MUDKISS FANZINE

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DANCEHALL: THE RISE OF JAMAICAN DANCEHALL CULTURE - BETH LESSER REVIEWED BY DEN

 

IF THE ROCKERS DON’T GROOVE YOU

There’s always been a strong connection & respect  between punk & reggae, both on an instinctive level, and through the work of dj's like Don Letts and John Peel, so I hope I won't be the only Mudkiss person to love this superb book.

Reggae fans will know Soul Jazz as one of the best labels (see also Greensleeves and Blood & Fire) for reissuing classic 60's & 70's ska & reggae. This is a very impressive first venture into book publishing for them. It comes as LP-sleeve size, and is packed with some great colour photos, really well reproduced. The text is well laid out, detailing the personalities, musical styles, studios, producers, fashion scenes & political background to the era, with side panels going into more detail in the form of interviews with some of the major players.

Beth Lesser was a Canadian journo & photographer, who ran a reggae fanzine, "Reggae Quarterly". With her radio show host husband, she went to Jamaica many times in the early 80's, and achieved acceptance in the notoriously macho scene of "yards", clubs & studios. I know from my own experiences working on the reggae scene here at the time what an insular scene it can be, and that degree of trust is reflected in many of her photos. These are places where most outsiders wouldn't get past the front door, let alone be able to take pictures of the crews working, chilling or just hanging out.

There's a really nice humour to some of the pics too, like hardcore dreads posing with local soldiers. Other personal favourites involve the late Prince Jazzbo & his son, some great street scenes & live action - check the dj blowing smoke from his draw on to the stylus, I'm sure it made a difference!

Of course, the punk/reggae connection was forged in the previous era of the roots rockers & dub styles, heavily influenced by Rastafarian beliefs & life style. The refusal to even acknowledge authority, let alone submit to it, struck a chord with many a punk. Equally, many dreads respected punk's defiance of the system. But despite producing some of the most extraordinary & influential sounds ever, it was becoming clear by the end of the decade that the scene was running out of energy, and wasn't going to get the international spoils which seemed there for the taking in the heyday of Bob Marley. Record companies found it hard to "break" other acts on the scale of the Wailers, so reggae remained a niche market. Attempts by people like Virgin to turn people like Big Youth into album-sellers didn't really work, & reggae's traditional audience preferred singles, 12"'s & dub-plates to albums. Equally, the Jamaican model of studios/producers/dances didn't fit with the artiste career development of the UK/USA music biz. And finally, good as they may be, scenes always change, as does public taste. As the Jamaican scene became more economically depressed, people were more interested in having a good time than being preached to about Haile Selassie or Righteous Rastas. In the same way, a livelier, sexier, more good-time alternative to ever spacier dub cuts was needed.

This is the territory covered by this book. There are some big players like Gregory Isaacs & Prince Jazzbo who made the transition to the new scene, but many of the older players went into exile - a process accelerated by the murder attempt on Bob Marley, & his death from cancer soon after. Beth Lesser shows how other major changes affected the scene - mainly the advent of digital/sampling technology in the studio, and the first throes of hip hop in the US showed, both geographically & musically, the direction that a large part of the scene would take from then up to the present.

She shows how street styles reflected these changes, as dreadlocks gradually fade away, & the rootsman/"man in the hills" rasta style gives way to a sharper, more streetwise look (although these photos show that ganja retained its popularity). At the same time, political feuds between the two major parties led to levels of violence & a murder rate that are beyond any UK experience. All this fitted in with a desire for harder, faster musical styles. But there's something totally punk rock about the pictures of the soundcrews getting ready for a session - lugging huge, home-made, hand-painted speakers, or setting up all the decks, customized gear & amps with a mind-blowing spaghetti of wires going in all direction - this is as ground up a scene as you can get.

The pictures & text blend perfectly here, as the chapters take us through the changes in the scene & personnel from the 70s, an essential Dancehall 50 list, chapters on how the 70s studios like Channel One adapted to the new scene, & the new players ``who emerged as the scene got stronger, and up to its eventual cyclical decline as crack inspired gang activity took violence to new levels, where going to a dance meant risking your life.

She also finds time for fascinating digressions on the role of women on the scene, given the crude sexual content of many of the lyrics, changing fashion styles, the role of radio & micro-scenes like dancehall cassette mixtapes, concluding with a look at the impact of Dancehall on the US & UK scenes. I'm not as up on the reggae scene as I used to be/should be, but anyone with more than a passing interest in current scenes like Grime, One Step, Bashment or Dubstep will understand what's going on here.

I can't recommend this book enough. It’s rare that a book has great pics & text, & tells such a fascinating story. It must have taken a lot of front from Beth Lesser to get some of these photos, & she displays a fantastic knowledge of the music, and is also able to look further & explain the political backdrop & social/cultural changes that were such an influence on the scene.

So next time you want to buy a present for a reggae loving friend, look no further - and why not treat yourself as well to one of the very best music books of the last year.

Reviewed by Den Browne

Beth Lesser - Dancehall: the Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture (Soul Jazz Publ., 2008, £19-95, but £14 on Amazon)