linkthink re: hip-hop, reggae, the US, jamaica, and anything else wayne wants to wax on


wot do u call it?

timothy burke has posted a post on plagiarism, remixing, and originality..

most striking is the problem of talking across media, which may share many characteristics but also have fundamental differences in form and affect and meaning. transposing the different discourses describing and deriving from them is bound to produce confusion, despite suggestive metaphors. i'm not really sure the same arguments hold from literature to music to painting to photoshopping - at least insofar as what constitutes "direct copying"; digital reproduction seems to shift the debate, esp in music (attempts to reconcile such things via 'mechanical' and 'publishing' rights notwithstanding). in a sense, if a radically open sense, these different discourses ideally should apply across arts: every work is a derivative work, though perhaps some to a lesser or greater (explicit) degree.

i think we need to read kaavya viswanathan's stumble with at least two things in mind: 1) that she was writing for/within a corporate publishing industry that is content to rework and repackage the same cliches again and again; and 2) that inspiration, allusion, and - yup - copying are not simply common but fundamental aspects of the creative process. if zadie smith's last book could be sold - and successfully at that - as having "a structure that mimics E. M. Forster’s Howards End" (nymetro), why couldn't viswanathan's be sold - ridiculous as it may sound - as having "a structure that mimics Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings [update!: and Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret?]"? some examples of mimicry are undoubtedly more infused with originality than others, but isn't that for the reader to decide?

all this chatter reminds me yet again of the plight of sample-based music producers - people whose craft depends on direct copying of other people's music and who find themselves, often against their best wishes, unable to give proper attribution to those who provide the grist for their mill. bound by a copyright regime that remains entrenched in 19th century conceptions of "the work," sample-based artists may be better described not so much as thieves as (reluctant, and sometimes cavalier) plagiarists.


on harvard square's homeless

"in a strange way they're more permanent then the buildings themselves. cafe aventura is gone, dread lady is still here."

- via email from a current student and longtime cantabridgian


we all steal from the business you know

just posted a couple standaloners to the riddim method: one is a bit from my segment of our lemon-red mix; another was inspired by a post by the mighty woebot.

if you haven't downloaded the lemon-red mix yet, go get that thang. i mean, i'm saying: april's almost over, mang.

and if you're in the cambridge area tonight, come on out to river gods (the people's choice!) for this month's edition of wicked wicked thursday, featuring special guests dj axel foley and dj david day. i'll be doing my best to connect the sonic dots in between. vibes run from 9-1. as usual, it's free.


one more thing - this murdochspace thing is crazy. it continues to defy my skeptical expectations. case in point: i uploaded an old recording of mine, "recess is over," this past sunday, and by monday this dude named dodger messages me to point me to the d'n'b remix he had already posted. dang. seems he's upping a new remix every coupla days, so check it while it's up.


tell it like it is

there's more flarf where that came from, over at jordan's.
who himself writes poems.
like this one.


joke tings, serious tings

dem = tourists?
  • jamaicanjokes.com

  • just when you thought all the outrage!TM had subsided, time magazine - that mainstream rag of mainstream rags - recently published a scathing indictment of jamaica's anti-gay problem.

    although i've gone on the record again and again about how i wish jamaica would "walk good" on this issue, i have to admit that the author of this forceful piece seems to miss the postcolonial perspective that elena oumano brought to her more balanced, if more equivocal, treatment of the controversy.

    it is important to call out jamaica's leaders (in politics and music alike) for not taking a brave public stand against anti-gay violence, but it is crucial to remember jamaica's long colonial and postcolonial history of resisting hegemony from the outside. so long as jamaicans believe that tolerating homosexuality is a moral imposition from former/neo-colonial forces, rather than an initiative that springs from the compassion of the community itself, many will resist as a matter of principle.

    isn't it ironic, becca points out, that the US is effectively able to impose its "moral" viewpoint vis-a-vis marijuana on jamaica (where, believe it or not, ganja is officially illegal), while remaining remarkably mum - at least officially - about the likkle island's human rights record?

    ironic, yes. surprising, no. as usual, we could set a better example ourselves. "be the change you want to see." seen?


all i need

either the graf above was a lot easier to parse than i thought, or jordan davis is a mean decoding mofo. or both!

despite jordan's astute analysis, i still think it's interesting that the same bloke who threw up that, er, throw up would reference such a decidedly non-hip-hop world. it's a joke, yes, but a fairly 'inside' joke, or at least so i assumed. given that one has to walk along some train tracks before getting to the under-the-bridge spot where this was painted, one assumes that writers are writing for other writers, not many of whom - though maybe i'm underestimating here - would know ELO, BOC, or ROR at acronymic glance. i guess it's a HISTOE lesson.

go figya.


putting up resistance

see kevin's letter over at charlie's blog. sad but not surprising.

how do we move forward amid such entrenchment?

kevin's sig suggests an answer: "Be the change you wish to see in the world" -

we're in your corner, kevin. keep being a beacon.


midspring mixxage

april is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.

