resumé | writing | other work | altitude | blog

return to index

Publication: The Independent ABC, August 2004

Two Cultute Clash: London Meets Jamaica on the dancefloor

The legends walk the streets in Jamaica, and they do so slowly. They move in the purposeful but nonchalant amble, as only Jamaicans can, along lanes walled in corrugated iron and past sleeping dogs to pull up a wooden stool and toke ganja in the midday heat. In this instance the legend is the magnificently dreadlocked singer Big Youth, a contemporary of Bob Marley whose 54 years have narrated in song the variety of Kingston life, canonising what the world overseas understands as reggae – not so much a music genre as an entire mode and chronicle of Jamaican being.

Big Youth relaxes into the afternoon in Matthew’s Lane, a track deep in the anarchy of downtown Kingston whose humble appearance belies its importance the Jamaican political makeup. A tinderbox in the midst of Marley’s Concrete Jungle, in the past disputes here have been settled on the trigger of an M16; blood spilt underfoot, because Matthew’s Lane marks the frontline between the factional garrisons pledged to the island’s adversarial JLP and PNP parties.

Today the violence is gone, but the people like Big Youth remain, as does their happier legacy of music.

‘Bob Marley come to dis place for teaching; Marcus Garvey used to run around ere,’ he explains in a Patois as broad as his dreads are long. ‘Right now, there is love in Kingston, in Matthew’s Lane an’ Tivoli Gardens… everybody livin’ good, yeah? Nobody war, nobody gettin’ shot after nobody. That’s why after 30 years I could be sitting in Matthew’s Lane. As a man I live a public life so many years.’ He gestures around the shacks and painted walls. ‘This is my house, this is in mi born town. You have to stick to your roots.’

In the correct company, meetings like this - the equivalent of strolling around Liverpool and running into Paul McCartney – occur routinely in Jamaica. Visitors to the island often describe its sweltering, verdant and  ramschackle towns and jungles as being almost physically alive with music. Everyone you meet in the land of bass – and being the friendliest people on earth, you have no choice but to meet them – insists on the all-important ‘vibe’, which pulses from each backyard, shopfront, roadside shack, pub, car stereo, dancehall, nook, corner and cranny, weaving deep and wide in the fabric of island life.

There is literally nowhere Reggae isn’t played or heard. Jon Carter, the DJ and husband of Radio 1’s Sara Cox, who recorded in Jamaica recalls Sunday mornings where, ‘you can hear all the soundsystems playing reggae versions of gospel music when the sun comes up. It was incredible,’ he says, ‘like a gigantic dub church coming through the jungle.’

And it does so because its artists are the same as its street folk, people who never left the places and experiences that their music expresses. While musicians in the UK often seem content to recede after a run of success and then return as heritage acts in a 20-year cycle, a musical vocation in Jamaica means a job for life as an ambassador for the island’s soul. Big Youth, for example, has no idea how many songs he has ‘voiced’ in a career spanning 30 years. Probably thousands; the venerable dread has lost count. ‘I make so much music,’ he nods, ‘and I just live! I always record, always making sounds, yu ’ear? Life is just normal and natural, vibes and inspiration’.

Matchless in its productivity, innovation and enthusiasm, the tastes of Jamaica’s meagre population – just 2.5 million – exert an octopoid influence over global music culture that far exceeds any of its Caribbean neighbours, and only really tails the US and UK. Since hip hop has lapsed to become the global language of product placement , Jamaica’s native sounds are emerging again as heavier, blacker and more thrilling undertow led by figures like Sean Paul, Beenie Man and Shaggy who combine cast-iron credibility in ‘back a Yard’ with worldwide chart appeal.

But reggae’s assortment of evolutions since the Fifties - from early ska, bluebeat and rocksteady to dub, lovers’ rock and the digitized strains of dancehall and ‘bashment’ – have in particular fused a close bond with the UK, the island’s former colonial ruler, a two-way commerce in singers, producers and sounds in which has evolved the popularity of expatriate reggae in parallel with its native strain. No mere staging post on the promotional hamster wheel, communities in the UK have been affectionately nurtured by generations of reggae figureheads – Marley in the Seventies, Gregory Isaacs in the Eighties, Shabba Ranks in the Nineties and most recently the poppier figures above. Each August bank holiday when the Notting Hill Carnival ignites the capital’s smarter postcodes, Europe’s largest festival reveals the true colours of London’s underground tastes.

