Even before they became a band, the members of the Skatalites were already trendsetters on the Jamaican music scene. As session players, they drove countless hit records in the early ’60s and are widely credited with inventing ska, a mixture of R&B and mento (a Jamaican pop form), the heavy afterbeats of which are considered the building blocks of reggae. Saxophonist Tommy McCook assembled the group in 1964, gathering together some of the island’s most inventive instrumentalists, among them fellow saxman Roland Alphonso and noted jazz trombonist Don Drummond. Although the Skatalites were together only 14 months, they cut some of the most memorable singles of the ska era, ranging from jazzy, adventurous tracks such as “Nimble Foot Ska” to surging, anthemic numbers such as “Guns of Navarone” (a Top 40 hit in Britain). After disbanding, most of the musicians went back to session work, though Alphonso developed a successful solo career. There have been several Skatalite revivals over the years, including a current version led by McCook.
Although best known for his film performance as Ivan in 1973’s The Harder They Come, Cliff was an established star – both as singer and as songwriter – long before he made it into movies. He cut his first single, “Daisy Got Me Crazy,” at age 14 and within a year had a No. 1 Jamaican hit with “Hurricane Hattie.”
In 1964, Cliff was signed by Island Records; he moved to Britain, where his perky “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” became a major hit. Despite his chart success, Cliff was mostly known as a songwriter; Bob Dylan, for one, declared Cliff’s “Vietnam” “the best protest song ever written.” With the 1972 soundtrack release of The Harder They Come, Cliff became a major attraction in Europe, Africa and South America, though his conversion to Islam caused some muttering among fans at home. Still, his eclectic talent led to unexpected collaborations, like with Kool and the Gang and with Robin Williams in the 1986 film Club Paradise.
TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS
Thanks to their 1968 hit, “Do the Reggay,” Toots and the Maytals are widely credited with having coined the term reggae, but the group already had five years of chart history behind it when it cut that single. Most of the Maytals’ earnest work was strongly spiritual, in part reflecting the Baptist-choir youth of frontman Frederick “Toots” Hibbert. But by the late ’60s that sound had transmogrified into something far more earthy and soulful, as Hibbert’s vocals lent a fevered, Otis Redding-like urgency to such singles as “54-46” – a song inspired by Hibbert’s jailing on marijuana charges – “Pressure Drop” and “Funky Kingston.” More recently, 1988’s Toots in Memphis found Hibbert backed by top-notch players from both Kingston, Jamaica, and Memphis, Tenn.
Born Neville Livingston, Bunny Wailer is the least celebrated – though hardly the least talented – of the original Wailers. He began singing with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh in 1960; the trio’s first recording was “Simmer Down” (in 1963), for Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, a major producer on the early reggae scene. Never one for live performance and even less enamored of travel, Bunny left the Wailers not long after the group’s first tour of the U.S. and Britain. While in the group, he had cut several singles as Bunny Livingston but had changed his name to Wailer by the time his first solo album, Blackheart Man, was released in 1976. Although his songwriting is neither as visionary as Marley’s nor as sharply politicized as Tosh’s, Wailer has the strongest pop instincts of the three and has had steady success since “Cool Runnings” topped the Jamaican charts in 1981. Nor has he had any difficulty keeping up with current trends in reggae; indeed, his most recent recordings have been a concerted attempt to inject traditional rasta morality into the dance-hall sound.
With his wan, mournful voice and fondness for preaching the ways of righteousness, Burning Spear was almost born to the role of Rasta visionary. Born Winston Rodney – he took his nom de reggae from Kenyan statesman Jomo Kenyatta – he began his recording career in 1969 but didn’t have any substantial success until the mid-’70s, when his loping, bass-heavy “rockers” style caught on with the general public.
