Thursday, March 18, 2010

20 Best: Ragga records ever made

This was originally written for FACT magazine, but their site has been redesigned and unfortunately it got moved and totally mashed up in the process. Here's the original version for prosperity with links to the vids restored.

Tiger in his home studio 1987

Scene historians, music journalists and academics have produced reams of text and dozens of books dedicated to reggae, from ska/rocksteady and Studio One, 70's dub and roots to early dancehall and the digital revolution (even UK variants like Lovers Rock and Fast Chat get a look in), but these narratives come to a sudden stop once you hit the late 80's... a time when an uncompromising and often misunderstood new sound emerged from the studios of Kingston. This was the birth of one of the most exciting periods of dancehall music - the Ragga era.

In the wake of the Sleng Teng and the digital innovations spearheaded by King Jammy, a second wave of producers and deejays emerged on the scene during the late 80's/early 90's. Some were veterans whose careers had begun in the late 70's, others were fresh talents whose emergence coincided with the rise of the synthesiser and drum machine. Studio wizards like Bobby Digital, Dave Kelly, Patrick Roberts, Steely & Cleevie and many more obscure producers (many of whom started out working at Jammy's) were midwives to an explosion of sounds and labels which was fuelled by the availabilty of cheap music hardware. Eschewing the more bontempi-like sonic qualities of digital dancehall, this new sound was sleeker and more eclectic - and resulted in host of new rhythms and fresh vibes, formed through a more sophisticated use of technology rather than electronic re-versions of older strains of reggae.

This formalisation of new production styles and it's accompanying assembly line ethos required a new approach from vocalists and led to the almost complete ascendancy of the deejay. Singers were pushed into the background as hordes of unfamiliar names burst onto the scene to compliment the latest sounds. New heights (or depths) of slackness were reached as deejays found ever more outrageous ways to extoll the virtues of perennial themes: guns, gyals and ganja - and the always faddish dancehall scene was overwhelmed by novelty as deejays vied to become the next big thing, radically deconstructing the human voice in the process. From the guttural and gravelly to the whining and winding, to the rockstone and baritone... growls, screeches, tics, hiccups and yelps - any vocal extreme was accepted as long as it could hype up the dancehall and sell records.

Jamaica's sound of this period was an example of 'scenius' at its best. Uncontrived and functional music aimed at and driven by intimate interaction between artists and their audience and propelled by commercial successes - resulting in extremes of both experimentation and derivation as scene logic worked its magic. This flowering of output (about 5000 singles a year at it's peak) had a huge global impact, both on the emerging UK Jungle scene and on the US mainstream. Its a great irony that this, the most hardcore variant of reggae to date was also one of most commercially successful. Shabba, General Trees, Tiger, Lieutenant Stitchie, Capleton, Mad Cobra and Supercat were just some of the artists who were snapped up by majors - though most were quietly dropped as the 90's progressed.

Like everything in reggae, it's near impossible to draw definitive lines between sub-genres and scenes. The overtly digital style of production never vanished completely (and is in fact enjoying a European led revival at the moment), and the early 90's was also host to a resurgence in roots and conscious reggae, sparked by the enormous popularity of Garnet Silk. There is also some debate regarding the use of the term Ragga. Many think of it purely as a synonym for digital dancehall, and some argue that the term was never actually used in Jamaica. Whilst it is true that Ragga as a genre name was mainly propounded as a marketing tactic by UK labels such as Greensleeves, Fashion and Charm, I would suggest that such a glorious explosion of creativity deserves a moniker all of it's own. Ragga will always be a subset of dancehall, but it is one that is quite clearly differentiated from what came before by a fundamental shift in process, sounds and attitude, both from deejays and producers, and in my mind the term will always indelibly associated with the hardcore dancehall sound of the late 80's and early 90's.

NB: Since ranking these tunes proved impossible, I've simply thrown them up in a roughly chronological order. Further evidence of my indecisiveness can also be found after each entry where I've listed some tunes that didn't quite make the grade.

