REGGAE HISTORY, page 5
Sly & Robbie outside
Channel One Studio
In the DANCEHALL
When looking back the late late 70ies and early 80ies were
the times with Reggae at
its highest commercial success, Bob Marley at his biggest popularity - and the
beginning of Reggae's unstoppable demise and sell-out. But that doesn't mean that
only bad music was released, at least not at the beginning of this process.
The all dominating studio of that era was without any doubt
the CHANNEL ONE
run by Joe Joe Hookim. Hookim and his three brothers started out with controlling
one-armed bandits and jukeboxes but when gaming machines were outruled by the
government in 1970 they branched off and set up their own recording studio in the
heart of the Kingston ghetto on Maxfield Avenue. After some releases on different
labels they scored a big success in 1976 with the MIGHTY DIAMONDS' "Right Time".
Important for this success was without any doubt the militant 'ROCKERS' rhythm style
of Sly & Robbie, drum and bass players with the Revolutionaries, the Channel One in-
But Sly & Robbie soon left the Jamaican scene to produce
their own stuff big time for
the ISLAND major label or to appear as backing band for stars of this time like Grace
Jones or even Joe Cocker (!). So another band appeared on the scene that stands like
no other for the characteristic ChANNEL ONE sound: the ROOTS RADICS. Their
minimalistic, bone dry and extremely tight style - produced by a former employee of
King Tubby's named SCIENTIST - was something completely different after the fast
double-drumming of Sly Dunbar and established CHANNEL ONE as THE hit machine in
Jamaica and also overseas. The feel of their sound is quite relaxed but although the
tempo is quite slow the tracks are full of tension and heavyness, also due to the
SCIENTIST's sophisticated production. With enough space between the beats for
ecstatic effect usage and great hypnotic qualities the Roots Radics contributed
highly to the numerous (and highly recommended!) Dub-LPs by SCIENTIST. This
unmistakeble sound dominated the charts then and is tightly linked with most of
the hit productions of that time, which were nothing else but the bestselling
phenomenon called 'Dancehall'.
Check out the records of TRISTON PALMA, 'Joker Smoker' being one of his biggest hits
and best tracks, pure CHANNEL ONE! There are also many compilations around.
A vast improvement was also made by CHANNEL ONE with the
introduction of the 12"
45rpm record, a format that is in use until today, with much superior dynamic and
much more bass and treble.
To write something on Dancehall as a musical style is a bit
tricky to me because -
unlike other unique styles like dub or roots reggae - it is not clearly identified by
musical novelties (in the opposite!) but by content and name only, and this moreover
in a negative context.
First of all Dancehall is a result of two things: social
changes and technical
improvement. While the technical side led to a change in sound with things like a 16-
track mixing desk (see the CHANNEL ONE part for more) the social changes brought the
different content and in the end - in an indirect way - an even more different sound.
After the riots and the almost civil war like state in
the late 70ies, a
new government decided to collaborate big with the USA and at the same time the
political situation in South America changed, which together led to a massive flood
of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin into Jamaica. The 'Holy Weed' and also
Rastafari ideology lost its importance and influence. Many young people discarded the
religion of their parents as oudated, seeking pure entertainment without any deeper
sense. Materialistic values replaced the former religious ones and showing off
with cars, clothing or sexual boasting became the fashion of the time. For Jah came
money and for the Homeland Africa the biggest dick, a process that proved to be a
fatal point of no return for Reggae and the reason for the sad and sorry state
of it today.
The term 'dancehall' just names the place where all the
showing off is present in
essence: the dancehall. But this is nothing new at all, since Jamaican music always
worked via the dancehall, so the name of a whole musical era should hint at some
novelties in musical respect. But these are also very few: somebody in the dancehall
sang over riddim tracks and interacted a lot with the audience, announcing records,
rewinding them, replaying them and that's basically about it. The sung melodies were
quite simple and crowd-pleasingly catchy so dancehall style singing and performing is
nothing else but a singing DJ, a Singjay so to speak. Not much new in musical respect
too. To me Dancehall is just showing off to a sound established by Channel One, a
sound that quite soon lost all motivation for experiment - although new means of
production offered endless new possibilities - and became extremely superficial due
to the mass marketing demands.
The main novelty was the change in content: the roots lyrics
were replaced by macho
lyrics about the number of bitches done last night, the money in the pocket or the
toughness while sitting in a fat car, the same boring and senseless stuff that is
ever present in today's HipHop music. The main aim of Dancehall was to sell rather
than to give a message (Greensleeves was one of the biggest labels of that time
worldwide!) which is achieved by pleasing as much people as possible and following
the same patterns all main stream music follows. In this process Dancehall finally
lost all the deepness and power Reggae had until then and I hate (most) Dancehall for
these very reasons, being the uninteresting and mindless shit that it is. And for
these very reasons Dancehall is more a phenomenon of mass marketing than musical
innovation that proves until today (together with Raggamuffin) that it killed Reggae
and everything that made Jamaican music great.
Junjo Lawes was the hottest producer in the early 80ies and many artists like
Barrington Levy, Eek A Mouse or Clint Eastwood became stars with his productions
while veterans like Alton Ellis or John Holt had combacks. Among the earlier
of these releases are some few good musical exceptions: John Holt's 'Police In
Helicopter'-LP, Eek A Mouse's 'Wa Do Dem' (with his alltime classic 'Ganja
Smuggling') or Sugar Minott's 'Slice Of The Cake' have all the true Channel One
sound, laid back and heavy at the same time.
Of course there are many more exceptions for interesting
but with later
years these become almost non-present which is the reason for my point of view: due
to the superficialness of Dancehall and later Raggamuffin today almost no Reggae that
possesses the same power as before is released - although with the Digital Revolution
endless new means for the creation of interesting Reggae music were available at a
good moment. And that is - sadly! - Dancehalls most profound achievement.