From Roots To Riches

How do you make a buck off reggae? Rip off the rhythms and throw out the rasta.

Little did Romeo realize how prophetic his words were to become. Reggae music (the "house of worship" he refers to) in the late Eighties has indeed become rife with corporate thieves bent on using it as a coin-generating machine while damning its spirituality. The post-Bob Marley era of reggae has seen a gradual swallowing up and regurgitation of the music by corporados who are cashing in on reggae as a fashion, while using the music itself only as a marketing tool. Reggae is now more recognizable as a stylish coat-of-many-colors than as music with meaning.

Reggae is now showing up in everything from TV ads to clothing to hairstyles to pop music and has been heavily co-opted in the process.

The absolute nadir of this crass commercialism is the current ad spots on TV that use lackluster variations on a reggae theme to sell the new Geo car, Kellogg's Sugar Pops, and Almond Delite. In the fashion department, the red, yellow and green that make up the tricolor flag of the Rastafarians (a Jamaican religious sect) are adorning more and more skateboarding garb and surfwear. And dreadlocks, reggae's most visual element, now adorn the heads of today's leading fashion victims by way of hair extensions.

The music itself has been diluted by pop artists many a time in the past, but it wasn't until Bobby McFerrin's mega-hit, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," last year that reggae found a place in America's Top 40 consciousness. This meaningless song used a highly diluted and incredibly hackneyed reggaefied lover's-rock rhythm over which McFerrin excreted lyrical drivel of the lowest order.

Even before McFerrin, though, there was UB40, originally a promising mixed-race group that grew out of the U.K.'s two-tone movement. The band has become a household word with its tepid hit (and re-hit) cover of "Red Red Wine" and insipid poseur rock-star remake of "I Got You, Babe" with Pretenders popette Chrissie Hynde. UB40 was a fast study in slicking its sound up for the enjoyment of lowest common denominator audiences and greedy record company plutocrats. The group early on defined the new corporatized sound of Reggae-Lite, an approach with half the punch and none of the spiritual fire so crucial to the music. Forget about roots, mon, Reggae-Lite is a tree without any.

Alongside UB40 were Aswad and Steel Pulse, two more bands who promised much with their socio-political content but fell short of ever becoming cutting edge musically. Aswad's conversion to Reggae-Lite has been the most dramatic. Originally a roots-conscious U.K. band, Aswad almost overnight began eviscerating its overall sound. The group's new material bears little resemblance to early work like the phosphorescent A New Chapter of Dub. Aswad's latest single, a cover of the Temptations' "Beauty's Only Skin Deep" has the band looking to become the Commodores of Reggae-Lite--an overproduced, synthesized bubblegum-riddim outfit purveying syrupy smooth, albeit lifeless harmonies.

But of all the Reggae-Lite coming out of the U.K. lately, none can touch Maxi Priest's feverishly-hyped drivel, which comes across as the most exploitatively flagrant of the lot. It is truly a dark day for reggae when Priest's bilious cover of Cat "Kill for Khomeini" Stevens' "Wild World" goes straight to No. 1 on the U.K. charts. Maxi Priest started out just as promising as his other non-Rasta contemporaries, but he too was eventually ground up by the pop marketing machine. It is a cruel paradox that England, with its large Jamaican community, is unable (or unwilling) to field a credible roots act that can hit it on the one-drop without feeling the necessity to lick the boots of major labels or radio stations just to get noticed.

Reggae-Lite has even engulfed completely the two men without whom roots reggae might never have made it off the island--Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Dubbed "the riddim twins" in the Seventies because of their innovative and exhaustive session work on just about everybody's albums or singles back then, they are now fast-becoming the Doublemint Twins of the late Eighties by abandoning reggae per se and aligning themselves with more pop/funk/rap artists. In the past, Sly & Robbie could be counted on to push the outside of reggae's envelope, but now they seem only interested in cashing the paycheck inside the envelope.

How did reggae drop from the spiritual heights of Bob Marley to the commercial depths of an Almond Delite ad? You'd have to start with Marley, or rather, his absence. In the nine years since his death, much of the genre's apostolic grandeur--which was inexorably/intrinsically connected with Marley's visionary spirit--has faded away. Millions of people worldwide saw him (and still do) as a near-deity of mythic proportions, a dreadlocked Lion of Judah who delivered his scriptures in praise of Jah to some top-ranking rhythms.

When reggae was rightfully touted as the Next Big Thing in the middle Seventies, the music was going through a creatively dynamic period. Marley (sans Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh) was reaching his peak, Jamaica was undergoing major political upheavals, and the music reflected the anguish of the people.

Because of the untimely removal of Marley's anchor, reggae was set adrift in its own vortex with no spiritual moorings in sight. The void left by Marley saw many would-be disciples attempt to take his place, yet his message of unity and "one love" soon evaporated.

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