Busy Signal: Evolution rather than revolution

In the 1990s it was Buju Banton; he grew dreadlocks, while moving away from the DJ style that had brought him fame and infamy (he sits in an American jail, on drug related charges).

The latest convert is Busy Signal whose album Reggae Music Again has seized ragga music by its neck and forced it to stare down into the abyss, at the music’s roots.

“I and I don’t have to be rasta to do conscious music…” he says, in the introduction to the 14-track album. Busy Signal (whose real name, or as they would say in Jamaica, government name, is Glendale Goshia Gordon) hasn’t grown any dreadlocks or undergone the fabled conversion underwent by Saul aka St Paul.

In fact, Busy Signal, so named by his peers because he was always busy, is, like Buju Banton, sitting in an American jail on cocaine-related charges. One hopes that he is jotting and practising his rhymes on government-issued paper.

Busy Signal’s transformation, to be sure, isn’t the one Buju underwent back in the 1990s. Evolution, rather than revolution, best describes Reggae Music Again.

“Reggae is the real start of what is known to some as the dancehall, to some as hip-hop … reggae music is the birth of these two genres.”

Busy is, of course, talking about Jamaican-born DJ Cool Herc who is credited with inventing hip-hop in the 1970s.

DJ Cool Herc grew up listening to the toasting (a form of rapping) of sound systems such as the one run by King Tubby and his fiery accomplice, DJ U Roy, chanting on the microphone.

When Herc and his parents relocated to the Bronx, New York in 1967 he took this most Jamaican form of cultural expression and applied it to what he was then listening to, mostly funk and soul. While he played funk and soul records, Herc began concentrating on lengthening the percussive part of the record while chanting simple lines.

Memorable tracks
Reggae Music Again is a fascinating and varied album with a bit of lover's rock, a bit of roots rock and  dub. At some moments he clips his sound of excess, creating an acoustic ambience in which his voice soars.

The album kicks off in earnest with a love song, Come Over (Missing you). Laid over a rich, thick sound provided by some of Jamaica’s veteran musicians, such as pianist Robbie Lyn, drummer Kirk Bennett and saxophonist Dean Fraser, Busy Signal alternates between singing and DJing, sometimes mixing the two styles together.

A standout song on the CD is Kingston Town, a track whose preamble is a pack of dogs howling into the night, presumably a moonlit one. Caustic and moody, the song is a commentary on the “dark side of Kingston”; the city whose inhabitants never wear a smile; in which to survive you must get someone down and in which everyone fights to “wear the king’s crown”. It is looping and stylised, but the song’s rough, serrated edges are never dulled.

Since I got the album a few months ago, this is one track I have never tired of. And, as I wrote this article, I discovered that Damian Marley has done a remix of the song with Busy, alternately eroding and sharpening the song’s edges and the rough furrows that line the track’s contours.

With the next song, 119, Busy features Antony Redrose and veteran DJ and sound clash supremo Joe Lickshot (watch his crazy dancehall antics here).

It is a dancehall track, by which I mean it’s a song who raison d’etre is the dancehall: created by dancehall folk for the dancehall.

Lickshot is one of those quirky characters who will never be forgotten when dancehall history is written. Now greying, the career of the bearded elder statesman of the sound comprised mostly of acrobatic voice formations, throaty modulations, gunshot sounds and a squeaky voice that reminded me of a mouse.

The next song, Modern Day Slavery, is laid over a percussive thumping beat. It takes the song from its dancehall ambience out into the world.

Out there in the cold, devastated landscapes, Busy Signal lays into capitalism which for him is no different from the system that his ancestors laboured under until the emancipation edict of 1833.

Other notable tracks include the title track Reggae Music Again, Part of Life and Running from the Law. If you love dancehall or the singjay style made popular by the likes of Sizzla Kalonji and Capleton, this is an album to look out for.

On this album Busy Signal has made reggae music fashionable. Again.

For more in-depth album reviews, see our special report.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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