By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
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Despite the lower profile, Schoenfeld continues to work at bringing some of Jamaica's underrated talents to the wider audience he believes they merit. "It's been tough for artists to get the recognition they deserve," he says. "Those are the artists I tend to favor."
Schoenfeld acknowledges the many challenges in bringing largely unknown reggae to a broader audience. For one thing, he says, the reggae market is fractured among roots, dub and dancehall fans, but more important and more lamentable, he thinks Jamaican music is losing some of its unique characteristics.
"Jamaican music largely developed because of its isolation from the rest of the world, and they had to entertain themselves with their own means," he says. "Jamaica was culturally isolated from the U.S., but as they become more exposed to America, the distinctive traits of their music are becoming less obvious. People start to want what they don't have -- there was a certain fascination with America."
Furthermore, Schoenfeld sees other roadblocks preventing reggae from gaining widespread popularity. These include reggae's characteristic and hard-to-decipher patois lyrics, Rastafarian symbolism and the failure of black radio in the U.S. to embrace the competition from Jamaica. Added to these obstacles is the financial outlay required to put out an album. For a tiny boutique label that sells an average of 10,000 records a year, money is often hard to come by. For example, Nighthawk was offered the first rights to the latest Itals album, Modern Age, but, Schoenfeld says, the label was not in a position to spend the $20,000-$30,000 necessary to put it out. RAS, a label with deeper pockets, ended up with the album.
Finally there's the long shadow cast by reggae's towering icon, Bob Marley. It's a testament to Marley's enduring impact that any discussion of reggae inevitably turns to the No. 1 natty dread. To some, Marley is seen as a genre-killer simply because no one could ever hope to fill his shoes, and it is true that virtually all reggae suffers from the unavoidable comparisons to Bob. Schoenfeld agrees, to a certain point, but says that the most destructive legacy of Marley's fame is the loss of innocence in Jamaican music.
"When reggae got big internationally, it began to take on a more cynical aspect and lost some of its charm," he says. The loss of innocence, according to Schoenfeld, was not Marley's fault but rather something that came about when big money became the ultimate goal of many artists.
Despite the numerous disadvantages in popularizing lesser-known reggae, Schoenfeld's love for the genre is unshaken. Among the new releases he is planning are an album by St. Louis' Murder City Players and a record by the Ethiopians. Schoenfeld is also considering a Gladiators reissue anthology and a Gladiators dub album. Nighthawk also recently launched a Web site (www.nghthwk.com), which showcases the label's entire catalog and supplies information about its artists. Unbelievably, Nighthawk continues to work with all the artists the label started with -- a testament to Schoenfeld's enduring passion for bringing sublimely sweet-sounding performers like Justin Hinds, the Meditations, the Gladiators and the Itals to reggae aficionados around the world.
"It's much harder to do it for love," he says. "But if you remove the love from it, you might as well be selling hamburgers.