Charlie Chaplin rose to prominence in the early '80s during the first years of the dancehall era. In contrast to the '70s roots reggae period, with its decidedly spiritual and cultural world view, dancehall music reflected the secular world of clubs and sound system dances — the earlier cultural bent remained, but decidedly secular and slack lyric matter came to dominate. This age-old contrast between human folly and religious salvation was first forecast in Jamaican music via the contrasting styles of the jazz and R&B-inspired ska and rocksteady of the '60s and the Rastafarian-centric roots period of the following decade; the two views have informed the music ever since, whether it's the almost comic slackness of early '90s ragga or the retro-rasta sentiment of late '90s bobo dread circles. Chaplin reflected this contrast in his own style: he embraced the modern (at the time) dancehall rhythms, but — unlike many of his fellow DJs of the late '70s and early '80 — he focused on cultural lyrics instead of slack subject matter.
Charlie Chaplin (born Richard Bennett) first came to prominence as a member of DJ innovator U-Roy's Stur-Gav Hi-Fi in 1980-1981. Along with fellow Stur-Gav chatter Josey Wales, Chaplin became one of the most popular DJs on the island during his stay with U-Roy, even rivaling the dancehall king of the day, Yellowman. Wales and Chaplin also gained inspiration from U-Roy, continuing the DJ tradition Roy helped launch in the late '60s by taking on some of the master's phasing style and lyrical predilections.
Chaplin soon cut his first album for producer and ex-Royals singer Roy Cousins. The two albums that resulted, Red Pond and Chaplin Chant, gave Chaplin's career a major boost with his first hits, "Mother in Law" and "Diet Rock"; the set also featured the Kilamanjaro DJ Jim Kelly, who was shot and killed shortly after the recording was made.
Chaplin's subsequent recordings with producer George Phang, though, would really put him over the top. His first Phang release, Que Dem, has proven to be one of his most popular and critically acclaimed albums. This is due in no small part to the heavy use of vintage Studio One material like Baba Brooks' "Shank I Shek," Slim Smith's "Never Let Go," and the Sound Dimension's "Full Up." And more than just letting the rhythms take all the weight, Chaplin demonstrates his seamless lyrical flow and witty sensibilities throughout these discs. Chaplin, like Wales, would continue to cut quality sides throughout the '80s, working with a variety of producers like Henry "Junjo" Lawes, Bunny Roots, and Sly & Robbie. In 1989, he signed with RAS and cut a handful of albums through the mid-'90s. While not on the same high plane as his vintage sides of almost a decade earlier, albums like The Two Sides of Charlie Chaplin, Take Two, and Cry Blood show why Chaplin is still considered one of the top toasters on the island. Chaplin also cut a session for VP Records, 1994's King of Dancehall, which was a collaboration with his old Stur-Gav partner, Josey Wales. Throughout the '90s, Chaplin enlisted the services of ragga producer Doctor Dread, while also manning a few sessions himself. And as was the case with much of his '80s work, Chaplin's RAS releases predominantly featured the dancehall-defining band Roots Radics.
Thankfully, for both the new and seasoned fan, there are a few good Chaplin compilations available: Sonic Sounds' 20 Super Hits covers much of his mid- to late-'80s material for a variety of small labels, while RAS Portraits is a sampler of his '90s work for the RAS label. Fans in search of his Roy Cousins debut discs can find them on a two-fer put out by the Tamoki Wambesi label. Unfortunately, Que Dem and other possible sides he cut for George Phang have not been available for some time. ~ Stephen Cook