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

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…”

John Masouri

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