Marcus Garvey, released in 1975, epitomizes that sound, with Spear’s languid vocals riding a lean, driving groove that added haunting power to songs like “The Ghost” and “I and I Survive (Slavery Days).” Generally considered his greatest work, it was so popular at the time that a full-album dub version, Garvey’s Ghost, followed it onto the market. Since then, he has continued to voice “the cry of the people for the people” through such work as Social Living (1978), People of the World (1986) and the current The World Should Know.
U Roy (Ewart Beckford) began his career as a sound-system DJ, “toasting” (the Jamaican predecessor to rap) over records to push dance crowds to their peaks. In 1968 he was hired by producer King Tubby and immediately became an integral part of Tubby’s sound. In 1970 at Tubby’s urging, U Roy cut a single of his own, “Wake the Town,” which was an instant smash. Initially frenzied and anarchic, U Roy’s style cooled down in the ’80s as the toaster turned to the slower, heavier sound of dub. Still at work today, U Roy has moved from his signature singsong style to actual singing.
One of the foremost exponents of lover’s rock, Brown is blessed with a lithe, crooning tenor that gives him a more-than-passing resemblance to Marvin Gaye, something that set many hearts aflutter in the reggae community. He started young, cutting his first single at the tender age of 13, and recorded extensively for producer Joe Gibbs in the early ’70s (his 1972 single “Money in My Pocket” was a hit in Britain). Midway through the decade, he teamed with Niney the Observer (Winston Holness) and the Soul Syndicate, whose hypnotic, dub-inflected sound drove Brown to new heights. But then, he has always known how to make the most of a rhythm section, regardless of whether the groove is roots deep (as on the 1979 album Words of Wisdom), crossover slick (as on 1981’s Foul Play) or bass heavy and dub wise (as on 1984’s Promised Land). His current recordings find him coping quite capably with today’s dance-hall rhythms.
For a time, Black Uhuru came closer to matching the international success of Bob Marley’s Wailers than any reggae group of their generation. Founded in 1974 by Duckie Simpson, the group was a typical male-harmony trio until Sandra “Puma” Jones replaced Enrol Nelson in 1978. That added new color to the group’s sound, while the introduction of rhythm team Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare definitively changed its fortunes. With Michael Rose’s near-cantorial vocals leading the way on the 1981 album Red, Black Uhuru presented a near-perfect combination of Rasta consciousness and roots-rocking groove, earning the group a substantial following outside Jamaica. But with a series of departures from ’85 on, their success was short-lived.
When rappers swapped a live-band sound for a lean, mean mix of drum machine and turntable, what emerged was called hardcore. When toasting DJs abandoned old-style dubs for a similarly minimal electronic sound, the hard-hitting result was dance hall. And Shabba Ranks (Rexton Rawlston Fernando Gordon to his mother) is by far the toughest sounding of the dance-hall DJs. With his bullfrog voice and flair for outrageous innuendo, he pushed the art of slackness to new heights. Though “Wicked in Bed” and a duet with a female singer named Krystal called “Twice My Age” scandalized some Jamaicans, the success they brought Shabba got the attention of Sony Music, which quickly signed him to a U.S. record deal in 1991. Though his thick patois is at times hard to follow, Americans had no trouble deciphering the rhythmic urgency of Top 40 hits like “Mr. Loverman” and “Housecall.”
Given dance hall’s macho belligerence and phallocentric sex talk, it’s interesting to note that dance hall has produced a number of female DJs. Perhaps the most promising of the bunch is Shelly Thunder, a New York City native whose first big hit, 1988’s “Kuff,” explained that when a man gets out of line, the best recourse is to “kuff” him – that is, whack him upside the head. Delivered with enough deadpan cool to be totally credible, “Kuff” struck many listeners as the perfect response to the testosterone excess of dance-hall DJs. The strength of Thunder’s other early singles, particularly “Small Horse Woman” and “Man Ah Rush Me,” suggest that the power of “Kuff” was hardly a fluke. Unfortunately, Fresh out the Pack, Thunder’s major-label debut in ’92, traded the raw edge of her previous work for a slick, sanitized approach that only muted her strengths.