for a promoter? Well, usually only those who had done him a service would be allowed to cut a record. And the only real way to perform that service for him was to defend him against the rival thugs, which meant that 90 percent of the original Jamaican ska artists had knifed someone, or beaten them to a pulp, or some other such unpleasant task had been performed on the promoter's behalf.

I'm only seven chapters in, and I haven't even reached the rocksteady years, let alone the Wailers and reggae's heyday. But I can't stop reading. Hardcore guys whose music was actually good? Unheard of! (Take that 50 Cent. Please don't shoot me.)

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