Friday, June 04, 2010

Not quite destroying Jah work: the least offensive attempts at reggae by non-Jamaicans

Reggae is not for everyone. Unfortunately, over the years it has become associated with dorm room stoners and the likes of Ras Trent of 'Are You There Jah, It's me Ras Trent' fame.

It doesn't really help that people unfamiliar with Jamaican patois only catch a few words and phrases ('Babylon', 'sensimilla', 'Jah', 'Selassie', 'I and I', 'mon', 'ting') and decide that reggae lyrics are written by putting these words in a hat and pulling them out at random.

If those misunderstandings of reggae weren't bad enough, 'reimaginations' of reggae by the likes of Eric Clapton (I Shot The Sheriff) and Guns'n'Roses (Knockin' On Heaven's Door) just rub salt into the wounds.

Reggae is music that took a round-trip from the U.S. to Jamaica and back. Jamaican musicians playing their versions of R&B and 60s pop heard on cheap radios created reggae, and then people like DJ Kool Herc took the sounds and ideas of dub and sound systems to New York City, and hip hop evolved out of that. The Selector became the Hip Hop DJ, and the Reggae DJ became the Hip Hop MC. Remix culture and many genres of electronic music have obvious roots in dub.

This is not a history lesson, though. Instead, let's look at some rare occasions of reggae songs by non reggae artists that weren't complete abominations.

Clash - Police and Thieves

As the Don Letts' 'Punk Rock Movie' showed us, reggae is what punk bands listened to when they were off the clock. I loved the 'sparse instrumental reggae' the Clash played while riding in their bus. Later I'd find out it was actually dub.

The Clash took a stab at a classic reggae track on their debut album. Singer Junior Murvin's reaction to hearing the song was "They have destroyed Jah work!", but as well-meaning attempts at reggae by punk bands go, it's the best.

Police - Walking on the Moon

Sting, who used to be cool once, recorded what you could call bubblegum reggae during the early days of The Police. Sting says Miles Davis collaborator and jazz great Gil Evans once told him he loved the bass line to this song. It's simple but effective, and the lyrics go well with the lightweight music.

Sublime - Santeria

This one's more recent. They get points for talking about a different fringe religion than Rastafarianism here. Unfortunately, taking different drugs than marijuana didn't work out so well for them.

Rush - Vital Signs

Rush is hated by a lot of people who don't understand Rush and are idiots. Back when the band Queen put reactionary 'no synthesizers' labels on their albums, Rush took on the challenge of incorporating them into their sound. They've never shied away from alienating people. This song is the last track on 'Moving Pictures', and it sounds nothing like the rest of the album ('Tom Sawyer', 'Red Barchetta', 'Limelight'). It probably confused a lot of the people who said 'fuck yeah!' when they saw the 'no synthesizers!' label, which is great.

Paul Simon - 'Mother and Child Reunion'

This 1972 song features Jimmy Cliff's backing band, so musically it's the most authentic of the bunch. It's tempting to dismiss this as some form of cultural thievery the way some people dismissed Simon's use of South African musicians and styles on the 'Graceland' album, but whatever the case, it is a great song.

The Orb - 'Towers Of Dub'

Early 90s pranksters and plagiarizers The Orb always had a sense of humor that was welcome in a genre filled with people taking themselves too seriously. This song, with the prank call at the beginning ('If you see Haile Selassie, tell him that Marcus Garvey called, and I'll meet him in Babylon and ting'), the dog barks echoing off to infinity, and the floor-shaking bass line from Jah Wobble, manages to goof on dub and pay tribute at the same time. The Orb kid because they love.

Conclusion: check out 'King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown'.

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