Reggae has long been an invisible DNA in music made within these shores, its thread of influence discernible in The Specials and Madness as it is in names as grand as Soul II Soul, Massive Attack, and Basement Jaxx. And while the less said about 10CC’s ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ the better, it’s nevertheless true that the space and reverb of King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s cavernous dubs are as vital a template in British dance music as New York disco. Meanwhile, evolutions in dancehall by pioneers such as  Ninjaman, Supercat and Yellowman have determined the direction of the British-bred drum & bass, UK garage and ‘grime’ of Goldie, So Solid Crew, Ms Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal as much as American hip hop. Back in the early Eighties Brixton’s dub poet laureate Linton Kwesi Johnston declared ‘England is a bitch’: yet it’s a ‘bitch’ with a profound affinity for the music of a tiny island thousands of miles across the Atlantic.

“I was one of the first performers outta Jamaica that really strike London, I’m proud to say,’ Big Youth reflects. ‘We were the one who had the yout' getting up in lines to buys records. When we toured ’77, England was the place to go. European people love the real roots- where you speak the truth.’


A further truth is that the convergence comes vividly alive among the tracks of a new album, ‘Two Culture Clash’, which successfully pulls off an idea so blindingly obvious it’s astonishing nobody conceived of it before: pairing British electronic dance producers with Jamaican singers and DJs to make explicit the genetic link. An idea forged in a suitably transient place - -the departure lounge of Kingston’s Manley Airport - ‘Two Culture Clash’ was born when a mover – music biz executive and studio owner Jon Baker – met a shaker, Mark Jones, whose independent record label Wall Of Sound has pioneered groundbreaking dance music with artists including the Norwegian instrumentalists Royksopp.

Naturally, the idea presented a logistical nightmare. ‘It could’ve been a disaster,’ confirms Mark Jones. ‘But it could only have been made in Jamaica. I wanted people to meet face to face, and you can hear that in the music. Spiritually the link between the UK and Jamaica is there; everybody on each island is obsessed with music.’

‘Two Culture Clash’s ambition is matched by the calibre of performers. It coralls a prismatic, cross-generational squad of 16 Jamaican singers (technically ‘DJs’) out of Jon Baker’s extensively well-connected Rolodex – terminally active veterans like Big Youth, Horace Andy and Ernest Ranglin alongside established blades (Barrington Levy, Patra, General Degree, Innocent Crew) with newer names including Ce’cile, Miss Thing, Spragga Benz and the gladiatorial Ward 21 crew (named after the psychiatric wing of Kingston’s University Hospital). Meanwhile 13 producers from the undergrowth of dance music were flown into Baker’s Geejam studio complex in the jungle above Portantonio, among them Mercury Prize winner Roni Size, Jon Carter, Justin Robertson and Jacques Lu Cont, the widely-fancied young producer who moonlights Madonna’s bassist.

The fusioneering began in January, with all involved eager to explore dance music’s secret affair with reggae. What results is a collection whose nuances extend far beyond the chart-friendly One-Loveisms of Marley by which mainstream audiences have traditionally understood reggae. ‘The people making the music have a great idea,’ Big Youth told me. ‘Some of the beats remind me of  the ska. These youts have vision… it’s a joy man.’

The tortuous rhythmic complexities of dancehall – a sound often as incomprehensible to Anglo-Saxon ears as to the feet – evolve anew on songs like Motorbass & Innocent Crew’s rabblerousing ‘Get Crazy’, or Roni Size & Spragga Benz’s ‘Knock Knock’. Some of tracks are notable for their pairings: Big Youth’s ‘Rudie No’ is a goodtime skank produced by West London Deep, a former skinhead. Others surprise in their execution: U2 producer Howie B and Horace Andy’s ‘Fly High’ drifts between flickering dub and the trip hop of Massive Attack.

