What a label! I'd bought the records, played them as a DJ and radio presenter, interviewed many of their artists and producers and then written a lion's share of the company's promotional material throughout the nineties. I was therefore honoured to write the liner notes for this compilation of Greensleeves' finest, released in celebration of their 40th Anniversary.
Greensleeves is one of those labels that define a genre like Blue Note, Motown or Chess. It’s been reggae central for forty years, and has a catalogue of hits that outlines the history of the music during that period better than any other. The name originally belonged to a West Ealing record shop but it wasn’t until founders Chris Sedgwick and Chris Cracknell moved to 44 Uxbridge Road in London’s Shepherd’s Bush that the foundations were well and truly established. In 1977 they launched the label with a 7”single by the Reggae Regular, who were first port of call for visiting Jamaican stars in need of a backing band. Their Where Is Jah opens this essential collection of Greensleeves’ releases, which spans the label’s incredible journey thus far.
Over the years, Greensleeves has become synonymous with all of the latest hits, artists and sounds coming from Jamaica, and especially dancehall. This supply line started with the release of Dr. Alimantado’s Best Dressed Chicken In Town, which became Greensleeves’ first LP in 1978. The cover shows Alimantado greeting a friend in the street, wearing just shorts and red underpants. (We know they’re red because his zip’s undone.) It’s an iconic image and transformative, just like the music although Chant To Jah Jah is taken from the deejay’s second album Son Of Thunder. That’s also the home of Born For A Purpose, which the Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten endorsed during a notable radio appearance. The album duly sold 50,000 copies, and did wonders in raising Greensleeves’ profile.
Their first 12” single was War by the Wailing Souls, produced by Channel One’s Jo Jo Hookim and featuring the Revolutionaries – masters of the roots rockers style. It was an era dominated by the likes of Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and Burning Spear, and any new reggae label had to compete with Island Records, as well as Virgin’s Frontline subsidiary. Deep roots music by Keith Hudson and Augustus Pablo – whose Cassava Piece ’79 Style was cut specially for Original Rockers – showed that Greensleeves couldn’t be underestimated. Yet the label was also interested in UK reggae and their first signing was Wolverhampton’s Capital Letters, who played sessions for John Peel after hitting with the irresistible Smoking My Ganja.
The shop on Uxbridge Road soon became a major nerve centre where reggae in the capital was concerned, as celebrated by Ranking Joe on Step It Down Shepherd’s Bush, from his second Greensleeves’ LP Saturday Night Jamdown Style. As the eighties’ dawned, so did dancehall – a more trash and ready style of reggae that came from Jamaica’s sound systems, and opened the doors to an exciting new generation of artists, producers and record labels. Greensleeves came into their own at this point. They knew that keeping their ears to the ground would give them the edge over their rivals, and that’s what happened. Whilst other reggae labels courted the mainstream, Greensleeves began channelling the sound of downtown Kingston and set out to arm every reggae DJ in Europe with it.
It was Jamaican producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes who started the ball rolling. He was a ghetto hustler with an appetite for adventure, and a formidable talent scout. He understood that fans wanted to be entertained as well as bowled over by the actual music, and found willing accomplices in Shepherd’s Bush.
“We’d been releasing mainly roots stuff until then but when we started putting out dancehall, a lot of people in the industry said it was rubbish,” Chris Cracknell recalled with a wry smile. “We got a lot of fight, and it was a long time before people began to realise that dancehall music was here to stay but we had the record shop back then and when Barrington Levy’s Shine Eye Galwas released, it sold out so fast we just couldn’t keep up with it. Barrington had this young voice we’d never heard before and the Roots Radics, who played on Junjo’s rhythms, they were fresh out the blocks as well. For us it was like a turning point because all of a sudden, here was something totally new.”
Greensleeves would release several important albums by Barrington in the years ahead. The young singer shared lead vocals on Eventide Fire A Disaster with General Echo, and their lyrics tell of an event that shocked Jamaica in 1980, when a hundred and fifty-three residents died after a politically motivated attack on an old people’s home. Reggae music was a primary news carrier, and it was in the dancehalls where ghetto people heard lyrics that reflected their own lives – not just about the hardships they faced but also fashion, dancing, sport, food... all the things that made their lives more bearable, and especially sex. Echo had revelled in a lewd style of deejaying known as “slackness” on his 12” Of Pleasure LP but the artist who invested it with the most humour was Yellowman – an albino showman who became reggae’s biggest star of the post-Marley era, and the first Jamaican deejay to sign to a major label. His rise to fame was truly extraordinary. Albinos were shunned in Jamaica and his parents, shamed by their newborn baby’s whiteness, put him in a plastic bag and threw it onto the nearest garbage truck. He was thankfully rescued, and grew up in boys’ homes before making the whole island sit up and take notice of his ribald rhymes and comic boasts.
