By Mabel Suen
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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.
What separates the mediocre from the sublime in the world of dub is a depth, along with, says Ray in his liner notes, weight: "Like the concept of the neutron star, the best dub seems to carry in its rhythms an almost unbearable sense of heaviness in space." Either that, or it's all the dope them Rastas smoke: There's no denying that the sound is inextricably linked to the ganja and that said dream state is at least partially the result of smoking fatties on the porch. The classic tunes of the '70s and '80s have a relaxed, stoned vibe, and to most, this vibe is not the result of some sort of lofty philosophy but of a desire, in the words of the Dub Syndicate (which the Roots Radics formed in the early '80s), to be "stoned immaculate." Regardless of the origin -- be it chemical, spiritual or, most likely, a combination thereof -- Scientist discovered this space when remixing the music of the Roots Radics.
Bass, provided by Flabba Holt, anchors the beat in the physical world, providing a constant, repetitive bottom-end structure. Holt finds a rock-hard groove and works it. Drummer Lincoln "Style" Scott is steady and unhurried. His action is sparse and deliberate, offering just enough to keep the sound tight. Scientist, in his role as mixologist, has taken the skeletal parts of the Roots Radics -- the bass, drum and countless organ chords, the skiffle-wood scrapes and off-beat guitar kicks -- isolated and doctored them, then mixed them together in beautifully minimalist fashion. At its best, as on "Inforce 'Ah," Scientist discovers the dream state. Sounds echo in and out randomly: Steelie Johnson's keyboard offers classic reggae clusters that Scientist funnels through virtual dungeons; Holt's bass carries a dense, unfathomable weight; and a voice bounces around, singing, "Keep it in the family family-illee-illleee-illlleeee" Where other dub producers prefer to pile on a lot of competing sounds, Scientist on Meets the Roots Radics is patient with his constructions; eventually all the sounds find their own space inside, but often these bits exist only for a few measures, then disappear, only to re-emerge in another part of the dub.
"Everything that's on this CD was basically out of print by 1982," says Ray. "It was originally released in England, and the additional five tracks that I chose to put on this for the CD era comes from an album called Radic Faction, and I picked it because I really felt that -- it was so obviously recorded within the same year, the same engineer, a guy named Crucial Bunny. Same studio, Channel One, and the same person mixing it, Scientist. It made for thematic unity.
"I linked up with Flabba Holt, the bandleader and producer of these sessions, in Washington, D.C., back in February, and he was in D.C. at the time, working at Fox Recording Studio -- he still lives in Jamaica. And he was immediately approachable about this. And we went from there. And now we have an option on any dub pre-1985 recorded by the Roots Radics, who were the absolute, no-questions-asked, pre-eminent recording group in Jamaica between 1979-1984, surpassing even Sly and Robbie."
Ray says that a nearly endless supply of classic dub is awaiting reissue and that his label will work to keep it flowing. "Soundsystem's approach is to strike licensing agreements with the artists for music that we know is incredible by that artist and that we feel deserves to be released despite the fact that there's so much music already in circulation -- especially in reggae."
Here's hoping they continue along the same track; Scientist Meets the Roots Radics is an essential dub plate (it's available on CD now and will be issued on limited-edition vinyl in the near future) and deserves praise. Adds Ray: "What we're talking about here to me, as far as early-'80s reggae, is music of the very highest order."