The influence of a music genre originating from a small island in the Caribbean on today’s Pop music is the subject this time around. Along with that, I’m taking a look at new releases from three Reggae artists: the new album from Reggae legends Steel Pulse, a new joint from Shaggy, and the second solo endeavor from Jemere Morgan. In addition, I’ll review the debut album from Claude Fontaine, which is half Reggae and half Bossa Nova, the debut from Neo-Soul artist Ari Lennox, and the latest from experimental Electronica/Hip-hop/Soul artist Flying Lotus.
The Reggae Influence
When I was 12 years old, one of the biggest hits on the radio was Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman“; while I loved the song, I wasn’t sure what Stevie was talking about, so I asked my mother “Mama, what’s a reggae woman?” She said to me “I don’t know, a raggedy woman, I guess”. For all of these years, I’ve completely dismissed that answer; recently though, as I was researching how Reggae got its’ name, I read something from Toots Hibbert of Toots & the Maytals about a slang word that was being used in Jamaica in the late 60’s. He mentioned there was the word “streggae”, which was a street term that was meant to identify a “loose woman who was badly dressed”. Whoa… my mother was RIGHT all along, it was a raggedy woman! Now… another alleged meaning of the word is derived from the Latin “regi”, meaning “to the king”, to be used as a quasi-religious term… that can be completely contextualized given the Rastafari element in the music.
However the name was derived, it is undeniable that the music originating from the small island nation of Jamaica has had a tremendous effect on Pop music and the way it is produced. In my mind, it is one of the most influential genres around; here are three reasons why:
1.). Reggae reuses a lot of the same riddims for songs. Rather than sample, a Riddim will be reused over and over; there are countless “Riddim” albums there, which consist of the same track, with different artists creating lyrics over it. Some now classic riddims that date back to the Rocksteady era (roughly 1966-68) have been used literally thousands of times. This reuse of a melody or riff, has become increasingly popular in R&B and Hip-hop, both played and sampled.
2.) Back in the early 70’s, Reggae 45’s would feature the main song on the ‘A’ side, and on the ‘B’ side, they began to offer something called a ‘version’. This would often be the instrumental version of the song, or it may be an altered version of the ‘A’ side, where the producer would strip the song of its’ core elements, use effects like echo and reverb to enhance certain instruments, and amplify or de-amplify instruments, particularly the drum and the bass, drop the vocals in and out of the mix, and create, essentially, a whole new track; this process was called the ‘dub’- today, Dub is its’ own sub-genre. During the Disco age, with the advent of the 12-inch single, Reggae producers started attaching the B-side version to the end of the ‘A’ side, creating an extended, or ‘Disco’ mix. These processes have essentially created what we have come to know today as the REMIX.
3.) Sometimes also on the version, you would get another vocalist, known as a “toaster”, who would essentially talk or “chat”over the riddim track. This process took on a life of its’ own, creating another Reggae sub-genre known today as Dancehall, and by the late 70’s, that genre helped to spawn an American variant of it which we know today to be Rap & Hip-hop.
Reggae is a worldwide phenomenon, as you can find Reggae bands in all corners of the earth, from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia. It has spread across most other music genres, as many Rock bands, from The Police to Sublime, 311, and others, have incorporated it into their styles. Its’ early precursor, Ska, has had at least two waves of revivalism, and particularly in the Electronica arena, it is at least partly responsible for Trip-hop, Jungle/Drum ‘n Bass, and Dubstep. I believe it is completely responsible for the remix and for Hip-hop; debate me on it if you wish…
THE HEARD (Reviews)
Back in the mid-’70’s, friends David Hinds and Selwyn Brown, inspired by Bob Marley & the Wailers, decided to form a Reggae band. Coming out of the Handsworth section of Birmingham, UK, an area featuring a large immigrant population, Steel Pulse was borne of this union, and in 1978, they released their debut album Handsworth Revolution on Island Records. They initially found themselves ostracized by their own community and unable to play in the UK’s Caribbean clubs, because of their Rastafarian beliefs; however, they found favor with members of the burgeoning Punk community. This led to them being able to participate in the Rock Against Racism festival, headlined by the likes of The Clash and others, and securing opening gigs for groups like XTC and The Stranglers (it was through them I was made aware of Steel Pulse). Eventually, they found favor within the Reggae community, securing opening gigs for Marley and Burning Spear. They would go on to become the first non-Jamaican Reggae group to win a GRAMMY in the Reggae category for their 1985 album Babylon the Bandit, as well as being nominated several other times.