-t.s. eliot


little buildings

  • talib kweli (who has a blog?!) offers a poignant, handwritten eulogy for jay dee. perhaps not surprising, kweli crams words into a blog like he crams words into a bar.

  • which reminds me that d nice not only been bloggin', dude's vloggin' now too!

  • daddy yankee on bhangra:

    "I love the Indian culture. I like the Punjabi sounds. I love the Bhangra genre. I consider India very rich in culture, rich in rhthyms. It’s like the Carribean you know? Indian sounds is incredible, like Reggaeton. I don’t know what Indian's aresaying. But I love the music and the drums."

  • hank shocklee on life in the bush of ghosts:

    "I grew up as a David Byrne fan. I admired his work with Talking Heads and those records then led me to 'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts' where I discovered Brian Eno's work. The collaboration between Byrne and Eno inspired me to think outside the box and opened my head up to new musical and most importantly non-musical experiences." (see also.)

  • speaking of eno, don't miss geeta's tasty post on the man and his methods. or simon's post on culture/pleasure that pointed me there. (see also.)


munch on

ben (of ben&jerry's fame) offers a delicious illustration of how we can put our mouths where our money is...


good looks

pace reanimates the castles!


jesse kriss, the wiz who gave us the history of sampling visualization, presents: visual scratch.

(as with sCrAmBlEd?HaCkZ! - just imagine the possibilities.)


musically-expressed ideas about music

ki mantle hood, dr. bi-musicality himself, in the UCLA gamelan room

last saturday i "gave" a paper at the semi-annual meeting of the new england chapter of the society for ethnomusicology (that's NECSEM, for the uninitiated). the paper proposed an embrace of digital music technologies as providing new pedagogical and publishing possibilities to add to our scholarly toolkit. readers of this blog - and of the riddim method - will know that this is something i've been exporing for a little while now.

up to this point, however, i have been sharing the approach more with receptive readers across the musico-critical blogosphere, not so much with my colleagues in SEM. as you will see in the paper below, i feel no little trepidation around making such an approach more public to SEM, as it will no doubt raise all kinds of eyebrows. but ultimately i think the method justifies - audibly and immediately - its own value to our practices as scholars and communicators. and i was most enheartened by the fact that nearly every graduate student in attendance came up to me over the course of the day to say that they really liked what i was doing. several professors were encouraging, too. i rest assured that others will hear the potential.

i began my talk by playing one of my latest musically-expressed ideas about music: a mashup of four versions of "mbube"/"wimoweh" - a song (and a story) that has been generating a lot of conversation recently, and a good example, i think, of how we might raise a number of critical questions through the act of musical juxtaposition, or as the kids say, teh mashup.

at any rate, pardon all the text i'm about to dump here. (and - e.ek! - the lack of lowercase letters.) i hope some of you out there will find it provocative, if not compelling.


Musically Expressed Ideas about Music:
Techniques and Technologies for Performing Ethnomusicology in the Digital Age

Introducing their Audio Culture Reader (2003), a volume which foregrounds sound in contemporary studies of culture and society, Michael Bull and Les Back offer a provocative corrective to the wider (and often unremarked) epistemological orientation around sight and seeing. “Thinking with our ears,” write Bull and Back, “offers an opportunity to augment our critical imaginations” (2). This is something, we might agree, that ethnomusicologists have known and practiced for some time. And yet, we rarely seem to take this insight as literally as we might, especially with regard to pedagogy (outside of performance ensembles) and publishing. Despite the advent of powerful computer software for making and manipulating music and for publishing immediately in multimedia form, our pedagogical and publishing practices remain largely confined to drop-the-needle style examples and prose or graphical representations. This morning I would like to consider, and offer, some potentially fruitful new approaches for performing our ideas and arguments, for thinking with our ears and lending them to others, all with the help of digital technologies.

In particular, I am interested in what we might call “musically expressed ideas about music” (i.e., compositions, performances, or remixes with an explicit critical orientation) as providing a novel, compelling approach for engaging with the music we study and expressing our ideas about it. Though such methods may raise questions, or at least eyebrows, as they challenge various norms of scholarship and copyright, their value to the contemporary study of music is, I argue, immediately audible. Moreover, for all its enmeshment in contemporary forms of technologically-mediated musical practice (and musically-mediated technological practice – e.g., the music blogosphere), such an approach also finds a number of theoretical allies and precedents in ethnomusicology and related fields.

. . .

