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King Jammy's - Roots, Reality And Sleng-Teng

May 10, 2018

This essential King Jammy's compilation is another title in VP Records' Reggae Anthology series, which is aimed at furthering an appreciation for music of the dancehall era. It's long been a thrill, visiting the King in Jamaica and listening to new music coming from that famous studio. Such experiences make writing liner notes relatively easy, and certainly bring back memories. 

 

 

 

People had been looking forward to the dance for weeks. Billed as “Shock Of The Century,” it was the first in a series of four sound clashes held at Cinema II in New Kingston. Dancehall was the ruling sound of Jamaica and this was a showpiece event, hosted by Sting promoter Isaiah Laing and with plenty of local celebrities in attendance. Jammy’s Super Power destroyed all-comers that night. They had Nitty Gritty and Chakademus on the mic and some killer cuts of Under Mi Sleng Teng – the backing track that would change reggae music forever. 

Jammy was crowned King after the dance finished. It was June 1985, and his Waterhouse studio had been working overtime. West Kingston was a hot bed of young talent and whilst reggae legends Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs still ruled, there was a new generation of singers and deejays on the rise. People had said reggae was dead after Bob Marley passed but Jammy knew the music had entered a new phase, and wanted to be a part of it. His productions would dominate reggae charts and dancehalls for years to come. It was at his studio where the baton passed from analogue to digital recording, and “ragga” was born. Jammy’s skills were second-to-none but he was also a good businessman, and had a soundman’s instinct for what people wanted. By the time of that famous clash he’d already connected with reggae audiences in the US and Europe thanks to hit singles and albums by Johnny Osbourne (Waterpumping), Junior Reid (Boom Shack A Lack), Wayne Smith and Half Pint, whose One In A Million and Money Man Skank sets were both produced by Jammy. Money Man Skankhad been an anthem to Jamaica’s poor, working or otherwise. “Money in the bank is for upper class and the top rank,” sang Half Pint, over a cut of Stormy Weather that swept up everyone in its path.  

If there’s any single factor that defines Jammy’s productions, which I doubt, it’s that everything you hear in them is for real. There’s no contrivance, only a restless creativity that’s provided Jamaica’s dancehall pulse for decades. It was Jammy who put Shabba Ranks, Bounty Killer and Elephant Man on the map, to name but a few reggae superstars. He gets the best out of his artists, no matter whether they’re a singer or deejay, badman or comedian, Rasta or baldhead, or maybe some veteran looking to connect with a new audience. It’s their talent he’s interested in, and the stories they have tell. Because of this, Jammy’s music has been like a mirror over the years, reflecting everyday life for Jamaica’s poorer class of people. It’s imbued with their wit, bravado, resilience, hopes, ingenuity, sorrows and joy, and has influenced popular music in ways that Jammy himself could never have imagined when first starting out.  

Real name Lloyd James, he was born in Montego Bay, although his parents moved to West Kingston when he was nine. After he’d left school, Jammy’s mother helped him secure an apprenticeship at Chin’s Radio Service in downtown Kingston, where he built his first amplifier. He then worked for King Tubby, who’d established a thriving electronics’ business at his mother’s house, not far from where Jammy lived. For the most part, he and Tubby repaired domestic appliances although the sound-system business was already booming and Tubby’s Home Town Hi-Fi, with U Roy at the mic, was the talk of Jamaica as Jammy prepared to leave for Toronto. He’d recently married and would spend the next five years in Canada, carving out a new life for himself.

Back in Jamaica, King Tubby had installed four-track recording equipment and from 1972 onwards, would revolutionise Jamaican music with his innovative mixing skills. Jammy visited him in the summer of 1975 and felt unsettled after seeing what Jamaica had to offer, despite having ran a sound-system and recorded a few tracks of his own whilst in Canada. Six months later he returned for good and became Tubby’s chief engineer. He and Iris moved to a small house less than half a mile away, at 38 St. Lucia Road, and the Jammy legend began in earnest.

There was a family atmosphere at Tubby’s and in early 1976, Yabby You gave Jammy a cut of Shank-I-Sheck, which he renamed Zambia. It would be the debut single on the Jammys label, and its languid horns and deft guitar still sound classy, almost forty years later, as heard on this latest instalment of VP Records’ Reggae Anthology series. Jammy would later reuse the rhythm for the Fantells’ Name Of The Game. They’d been called the Beltones when recording for Joe Gibbs but had embraced Rastafari by the time Jammy voiced them. Where You Gonna Run is indicative of the late rockers’ era with its close harmonies, Biblical message and hard, driving roots rhythm. It was co-credited to Jamaican sax player “Deadly” Headley Bennett when issued on the Sha-Jam label in 1978. 

