A brick of a book on reggae record sleeves shows how the artwork reflects the history of Jamaica.
REGGAE SOUNDSYSTEM: ORIGINAL REGGAE ALBUM COVER ART compiled by Steve Barrow and Stuart Baker (Soul Jazz Books)
What has happened to Jah Crucial, I wondered when I was reading Reggae Soundsystem.
Subtitled “A visual history of Jamaican music from mento to dancehall”, Reggae Soundsystem is a gorgeous toe-breaker of a book. Appropriately the size of an LP, it celebrates the artwork of reggae record sleeves over more than 50 years.
It is compiled by two of the most knowledgeable people on reggae around — Steve Barrow, author of The Rough Guide to Reggae and founder of Blood and Fire Records, and Stuart Baker, founder of Soul Jazz Records. Featuring the covers of hundreds of reggae LPs, it is a visual feast — but it is also informative.
Barlow’s clear, well-written and insightful text covers the historical developments of reggae, changes to cover design, and the genres, artists (both musical and design) and politics of the times.
Jamaica is probably the only country in the world where one can get a clear political history from pre-independence to today just by studying record sleeves. “We see a small nation emerging from the shadow cast by the metropolitan countries to one initially borrowing, adapting or imitating the models set by the dominant nations but, as the decades passed, one increasingly capable of portraying a unique Jamaican identity,” writes Barrow.
The early record sleeves for mento (the Jamaican folk music that preceded reggae) often look like the postcards tourists would have sent back home from their hotels in pre-independence Jamaica — relying on an “idealised imagery of Jamaica”.Barrow writes that: “Some of the designs have the simplicity of fabric designs, as if intended for beach wear, and the overall look of the sleeves reinforces the idea of Jamaica as a tourist destination, complete with its own folk art and artefacts.”
The aim of producing music then was mainly to tap into the tourist market.
During the time of ska (the genre before rocksteady, which in turn directly preceded reggae), just before independence from 1962 until 1966, the music became more uniquely Jamaican, even though some of its roots were in American R&B. The album sleeves, though, still imitated the United States genre’s visual styles and vocal groups were pictured in suits similar to the Impressions and the Drifters — probably a parallel to the new state still finding its own identity.
As the shortlived rocksteady (1966 to 1968) morphed into reggae in the late 1960s, a new self-celebratory confidence became prevalent. A strong local infrastructure was established, feeding a burgeoning music-buying market, not only in Jamaica but also abroad. “At the same time,” Barrow writes, “sociopolitical changes gave rise to various forms of ideological black nationalism, including Garveyism, Pan-Africanism and Rasta beliefs, which, together with their associated imagery, exerted a significant influence on ‘Roots’ music.”
From the early 1970s and through the rest of the decade, the visual elements that symbolised this new confidence (but that went on to become the reggae clichés we know today) started dominating record sleeves, from reggae to its studio spin-offs of dub and deejay: “African tribal artefacts, Ethiopian Coptic wall paintings, images of Haile Selassie I, even a simple outline of Africa”. Oh, and not to forget albums that had photographs of seriously stoned-looking singers and proud displays of the “holy herb” — often both in the same shot. The era remains reggae’s finest period, as we still hear today in the unending stream of classics being reissued.
Some purists (and puritans) say the rot started setting in by the mid-1980s with the advent of the digital phase of dancehall — which is what reggae became known as next, especially after Bob Marley’s death in 1981. Politics in the Caribbean state had also changed, and the democratic socialism of Michael Manley was replaced by Edward Sega’s centre-right Jamaica Labour Party.
Initially the record sleeves showed the artists in street clothes, but bling started creeping in — Nicodemus with chunky rings on every finger on the cover of Nuff Respect won’t look out of place in a current hip-hop video. More and more sleeves started portraying the dominance of gangster life that Jamaicans started seeing on their streets: guns, flashy cars and violence. And of course “slackness” — lyrics started to become explicit and crude, with very little left to the imagination. Women were depicted on many sleeves as mere sexual playthings.
The book doesn’t go into detailed depth on dancehall because in 2008 its publisher brought out an exhaustive study of the genre’s heyday in the 1980s by Beth Lesser called Dancehall: The Story of Jamaican Dancehall Culture.
