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Jamaica is commonly perceived as a lazy man's paradise, where the hand-to-mouth existence of its citizens seems less the necessity of its poor economy but a lifestyle choice, an attitude based not on ambivalence or desperation but on steadiness and a balanced spirit. And of course, as is the case with every society, the country's music reflects its culture. But Jamaica's music, reggae and dub, it just so happens, seems more universal than most. To wit, the following anecdote, relayed by Soundsystem Records co-owner Tom "Papa" Ray. He's talking bout Soundsystem's recent reissue of the dub classic Scientist Meets the Roots Radics:
"A person I gave it to works as a therapist in an orphanage that basically has young boys from the ghetto. And this person is not a reggae fan. But they happen to take the CD to work and put it on while working with these kids, and I get the word back that that music seemed to really calm down these kids who are usually very agitated and hard to talk to. I think the word to use here is 'therapeutic.'" And these kids weren't even stoned.
Perhaps it's because St. Louis is so far removed, both spiritually and climatically, from the Caribbean that smart and enthusiastic Midwestern souls have crusaded to honor Jamaica's music. Maybe it's because every time we see our brown river, we quietly yearn for the tropical blue, or because the dirt weed here is apparently a far cry from the dense green whose smoke pours from mouths and nostrils down there that we seek some other sort of grand connection with the sublime.
Whatever the reason, St. Louis has had a strong affection for the recorded music of Jamaica: This city's Nighthawk Records has been issuing stellar reggae sounds for the past 20 years, including landmark albums by the Itals, the Gladiators, the Meditations, Justin Hinds and the Dominoes, and Junior Byles. Blues singer and reggae enthusiast Leroy Pierson's Beat Down Babylon, on KWMU-FM, was one of the most influential and respected radio shows in the country in the '70s and '80s, pumping out Jamaican sounds during the height of classic reggae's popularity in the U.S. Professor Skank and Michael Kuelker continue the city's reggae-radio tradition on KDHX-FM -- their Positive Vibrations show still pipes out the best in the genre.
And now Soundsystem Records, which has just released the label's second long-player (the first being last year's U-Roy reissue, The Lost Tapes), a reissue of Scientist Meets the Roots Radics. Soundsystem's Ray has a more basic response to this city's fondness for reggae: A few enthusiastic St. Louisians have good taste and want to share it with the world. "I just think that predigital Jamaican dub," he says, "was the most sonically spacious music ever recorded. I would say that after my grounding in American music, dub probably had the most profound effect on me of any music in the last 30 years."
St. Louis music fans know Ray in one of the following capacities: as co-owner, with Lew Prince, of Vintage Vinyl (Prince is also co-owner of Soundsystem); as host and DJ of KDHX's Soul Selector show (4-7 p.m. Mondays); as a blues-harmonica player around town. But these days, it seems, Ray is most passionate about Scientist Meets the Roots Radics: "It made such a huge and profound impact on me when I first heard it, and it had the same effect 15 years later. And I knew that it was ripe to be put on CD."
"Reggae is the mother of a whole lotta music," Overton Brown, a.k.a. Scientist, once said. "There is no other music in the world that has the versatility of dub. Dub is a masterpiece of engineering, with engineers using recording equipment to bring about musical changes.... This music gave birth to the idea of the remix. With reggae, when you make a mistake, it finds a place and fits in."
It's an approach to music that fits perfectly with the Jamaican vibe: Miss a note? Drop a beat? Don't panic, don't rerecord, don't stress. "When you make a mistake, it finds a place and fits in." This doctrine of sound is at the center of Scientist Meets the Roots Radics, one in which the loose structure, wandering rhythms and fading echoes find their level and cultivate deep roots that anchor each sound in a permanent space and then sprout beauty.
With a beat rate that's roughly the same as the average human being's pulse during sleep, the music on Scientist resembles that moment of flux between sleeping and waking, that wonderful world where voices and images flash randomly, where the mind echoes and feeds back, sitting on the precipice overlooking the sprawling quiet. It's a weirdly active moment, the secret space that Andre Breton describes in his second surrealist manifesto, from 1934: "There exists a certain spiritual plane on which life and death, the real and imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the high and the low, are not conceived of as opposites." Countless musicians and artists have attempted to conjure this world -- the surrealism movement built its throne on that hallowed ground -- but dub discovered its essence, and Scientist, who mixed the thing at the legendary King Tubby's studio, with whom he apprenticed, can evoke this moment in his sleep.