VP Records has released a definitive set chronicaling its 40 years of bringing Jamaican music to the world. Down In Jamaica is a 94-track box set with 24-page booklet and art cards detailing the hits, rarities, and history of the world’s largest reggae label.
If you’re like me your main exposure to reggae is Bob Marley’s greatest hits, plus maybe UB40’s hits. If so, this set will be a revelation. If you’re already a big reggae fan and follower, I bet you’ll still find a lot of sweet surprises here.
I tend to say I’m not a big reggae fan, but that kind of stance ignores the ubiquity of this music and the social forces it represents. It’s easily the most popular form of music in the American tropics and many parts of Africa as well, plus huge swaths of urban America, Europe and the UK (where they would say “swathes”). Everybody from the Beatles to Willie Nelson has dabbled in it, and reggae and hip-hop have what seems to be an infinite feedback loop going in which both forms influence each other, not to mention punk, R&B, EDM, jazz and more. I was amazed at the variety of forms this music has taken as I listened to this huge selection of tracks.
VP refers to this box as “The definitive anthology of the company that helped bring reggae and dancehall to the US and beyond.” The label began as a store, Randy’s Records in Kingston in 1958. Then it moved (as did so many Jamaicans) to New York. After a brief stint in Brooklyn in 1977-78, VP (named for the company’s Chinese-Jamaican founders Vincent and Patricia Chin) settled in Jamaica, Queens.
The set isn’t a bunch of deep or obscure tracks, but rather hit songs by some top artists. It’s taken almost exclusively from singles, which were the main form in which the music was produced. The 94 tracks feature 101 artists on four CDs plus four seven-inch singles and four 12-inch singles.
What are my favorites? So far, “When I See You Smile” by Singing Sweet, the then-teenaged Paul McFarlane. Its beat and the singer’s phrasing sounds more like Carnival samba than reggae; it’s a simply arranged track with just beats, vocals, and some synth percussion with an occasional synth keyboard chord echoing into the distance. Sounds like he made it in his bedroom with a Casio, except it’s got good fidelity.
Next is one by Lady Saw, “I’ve Got Your Man,” a classic girl-to-girl put-down or toasting song, with the naughty bits censored on this one. But the meaning’s clear enough. Again it’s a fairly simple arrangement with dub-style bass, some acoustic guitar, beats, and some backing vocals behind the singer, now known as the Grammy-winning Marion Hall.
I also love:
- Johnny Clarke’s “Roots Natty Congo,” a statement of identity: “We are African, born in America” and solidarity with his Canadian and U.K. counterparts, “We are African, born in England,” etc., to a simple arrangement, beats, rhythm guitar, bass and a couple of horns.
- Ranking Joe’s “River Jordan” which looks forward to hip-hop as it subverts gospel roots.
- Frankie Paul’s ode to a specific strain of weed, “Kushumpeng.”
- The ghostly chromatic harmonica and heavy dub bass in the languid “Prison Oval Rock” by Barrington Levy, who has a beautiful smooth R&B-style tenor.
- Yellowman’s jaunty “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” has the most fun title ever, but this is a great arrangement, the vocals forward and rap-like, with occasional horns and wah-wah guitar adding color.
I obviously go for the more acoustic and old-school tracks. But there’s something for every reggae fan here. Some of the tracks that feature cheesy keys and blipping synths are pretty infectious, though, like Leroy Gibbon’s highly stylized “Magic Moment,” a truly outlandish arrangement of Doc Pomus’s classic “This Magic Moment.” Gibbon’s vocals swoop from dizzying tenor heights to a deep baritone that’s inflected like some Nashville country star’s. Stuff like “Miss Goodie Goodie” with its Cookie Monster-style vocals is an acquired taste, but this one has some lovely interludes featuring sweet vocals on snippets of covers like “Oh Girl.”
And there’s lots of outright spirituality like Morgan Heritage’s “Down By The River,” an unabashed celebration of God in Nature. Etana’s “Blessing” is flat-out modern R&B, pouring sexy lyrics into a gospel-based template.
And much more. If you want to expand your reggae horizons, Down In Jamaica is the way to go. You can read more about it and order it on VP’s website.
(VP Records, 2019)