This article might be an unusual one for Freaky Trigger. It won’t offer much in the way of analysis; it won’t put forward any grand or foolish theories; personal reminiscence will be kept to a minimum; I have no expert knowledge to drop and I don’t want to change your mind about anything. All I want to do is celebrate a wonderful series of albums which have given me hours and hours of pleasure over the last year. Soul Jazz Records’ Dynamite! Series (100% Dynamite, 200% Dynamite, and so on) are beautiful collections and masterclasses in now to compile and present a compilation album. They’ve changed the way I hear Jamaican music and have opened my ears up to a lot more of it. Here’s how.
First of all we need to think a bit about how Jamaican music generally gets presented to novices like me. The story of the island’s music is a complicated one, and even the most reductive history has to acknowledge a thickness of interlocking styles and approaches – ska, rocksteady, rockers, roots reggae, dub, toasting, dancehall, and so on… then within each of those there’s a huge diversity of themes and lyrical emphases and playing and singing styles. All fighting and swiping from and paying respect to each other, down forty years of Jamaican history. But five years ago my secret opinion – though I’d never have said as much – was that basically ‘reggae’ all sounded the same.
Now I knew there was more to Jamaican music, and I knew the problem was with what I was listening to and how I was listening to it – but how on Earth to find a way in? Unless you had the money to splash out on the Tougher Than Tough box set there wasn’t much you could do to get a taste of how rich the music was. I tried single-artist albums but found them hard work – my ears hadn’t got past the stuff which made reggae a separate thing to, say, rock (i.e. the rhythm), and so spotting variations between songs was beyond me. Burning Spear’s much-respected Marcus Garvey loped by in a wailing haze of Babylon-Zion-Jah-slavery-rivers-captivity-dread. Nor could I feel much of anything about individual tracks: I just didn’t have the musical vocab.
Specialist compilations weren’t much better – most comps of Jamaican music stick to a single style, for coherence and because they’re aiming at a public that knows what they like. In the mid-90s, what the serious music fan liked, it seemed, was dub with a side order of roots. Simon Reyolds wrote a piece for The Wire a couple of years ago suggesting that the stoner sound-as-sound aesthetics of 90s dub fans kept the deep and religious concerns of roots music out of the critical spotlight – but to an outsider like me it all seemed pretty forbidding, dour even. Despite its rhythmical force, the music reissued on labels like Blood And Fire gave the impression at a distance of being music for contemplation, or communion. And great though the records might be for that, it wasn’t what I wanted. (One upshot of this was that I decided, arrogantly, that I didn’t much like dub.)
I knew reggae was a pop music too, though, so I took a look at some of the chart-oriented compilations – The Best Reggae Album In The World…Ever, you know the kind of thing. A lot of the songs on those were excellent, but such things tend to have a strong bias towards the contemporary, and so the tracklisting would be heavy on the Marley, UB40, and Shaggy – none of them favourites of mine. I’m not a purist by any means – I love it when pop or dance acts grab their inspiration from Jamaican music, but there’s a big difference between Madness jollying up ska rhythms or No Doubt doing a dancehall track, and the kind of supper-club standards Ali Campbell trotted out. (It’s the difference between exploiting the ‘exotic’ because it is exotic, and trying to make the ‘exotic’ less so.)
I knew individual tunes and loved them. “Uptown Top Ranking”, for instance, a tempting glimpse into a world where superficially familiar things – teenage girl singers, verses and choruses, the idea of ‘cool’ – suddenly seemed new. Some of it was the slang – there’s nothing quite as exciting as hearing English and not knowing what it means, and understanding it anyway. Some of it was the offhandedness – the feeling that the musicians and the girls were just knocking this stuff out, that in the next two hours they might have easily laid down ten more classics which we never ever got to hear. The idea that there was a world next to the one I knew, where this easy genius promised to be commonplace – but how to get there?
Along, at last, come Soul Jazz. The Dynamite series rests on two obvious great ideas and a few more subtle ones. The first great idea is to make compilations which emphasise reggae as pop music, dance music, social music, hit music, but which are based on – duh – the Jamaican charts not the British ones. This was sort-of the approach taken by Trojan in the late 60s and by Greensleeves now, except their samplers were and are snapshots of the island’s pop music at a given time (as RIGHT NOW as possible, basically). And the second great idea of Soul Jazz’s series was to not confine themselves by time or genre – anything from the earliest Jamaican R’n'B to the freshest Dancehall could in theory be covered, and made to work together by a skilful compiler.