His musical mantra rings truer than ever in these crazy times — and especially during Reggae Month, the annual celebration that coincides with a pair of royal birthdays during the first week of February. The Crown Prince’s earthstrong begins the month — Dennis was born Feb. 1, 1957 — followed five days later by the King of Reggae himself, Robert Nesta Marley, born Feb. 6, 1945.
This year TIDAL launched our first-ever Reggae Month homepage campaign paying homage to Jamaica’s musical roots, from the studios and producers to the genre’s pioneers, its legends and the soon-to-be-legends. The first week of the campaign kicked off with Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes, a feature-length documentary film I produced in association with BBC Music, which had its global premiere here on TIDAL and at Quincy Jones’ Qwest TV.
All those who caught Studio 17 got the chance to experience “When You Get Right Down to It,” an unreleased Dennis Brown track recorded at Studio 17 in the early ’70s, when he was still a teenager. Currently, the song can only be heard in the film — which is still available for viewing on Qwest TV. Beyond the overwhelming support the film has received, it was a true privilege to work with so many greats, including some who have passed away since the time we interviewed them on camera — driving home the realization that even if goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives, there’s no telling how many of those days we will receive.
With that in mind, we are living by the adage “if you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going” and looking back to pay tribute to those artists who made history with their music, hopefully saving a few lives in the process. Here’s to keeping that Reggae Month energy all year long!
The Wailers ft. U-Roy
Just over half a century ago, Ewart Beckford, better known to music lovers as U-Roy, was working with one of Jamaica’s leading dancehall sound systems, King Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi. As a deejay his job was to chat on the microphone as the music played, making sure the people in the dance were feeling lively. One fateful night, the great producer Duke Reid heard his melodic jive talking and had the bright idea of bringing U-Roy into a recording studio. Until that time, disc jockeys like Count Matchuki, King Stitt and Sir Lord Comic were known for “riding the rhythm” in the dance, but U-Roy and Reid took things to another level. The records they made — “Wake the Town,” “Rule the Nation” and “Wear You to the Ball” — soon occupied the top three spots on the Jamaican charts.
Nobody was more shocked than U-Roy himself. “At that time there was no deejay music being played on the radio and stuff like that,” he explained to me a few years ago. “Most of the singers used to be there up front. You heard about the singers and you never heard about the deejays. So it was very surprising to me, and I give thanks for that time because it’s like a blessing.”
U-Roy’s success marked a profound shift in pop culture worldwide. The popularity of deejay music paved the way for an entirely new genre that would come to be known as dancehall and eventually hip-hop, when Jamaican sound-system culture spread out to the Bronx via DJ Kool Herc. Daddy U-Roy, as he soon became known, emerged as one of the most in-demand recording artists on the island, starting his own sound-system, recording multiple albums and being honored with the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in 2007. His death on Feb. 17, at the age of 78, sent shockwaves through the global music community.
My Cup Runneth Over is the last album released during his lifetime, a wicked combination of Daddy Roy’s vocal stylings with vintage Bob Marley and the Wailers tracks produced at Studio 17 by Lee “Scratch” Perry. On songs like “It’s Alright,” you can feel the excitement and fun that made U-Roy a star as he goes back and forth with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, mixing lines drawn from the Book of Psalms with jive slang from the dancehall. “Yes we stand around the microphone and make you feel the music in your bone,” he chats, and you do.
Dancehall Emperor Shabba Ranks, a.k.a. “Mr. Lover Man,” is just one of the countless youths inspired by Daddy Roy’s example. Growing up in the Kingston neighborhood called Seaview Gardens, the youth born Rexton Rawlston Fernando Gordon used to sneak out of the house to watch deejays like Josey Wales and Admiral Bailey do their thing. He soon found his way to King Jammy’s studio and got his chance to chat on the microphone. Before he knew it he was catching flights to the U.S. and London, taking dancehall music to the four corners of the earth. After signing to a major label in the early 1990s, Shabba would go on to tour the world alongside Bobby Brown and TLC. Eventually he became the first dancehall artist to win the Grammy for Best Reggae Album, in 1991, and he won again in 1992. But even after all his worldwide acclaim, Shabba never forgot where he came from.
“Jamaica is always amazing,” Shabba told me backstage after returning to his homeland for a highly anticipated live show at Reggae Sumfest several years ago. “It’s like the grace of God is always upon my shoulder when I come here to perform.” Still looking fit after a decades-long career, Shabba shared some of his secrets for keeping in good shape. “Me eat good and me sleep good,” he said. “Me’s a man who no eat out. Ah me grate me own coconut and squeeze that, and cook me rice and peas and steam me swimaround for meself.”
“Shabba Madda Pot”
Just as U-Roy inspired Shabba, the latter’s success would in turn encourage other youths to follow in his footsteps. Bounty Killer and Elephant Man were some of the aspiring artists to rise up from Seaview Gardens and attain international success. And during the years before their careers blew up, they always knew they could get a Sunday meal from Shabba’s mother, Mama Christie. “His mum used to cook a lot of food for the community,” said Dexta Daps, another artist from Seaview who benefited from her generosity.
Daps is a dancehall singer who’s best known for sultry songs about X-rated exploits in the bedroom. His most recent track, “WiFi,” produced by Memphis trap master Drumma Boy, is a perfect example. “Fuck yuh so good make yuh feel like yuh wan’ cry,” Daps sings. “Girl me just love how me and you connect like a WiFi.”