Fast forward 41 years since their debut, Hinds, Brown & company are back with Mass Manipulation, their first album in nearly 15 years, their last release being 2004’s African Holocaust. Always socially and politically aware, their militancy has lead them to consistently sing songs of protest against what they see as the oppressive treatment of Africans, always holding the policies of Babylon as responsible for the condition of society. This worldview is as razor sharp as ever here- several of the tracks wear their subject right in the title – from the opening track “Rize“, which is a call to arms to the people, to “Human Trafficking” and “Don’t Shoot“. Several others, like “Thank the Rebels“, which implores you to give thanks to those brave enough to stand up for social justice, the title track and “World Gone Mad“, are observations of society today. Such heavy topics normally require serious-sounding music, but these are generally mid-tempo to upbeat tunes with heavy lyrics- this is one thing about Steel Pulse that’s different from their early, hardcore Roots approach. To lighten things up, they cover Peter Gabriel’s “Higher Love” recast as “Rasta Love”.
The call for social and political justice is as strong now as it was in the Civil Rights era of the 60’s; Steel Pulse has always been ’bout that business, so their return is both timely and needed. The unmistakable tenor of David Hinds has been sorely missed over the past 15 years, but I’m glad to witness his return… here is the video for what I think is the album’s finest track, “Cry Cry Blood“…
Shea Butter Baby
Sometimes, I’ll take suggestions and recommendations from people on an album I should listen to… in this case, my co-worker Ebony declared in a recent Facebook post that this was a “fiyah ass album”. Now, tracks from this album had shown up in some of my Spotify playlists, and they really didn’t register with me individually, but based on Ebony’s recommendation, I decided to give the entire project a listen. So… here we are, talking about the debut album from 28 year old DC native born Courtney Salter. She’s been out there a couple of years, having signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville label, where she released her debut EP PHO in 2016, and a handful of singles in advance of this album (which, oddly, none appear here).
I’m not sure I should even be listening to this album; after all, the opening track “Chicago Boy” (which I’ve jokingly said is about me) has a spoken word outro where she tells “all the niggas in here, leave, please, on the count of three because I need to talk to my bitches“. Well, I decided to shower in my Old Spice Moisture formula (recall the commercial with Deon Cole fighting with his woman over his body wash), which contains shea butter, and sit down and listen. This album, if you’re a guy, is like being a fly on the wall of a twentysomething woman’s summit on life and love. There’s lots of P ‘n D talk here, kicked off by that first track, which details her exploits with a guy she met at a CVS in my hometown while on tour; several of the other tracks, like “BMO” (which nicely uses a plucked violin for its’ main musical accompaniment), “Up Late” (where she details everything down to the lingerie she bought at Target) and the title track follow this same blueprint. “Broke” talks of her previous financial state, while “New Apartment” talks of domestic freedom… “I just got a new apartment / I’m gon’ leave the floor wet / Walk around this bitch naked (Woo) / And nobody can tell me shit…” but then ends by her kicking out a guy she invites into her domestic messiness when he has something to say about it, before turning around again and coming to the conclusion that she needs people… woooo… this and the following track “Facetime“, where she teases with a lover over her iPhone, are actually two of my favorite tracks. Later on, she details some failures in love in “I Been“, where she uses weed to try and get over a guy, and “Whipped Cream” (my other favorite track), which she uses to try and forget a guy she can’t get out of her head. In closing, “Static” brings her to the realization about a guy she found to be too imperfect to actually be the one she needs- she learned the lesson I’ve expressed to several women (some I’ve dated) with the “never settle” mantra: if you don’t settle for someone, you’ll settle for no-one… and I don’t think being by yo damn self was your goal, so get over yourself.