A year earlier, Jammy had accompanied Bunny Lee on a trip to London where he’d licensed Count Shelly’s Third World label his first ever dub set, In Lion Dub Style, and albums by the Travellers and U Black. Another UK reggae label, Warrior Records took Sugar Minott’s Bitter Sweet and a handful of 12” singles, including Black Uhuru’s Bad Girl, aka Sorry For The Man. Their lead singer Michael Rose had previously voiced Born Free for Jammy, over another of Yabby You’s rhythm tracks, and was Black Uluru’s main songwriter. Jammy produced their debut album Love Crisis, which he later remixed and licensed to Greensleeves as Black Sounds Of Freedom. Whilst Love Crisisfailed to emulate the success of Marley’s Exodusor Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, certain tracks proved popular on sound-system. That’s why Jammy recorded additional cuts of African Love (like the one by Prince Hammer) and I Love King Selassie, such as John Steele’s Selassie On His White Horse. This dancehall rarity appeared on a pale red and white Jammy’s label shortly after Errol Scorcher’s Engineer’s Affair – a cut of Gregory Isaacs’ Storm dating from 1977. 

Jammy produced the Wailing Souls and Hortense Ellis around this same time. Hortense was the sister of Alton Ellis, and one of the best female singers in Jamaica. Jah Created The World found her in a cultural mood, and was included on the album Reflections, released on Ballistic Records in 1979. Over the next two years, Jammy will license further dub albums to UK labels – including the classic Fat Man Dub Contest– and record the likes of Barry Brown, Johnny Osbourne and Hugh Mundell, whom he describes as, “a very softly spoken person. He loved to praise Rastafari and things like that. He was the one who brought Junior Reid into the business, because Augustus Pablo was producing Hugh Mundell at the time so Hugh brought Junior into that camp…”
King Of Israel, voiced over Jammy’s Queen Of The Minstrels, is from the same sessions as Jah Fire Will Be Burning. UK soundman Ken Gordon aka “Fat Man” distributed these and other Jammy productions for a time, although the Prince also had other irons in the fire. In 1982, he licensed albums by Wayne Smith and Nicodemus to UK label Black Joy in exchange for a mixing board and four-track tape machine. No money changed hands, and Jammy still regards it as the shrewdest piece of business he’s ever done. He could now voice and mix at home, and this meant that the logistics of running a studio / record label and also raising a family began to converge. Jammy’s wife – known to all as “Mama Iris” – sold food and ran a beauty parlour from the front room of 38 St. Lucia Road, whilst Jammy mixed and recorded round the back. 

Greensleeves took over his European distribution shortly afterwards, starting with Prince Jammy Destroys The Invaders. Jammy was his label’s best-selling act during this period, just before the advent of dancehall. When the shift occurred, Greensleeves seized the initiative and backed him all the way. In 1983 they issued Johnny Osbourne’s Water Pumping – a joyous celebration of the music and its core audience, and which remains a dancehall staple more than three decades later. Mighty Rudo’s Skank At The Partyis the very definition of rub-a-dub, and that’s a teenage Junior Reid flashing styles on Boom Shack A Lack. He and Half Pint lived in the same neighbourhood as Jammy, whose other regular visitors included Frankie Paul, Cocoa Tea, Michael Palmer, Black Crucial, Anthony Johnson and Pad Anthony. Also Dennis Brown, whose Slow Down album, issued during early 1985, would be the last of Jammy’s releases to feature a full complement of “human” rhythms. 

