Reggae music in both musical and marketing ideas was an out-ward looking music up until the late seventies. From that time it has found itself trying through its various artists and producers to explain itself.

With Dancehall it was said came slackness, that wasn't true. Slackness or rude records have been part of reggae music since its early days. Yellowman, the most popular of that generation of DJ's, certainly liked to 'Chat' slackness but his popularity was more than that. Working with producer Henry 'Junjo' Lawes and the Roots Radics Band played a big part in that success.

King Yellowman.

Henry "Junjo" Lawes.
(photo courtesy of Tero Kaski & Pekka Vuorinen)

The Dancehall style also popularised the 12" single. In Jamaica as in America they co-existed with the 7" single. In the UK the 12" single - or a Disco as it was also known - destroyed the UK 7" market. Those who wanted a tune had to hope they could find it on an import from Jamaica at a higher price. Mass unemployment had come to the UK at the same courtesy of Margaret Thatcher and the Conversatives. It meant young people had less money to spend - buying something at a higher price, and looking for hard to find tunes did not have much appeal. Sales of reggae singles began to fall.

When Bob Marley died in 1981, those with a dislike of reggae music were able to use his death to claim that Reggae had never been very popular anyway and with falling sales, it was something that belonged in the past. Bob Marley was reggae music, and his passing will mean the end of reggae music.

Saxon DJ's Live In Session.

Reggae music went forward. Dancehall continued to dominate, but by 1983/43 reggae music changed location, but not direction. The UK Fast Style had arrived courtesy of Saxon sound system. DJ's like Papa Levi, Smiley Culture, and Tippa Irie not only stormed into the reggae charts but they also started to make some impact in the national pop charts. With singers like Maxi Priest, Trevor Hartley and Trevor Walters it looked like the UK reggae scene had finally come of age.

Meanwhile back in Jamaica King Tubby was in the process of launching his own label 'Firehouse'. To go with his new studio, just around the corner, King Jammy was just coming to terms with being a top producer with the likes of Half Pint on his label and hitting big. The Dancehall era of Junjo, George Phang, The Roots Radics, Scientist and the Channel One studio was coming to an end. The Ragga era had arrived.

King Tubby.

Wayne "Sleng Teng" Smith.

King Jammy at the mixing board.

Out of King Tubbys studio came 'Tempo' by Anthony Red Rose, then came 'Under Me Sleng Teng' from Wayne Smith produced by King Jammy. Within a few months the whole of reggae music had gone totally digital and had turned Ragga in the process. It unleashed a torrent of abuse on reggae music not only being nasty (the slackness again) but being cheap as well. What was being ignored was that the small studio, usually part of the home, has been at the heart of reggae music since the advent of the 4 track tape machines - Lee Perry being the best example. With midi based keyboards it was possible to build rhythms using loads of tracks (mixing was another problem). An advance like this in sound recording was not going to be ignored by Jamaica.

Jah Shaka. (photo courtesy of Easy Star Records).

Towards the end of the eighties the UK Roots scene was first evident, inspired by people like Jah Shaka. The steppers sound was perfect for production on Midi machines, and producers like Rae Cheddie and the Mystic Red Corporation, The Disciples, Dread and Fred released some great music. It looked like the UK was going to shine again. The murder of King Tubby in Jamaica in 1989 sent a shock wave through reggae music - it had lost a true pioneer. And for a time the music seemed lost as well.

The next generation of the UK Roots scene had very little time for what was going on Jamaica and you started to get 'Ragga Free Zones' on flyers. By this time in Jamaica the sound was changing again. Sampling was taking over from midi and it changed the sound again. A new generation of DJ's came forward to talk over what sounded like something from the Asian sub continent rather than from Jamaica or Africa.

Shabba Ranks.

Buju Banton.

These DJ's like Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton had themes and topics that were openly homophobic. When these artists were signed to major labels, it gave them more promotion into the mainstream. Those lyrics had just became a big problem. Big record labels like publicity as long as it sells records, when it doesn't something has to go and in this case it was the artists.

By 1992/93 reggae music was once again lacking direction. That all changed with the arrival of a set of new singers and DJ's. Garnett Silk, Luciano, Sizzla, and even a band Morgan Heritage. This was a roots revolution. For some though it was a back to the seventies experience and meant the revival of the 7". The rest of the music industry was finally getting into the CD in a big way. Reggae should have taken the same route, but it didn't.

These new artists were having there music sold to a young generation of music buyers on a format all but dead and buried, yes some took to it - nostalgia can sell anything for a time. Yet for the very first time reggae music, which had fully embraced digital production back in the mid-eighties, was totally out of step format wise. Some companies even went in for releasing music in both vinyl and cd formats, but that doubles the cost of releasing an album or single.

Garnett Silk.

(photo courtesy Sista Irie)

When Garnett Silk died in 1994, reggae music lost a major star. Luciano had one album on Island, which had been greeted with fantastic reviews. A lot was all of sudden riding on him and Island Records. The follow up set ' Messenger' just didn't work. It seemed that out of the twenty odd tracks that producer Fatis had taken to Island, these were not the best. It wasn't the first time that Island had screwed up with reggae music, but this seemed to be a major event.

The revival/oldies scene had been changing as well. For a long time it had been controlled by companies like Trojan and then Heartbeat in the US. Now along came Blood and Fire with Steve Barrow at the controls. For the first time reggae music was being marketed in the same way as Jazz and Blues - extensive sleeve notes, great sleeve design, and superb sound quality. Something else was different about Blood and Fire as well. They were not interested in producer deals, which often lead to the artists getting nothing. Their negotiations regarding releasing albums involved the artists. Something that has made the Blood And Fire label one of the most respected in reggae music.

By now something called the internet was causing interest in the music world. Reggae music ignored by the mass media embraced this new medium with caution. The first reggae websites must have started to appear in 1995, followed by the news groups which gave reggae fans the chance to talk to each other and exchange information with ease.

With computers getting better and better by the month it soon became possible to sell stuff on the internet. With mp3, a new music format, it became possible to listen and download music from the internet. Another new format Mini Disc made it possible to record music in a digital format. Before long the recordable CD became available, allowing CDs to be copied at incredible speeds. All this has impacted on reggae music greatly.

Reggae fans have suddenly found themselves with the power to exchange ideas, information, music and now video, free of the control of major record labels or of major publishing houses. A reggae publication like Small Axe for instance, whose readership was around 1000, can now be read by anyone who can access the internet.

Some will argue that the freedom of the internet has brought about another kind of exploitation, but ideas like Paypal will make it easier for things to be paid for on the internet. And even bigger step forward will be broadband - still very expensive in the UK - but when it comes down in price it will mean shows and dances for instances could be watched by a worldwide audience!!! Reggae music so poorly served by Radio and TV is now free of them, and as long as the internet remains free of the people who run Radio and TV worldwide, reggae music can only get better and better.

Those who have run reggae music for decades are now going to have to confront a new reality when broadband and computers with CD R and DVD R becomes the standard, instead of the exception. Artists will be able to put their musical and visual works on the internet, and the fans of that music or artists will be able to buy what they want when they want it.

Almost along the lines of Desmond Dekker's big pop hit written by Jimmy Cliff. 'You Can Get It If You Really Want It'!!!!

Text : Ray Hurford

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