Black Uhuru - Brutal / Brutal Dub
When Sanctuary bought RAS Records they embarked on a major reissue programme based around Doctor Dread's famous label. All things considered, Junior Reid was the perfect choice to replace Michael Rose in Black Uhuru. He was from the same area of Kingston, shared a similar vocal style and already had a reputation for writing strong reality lyrics. I've always felt that his contributions to Uhuru were important and Brutal supports this.
Brutal may not be the first Black Uhuru album their long-time fans think of, yet it forms a vital chapter in the history of this widely celebrated group. Junior Reid had just replaced Michael Rose on lead vocals and RAS Records taken over from Island as the band’s record company. If there was supposed to be any drop in quality it didn’t show and with Sly & Robbie in the driving seat, the emphasis was again on tight, forward-thinking arrangements that strode imperiously between deep, Jamaican roots on one hand and experimental world funk on the other. This reissue invites us to revaluate an important milestone in Black Uhuru’s career, and marks the first time vocal and dub versions of Brutal have been made available on the same CD.
The original line-up of Black Uhuru formed in 1974 and was comprised of Derrick “Ducky” Simpson, Garth Dennis and Don McCarlos. All three lived in Waterhouse, West Kingston. Ducky was known as Uhuru (which means freedom in Swahili) even before forming the band. Their debut single was a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s Romancing The Folk Song recorded at Dynamic and issued on the Top Cat label. Like their handful of other early singles, it met with limited success. The group then went their separate ways; Garth left to join the Wailing Souls and Don changed his last name to Carlos before embarking on a solo career. Ducky sang on a couple of Wailing Souls’ tracks himself but spent time rehearsing with another local youth named Michael Rose, who’d sang with a band called Happiness Unlimited on the north coast for a while, then recorded a few sides for Niney the Observer, including the original Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Rose sounded like Dennis Brown at first, but would soon develop into an original and hugely influential singer in his own right.
After Garth’s departure, Errol Nelson from the Jayes was invited to sing harmonies and it was this second line-up – with Michael Rose on lead vocals – that recorded for Prince Jammy, who lived in Waterhouse and had recently started out in production for himself. Jammy, real name Lloyd James, worked as an engineer for King Tubby, whose studio was in nearby Dromilly Avenue. Michael had already voiced Born Free for him before revisiting Tubby’s with Uhuru and laying tracks for the band’s debut album, Love Crisis, which Third World released in the UK. A handful of 12” singles announced its arrival, including a cover of Bob Marley’s Natural Mystic b/w Sorry For The Man and Bad Girl b/w African Love featuring Prince Hammer, together with the classic I Love King Selassie, written by Rose. Released in 1977, Love Crisis failed to make much of an impression despite its wealth of strong, original material and obvious musical qualities. Third World simply couldn’t match major labels like Island or Virgin in terms of distribution and promotion, and in any case this was a new group competing for attention in an already over-populated field, and with no recognisable faces in its line-up. Uhuru’s identity however, couldn’t have been more clearly defined as they assumed the mantle of ghetto revolutionaries and chanted black liberation (and also black pride) with dignified assurance. Less melodic than other roots trios like Culture or the Mighty Diamonds, Uhuru had a militant air about them, and led by Rose’s mournful wail, were anything but radio-friendly by comparison.
The title Greensleeves chose for their 1981 remixed version of Love Crisis – Black Sounds Of Freedom – was therefore well suited. Jammy’s set was received more enthusiastically the second time round since the group had already flirted with international success. This had coincided with the arrival of Sly & Robbie, Jamaica’s foremost rhythm section and veterans of innumerable reggae sessions, including those for Love Crisis. Sly Dunbar had been a friend of Michael and his older brother Joseph for years. In fact Sly & Robbie had launched their own Taxi label with Michael’s solo Artibella, and would have produced Uhuru’s debut themselves had they not been touring with Peter Tosh. They were to play an integral role in Black Uhuru’s fortunes from now on but first came two stirring reality tracks, Wood For My Fire and Rent Man, recorded for Dennis Brown’s DEB label, both of which created quite a stir after their release on 12”.