Wishlists and must-haves
But Reggae Soundsystem does not attempt to be a political analysis of reggae. It is more a celebration of one of the most influential genres of music — made even more astonishing because an island of fewer than three million people continues to reinvent its music to this day.
For me as a reggae fanatic it is also a book that I should read again wearing a bib — I literally salivated on seeing some of the records I need, make that need!, in my collection. I have many of the classics by artists such as the Congos, Culture, Dr Alimantado, Max Romeo, King Tubby, U-Roy, Yabby You and Sugar Minott. But the many others still absent from my personal treasure chest are what made me think of Jah Crucial again.
I met Jah Crucial in 2000. He became the crusader for the rights of a group of young Rastas in his township of Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg. The youngsters were expelled from their high school because they refused to cut their dreadlocks. Jah Crucial took their plight to some sympathetic media people like me and with our help and his energy — not blunted by copious amounts of some of the finest herbs — got them readmitted to their school with their locks unshorn.
Dressed in baggy tricolour Rastafarian garb, mature dreads and a scraggly beard circling his open face, Jah Crucial now considered me a “bredda” and invited me to his reggae shop in downtown Johannesburg. It was in a dilapidated business-residential-mix type of building near the then Supreme Court in which the lift hadn’t worked for years.
You had to climb piss-stained, unlit stairs and pass suspicious-looking characters to get to Jah Crucial (the name of both the owner and the shop) on the second floor. But you didn’t need to ask for directions when you got to that floor. Your nose took you straight to the sweet-smelling little shop where Jah Crucial would be waiting with a lazy smile, a fat doobie dangling from his lip, and have — like a transplanted Jamaican sound system — some loud yet blunted reggae beat languorously vibrating from the speakers.
“Not today thanks, Jahman,” I would decline his offer of a drag on his joint — it was never necessary because merely by breathing in the hazy air in the little shop you soon inhaled enough of the potent stuff to start giggling happily.
His comprehensive stock ranged from old-school roots and the latest dancehall to Blood & Fire, Soul Jazz, or Wackie’s freshest releases. I always left Jah Crucial with a much flatter wallet, but reggae-wise, at least, so much richer.
A few years ago a fellow fan told me Jah Crucial had been kicked out of his shop, probably because he couldn’t pay his rent. Word had it he was now selling his cornucopia of CDs on the pavement outside his old building. A friend and I went searching. Never a fellow to take chances, my mate had quickly smoked himself a fine spliff to be ready for Jah Crucial’s vibes, “because, see, he’s no longer in his shop and a man has to go prepared”.
At the time, not too many people, black or white, who didn’t live or work in the city went there unless it was essential, as in our case: we needed to buy reggae music. As the only two pale people around then, we obviously attracted attention, especially from people who had ill intentions. No doubt they mistook us for foreign tourists, lost and far from glitzy Sandton or Rosebank.
We were at the beginning of a part where the cluttered sidewalk narrowed to about a half of its width for the next five metres. As I moved towards the end of this narrowing, a man with a nasty face shouted behind me: “Stop now, this is a fucking robbery!” Things happened very quickly, but it felt stripped down like a dub track. No extra stuff, just bass, drums and snippets of vocal. It’s a set-up! He’s distracting me to set up a trap ahead, I thought to myself.
Stripped of superfluous people, noise and other distractions like my best minimalist King Tubby track, I noticed three guys “closing the gate” — blocking my way at the end of the narrowing. They’ll have guns, a knife, or a sharpened screwdriver to puncture me. Then they’ll steal my money destined for Jah Crucial’s sidewalk store. But I stayed unbelievably calm, as in that seemingly long but actually short gap between the dub beats — before the musical elastic snaps back — the imaginary track was over and my effective shoulder charge sent the thugs flying.
My friend caught up with me — we were walking like people in those old black-and-white movies, at that speed just before they burst into a jog. “What the fuck happened there?” he said, trying to keep up. “I think we’ll skip Jah Crucial today,” I said, after I told him what had happened just a few yards ahead of him. Still moving fast, we started to giggle.
I recently heard Jah Crucial now operates his little shop of treasures from Vosloorus. Another friend has promised me his cellphone number and I cannot wait because Reggae Soundsystem has exposed a few gaps in my collection. I think Jah Crucial is the man who can fix that.