Culture were one of the most popular reggae acts during the seventies and their shows always left you feeling exhilarated, just like their albums. Lead singer Joseph Hill had tremendous talent and charisma and yet remained refreshingly down to earth at the same time. Interviewing him was fun and informative, and I'll always remember one magical afternoon in SE London when he spent hours schooling me in his favourite doo-wop and early American rhythm and blues music.
Culture have remained one of Jamaica’s best loved roots acts for nearly three decades. Rocketing to prominence during 1976 with lead singer Joseph Hill at the helm, their life-affirming Rasta anthems have been helping define the sound of Jamaican roots reggae to global audiences ever since, and to such engaging effect, it’s little wonder their music often features in lists of the world’s best-ever singles or albums. Melodies course throughout their songs, making your heart leap and feet move, even as the lyrics tackle serious topics like poverty and political corruption, or just as persuasively, urge listeners to embrace the love, peace and unity espoused by Rastafari.
Whatever the subject, Hill tells of it in everyday language; tempered by Biblical imagery and a philosopher’s quest for spiritual truth. A country boy, he was born and raised in Linstead in the Jamaican parish of St. Catherine, an hour or so’s drive along the main road out of Spanish Town, heading north towards Claremont and St. Ann’s Bay. Linstead itself is a small farming community and famous for its market, as told in local folk songs. It was there where Joseph first learnt about Rastafari, and decided to pursue his love of music. He and his friends would sing and practise harmonies after school, inspired by records they heard on the radio and visiting sound-systems. He was especially fond of Curtis Mayfield’s group the Impressions; plus old time US R & B, soul and jazz, as well as the music of New Orleans. In late 1972 he journeyed to Kingston and recorded his debut single Behold The Land at Studio One, from where producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd had already launched the careers of the Wailers, Heptones, Dennis Brown, Horace Andy, Freddie McGregor, Burning Spear and so many other future reggae legends. This song, together with Baldhead Bridge, was his only release on the label, although in keeping with Coxsone’s communal approach (and being a fair musician himself), he also worked on a number of other projects there, including hits by Freddie McKay.
After leaving Coxsone, Joseph (who was also known as Lloydie) went to live in May Pen and played drums in a band called DC35 Incorporated, featuring Glen Washington on vocals. The latter then replaced Joseph on drums once his friend rejoined the Soul Defenders, with Nana McLean as lead singer. The Soul Defenders were from Linstead too, and would record extensively for Coxsone although minus Joseph himself, who decided to revive his singing career elsewhere and form a trio with his cousin Albert Ralph Walker and a friend called Kenneth Paley (also known as Dayes) on backing vocals. Had these two not been holding down day jobs (as an electrician and builder respectively) whilst Joseph was trying to establish himself at Studio One, he says the three of them would have recorded as a trio from the start. Fate however, decreed otherwise and on the recommendation of Jah Lloyd, Joseph’s new group (now known as the African Disciples) visited Joe Gibbs’ studio on Retirement Crescent in Kingston, where Blacker Morwell supervised the weekly auditions. It was he who renamed them Culture after they’d chanted for rain in Joe Gibb’s courtyard and the heavens duly opened as if by magic. It hadn’t rained for three months until then, and their penchant for prophesy was sealed on the spot. This was in 1976; the same year they began recording their debut Two Sevens Clash album for Gibbs, who enlisted top session players in support, yet still expressed reservations about his new act. Released on Lightning Records in 1977, Two Sevens Clash was a masterpiece thanks to its upbeat songs, sizzling “rockers” rhythms and dread pronouncements, and is now considered one of the best reggae albums ever made. The title track was the group’s debut single for Gibbs and a massive hit. As expected, it also fuelled lively debate because of its revelatory lyrics, with Joseph delighting in his role of Rasta soothsayer. When not two, but four sevens eventually did clash on July 7th1977, a lightning bolt hit Linstead town hall and record levels of absenteeism were reported throughout the country as people fearfully awaited Armagideon. Six thousand miles away, aided by the punks’ love of reggae and Bob Marley’s crossover success, Two Sevens Clash received rapturous acclaim from the UK rock press, making Culture the first Jamaican act to achieve their breakthrough with two audiences simultaneously, one local, and the other international.
Their follow-up album for Gibbs was eagerly awaited but citing financial irregularities, the group chose instead to record for Sonia Pottinger, who’d taken over Treasure Isle after Duke Reid’s death several years earlier. This was to be the first major test of their ability, and they passed it with flying colours as Harder Than The Rest was premiered in 1978 on Virgin’s recently launched Frontline subsidiary. A festive Love Shine Brightly, Tell Me Where You Get It, Vacancy and recut of Behold were among the highlights, whilst hit single Stop The Fussing And Fighting was addressed to warring political gangs, and delivered an especially potent message around the time of that year’s Peace Concert.
The success of these two albums meant Culture were now installed as one of the defining three-piece reggae groups of the rockers era alongside early Burning Spear, Toots & The Maytals, the Mighty Diamonds and Abyssinians. Their popularity as a live act quickly grew too as their enigmatic front man whirled round the stage like a dervish, as if enraptured by divine grace and fired by his own Rasta-fuelled eulogies. Two further albums, Cumbolo and International Herb – both of them produced by Sonia Pottinger – arrived in 1979, but no sooner had their audience began to assimilate them when a trickle of unofficial releases served to muddy the band’s direction. First there was Africa Stands Alone, which offered different versions of tracks from the Harder Than The Rest album, and then Baldhead Bridge and Innocent Blood, which both contained leftover Joe Gibbs material. Yet there were other factors conspiring against this talented trio, and of a far more wide reaching nature. By late 1979, the emphasis in Jamaican music was already shifting from roots to dancehall, and collective attention switching to popular sound-system MCs like General Echo and Ranking Joe, who promoted an altogether different lifestyle. The dissolution of Frontline and then the death of Bob Marley in 1981 also signalled a change in roots music’s fortunes, as did the rise of 2 Tone and rapidly fading media interest.