1: Admiral Bailey
(Jammys 1986)
The eureka moment! This slice of proto-ragga is the earliest tune to make it into this chart, and one that defined slackness for a whole generation of artists, as well as providing a revolutionary new rhythmic template. The Admiral's hit-making skills are renowned and Bailey maintained dominance over the dancehall scene for most of the late 80's, due (in large part) to his close association with Jammys. A massive hit in Jamaica despite being banned from the airwaves at the time, Bailey chats over Jammy's mento inspired riddim like some demented hustler attempting to entice customers into a strip club with his wheedling (and insanely catchy) chorus and breathless, whispered verses. A timeless riddim and a vocal hook which has been imitated repeatedly in the 20+ years since its release.
Pipped at the post:
Big Belly Man, Kill dem with it, Jump up, Della move

2: Major Mackerel
Read Jah bible/Preach the Gospel
(Crat 1988)
The term 'Novelty deejay' is usually considered to be an an insult - I'd argue that novelty has been a fundamental part of dancehall since the early 80's at least, and that many of it's brightest stars kick-started their careers with some kind of gimmick - either way, you cant really get more novel than Major Mackerel. Winner of the 1987 award for "the Artiste with the Most Unusual Style", Mackerel's idiosyncratic delivery certainly is unique, and though he rarely performs live these days, his tortured screeches, hiccups and growls still mash up dancehalls and soundclash when his 7"s or dubplates are dropped. This was a breakthrough tune for the deejay, and although the conscious lyrics sit slightly awkwardly with the bizarre vocals, the riddim, with its walking bassline and ramshackle percussion is a gloriously decrepit affair. Incidentally, if a deejay's success can be measured by his imitators, then the Major stands up quite well, having not just one - but 2 copycats: Lady mackerel and Minor Mackerel.
Pipped at the post: Pretty looks done, Duppy (with Colin Roach), Dutty Bungle

3: Flourgon & Ninja Man
Zig It Up
(Pickout 1989)

A classic combination here with Flourgon's sonorous tones providing the perfect compliment to an uncharacteristically restrained performance from the Don Gorgon. The sedate riddim has a dense looping feel to it (enlivened only by an intermittent mento melody hook), and this hypnotic vibe is enhanced by constant vocal repetition of the title - a vibe which give the few interludes and variations (like the occasional screeching background vocal) even more impact. This is a deep tune, and there's nothing else here that really sounds like it - evidence of the amazing range of styles encompassed by late 80's/early 90's dancehall.
Pipped at the post:
Bad boy tune (Flourgon), Murder Dem, Border clash, Bad boy no boy scout

4: Daddy Freddy
Them No Bad Like Me /Babaloo
(Fashion 1989)

Daddy Freddy was the worlds prime exponent of the raggamuffin style in the early 90's with his crossover hits 'Raggamuffin hip hop', and 'Ragga rock', the Mr Motivator styles of 'Ragga house' and the '92 LP 'Raggamuffin Soldier', but prior to his attempts to cash-in on the ragga phenomenon he produced a body of highly credible work, including digital killers on Vena, Blacker Dread, and this amazing tune on UK stalwart Fashion. Ostensibly a straightforward clash number which trumpets his superiority over the other deejays of the time, 'Babaloo' is elevated by the gloriously frantic gibberish novelty of the chorus ('babaloobabalaybabaloobabaloobabalaba-penomemnomenon'). Of course when Freddy claims that no deejay is 'bad like a me' he has a point seeing as he's best known outside dancehall circles for holding the Guinness world record for fastest rapper - which he attained alongside Roy Castle and Cheryl Baker on the BBC's record breakers show (of all places!)
Pipped at the post:
Tell dem ah Me, Bad Boy Patrol, Lef People Bizness

5: Gregory Peck
Pocoman Jam
(Steely & Clevie 1990)

Since Count Ossie first hooked up with Coxsone Dodd in the early 60's, reggae has drawn on traditional, cultural and religious influences for inspiration. In the late 80's/early 90's the source was 'Pocomania' an Afro-Christian sect which counts ritualised spiritual possession through dancing, drumming and singing amongst its practices. Lord Sassafras' started the trend 5 years earlier with'Pocomania Jump' and a heap of imitations followed, the most famous of which was this effort from Gregory Peck which sees the deejay riding a backing track that would turn out to be massively influential in later years as it became a primary rhythmic template for Reggaeton. Although he could hardly be considered to have ranked amongst the top tier of artists at the time, Peck's frenetic performance on this tune ensured his place in dancehall history, as well as cementing the status of the riddim as other deejays soon moved in to capitalise on it's popularity.
Pipped at the post:
Cu Oonuh (Reggie Stepper)
Koloko (Clement Irie), Oversize Mampie

6: Terror Fabulous & Daddy Screw
Bruk Wine Butterfly
(Madhouse 1992)

