Dubs, riddims, Selectors, Toasters. Throughout the '70s, one of the most exciting and foreign new sounds was literally miles from disco. Jamaica was vibrating with the new sound of the people. Fusing traditional reggae with horns, strings, deep bass and protest lines that spoke more to the common young grinder than to the lofty ambitions of Marley, mad scientists like King Tubby were legitimizing the novel idea that one could grab someone else's song and make it their own. Hip-hop would later adopt the concept, calling it sampling. These Jamaican innovators simply called it dub.
Tubby lived up to his name as the monarch of the movement, and he mentored countless protÃ©gÃ©s who would carry on the imperial tradition. Chief among them was the studious, patient Prince Jammy, who, along with Tubby, was helping create a kind of populist dub. It was one in which the lyricists were free to express not just displeasure with the government and yearnings for peace, but also personal, if reckless, odes to drugs, girls and guns. At the same time, the producers broke from the confinement of traditional beat-making.
In 1985, Prince Jammy became an official King with the release of 'Under Me Sleng Teng,â?� the first completely digital reggae rhythm in history. Created on a Casio with Wayne Smith's honey-dripped and effortless flow in front, the infectious single sent shock waves throughout the dub community, and eventually spun off from its parent genre completely. King Jammy had stumbled across 'dancehall,â?� a computerized thunderclap of sound that would later take Billboard by storm with acts like Sean Paul.
'Because we were always creating new things, it didn't come as something we didn't expect,â?� says Jammy, now 59 years old and overseeing the release of his formidable legacy on VP Records. 'I felt very good at the time ['Sleng Tengâ?�] was made, and I'm feeling good now that 20 years after, it's still creating big things in dancehall.â?�
This month's four-volume series of two-CD collections, Selector's Choice, captures the excitement of that initial breakthrough and follows its trajectory over the next four years. Nearly an entire disc is devoted to the 'Sleng Teng Riddimâ?� and Jammy's own tweaks and injections, from the apocalyptic echo of 'Buddy Byeâ?� to the playful electric guitar plucks of 'Original Fat Thing,â?� and the momentum practically carries itself through the course of the set. One can sense Jammy knew he had cracked a genre wide open; his riddims only become thicker, his bass more brain-rattling, and his ambitions possibly bigger than the man himself.
'It was joy, pure joy,â?� Jammy remembers. 'It was like a harmony thing, everybody working together.â?�
Together with the biggest names in dub and reggae, Jammy and crew took on the most recognizable music ' setting fire to Bill Haley on 'Twist a Rockâ?�; chastising John Lennon on 'Four Season Loverâ?� ('You should never, never give your love away,â?� proclaims Leroy Gibbons); even dishing out brotherly teasing to hip-hop on the mellow 'Lodi Lodi.â?�
Dancehall gained a reputation as too rowdy, and when it first began was even accused of promoting homophobia and violence, but listening to this retrospective is like popping in Run-DMC after a Young Jeezy marathon. It's not that the music is tame, but in comparison to the present, it's clear the focus then was on the music itself. New riddims were played with and given a hundred different interpretations in an effort to catch lightning in a bottle, and if one of Jammy's tracks seems particularly aggressive, it's a reflection of the mood in the studio, not on culture itself. The 'Missing You Riddimâ?� is romance incarnate, all gentle saxophone and trance-like percussion thump, but in the hands of Admiral Bailey on 'Chatty Chatty Mouth,â?� the seduction becomes a silky disguise for Bailey's sly barbs at his critics.
Ultimately, the music serves as a platform with which listeners can do what they want, or better yet what they feel. The hypnotic success of this set is in the way it takes us along on that first giddy wave of Jammy's still-fresh formula, but never dwells too long in a dark corner or allows the party to get stale.
'I think that if you keep your thing original, it'll last longer,â?� Jammy wants his current students to remember. 'And it's really important to clean up your act.â?