Since he was the driving force and creative heartbeat of the group, it was no surprise when Joseph struck out on his own with the 1981 album Lion Rock, released at the same time Virgin issued their compilation of Frontline material, Vital Selection. Reactions to Lion Rock were mixed and so too, half an album of tracks Albert and Kenneth recorded as a duo for Junjo Lawes. Happily, both were back harmonising with Joseph on two albums released in 1986, In Culture and Culture At Work. The latter was produced with help from Sly & Robbie but also featured members of the Roots Radics, thus gifting Culture more of a contemporary dancehall sound. Their Music Track album, In Culture, was retitled Peace And Love when reissued by Creole several years later, and thanks to production from Joseph, Alvin Ranglin and Enos McLeod, made Culture’s transition from “live” rhythms to computerised ones seem easy – and especially since Jamaica’s first digital hit, Under Mi Sleng-Teng, had threatened to render their brand of roots music obsolete just a year earlier. Several of the tracks make their reappearance here; including former 12” single Capture Rasta, voiced over the Sleng-Teng rhythm, and Old Tattoo which Joseph had first written during the mid-seventies, after his house had been razed to the ground. He’d always felt too emotional to record this song earlier, and you could still hear the pain in his voice ten years later.
Nuff Crisis, released on Blue Mountain in 1988, heralded a return to more traditional fare after the band’s attempts to run with the dancehall pack, albeit on their own terms. Culture were then signed by RAS, the home of roots reggae music in the US, who were to release several important Culture albums in subsequent years, plus two sets mixed by the legendary dub engineer Scientist. This selection presents the best of the group’s RAS output, plus material taken from the In Culture set. Good Things was their first RAS release in 1989, and sub-titled “A gift of love from Culture to the people.” It felt like it too, with tracks like Hand A Bowl and Chanting On demonstrating the enduring power of Joseph’s songwriting, and also his astute choice of accompaniment. Virgin released another compilation of their Frontline material that same year. There was then a lull in recording until Wings Of A Dove and the disappointing Three Sides To My Story, both issued by Shanachie. The latter, like Trod On for Heartbeat, appeared in 1993, by which time dancehall had gone international and a new crop of cultural singers emerged in Jamaica led by Garnett Silk.
Joseph would become one of the few seventies’ veterans to make essential contributions towards this second wave of Jamaican roots music and sensing fresh opportunities ahead, was already planning his next masterpiece. One Stone was duly released on RAS in 1996, and produced by Joseph at Mixing Lab studios in Kingston, where his regular touring band were supplemented by top-flight horn players. One Stone was acclaimed as Culture’s strongest album in years, and Addis Ababba, A Slice Of Mount Zion and the title track are all classics. A companion dub set entitled Stoned appeared a year later, together with Culture’s entry in the RAS Portrait series and another fine studio album called Trust Me containing tracks like Outcast, Writing On The Wall and a cover of Bob Marley’s Chant Down Babylon, as well as reworkings of Black Starliner and Jah Pretty Face from Two Sevens Clash. Again produced by Joseph, Trust Me paved the way for a blistering live set called Cultural Livity released in 1998, and that proclaimed how there was plenty more mileage in this most durable of reggae institutions. Culture’s next studio set was Payday from 2000. Joseph shared production with well-respected Jamaican musician/arranger Clive Hunt on this one, and his delivery sounds rejuvenated as a result. Payday itself opens with a burst of the Stars And Stripes before Joseph requests recompense on behalf of “these retired slaves.” True to form, his message is no less cutting for being framed by such uplifting melodies, just as it was on Culture’s classic songs for Joe Gibbs and Sonia Pottinger. Share The Riches, Legalisation and Election (exquisite tracks one and all) also find him exploring topical issues, but at the same time broadening their remit to encompass universal themes. This has been a hallmark of all great reggae lyricists, including Bob Marley and Dennis Brown, and Joseph’s no exception. RAS later released a dub version of this album called Scientist Dubs Culture In A Parallel Universe as the new millennium dawned. It was followed by another in-concert set, Live In Africa, recorded in December of 2000 in Cape Town, where Joseph and his band performed alongside Burning Spear and the Wailers in front of a mixed crowd over ten thousand strong. Unlikely as it may seem, Culture’s music proved as enticing and relevant as ever – a point confirmed by Joseph’s Humble African set of 2000 which found him working with a trio of Jamaican producers called Fat Eyes who coaxed two hits from him (Revolution and Poor People Hungry, featuring Tony Rebel), then oversaw one of that year’s most outstanding roots sets. Heartbeat issued the follow-up, World Peace, in 2003 and still the same old enthusiasm held sway, with Joseph returning to some familiar topics but never sounding repetitive.
A Rastaman from first to last, he’s still concerned by the widening gap between rich and poor, repatriation, human rights and globalisation, as well as the environment and nuclear disarmament. Culture is not only the name of his group, but also describes his entire outlook on life and how he lives it from day to day, minute to minute. You can hear it in his songs, whether they were written yesterday, or way back in his youth. Over thirty years of touring and recording hasn’t diminished his powers one jot, and whilst Joseph’s often accompanied by different backing singers these days (including one of his daughters), the spirit of Culture lives on just as vibrantly as it ever did, just like when the three youths were chanting for rain in Joe Gibbs’ yard all those many years ago…