Music News

From Roots To Riches

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.

With reggae stripped of its spiritual leader, the fad-mongering pharaohs of the corporate music kingdom began to try to figure out how to line their wallets with a reggae marketing strategy that would sell. Trouble was, reggae, with or without Marley, essentially remained a cult item and a commercial oddity (even the best-selling albums never moved more than 100,000 copies). Reggae didn't catch a fire with the masses, due in large part to its radical politics, which just didn't fit into a doctrinaire marketing ploy. The two-tone ska revival helped somewhat to introduce at least one style of reggae into the public consciousness, yet it too ended up a commercial pariah. Reggae, with its attendant religious/political fervor and outlaw ganja-blowing image was best left to specialty labels or to fanatics who made annual pilgrimages to Jamaica to buy the latest vinyl and see Sunsplash, the annual Woodstock of reggae.

Not until other non-reggae artists (the Police, the Clash, Talking Heads, Stevie Wonder, Grace Jones) picked up on reggae did the corporados who write the marching orders in the music industry begin to view reggae as something other than an unpredictable loss-leader.

Now the corporados have figured out that they can capitalize on reggae by simply cutting the baby in half, separating the epiphanal, message-bearing tenets of Rasta-bred reggae from the movin' and groovin' musical feel-good part of reggae. Witness the success of Reggae-Lite perpetrators Bobby McFerrin, UB40, and Maxi Priest, the commercials, the clothing, and especially the dreadlock extensions. The music, originally designed to glorify Jah, now sells cars, cereal, and fake hair.

The Valley got a chance to witness the co-opting of reggae up-close last month when the Wailers, Bob Marley's original backing band, limped into the Sun Devil House to warm up for Reggae-Lite band Third World.

This version of the Wailers did include a few of the original surviving members, but Marley would no doubt have administered the "rod of correction" to the group had he joined the jarhead collegiate audience at the ASU-area watering hole.

In the absence of original drummer Carlton Barrett, who was murdered last year, the band began by staggering its way through two stunningly awful Marley covers. Then the Wailers segued into a couple of original tunes off a new album, I.D. (If I.D. stands for identity, the Wailers have a severe crisis.) Lead guitarist Junior Marvin kept ripping out Eddie Van Halen-type riffs that sounded like a rhino giving birth in a machine shop. Every so often, screechy keyboards would peal off on a run or two, only to be drowned out by the murky drum/bass mix. By the time the band got around to its lousy closing covers of "Exodus" and "Get Up, Stand Up" (lots of woy-yo-yo's, handwaving and benighted repetitions ad nauseum of the word "irie"), it was apparent that the Wailers just weren't connecting with themselves or the crowd.

Reggae-Lite also reared its head last month at the Reggae Sunsplash show at Mesa Amphitheatre, headlined by limey poseur band Steel Pulse. The group's style loads up on the synths, and its heavily-mannered originals use highly-processed Marley-isms in pacing and vocals. Steel Pulse successfully connected with the crowd's desire to feed into the "island thing" without getting its hands (or its audience's) dirty. Steel Pulse's surface polemics and socially conscious lyrics were saying one thing, but there wasn't much in the music to back it up. The band's inorganic presentation befitted its name.

What does all this bode for reggae's future? For one thing, reggae is here to stay. But the electronic media and print ads, fashion merchandisers and Reggae-Lite bands have turned reggae into a stylistic Fortunato's Purse, removing the music from its spiritual roots. Even Bob Marley's son, Ziggy, is in danger of turning into a Reggae-Lite commodity in the hands of his producers, Talking Heads Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz.

Reggae as fashion also means a great disservice is being done to Jamaican artists who refuse to buckle under to the whims of corporate marketing schemes by keeping the true spirit of reggae alive. Burning Spear, Culture, the Itals, Israel Vibration, Toots Hibbert, Foundation, Bunny Wailer, the Gladiators, Alpha Blondy, and Mutabaruka have all seen the havoc that Babylon can wreak with the almighty dollar and want as little to do with it as possible.

Restoring the house of worship and driving out the thieves and moneychangers is going to test the resolve of Rastas and roots aficionados alike.

For now, the corporados don't seem to be tiring of using reggae to suit their marketing desires. When will big business let go of reggae, leaving the music to chart its own course? Perhaps it won't be for a long time if the mega-popularity of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is any indication. Then again, it might be next season, when fashion hounds decide their dread-extensions aren't so "irie" after all.

Dreadlocks, reggae's most visual element, now adorn the heads of today's leading fashion victims by way of hair extensions.

It is truly a dark day for reggae when Maxi Priest's bilious cover of Cat "Kill for Khomeini" Stevens' "Wild World" goes straight to No. 1 on the U.K. charts.

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Judge I-Rankin'