Overall, this is a project I’m glad I decided to explore… her musical vibe is Neo-Soul, rather than the trendy Trap, and if anything, she comes off as a less poetic, raunchier Jill Scott, in my opinion. I got to see Jill live (for free) when she was promoting her debut Who is Jill Scott? back in 2000; Ari is on tour now, but according to Ebony, ticket prices to see her are too expensive … I’m happy to just enjoy her album. Here is the video for “Whipped Cream“…
This is the sophomore release from a young man at the forefront of the third generation of artists to come forth from what’s considered the second Royal Family of Reggae… after the Marleys, of course. Jemere (pronounced ‘Je-meer-ray”) is the son of Gramps Morgan, who is part of the group Morgan Heritage, which is named after the family patriarch and Jemere’s grandfather Denroy Morgan, who’s best known for his 1981 hit R&B single “I’ll Do Anything for You“.
Being raised in the Atlanta area, Jemere was exposed to other styles of music, which he consequently infuses into his own; you’ll hear elements of Hip-hop and R&B in his music, although it also remains true to Reggae roots. Lyrically, he comes off as a sort of ambassador to those in the coming-of-age years where he also finds himself- kinda like a Luciano for millennials. The lead track from the album, “Troddin’” basically details a young man trying to find his way in the world; other tracks also attempt to provide a roadmap of sorts through life, beginning with the title track, where he he declares “there’s nothing wrong with having self-confidence“, but maintaining humility is a must. Other tracks like “Mind Your Business” and “Follow Your Dreams” are pure directives, while “Cool & Bad” echoes back to the title track with its’ fierce one drop riddim- it was the first track to which I gravitated. “Victory Lap” is a dancehall stormer that closes out the album, a track that anticipates his success, again echoing the sentiments of the album’s title, while “Good Time” is that party song you’re liable to hear coming out of bars worldwide, with the sentiment “let’s smoke and have a good time“. Finally, there is the track “Favorite Song“, which has the slightest hint of Country, but also has a lot of crossover appeal.
Jemere appears poised to to take the second Royal Family into the second fifth of the 21st Century and keep them on the radar of Reggae fans; he’s all about the positive vibes and love, the hallmark of the entire genre. I’m taking the journey with him, and I think you should ride with him, too… here is the video for “Troddin’“….
The sixth studio album from 35 year old multi-faceted Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus or FlyLo, follows up his 2014 album You’re Dead. It is a 27 track star-studded offering that offers further proof of the endlessly fertile mind of its’ producer.
As you might expect with so many tracks, there are a lot of interludes, snippets, and unfinished ideas; in short, it’s a musical collage, which is something of a trend these days, for better or worse. About one-third of the album are tracks of longer than 3 minutes in duration, and they, to me, are the most interesting… I hate getting into a groove, and then it abruptly ends. Among his high profile collaborators are George Clinton on the Funkadelic sounding “Burning Down the House“, Anderson Paak on the single “More“, Solange and Robert Glasper on “Land of Honey“, rapper Tierra Whack on the wack “Yellow Belly“, and Swedish electronic band Little Dragon on “Spontaneous“. Among some of his other guests are fellow musical collagist Thundercat on “The Climb“, which to me, is the album’s best track; my guy Chaz Bear, aka Toro y Moi, guests on “9 Carrots“, and filmmaker David Lynch does narration on the first single released from the album, “Fire Is Coming“.