Yellowman was just one of the larger-than-characters that Junjo Lawes produced during the early-to-mid eighties, and who helped to establish Greensleeves as the major conduit for Jamaican dancehall music in Europe. The tall, lanky Eek A Mouse, who dressed like a Mexican and yodelled in a bizarre fusion of Chinese doggerel and Jamaican patois was another. Such irreverence brought welcome relief at a time when the feared Eradication Squad patrolled the ghettos, and criminal gangs called “Yardies” extended their activities to the US and Britain.
Greensleeves would release over forty albums with Junjo. Most are by singers and deejays, but they also include live dancehall sessions, which were among the first of their kind to be issued on vinyl, and a series of classic dub albums by Scientist that feature the work of artist Tony McDermott, whose designs have given the label such a distinct visual identity over the years. Junjo also produced hits by Toyan – his How The West Was Won was another landmark release – Michael Prophet (Here Comes The Bride) and John Holt, who reinvented himself as a dreadlocked elder on Police In Helicopter; a song written as Jamaica’s ganja fields fell victim to the government’s “war on drugs.”
Junjo worked closely with Linval Thompson, and both voiced the same artists from time to time. It was Linval who produced Freddie McGregor’s biggest hit of the eighties (Big Ship) whilst Junjo also contributed towards Greensleeves’ success with Eastwood And Saint, after Chris Cracknell borrowed one of his rhythms and took the pair in the studio for Another One Bites The Dust. Clint Eastwood was a big-name deejay from Jamaica whilst General Saint had previously shared Jah Love with Rebel Regular - a loping roots tune produced by Reggae Regular’s Patrick Donegan. The song’s far removed from Saint’s dynamic partnership with Eastwood, which found them trading lines and chatting in unison, their slick rhymes interspersed with trademark cries of “oink” and “ribbit.” Another One Bites The Dust was popular on dub-plate even before selling 40,000 copies, and the duo notched up two albums and several other hits that only just missed out on the UK Top 50.
Ranking Dread was a deejay on Ray Symbolic before relocating to London. Fattie Boom Boom was his biggest hit and came tucked in a picture sleeve that shows him with knees pointing east and west, riding a bicycle that was too small for him, and with a bunch of bananas hanging from the handlebars. It looked as if he making a getaway but Ranking Dread was astute enough to produce himself, and fully owns this cut of Rope In.
By the mid-eighties, every reggae sound-system or pirate radio DJ had to carry a box of Greensleeves 12” singles. It wasn’t just that the music was so good because the sound was too, thanks to the label’s insistence on top quality mastering and pressings. This made a lot of difference. It brought the music alive and there was a lot of it to choose from – much of it featuring younger names like Half Pint, Junior Reid and Tristan Palmer, who had a massive hit with Entertainment in 1981. This was a rollicking cut of Heavenless produced by Jah Thomas, who followed it up with the singer’s Joker Smoker album. Frankie Paul was near blind and a teenage prodigy who played every instrument, arranged his own harmonies and sang so well they called him “Jamaica’s Stevie Wonder.” He voiced the gloriously affirmative Pass The Tu Sheng Peng over the Radics’ cut of Darker Shade Of Black and there was no stopping him or Johnny Osbourne, who’d opened his Greensleeves’ account with Fally Ranking, produced by Prince Jammy. The latter had worked at King Tubby’s studio before going it alone, and was better known as a dub mixer until the dancehall style came in. He and Johnny were naturals, and they clicked again on the Greensleeves’ bestsellers Water Pumping, Rewind and Buddy Bye, which is a cut to the famous Sleng-Teng rhythm.
Wayne Smith’s Under Mi Sleng Teng is still the most requested item in Greensleeves’ catalogue for sampling and licensing. Jamaica’s first computer hit was a sensation and dancehalls reverberated to little else throughout the summer of 1985, as hundreds of versions flooded the market. The new technology affected the whole industry. Recording was now more affordable, and sound-system culture was in full swing not just in Jamaica, but major Caribbean outposts like New York and London. For the first time, British reggae MCs like Smiley Culture, Peter King and Papa Levi mounted a serious challenge to their Jamaican counterparts after inventing the UK “fast style,” and mixing Cockney expressions into their machine gun deliveries.
“The UK youths had found their feet, and they weren’t necessarily copying what was coming out of Jamaica but coming with their own style,” explains Chris Cracknell. “We felt we needed to create a separate identity if we were to release any British productions, and so we came up with UK Bubblers specially for that purpose.”
Saxon sound-system from Lewisham had the best MCs, and their live set Coughing Up Fire captures all the excitement of a mid-eighties’ dancehall session. Pato Banton and Tippa Irie both recorded breakthrough hits for UK Bubblers. The latter gifted Greensleeves their first-ever UK national chart entry with Hello Darling in 1986 but All The Time The Lyric A Rhyme is the real deal, and as electrifying on record as it was in the dances.