‘To be honest, the fusion is crazy,’ notes General Degree, a wiry and somewhat perplexed 32-year-old DJ, who describes his track with Jacques Lu Cont as ‘acid house’.  ‘You’re hearing dancehall, you’re hearing the techno vibe as well and you’re hearing people like Big Youth from the early days of reggae. And it’s good to work from that time to the now - when people hear the LP, they know it’s a two-culture clash.’ It’s arguably more than that: a muscular, thrilling mix multiculture-clash of ages, races and geography, it seems guaranteed to fire soundssystems on whichever side of the Atlantic.


Recorded at Jon Baker’s Geejam studios – where banks of ultrahigh-tech music equipment bleep and wink in plushly-appointed wood huts overlooking the sea - ‘Two Culture Clash’ also illustrates other convergences in the musicmaking process. Reggae artists are the fittest musicians on earth, forged by a discipline of relentless productivity through the fiercely competitive studio systems and studio circuit, where singers are paid a flat fee to ‘voice’ (record) ‘sides’ (tracks).

Traditionally in Jamaica, the ‘riddim’, or instrumental track, is star of the show. At any one time hundreds of riddims can be vying for attention with singers recording a ‘version’ of each, leading to a curious situation in which the dancehall public can enjoy effectively the same song sung by hundreds of different artists (current riddims are ‘Chrome’, ‘Rebirth’, ‘Mad Guitar’, ‘Thriller’ and ‘Blackout’ ).

Yet the established network of island studios – King Jammy’s, Penthouse, Music Works – is being challenged by a new generation of bedroom-based studio set-ups, where cheap computer technology allows of the kind of DIY productivity that directly spawned the boom in dance music in the UK of the Nineties.

‘A lot of British producers are enormously influenced by Jamaican music,’ reflects Justin Robertson, an English techno DJ with a deep affection for reggae. ‘There are techniques and styles that I’ve always tried to use: the sparseness and space, and there’s a lot of common ground between the  way dancehall is being made and electronic producers.’

‘Now, things get so advanced, a studio could be right here in your backyard, explains the singer Bling Dawg, the voice of City Hi Fi’s track ‘Ole’. ‘I’ve seen guys recording a dubplate in a car on [computer music application] Protools. That’s Jamaica man – it’s always competition down there. You could write five songs and that would last one day. It makes you real sharp as an artist – you always gotta be on it.’

‘Its crazy,’ concurs 28-year-old Ce’cile, a singer whose full-frontal lyrics contrast with her extremely sweet demeanour. ‘”Competitive” doesn’t do justice to it.’

But music by any means necessary is the unspoken code here, and this hot afternoon GeeJam’s in-house engineering team, Tkae Sanchez and Al Borosie, a 28 year-old rastafarian of Italian origin, are guiding the veteran Jamaica guitarist Ernest Ranglin through his take for Justin Robertson’s ‘Save Me’.

The tapes begin to turn, and 72-year-old Ranglin – a thoughtful, quiet fellow - spontaneously and note-perfectly complete his take on one go, having never heard the song before. The packed studio afternoon duly breaks into applause, and an electrical storm sparks above the sea outside. He looks up with a smile, and says ‘shall I do some more?’ A more dynamic and harmonious ‘clash’ of the Anglo-Saxon and the Caribbean it’s impossible to imagine.

‘That was the greatest musical experience of my life,’ a breathless Robertson later tells me. ‘Ernest Ranglin is a particular hero of mine - it’s not often you get to work with someone as instinctive. The attitude is that the performance is all, so the people give it their all.’

Which is why in Jamaican today as in London during the Notting Hill Carnival, music is a living thing, as immediately sensory as the fug of ganja smoke it regularly floats in with. When the artists who worked on ‘Two Culture Clash’ retired, as they did night after night, to the dark, shuddering dancehall called The Roof in the nearby town of Portantonio, it feels yet more alive. Like the legends, it seems to walk beside you in the street.

You watch the crowds move to the sound of Cutty Ranks and General Degree, Sizzla and Lee Perry, and you see a bottle of Foreign Export Guinness on the bartop vibrate in time with the world’s heaviest music. The vibrations seem to reverberate up out of the very ground beneath your feet.

© Kevin Braddock


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

website designed and built by JetLabs Ltd.