❉ The sounds of Jamaican dancehall remain fresh, exciting and organic, writes Paul Matts.
Music belongs to the people. In the mid-twentieth century if the people wanted to hear music, they went to dance halls. Yes, coffee shops had juke boxes, and more affluent households may have had a wireless. But the working-class masses went to dance halls.
Fast forward a couple of decades and a new Jamaican musical sub-genre, dancehall reggae, was on the rise. Again, the people were key. The clubs were heaving, and the locals loved the sound of rhythm. Step forward a deejay, mic in hand. He/she starts to spout vocal lines with increasing confidence and bravado. Arrogance, even. The crowd reacts. There is call. There is response. The excitement grows with every bar, with every rhyme.
Previously, Jamaican music and seventies roots reggae especially, focused on liberation, sovereignty, inequality and spirituality. It had considerable consciousness. Dancehall less so. It was largely based on a good time, with performer and audience united in this common cause. It was at times, hedonistic.
Dancehall reggae’s emergence was gradual in the 1970s. The principle of taking a backing track and laying new vocal lines over it was nothing new. It didn’t have to be spoken (toasted) – the lines could be sung. Anthea and Donna had a massive smash hit in 1978 with everybody’s favourite party dance tune, Uptown Top Ranking. A rebuild, obviously, of Anton Ellis’s rock steady classic I’m Still In Love. The original was issued on Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, with the update produced by Joe Gibbs and released on Lightning. It is a good early example of the dancehall blueprint – classic rock steady backing taken as the rhythm (‘riddim’), with updated vocal lines on top of it. This method was used extensively by new label Channel One, raiding Dodd’s Studio One vaults and taking existing, often famous, backing tracks and adding brand new vox and at times, instrumental overdubs.
In 1979, Sugar Minnot’s Oh, Mr D.C. ticked all the boxes. The Tennors’ Pressure And The Slide was utilised as a riddim, with Minnot doing his stuff over the top. Scientist ensured the mix was cutting-edge. Dancehall now had an anthem.
Sonia Pottinger’s High Note label, renowned for the variety of Jamaican music on its roster, was on trend with dancehall. However, rather than regurgitate existing recordings, she created complete reworkings of them using crack session bands. Mrs P had by then acquired the complete Treasure Isle catalogue from Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid. It was a true treasure chest. By using the likes of The Revolutionaries, Tommy McCook’s Supersonics and at the turn of the decade, The Roots Radics, High Note completely reconstructed entire backings and brought in fresh young vocal talent. Thus, many new, cutting edge dancehall exponents cut their teeth with Sonia. Indeed, for a brief period she released dancehall output on a special Dance Hall imprint. Check here for more on Sonia.
This compilation deals with a period when dancehall seemed fresh, an organic development in Jamaican music. This Doctor Bird collection has period photographs, eleven previously unreleased cuts together with excellent sleeve notes from Tony Rounce. All tracks are on CD for the first time.
Let’s hear them make some noise …
The first disc opens with a lively 12” mix of the classic Stormy Weather by trumpeter Bobby Ellis, backed by The Revolutionaries. A chirpy up-beat mix, with instrumental overdubs.
The chassis for Rat In The Centre, a 1980 duet by Archie and Lyn, was provided by the Soul Vendors’ Real Rock (1968). The Soul Vendors were a studio band operating in Studio One, and Real Rock was one of the band’s 45s. It provides the dancehall chassis, with the lyrics telling a tale of rats infesting a community centre. Archie takes on the role of community centre manager tackling the problem. Great entertainment.
Indeed, this chassis was one of the most frequently used backings in dancehall. For instance, the instantly recognisable Ansell Collins liaised with The Revolutionaries on Bim, an instrumental cut. It is a perfect example, with Ansell soloing happily throughout.
Errol Scorcher and the Revolutionaries’ Tan Tudy also uses the Real Rock base. Errol was one of the key early dancehall deejays and is heavily featured here. Roach In The Corner continues the ‘infestation’ theme of Rat In The Centre, again to the RR backing. Errol has a third cut, backed by the fantastically named Posse with the Dance Hall Band, Water Bumpee. It is wonderfully rude song, encouraging artist-audience call and response. Obviously with such a risqué subject matter, it was popular with any lively, possibly inebriated, crowd. Sadly, Errol passed away in 2012 at the young age of 55. Dancehall reggae owes a great deal to early pioneers such as him.
Another criminally early passing was that of Papa Ritchie, who died in 1987. His grittily toasted story of Annie Palmer, handily rhyming with ‘marijuana’, is included. Annie Palmer’s spirit reportedly spooks the Rose Hall plantation in Montego Bay to this day. Listen out for the super-cool breakdown/ dropout section roughly two and a half minutes in. Ritchie also contributes the superb Phantom (In The Jungle). The latter is do over of Anton Ellis’s Breaking Up, issued on Treasure Isle. Ritchie is a good example the young talent, like Errol Scorcher, encouraged by Sonia.
