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Bass Culture
Four New Reggae Compilations On Nascente Charlie Frame , September 6th, 2012 04:19

This Town is Too Hot! - Ska & Rocksteady Original 1960s Recordings
Boss Sounds - Early Reggae 1968-1972
When Reggae Was King - Roots, Rockers, DJs and Dub 1970 – 1980
Mash You Down - The Birth Of Dancehall 1978 – 1985

Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence, these four double-CD collections place the evolution of Jamaican music in its rightful historic context. Whereas before, if you were looking to dip your toes in the water you could either go for one of the many collections on Trojan, which would generally concentrate on a single aspect or era of reggae (Tighten Up, Dancehall '69, Let's Do Rocksteady etc.); or melt everything into a pleasing but random hotchpotch of styles (the 100% Dynamite series on Soul Jazz springs to mind). The Nascente comps differ in that they document Jamaica's music through four key eras, starting with 60s rocksteady and ska, moving on to the early days of reggae proper, through the powerhouse sounds of 70s roots and dub, all the way up to the digital age of 80s dancehall. Complete with liner notes detailing the background and history of Jamaica and its music, each comp chronicles the exponential rise of reggae from grass-roots movement to global phenomenon.

This tour through reggae's rich history provides welcome context and insight into the genre, but by far the best way to enjoy this set (assuming you're going to rush out and get the lot, which BTW you really should) is to whack all eight CDs into a playlist and hit shuffle. This, I promise, will banish any preconceived notions of 'sameness' or repetition in the sceptical listener. Spiritual soul ballads rub-up against fearsome ragga jams, funk-style grooves lollop alongside warped dub experiments. This collection gives anyone who's curious the chance to dive in and uncover a potential trove of firm favourites and hidden gems.

Of course these comps are more than just primers for new ears. Bass Culture eschews 'Red Red Wine' and 'Three Little Birds' favouring a less beaten path through the reggae timeline. So rather than carting out 'Israelites' for the umpteenth time, Desmond Dekker's high-clipped tones grace the much less heralded but still immensely poignant 'Fu Manchu'. Also by Dekker is the plucky chug-a-lug of 'Problems', a track so fluent in its unpredictable call-and-response vocal patter that it seems to defy songwriterly logic. I can safely say that the latter is now one of my favourite songs in any given genre. The Creations' 'Que Kue Shut' performs a similar trick, the intricate four-part vocal harmonies booming out of the mix in heavy patois. The quality is high throughout, particularly on the second volume of Early Reggae on which these tracks feature.

But let's skip back to the first volume - to the 60s beat of ska and rocksteady that preceded reggae. Here there are just as many treasures to be found. Derrick Morgan plays a star turn with the Buster All-Stars on 'Miss Lulu', his vocal melody rising and rising over the characteristically offbeat horns of the time. Bob Marley & the Wailers perform a sublime early take on the classic 'One Love', this time in a ska style as opposed to the well-known '70s roots version. Even before the advent of the dub b-side, instrumentals have always been popular with Jamaican audiences. This was particularly true of ska where ensemble bands such as the Skatalites (represented here on the tracks 'Doctor Kildare' and 'Dick Tracy') would keep dancehalls jumping for hours with their strong horn-driven melodies.

Jamaica has always enjoyed a healthy musical trade-off with the US, meaning reggae would reinvent itself about as frequently as rock and pop music through the decades. Sometimes this reinvention would be born from necessity; the hot Jamaican summer of '66 coupled with American soul's golden era replacing ska's sweaty upstroke with a more relaxed rhythm throughout the short-lived but extremely fruitful rocksteady era. The Paragons' 'Riding On A High And Windy Day' (featuring a young John Holt) sets the brooding tone indicative of the style. Meanwhile Errol Dunkley's soulful pining on heartbreaker 'Where Must I Go' is offset by a surprisingly sturdy backdrop of bouncing bass and muted guitar.

By the early-mid 70s reggae was a worldwide success story. Bob Marley was not only a huge music star, but also a prime social exponent – Jamaica's international poster boy for racial harmony, social justice and the Rastafari movement. As such, the third volume in this series sees a shift from soul and pop-influenced love songs and dance numbers towards a more explicitly spiritual, conscientious style. It could be said that this was when Jamaica gained its true musical voice, with songs relating to scripture, repatriation and revolution throughout. It was in this time that some of reggae's leading lights shone brightest, with very few voices being more celebrated than the honeyed tenor of Horace Andy who opens on 'Every Tongue Shall Tell'. The Gladiators' sublime 'The Mix-Up' calls for transparency and clear-thinking in the face of negative Babylonian forces. Meanwhile Pablo Moses decries the corrupt establishment on 'Blood Money'. Rasta was indeed a central influence on this period, with followers of the faith looking to their spiritual African roots for inspiration, both lyrically and musically. Cedric IM Brooks fuses roots, Ethiopian-inflected jazz and traditional Nyahbinghi drumming on 'Rebirth'. Elsewhere Burning Spear (best known for his celebratory tribute to black activist Marcus Garvey), tells on 'African Teacher' that although he no longer needs to attend school, he continues to learn about his Amharic heartland.

I was surprised to find only a sprinkling of straight-up dub tracks on this third volume. Being one of the most important developments, not just for reggae but for music around the world for decades to come, dub is conspicuous by its near-absence. That said dub's reputation often comes in danger of eclipsing the other exciting changes happening around this time. It's actually refreshing to hear some lesser-known tracks from the likes of Black Uhuru, Sugar Minott and Max Romeo, even at the expense of yet another Lee Perry dubplate. This after all, is also the era of the DJ – reggae toasters whose lively chatter was designed to provoke maximum response from the dancefloor.

By the late 70s DJ culture had transmuted into yet another style. Early dancehall may not have possessed the lyrical verbosity of its hip hop counterpart in the States, but this was hors sujet when considering the huge pivotal shift towards digital production that gripped reggae throughout the next decade. 'Mash You Down', the final volume in the series may be the weakest of the four releases but there are still enough essential tracks from the likes of Eek-A-Mouse, Wayne Smith and Yellowman to warrant your attention.

My only other complaint about this collection, and it's a small one at that, is: Why stop at 1985? It feels with 'Mash You Down' that we're only given a hint at what is to come. A fifth compilation featuring the best rarities and classics of the modern dancehall era would have been most welcome, but Nascente can be forgiven for wanting to stick to 'vintage' works.

As Early B insists on the dancehall rarity 'History Of Jamaica', "You have fi know 'bout your country", and in the case of reggae, the history of Jamaica is intrinsic – a fascinating, complicated story in which music plays a pivotal role. As such, whether you're a newbie or a reggae fanatic, I can't recommend these releases highly enough.