The Butterfly was a dance craze that swept Jamaica in the early 90’s, resulting in a riddim and a multitude of other tracks dedicated to it's steps. Madhouse and Dave 'Rudeboy' Kelly (also responsible for popularising the 'Bogle' dance with their superlative riddim of the same name) were one of the first out of the blocks with this effort from the Deejay combo of Fabulous and Screw. Humorously documenting the development of the new dance fads that 'gwaan outta street' ('...ya better caan dance butterfly/caw man stop Bogle and a point inna sky...'), as the Bogle was superseded by the Butterfly and Bruk wine. Galvanised by a playful synth hook, the tune hits you with a storm of dub echoes, panned barks, vocals samples, snares and hi-hats underpinned by some driving electro style ultra compressed kicks. There are only two tunes I know of on this riddim which is a real shame as it ranks amongst Kelly's best work.
Pipped at the post:
Watch who you drape up, No retreat no Surrender, Dont Murda me

7: Shabba Ranks
(Shang 1992)
(Official video here)
Probably the most famous deejay of all time, and the role model for all who came after, Shabba’s mainstream crossover success (and baggy pants) have always belied his hardcore credentials. On 'Tingaling', the Grammy kid indulges his penchant for playground songs with a sublime performance over a propulsive variant of the Bogle riddim replete with vocal FX and samples. This is Shabba at his most lyrically wicked, alternating between explosive exultations and taunting wordplay (‘...I am the don/to the biz we have the key/put the don to the key and turn ‘em in a donkey...’). During their famous feud in the early 90s, Ninjaman responded to this tune (‘...get a likkle m and then me add out the d... ...when we put the m together man we get a monkey... ...monkey so ugly man me gi him a Grammy...'), prompting a reply in turn from Shabba spar Risto Benji ('...tun we in a monkey/but we not a junkie...’). Clash master Ninjaman prevailed in the end of course...
Pipped at the post:
Caan dun, Love Punanny Bad, Trailerload of Girls

8: Buju Banton
Big It Up
(Madhouse 1992)
Shockingly innovative, 'Big it up' is an absolute masterclass in minimal production in which all but the barest essentials are stripped out. Driven by a skeletal tattoo of bass notes, the few sprinkles of percussion and melody that do feature only serve to highlight the riddim's spartan functionality. This sparse arrangement leaves plenty of room for Buju, whose performance is brilliantly manipulated by Kelly as he truncates the deejay's flow into short phrases by bookening them with cut up vocal samples every 2 bars - effectively forcing him to interact with the backing track rather than 'ride' over it. Probably the best riddim and the best vocal from a producer and deejay team who exemplified the sound of dancehall in the early 90's.
Pipped at the post: Batty Rider, Man fi dead, Bogle dance

9: Tiger
Yuh dead now
(Shocking Vibes 1992)

Tiger's vocal style is a truly awesome thing to behold - mumbled, mangled patois intermingle with witty asides and hysterical gibberish catch-phrases to create sublimely accomplished dancehall lunacy. It's practically impossible to transcribe the man's lyrics as even the short intro to 'Yuh dead now' suggests: ('Look pon my face good/look pon my face good/wha yu really tek mi for?/yuh think mi is a likkle dibby dibby skwaabz skwaabz?...'), but that doesn't really matter as it's the energy, humour and pure hype of the vocal that makes the tune so big (though it does make you wonder about his major label deal with Columbia). Tiger is also one of the many tragic figures in dancehall - a near-fatal motorcycle crash in 1994 resulted in serious brain damage and his premature retirement, stripping the scene of one of its most vital and refreshing performers.
Pipped at the post: When, Dress back, Rap Pon Riddim

10: Mad Cobra
(Penthouse 1992)

Superficially similar to the Mudd up, the 'Yush' riddim shows the other side of Dave Kelly's 90's productions - tunes dominated by whimsical melodies rather than stark frameworks of bass and percussion. Originally a 'carbon copy' of Ninjaman, Cobra managed to emerge from the Don Gorgon's shadow somewhat with this hit - his voice still sounds eeriely similar, and the subject matter is roughly the same ('..tell em yush/well that a bad boy talk/just come off a the gun hand before the machine kick off...') but the punctuated verses and catchphrase chorus are a far cry from Ninja's stuttering delivery. Cobra's style continued to evolve throughout the 90's and today he sports a deep baritone which makes him virtually unrecognisable as the deejay who recorded this tune.
Pipped at the post: Find & kill, Shot a talk, Mate no ready