As with some other albums that collect numerous ideas and sequences them together (e.g. Solange’s latest album), it takes a few listens to fully digest and learn to appreciate the project; once you get it, though, you’ll feel well rewarded for making the effort… here’s the video for “More“…
Fresh off of receiving a GRAMMY for best Reggae album for his collaboration with Sting, 44/876, Shaggy returns with his latest solo album, his 14th album overall, and first since 2013’s Out of Many, One Music. Mr. Boombastic, now 50 years of age, was hot back in the mid-90’s, where he earned that name, and absolutely sizzlin’ around 2000, when he released Hot Shot, his album that went 6x platinum. He hasn’t been able to duplicate that success over the years since, but, like Sean Paul, he’s still out there.
When listening to this album, you can almost pick out the songs that’ll be released as singles; the easiest and most obvious way, to me, is that on those songs, Shaggy turns down the amount of patois he uses – you can hear clear, plain English in “When She Loves Me” which features fellow dancehall artist Rayvon, “You” featuring Alexander Stewart (see the video below), and “Friends” featuring Gene Noble – it’s no coincidence these three songs are sequenced one behind the other. Geared more towards his native Jamaican audience are tracks like the opener “Caribbean Way“, Money Up” featuring Noah Powa, and the raunchy “Supernatural” featuring Stacy Barthe and Shenseea. On other tracks, he gets inspirational on the Gospel-influenced “Praise“, and on “Live“, gives us a little Reggaeton by featuring Nicky Jam on “Body Good“, and tries to appeal to the ratchet crowd with “Use Me” and “Makeup Sex” featuring Nyanda. Actually, my favorite track here is the short closing track “Frenemy“.
Shaggy has pretty much perfected the art of combining Dancehall and Pop together, as he’s been doing this for 25 years; I just wonder if anyone is listening to him these days. There’s some good stuff here-I actually prefer the harder stuff over the accessible stuff he’s trying to sell to the American market. There were a couple of tracks that I thought weren’t age appropriate for him to be doing at this stage of his career, but he’s still trying to appeal to everybody… nothing wrong with that, I suppose…. here’s the video for “You“…
This is the debut album from Los Angeles native Fontaine, a female singer/songwriter with a man’s name and a style that recalls Jane Birkin, Bridgette Bardot, and old Bond movies. As the story goes, she went to London to get over a failed relationship, and just happened to go into a record store near the apartment where she was staying, and was subsequently exposed to old Bossa nova and other Brasiliera styles, as well as classic Trojan, Studio One and Treasure Isle Reggae 45’s; being a songwriter and suddenly smitten by these tropical sounds, she decided to put her songs of lost love to these styles of music.
What we have here is an album of 10 tracks, split right down the middle, with the first half being classic early 70’s Reggae, and the second half devoted to Bossa nova. Along for the ride is a who’s who of session musicians, including (on the Reggae side) guitarist Tony Chin, who’s played with King Tubby, Dennis Brown, and many others, Ronald McQueen, who used to be the bassist for Steel Pulse, Ziggy Marley’s drummer Rock Deadrick, and (on the Bossa nova side) drummer Airto Moreira, Flora Purim’s bassist Andre de Santanna, and Sergio Mendes’ percussionist Gibi dos Santos. The music, especially on the Reggae side, was produced to replicate the production values of the early 70’s, so to our high-def trained ears, it can sound like it was recorded in a tunnel, with a lack of high end; the Bossa side is better EQ’d. Claude’s song delivery is that cool, unaffected, and relatively flat vocal that evokes early 60’s cool- it works well on the Bossa songs, because we’ve heard that style on tracks by Jobim and others; you haven’t really heard Reggae sung like that, though, so it takes a little getting used to. When you think about it in the context of the period of time the music and her style covers, though, it actually works well.
Overall, the album is OK… don’t know that I’ll buy it as a whole, but I do like the lead track from the album”Cry for Another” a lot, as it perfectly captures what she’s trying to do… here’s the video…