The influence of sound-system was now permeating reggae like never before. Jammy rebuilt his from scratch, and renamed it Jammy’s Super Power. Soon, a next generation of artists would come his way, drawn like moths to the flame. That’s how he came across Admiral Bailey and Chakademus, whose Original Kuff is a tour-de-force. Dancehall audiences admire realism, but they also love being entertained. They’re receptive to anything new and Jammy knew this, which is why he kept an open mind when Noel Daley stumbled across a rhythm on his Casio Music Box, and Wayne Smith wrote some catchy herb lyrics for it. Under Mi Sleng Teng wasn’t the first-ever digital reggae hit, and nor was it fully computerised. Nothing however, could stop the rhythm’s momentum once follow-up cuts by the likes of Tenor Saw, Johnny Osbourne and Tonto Irie exploded onto the scene. It’s popularity then spread like wildfire thanks to the sound-systems, who quickly found out it was near impossible to follow it with anything else except another version! No reggae rhythm’s made such a massive impact before or since and within just a few months of Sleng-Teng hitting the streets, there would be at least two hundred different versions of it in circulation. 

“The Sleng Teng rhythm became so vast, it took over the whole scene,” Jammys recalls. “Back in those days, most producers didn’t have their own studios and that was a big setback for them. Because for you to really venture into something new, it’s going to take time in the studio getting things right and that costs a lot of money, and they weren’t prepared to pay out for that. Sleng-Teng changed all that, because they realised you could make hits using computer rhythms, and didn’t need to book too much studio time like before. What happened after that was plenty of artists heard our rhythms, and everybody came along and wanted to go on them. Steely & Clevie, they could play anything. That’s why we were so successful during that time, but having the sound-system made a real difference as well. The sound-system acted like my own personal radio station in a way because we’d use it to find out which songs to release, and even down to what kind of mix the people wanted to hear.”

Sleng-Teng’s nearest challenger would be Punanny, which Admiral Bailey voiced twice for Jammy after the title track was banned on Jamaican radio. Steely & Clevie were now building the majority of Jammy’s rhythm tracks. They hadn’t played on Sleng-Teng but thanks to their proficiency with digital technology, allied to superb musical talent, they’ll create a new aesthetic for reggae in the digital age. 

By 1987, Jammy had assembled a highly motivated team of musicians, engineers and songwriters around him, including Bobby Digital and Mikey Bennett. As expected, he swept the board at the local JAMI Awards that year, courtesy of hits by Admiral Bailey, Echo Minott, Cocoa Tea, Nitty Gritty, King Kong and Lt. Stitchie, with the amusing and keenly observed Wear Yuh Size. No one could remember the last time a Jamaican record producer had dominated to such extent, and in so many categories. He’d released a flood of 7” singles with their distinctive blue labels and that’s not counting all of the one-rhythm and various artist sets, the soundclash series and solo albums by Leroy Smart, Michael Palmer, Little John, Dennis Brown (The Exit), Junior Delgado, Super Black, Josey Wales, Pinchers (Bandelero), Admiral Tibbet, Frankie Paul (Sara), Chuck Turner, Leroy Gibbons, Tiger and Shabba Ranks, who Jammys still rates highly because of his “international touch.” 

For proof, listen to Who She Love, co-starring Cocoa Tea and Home T4 but then Shabba was a student of Josey Wales and sensational right from the start. Get Up Stand Up And Rockis a roll call of fellow dancehall celebrities, any number of which could be found hanging in Jammy’s yard most days. That’s where a lot of the inspiration came from – being around Jammy’s studio or in the same neighbourhood, talking about the latest fashions (for example Clark’s Booty), and overhearing the latest slang. It’s where singers like Echo Minott, Leroy Gibbon, Sanchez and John Holt dreamt that a little stardust might rub off on them when covering popular foreign hits, and where Frankie Paul recorded I Know The Score– a record that deserved to be an international smash, and not just a dancehall standard. 

As the eighties drew to a close Jammy’s team began to fragment, and leading names like Shabba Ranks and Chakademus sought fame and fortune elsewhere. Jammy would respond by nurturing a next crop of talented youngsters, headed by Bounty Killer, Elephant Man and Ward 21, who breathed new life and energy into dancehall during the mid-to-late nineties. At the same time, Jammy also helped spearhead a resurgence of roots reggae by recording artists such as Garnett Silk, Morgan Heritage, Sizzla, Paul Elliott, Bushman and Ras Shiloh, and reviving some of his “live” analogue rhythms. The impact of those early recordings hadn’t diminished at all over the intervening years and that’s still true today, as underlined by recent cuts featuring Chronixx, Alborosie and others. The magic around King Jammy endures, only he’s now aided in the business by four of his sons, John John, Trevor (aka Baby G), C.J and Jam II, who are all established reggae producers in their own right.

 

John Masouri

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