11. Super Cat
Ghetto Red Hot
(Wild Apache 1992)

Despite being a JA soundsystem veteran from the late 70's on, Supercat really shot to fame after his move to New York in the early 90's and the subsequent string of major label and hip-hop crossover releases - presumably due to his (relatively) clear and comprehensible vocal style -noticeably similar to the most recent dancehall crossover success story: Sean Paul. Unlike his future uptown counterpart however, Supercat's subject matter was always hardcore - even after his mainstream success. 'Ghetto red hot' is the finest of his NY productions, originally released on his own label and then licensed to Columbia (hence the flashy video) and subjected to a so-so ragga hip-hop remix. Co-produced by Big Yard's Robert Livingston, the riddim features a basic Poco style beat with kicks aplenty and some 'Yush' style vocal clips - a simple but effective backing for Supercat's sing-along tale of rudebwoy braggadocio.
Pipped at the post: Don Dada, Mudd Up, Permit fi gun

12. Chaka Demus and Pliers
Murder She Wrote
(Taxi 1992)

Performed over another Reggaeton standard (the hypnotic 'Bam bam' riddim), 'Murder she wrote' is all about the vocal combination - Pliers' sweet voice contrasts perfectly with Chaka's gruff staccato to create one of Reggae's biggest party tunes. The moral tone of the lyrics jar with the good vibes somewhat though: ('...Now every middle of the year this a gal a have abortion/fi the coolie, white man, indian mus she kill an infant/an just the other day me see her six month pregnant/now she buk up sweeter guy with not a baby in a pram...') and I imagine this is the only anti-abortion song to ever make it into the UK top 30 - even it's hardly the only example of a dancehall tune with an undetected (and potentially unpalatable) message crossing over to become a hit... Some great yard fashion going on in that video nonetheless - the dancehall queen in the golden nappy is a personal favourite.
Pipped at the post:
Bad Bad Chaka, Ruff This Year, Workie workie

13. Cutty Ranks
Limb by Limb
(Fashion 1993)
Reminiscent of the 'Bam Bam', and running at about 100bpm, the 'Fever Pitch' riddim provides a deceptively relaxed backdrop (despite the brutal see-saw bass fills) to a tune that rightly deserves its place in the pantheon of great ragga tracks. The utterly slack lyrics, Cutty's vicious delivery and the little touches of irreverence provided by the pitched up running commentary ('What a idiot... ...A fool dat...') make this one an instant forward, and its influence has reached far beyond dancehall circles through the Marvellous Cain jungle remix, which launched a score of imitations and was one of the last truly great ragga jungle records ever made.
Pipped at the post: Pon Mi Nozzle, The Bomber, The Stopper, Tan guard

14. Capleton
Good So
(African Star 1993)

Long before slogans like 'More Fire' and 'Still Blazing' burned their way into dancehall consciousness, Capleton was one of the many DJ's who crept into the limelight during the early 90s - distinguished mainly by his extreme slackness. On 'Good so' (from the LP of the same name) Capleton delivers an indignant chorus and rapidfire verses over a riddim that combines frog croaks, chopped up drums, pulses of synths and a blistering scattergun of scratches and other effects with a teasing guitar hook to create music that's stunningly modern, almost avant garde in its production whilst simultaneously nodding to the past. One of many hits from the Deejays pre-'prophet' career and a true showcase of dancehall innovation.
Pipped at the post: Almshouse, Number 1 pon the look good chart, Chalice

15. Tony Curtis & Jigsy King
(Roof International 1994)
Another Butterfly related entry here, and one of the last as the fad had run out of steam by '94. This tune owes much to Dave Kelly’s productions of the same era with a one-away backing track that combines sparse sub-bass, delicate hi-hats, dripping tap percussion and stuttering/pitched down vocal samples. Buju-beating deejay Jigsy King and singer Tony Curtis ride the riddim with aplomb, providing a classic combination of the (seriously) ruff with the smooth as they entice the gals onto the dancefloor to dance the ‘new brand lick' (not so new in '94 though). Still sounds startlingly fresh today.
Pipped at the post:
My Sound A Murder, We run the border, Slaughterhouse

