People’s choice

Pub date March 13, 2007
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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"We ram dancehall and cork party / Papa Jammy in your area."

Johnny Osbourne

The 1980s was a turbulent decade in Jamaica. Government control had shifted from Michael Manley’s socialist-leaning People’s National Party to Edward Seaga’s free market–oriented Jamaican Labour Party. As Prime Minister Seaga tilted the country’s foreign policy to the right, American political and economic meddling in the region, combined with the nascent drug trade from Colombia to Miami via Jamaica, threw the island into flux.

Against this backdrop, in the Kingston ghetto enclave of Waterhouse, record producer and engineer Lloyd "King Jammy" James embraced the emerging digital reggae era and became its king. E-mailing from his office in London, reggae historian and author David Katz asserts that it was James who revolutionized Jamaican music overnight in 1985 with the release of Wayne Smith’s "Under Mi Sleng Teng," precipitating the shift from analog to digital. None of the precious few digital rhythms that came before "Sleng Teng" had its tremendous impact; Katz notes, "Jammy was the one who embraced the use of technology in its totality, in such a way as to be far in front of his rivals."

James honed his talents in the 1970s, working alongside another major production figure, Osbourne Ruddock, otherwise known as King Tubby. While assisting Tubby, James moonlighted and recorded albums for Black Uhuru and Johnny Osbourne. By the mid-’80s, James was ready to strike out on his own, and he recruited several impressive vocalists and toasters from his neighborhood.

Indeed, James is revered as much for his ability to discover raw talent as for his innate mixing skills. You’ll find visual evidence of the latter in several recently posted YouTube videos that show James executing dub versions of songs by Smith, Johnny Clarke, and others. Seeing James use all 10 fingers on the faders certainly authenticates his mastery. Now VP Records has released another document that reveals James’s genius.

The New York label has amassed a four-double-disc collection of King Jammy 12-inch single releases, circa 1985 to 1988. Selector’s Choice organizes each batch of recordings by "riddim," or common backing instrumental, which enables club and radio DJs to easily play several different artists with the same musical arrangement consecutively. For instance, disc one features the Tempo riddim with individual songs by Nitty Gritty, Pad Anthony, and Tonto Irie, and also the Stalag riddim with work by Smith, Osbourne, and Dean Frasier. The collection is a DJ’s nirvana.

Other chapters in Selector’s Choice show the evolution of Jammy’s roster from a primarily vocalist-focused endeavor — composed of reggae legends Nitty Gritty, Little John, and Tenor Saw — to a toaster-oriented team with key artists such as Ninjaman, Admiral Bailey, Major Worries, and Shabba Ranks. On the phone from his still-Kingston-based studio, James explains that back in the day, aspiring artists lined up down the block, drawn to his yard by the amount of good riddims the studio produced. "We never kept anybody out," he says. "We invited everybody to come in."

Katz notes that the toasters James attracted added value to his stable. "[Toasters such as] Josie Wales were very influential," Katz says of the Wild West–inspired micsmith. "Josie had style, verve, wit, and longevity, and he spoke of reality but was also humorous." Wales inspired fellow toaster Admiral Bailey, who became tremendously popular in dancehall with his rapid rhymes, producing hits for Jammy such as "Big Belly Man," "Jump Up," and "No Way Better Than Yard," all included on Selector’s Choice. Bailey in turn shaped James’s biggest find, Shabba Ranks, who later went on to greater popularity and a Grammy award on the Digital B label, with Jammy’s apprentice Bobby "Digital" Dixon at the helm.

But as Selector’s Choice deftly proves, James was the dominant hitmaker between 1985 and 1989, a reign born partially out of a love for his profession. James describes producing music during the mid-’80s as a joyful experience, one that saw him craft hits almost daily. "It was a very good [studio] environment," James says. "All the artists, producers, everybody used to live close, like a family. We used to cook and eat [together], go in the studio, and work hard."

A hard workday typically entailed building two or three new riddims with musicians Wycliffe "Steelie" Johnson and Cleveland "Clevie" Brownie or with Smith, and then voicing artists into the night. James kept his personal living quarters in the same building as his studio, so at the end of the session he could just walk a few meters to the bedroom and catch some z’s. Music journalist Rob Kenner relays personal details such as these — and the backstory of each song — in Selector’s Choice‘s liner notes. Kenner’s revelations about the dual meanings of tracks such as Nitty Gritty’s "Hog in a Minty" and Major Worries’ "Babylon Boops" add another layer to the greatness of James’s productions.

Many label compendiums try to account for every session, take, and rough draft a producer laid hands on. Selector’s Choice instead packs its eight 20-song discs with true dancehall smashes, records that bear the unmistakable stamp and production ethic James uses to this day. He summed up his creative philosophy this way: "I’d rather do original music than covers, because I learned that you own that stuff and it lasts longer." *