Back in the Caribbean, producer Gussie Clarke had started to take reggae’s digital revolution a step further and his high-tech ragga sound would define Jamaican music of the late eighties. He worked with established stars such as Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and the Mighty Diamonds, who recorded two strong albums for Greensleeves. Tonight I’m Gonna Take It Easy is taken from the second (Get Ready) but the first hit out of Gussie’s Music Works studio in Kingston was Gregory Isaacs’ Rumours. The Cool Ruler excelled on tracks that cast him as an outsider, whether in love or otherwise. Rumours tells of a man who’s been wrongly accused and the low-slung rhythm could be heard everywhere in 1988, in the weeks leading up to Hurricane Gilbert.
J C Lodge took it furthest with Telephone Love, which got played on urban stations in the US and was then remixed as a ragga / hip-hop track featuring Shabba Ranks – a future two-time Grammy winner with a rockstone voice and an insatiable army of female admirers. Pirates Anthem, which he shared with Home T and Cocoa Tea was the first tune played by pirate radio station Kiss FM on the day they went legal. A few months later Shabba visited London’s Tower Records for a PA and his fans got so excited, they rioted! Music Works and Greensleeves both played a major role in his success. Gussie left nothing to chance, and hired songwriters to work with his artists. That’s how Mikey Bennett got his break. He produced albums by Shabba and Dennis Brown for Greensleeves after launching his own Two Friends label and Hypocrite Corner, co-starring Dennis Brown, Brian & Tony Gold and Twitch, is a slamming example of what Greensleeves termed “Hardcore Ragga.” They’d started their Sampler series by then except their next major hit-maker wouldn’t come from Jamaica, but New York.
Oh Carolina heralded Shaggy’s arrival, and became Greensleeves’ first UK No. 1 hit. The Folkes Brothers recorded the original for Prince Buster, but this infectious dancehall version was all over mainstream radio in 1993. Radio 1’s Steve Wright even played Ninjaman’s country and western epic Mississippi (I Can See Arkansas) whilst producer Jah Screw breathed new life into some of his classic hits with Barrington Levy. Under Mi Sensi – now featuring Beenie Man – was among the pick of them, and after undergoing a further remix by Rebel MC became one of the biggest ragga jungle tunes ever, even troubling the UK national chart during 1994.
Two years later and Beres Hammond’s Over You just couldn’t be shifted from the No. 1 slot on most reggae charts, and it stayed there for weeks on end. Recorded in New York, this lovers’ rock favourite proved how the market for more traditional reggae music was very much alive and well but Greensleeves also had other ambitions, and were about to embark on a run of dancehall hits that would ensure that party DJs the world over would never lack for Jamaican flavour.
The bashment era was upon us and fresh faces emerged like Red Rat, whose catchphrase was a squeaky “Oh no!” Tight Up Skirt comes from his debut set Oh No It’s Red Rat. That one did well, but the biggest selling album in Greensleeves’ history is Mr. Vegas’ Heads High. The title track shares the same cut of Filthy as General Degree’s Traffic Blocking and it was songs like these – also Mr Vegas’ Nike Air and Beenie Man’s Who Am I, a cut to Jeremy Harding’s Playground rhythm that raced up national charts in the US, the UK and Canada in 1997, and that coincided with the deejay’s acting debut in Dancehall Queen – which paved the way for Sean Paul, and dancehall’s second assault on the mainstream inside a decade.
DJs liked juggling, or mixing different cuts of the same rhythm and with this in mind Greensleeves reintroduced 7” singles, and then launched their Rhythm Album series in 2000. The most successful was Diwali, produced by Stephen “Lenky” Marsden. Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder both took it into the Billboard 100 but it was Bounty Killer’s Sufferer that spoke loudest to those trapped in a ghetto existence, and with little hope of parole. Roots and culture came back too and Buju Banton, Garnet Silk, Morgan Heritage, Capleton, Luciano and Sizzla were among the most influential Rasta artists of the nineties. The latter’s Black Woman And Child was outstanding for a twenty-year-old, and his chanting’s infused by thoughts of the Motherland on Woman Of Africa. Greensleeves also released several albums by Anthony B, who’s another fiery Bobo Ashanti sing-jay. French produced most of them and Enter The Kingdom Of Zion – a spiritual testament featuring Horace Andy – is taken from Rise Up.
Roots and bashment music come from the same source, but have evolved in different directions more recently. Dancehall underwent a renaissance around the time of the Millennium, and Greensleeves began promoting the work of creative young producers like Don Corleon, Ward 21, Shams, Blaxx and Yellow Moon’s DJ Sunshine. Corleon oversaw Elephant Man’s hyper workout Krazy, and Patrick “Roach” Samuels produced Vybz Kartel’s Emergency, which is an angry, passionate defence of the poor by a deejay who is currently serving a lengthy jail sentence in Jamaica. Unbelievably, there’s been no lack of new releases since his incarceration. Kartel is king of the dancehall, whereas some of the best roots music coming out of Jamaica is made by a patois speaking European with ankle length dreadlocks and a love of heavy reggae and dub. Alborosie’s 2009 album Escape From Babylon was his first for Greensleeves, and his subsequent releases have been widely acclaimed for their lyrical and musical content. Poser is from his latest album Freedom & Fyah and proves two things - that reggae’s future is in safe hands, and Greensleeves is a label that still really matters.