The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place after Errol Nelson became disenchanted with financial matters and rejoined the Jayes. His spot was taken by American Sandra “Puma” Jones, who’d left for Jamaica in 1977 to be a social worker after obtaining her masters degree at Columbia University, NY. Puma had sang with US reggae singer Jack Miller before joining Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus, with whom she performed at the 1978 One Love Peace Concert in Kingston. Legend has it that she was overheard singing along to a Bob Marley album by Michael and Ducky, who just happened to be passing by at the time. Puma’s presence created a different dynamic within the band, although she could hardly be accused of diluting their message with her Afro-centric dress style and Rastafarian beliefs. Decamping from King Tubby’s to Channel One, this third Black Uhuru line-up lost no time recording tracks for Taxi, including Shine Eye Girl, Abortion, General Penitentiary, Plastic Smile, Leaving To Zion and a definitive reworking of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Sly & Robbie’s arrangements offset Uhuru’s plaintive harmonies against some thunderous, late rockers’ style backdrops, gifting them a rhythmic power base that helped the band reap instant acclaim from grassroots fans. The result was a bunch of singles that swept all before them in 1979, and which Sly & Robbie later compiled under the heading of Showcase before licensing them to Virgin, who retitled their album Vital Selection.
Virgin missed out on Black Uhuru’s second album for Sly & Robbie, which the duo issued on Taxi shortly before signing with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records in 1980. Sensimelia was again recorded at Channel One, and voted Album Of The Year by readers of Black Echoes and Melody Maker once reissued by Island. Propelled by Sly Dunbar’s imaginative use of Syn drums, tracks like Happiness, World Is Africa, No Loafing and Sensimelia introduced Uhuru’s music to a global audience already familiar with Jamaican roots reggae acts like the Wailers, Burning Spear and Culture. That Uhuru were being widely tipped to take over Marley’s international profile after his death in 1981 speaks volumes about their popularity at this stage of their career. The group’s then current set, Red, was later nominated as one of the twenty-five best albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine on the strength of tracks like Youth Of Eglington, Journey, Carbine and the irresistible Sponji Reggae. They were also touring extensively by now, and with Sly & Robbie in support, had succeeded in establishing themselves as one of the biggest draws on the reggae circuit.
Sly & Robbie were promoted to virtual band members on Uhuru’s next set Chill Out, released in 1982. The Riddim Twins’ reputation had spread way beyond Jamaica by this point (especially after working with Grace Jones), and the way they wove funk influences into the reggae mix – particularly on Right Stuff and the title track – lent Chill Out a more futuristic sound than anything heard from Uhuru thus far, despite the growing sense of desolation conveyed by songs like Darkness and Eye Market. Island also released a live album and accompanying video, Tear It Up, that same year, which they’d recorded during the band’s 1981 European tour. Uhuru had shared tour dates with both the Rolling Stones and Police by this time, and were playing rock venues in-between recording tracks at Island’s newly appointed Compass Point studios in Nassau. These sessions resulted in Anthem, which Island first released in early 1984 but then withdrew in favour of an alternative version remixed by Paul “Groucho” Smyrkle and that boasted fresh artwork, as well as a new song called Solidarity. Tracks like Party Next Door and What Is Life were more upbeat than some of their past material whilst Someone Is Watching You featured Bernie Worrell on clavinet. Botanical Roots and Bull In A Pen were among the other highlights, and few were surprised when Anthem won the inaugural Reggae Grammy that year. Alas, Black Uhuru had split up four months earlier after an ongoing dispute over songwriting credits. “Me and Michael got into some serious legal battles for those songs,” Ducky would later explain, “because I wrote Shine Eye Gal when Michael was just a kid; I wrote Sistren from off a my first woman and Abortion from the first girl I lived with, yet Island stillcredit those songs to him…”