16. Terry Ganzie
Ragga Ragga
(Digital B 1994)

Terry Ganzie (named after his one-time trademark string vest - also the Irish word for jumper!) is one of those artists who was huge in dancehall circles but never really attained any mainstream recognition - strange when you consider that the clarity of his voice and diction in comparison to many of his peers pointed to some serious crossover potential (ala supercat). With this militant number we get a lyrical use of the term 'ragga' (as opposed to raggamuffin) - which Ganzie equates with the idea of the ghetto warrior ('...We a ragga ragga/from dun in Africa/We a ragga ragga/from dun in Ethiopia/We a ragga ragga/like Nelson Mandela...'). Bobby Digital's 'Bulldozer' riddim may not be as rhythmically experimental as some of the other examples here, based as it is around the standard 'Bomp-Bomp-tsch' dancehall drum pattern, but those little filigrees of synthy melody certainly lend a welcome edge of emotronic cheesiness to proceedings.
Pipped at the post: Welcome the outlaw, Fly Away, Who so ever

17. Lt. Stitchie
Wap Dem
(Digital B 1994)

More frogs, and more cheesy synths... it seems that there was a bit of a craze for these wacky, near-euphoric hand in the air style productions in the early 90's - and its a thread that has arguably been evident in dancehall since ('All Purpose' and 'Bionic Ras' riddims spring to mind). This one is a variant of the 'Frog/'Leaping Frog' riddim, with Jammy's veteran Lieutenant Stitchie on vocal duties. Stitchie is a legend, a wicked lyricist with an amazing vocal tone and the ability (along with Papa San and Bunny General) to switch to fast chat at the drop of a hat, but like Papa San, Chevelle Franklin and Junior Tucker (amongst others) he abandoned dancehall for reggae-gospel in the mid-late 90's. A real coup for the Lord - as the blistering verses on this tune attest.
Pipped at the post: Almighty, Gangster, Hot like the sun

18. Sweetie Irie
Hype Up
(Fashion (1995)

The only entry from a UK MC, this was a late addition and I had to bump a couple of classics to fit in, but it's manic energy was simply too much to resist. Check out the full on four to the floor gabba kick, helium vocal loops and bad-trip cartoon hook... The timestretched intro, frantic vocal, and even the lyrics ('Time fi the dance to get a hype up, hype up') scream rave - but when the bass goes up an octave it just gets ridiculous. Theres been plenty of dancehall tunes that (conciously or not) reference 'ardcore or jungle, but 'Hype up' goes a step further. Jamaican happy hardcore all the way!

Pipped at the post:
Hot this year (Dirtsman), Incredible General (General Levy)

19. Beenie Man
Big Up And Trust
(Shocking Vibes 1995)

By '95 the paroxysm of creativity in dancehall that had been sparked by the digi revolution in the mid 80's was starting to fizzle out and succumb to entropy and consolidation. Patrick Roberts' 'Urkle' riddim is a case in point. It's got a bogle style bassline, tons of beat switching and a touch of wacky cartoon melody (the first few bars of 'Yankee doodle dandy'), but the final product seems that much more calculated then the exuberant productions of previous years. You've got to love Beenie's delivery on this one still - those twisting verses where he sounds as if he's about to corkscrew into the ground ( wha happen to the girl dem weh dance a gemini/true them winey winey and dem gal dem no shy...)... Ironically enough, this entry came down to a choice between Bounty and Beenie - Bounty is of course a killer deejay and arguably has better early 90's credentials but I went the other way - probably for nostalgic reasons as much as anything else as this was a standout tune on one of the first dancehall compilations I ever bought: Greensleeves' 'Ragga Ragga Ragga! 5'.
Pipped at the post: Dead this time (Bounty killer), Not another word (Bounty killer)

20. Simpleton
Quarter to 12
(How Yu Fi Sey Dat 1995)

Speaking of musical consolidation, this production from Anthony Redrose - which displays neither the brutal functionality of riddims like 'Big it up' or the maximal madness of tunes like 'Good so'- is another example of styles being nailed down as dancehall moved into a new phase - like Jungle shifting into D'n'B. That's not to diminish its brilliance however, as the slower tempo and more considered composition pushes the vocals completely into the foreground and offers more room for variation in intonation and timbre - evident in Simpleton's winding nasal verses. It was this drawling delivery in combination with the deejay's emerging part-rudebwoy/part-conscious persona which made this one such a huge hit at the time, and the biggest of Simpleton's career.
Pipped at the post: Death before Dishonour, Eye nuh see, Coca Cola shape


Blogger gutted said...

very usefull article, thanks a lot!

10:42 AM  
Blogger gary11181 said...

Gosh i was looking for that Terry Ganzie (we are ragga ragga)song for ages. All these songs were rinsed out in Zimbabwe. I remember whe Shabba came to perform back in 92/93..100 000 watched him perform!

11:25 AM  

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