What with the recent rash of reissues and an unfortunate number of reggae-related deaths earlier this year, this column has spent plenty of time looking to the past. So, this month we're sticking steadfastly to the present day. If you delve into Jamaica's back catalogue just once over the next few weeks, though, it's worth taking some time out with 17 North Parade's compilation The Sweet Sound of Cocoa Tea. Tea is one of the most dependable artists in Jamaican music, and this 2xCD set charts a linear course through the man's career. Kicking off with early hits, including "Lost My Sonia" and "Children of the Ghetto", to later standards such as "Holy Mount Zion" it's a fantastic primer. However, you'll find this singer at his strongest when that honeyed voice plays off against rougher partners, such as Buju Banton on "Too Young" and Cutty Ranks on "Rip & Run Off".WAIT... THERE'S MORE STUFF
Cocoa Tea has also been in the news lately, thanks to a recently unveiled tribute to Barack Obama. Scheduled for release on VP Records, it's a pretty simple song, but the sentiment is pertinent. After all, as outlined by the performer in a recent interview with Juice TV, whatever happens in Washington directly or indirectly affects the whole world. Tea is not the only Caribbean artist lending his support, either. Trinidad's calypso king Mighty Sparrow has also recorded the wonderfully jaunty "Barack The Magnificent". Let's just hope we get to hear this used on the official campaign trail. After all, if you can't get elected with a theme tune like that, there really is no justice in the world.
Now, onto that riddim round-up. It's a big month for New York's Massive B label, serving up two contrasting but equally noteworthy instrumentals on vinyl. First comes the Kingdom riddim, a glossy one-drop instrumental that's been making plenty of noise thanks to Chezidek's stellar version "Call Pon Dem". One of the best songs this particular artist has ever made, it's shaping up to be a bona fide anthem, infectiously blending themes of ghetto sufferation and revolutionary herbalism. Don't sleep on Bermudian star Collie Buddz's voicing, either. "Let Me Know" is a classic love song with added punch. Far from cloying, it's packed with urgency and a genuine sense of desire. In fact, it's a perfect illustration of everything good about this artist. As I wrote in a recent piece on white reggae, few singers are as convincing regardless of where they're from.
Da Go Go Riddim, meanwhile, is dedicated dancehall business. Built around a framework of throbbing bass, nagging sample stabs, floor-rattling downbeats and whipcracking percussive counterpoints, it harks back to King Jammy's digital heyday while drawing on the metallic rigidity of contemporary trends. Pick of the versions goes to perennial favorite Anthony B, with a lascivious gal tune entitled "Exercise & Call", and Burro Banton, offering up the gruffly propulsive "Cross The Board". Showing an altogether more abrasive face, Buddz embraces the current vogue for saw-toothed toasting and glossily Auto-Tuned choruses on "Rise It". Unfortunately, this mode of production is wearing somewhat thin and, despite his best imitation, Buddz just doesn't have Movado's compelling sense of menace.
The formula works infinitely better for Busy Signal on the Stainless label's Club Banger riddim. Underpinned by grimy bass notes, eerie string glissandi and rolling percussion, the deejay offers up a scorching ganja track, complete with obligatory coughing and lighter flicks. It's simple stuff but brutally effective. Future Fambo, on the other hand, opts for a fluid call and response interpretation. Latching onto the riddim's clear debt to Dirty South crunk, it's straight-ahead dance-instruction fare. Rather than Lil Jon-style guttural bellowing, the joy is in slyly understated toasting that oozes over the beats like grease.
Last, but decidedly not least, comes Fresh Ear Productions' Arif Cooper with the Up & Live riddim. This is one you might already know, thanks to D'Angel's "Blaze", one of the biggest tunes to emerge at the tail end of last year. New on 45 come a terrific turn by Elephant Man on "Pum Pum Pum" (not quite good enough to redeem this, though) and crown princes of the chorus TOK with "Sexy And Ready". Both are pretty self-explanatory in terms of subject matter, but lyrical subtlety isn't the name of the game here. This is party music, pure and simple. As ever, TOK make the most of this opportunity, turning in a soaring close-harmony monster that kicks the original up to a whole new level. With this much quality music around right now, it's hard to consider dancehall to be in anything but the rudest of health.
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