Jah Thomas arrived on the Jamaican scene during the roots-reggae period earlier in the decade. Thomas then became a crucial name in the pioneering dancehall days. Come Nurse and Tell The Truth were significant island hits, the latter closing this collection on disc two. Thomas’s work has strength and feel, characteristics also present on the previously unreleased Road Code.
The part toasted, part sung Tommy, by Ranchie McLean and The Revolutionaries, is a lost classic in my view. Subtlety beautiful and wistful in places, McLean – The Revolutionaries guitarist – handles the vocal line to fantastic effect with his soulful, pure delivery. He should have sung more before his sad passing in 2012. Michael Palmer, popular with the new dancehall crowd, uses The Heptones’ Get In The Groove as a lift on Mr Landlord. Palmer had a huge Jamaican dancehall smash with Lick Shot later in 1984.
‘Soulful and pure’ certainly applies to Ernest Wilson. His wonderful voice is choc-full of feeling, and this is shown on the entirely sung vocal line on Give The People What They Want. A giant of a track, sadly tucked away since its High Note issue in 1980. Ernest was a former member of vocal group The Claredonians, of course, and the track here features both Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare in The Revolutionaries’ line-up.
Tony Tuff provides the vocal to the strong 12” mix of Round The World. Vocalist Tuff was a member of The African Brothers and issued an album with Errol Scorcher entitled Tony Tuff Meets Errol Scorcher which was crammed with early dancehall material. Only Errol’s fore-mentioned Roach In The Corner from the long-player is included in this collection.
Sonia Spence, another star name, closes disc one. Sonia had huge hits with Jet Plane and I Love You So in the early eighties and has a 12” mix of Talk Love included here. 12” mixes work well in the dancehall scene, giving artists and producers spontaneity and the chance to stretch out from the confines of a 45. Sonia’s clear, feminine delivery provides a welcome variation at this point in the collection.
Disc two jumps into action with Bobby Ellis and Ranking Joe providing a 12” mash-up of Shank I Sheck/ Shine Eye Gal. Built on a base of Ellis’s’ High Note version of The Skatalites’ classic, the cut is largely instrumental initially, giving plenty of space in the riddim for Ellis to pop in and out with his horn. Joe’s toasting takes over later, spouting Black Uhuru’s Shine Eye Gal lyric in amongst his own rhymes. Ranking Joe, like Bobby Ellis with Shank I Speck, had a High Note release of his version of Shine I Gal in the second half of the 1970s.
Ranking Joe is one of the stars on show. He was a young man when he first started working with Sonia but became the first dancehall DJ to tour Europe with the Ray Symbolic ‘Bionic’ Sound System in 1980. A key player to this day, he has another cut, General, showcased here as a co-credit with The Gladiators.
Errol Scorcher takes the Shank I Sheck riddim and produces the Bob Marley tribute, Sounds Of Hon. Marley, released shortly after his passing in 1980. Plenty of Bob’s tunes are quoted in the verse, Redemption Song and Rastaman Vibration among them. Shank I Sheck is pushed further by the then up and coming Lee Van Cleef on the title track of this collection, and by Zara on Financial Problem. All three feature The Revolutionaries and are examples of the dancehall method utilised to the max.
Errol Scorcher features plenty once again on the second disc. The immensely enjoyable 12”er Rucumbine Girl and Peace Truce underline his talent. The latter is a re-working of Culture’s classic Stop The Fussing and Fighting, the former a rebuild of The Techniques It’s You I Love. All backed by new backing tracks by The Revolutionaries.
Tony Tuff gets a second track, the moody, stomping Oppressor. The backing is by the Roots Radics, who by 1980, were getting plenty of work at High Note. Tony reappears with a 12” mix of Little Miss Mary later. Tony remains active to this day.
A proper standout is from the afore-mentioned Jah Thomas. A Little Bit Of Love has a vulnerable and husky delivery from Thomas. He closes the collection with Tell The Truth, a rebuild of Anton Ellis’s Treasure Isle gem Ooh Wee Baby. As you may notice, Anton Ellis provided the chassis for plenty of the early dancehall reggae output.
Other established superstars got their say in this exciting new world. Marcia Griffiths inevitably shows her class on the gorgeous 12” mix of Don’t Ever Leave. Delroy Wilson does the same on Let’s Unite. Both 12”ers are mixes previously unreleased and in line with much of the collection, will appeal to aficionados as a result.
Elsewhere, Jah Stone’s Westmoreland Flood recounts the horrific flood of 1979 and subsequent fallout that remains Jamaica’s worst single natural disaster and Lorna Bennet gives us a real gem with The Revolutionaries on It’s My House.
The very essence of dancehall reggae was its use of source material as a rhythm (riddim). Sonia Pottinger’s High Note label, with its combination of crack backing bands, hungry new talent and genuine, classy Jamaican superstars, produced a batch of material between 1979-81 that was fresh, vibrant and creative. Different Fashion – The High Note Dancehall Collection is the sound of Jamaican music evolving towards an era no-one could have envisaged. It is a fascinating document.
❉ Various Artists: ‘Different Fashion: The High Note Dancehall Collection’ (Doctor Bird DBCDD072) released February 12, 2021 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.