Foregrounding performance as an important dimension of ethnomusicological method is not, of course, remotely new as a proposition. Mantle Hood wrote explicitly about the “music mode of discourse” in his seminal work, The Ethnomusicologist (1971), noting the advantages of being able to communicate in both speech and music modes (230). For Hood, “bi-musicality,” or proficiency in various music modes of discourse, constituted a crucial means of understanding musical style and practice, a good way to inform “descriptive and analytical studies” (230), but not to perform them – semi-annual gamelan concerts notwithstanding. Hood’s proposition was an important one for moving the musicological side of the field more firmly into the realm of cultural context, but by so strongly advancing the music mode of discourse in the realms of hands-on pedagogy and hermeneutical understanding of musical structures, practices, and culturally-specific meanings, “bi-musicality” seems also to have consigned performance to the role of background analysis.

I don’t mean to take the venerable Dr. Hood to task here. On the contrary, his discussion of the importance of the music mode of discourse provides an intellectual foundation of sorts for the kind of method I am proposing today. Rather than bi-musicality, however, I would like to advance the notion of what we might call techno-musicality – by which I mean, the use of music-making technologies not only to understand the styles and genres and practices we study, especially in the realm of contemporary popular music (though increasingly seemingly all music is mediated, if not produced, through such technologies), but also to express the critical and cultural perspectives we bring to bear on the music we study. Like Hood, my position here is informed by my own ethnomusicological endeavors, as shaped in the field and the classroom and my laptop-ready armchair, to come to terms – and there’s a speech-mode bias for you – with the ways that hip-hop, reggae, and other inherently electronic musics are put together, with how producers, performers, and audiences make meanings from the coherence of style, and with how musical styles are produced and circulated more and more often with the help of computers and other digital technologies.

Producing and performing music with computers has served as the primary musical competency through which I have made social inroads in “the field” – from Kingston to Boston to cyberspace and beyond – and through which I have best been able to understand contemporary modes of performance and production. Music technologies today present a sort of global musical practice perhaps unprecedented in the degree to which musicians worldwide increasingly use the same tools (if in different ways) and share their music directly with peers and audiences. Just as music notation and transcription facilitate the work of music scholars researching traditions which themselves employ notation, it would seem that today’s worldwide web of musical interaction might be best interpreted and expressed through the very tools and technologies that artists and audiences are using to create and engage their music.

An interesting if unwitting anticipation of this argument might be heard in Richard Taruskin’s early 80s polemic, “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself” (1983). Though concerned more with perceptions of authenticity around the performance of Western art music, Taruskin asserts at one point that “music can never under any circumstances but electronic speak for itself” (53). This is something of an idealistic perspective on electronic music, emerging from the attempts of certain composers – Milton Babbitt, for example – to prevent the “imperfections” or interpretations of human performers from tainting “the work.” I’m not sure, however, that that there’s no “middle man” – as Taruskin implies – in the case of electronic music, especially in the unambiguously manipulated, mixed, and mashed styles of performance, production, and publication that I take as my subject today. In my own attempts at musically-expressed ideas about music, the express acknowledgment of my role as a creative agent and “critical remixer,” if you will, is absolutely crucial. As an explicit ethnomusicological practice, it is imperative to draw listeners’ attention to the express juxtaposition or manipulation of the music in question (though we might imagine more subtle, subversive examples as well). In this sense, we might think of musically-expressed ideas about music as bringing together what media theorist John Fiske calls a “writerly” text – i.e., that which “foregrounds its own nature as discourse” (94) – as well as a “producerly” text, which “relies on discursive competencies that the viewer [or in this case, listener] already possesses” (95). Nevertheless, I’d like to hear in Taruskin’s statement a belief in the potential of electronic technologies to let music speak for itself, to facilitate a music mode of discourse that can communicate with the complexity, logic, and subtlety of the speech mode of discourse – and perhaps, in some ways, more directly, more powerfully.

Along these lines we might also hear musically-expressed ideas about music as another attempt to address what Charles Seeger referred to as the “musicological juncture” – that seemingly inherent distance between communicating “about” one “system of human communication” (music) through another (speech) (16). Seeger’s vigilant warnings about the “shortcomings of linguocentrism in music scholarship” (Feld 1984:78) and his attempts to think through precise models for talking about music – not to mention new technologies for representing music (e.g., the melograph) – represent important precedents for the advocacy and use of music-technologies to reconcile some of the dilemmas presented by the musicological juncture. In seeking to amplify Seeger’s cautions as well as to move beyond questions about the distinction between the music mode and the speech mode, Steve Feld, in his allusively-titled essay, “Communication, Music, and Speech about Music” (1984), affirms both the speech and music modes even as he shifts the conversation toward a concern “more with the general question of communication” – which Feld defines succinctly as “the process of meaningful interpretation explicitly conceived as social activity” (77). Whereas Seeger distinguishes between speech as the communication of “world view as the intellection of reality” and music as the communication of “world view as the feeling of reality” (77), Feld attempts to move beyond such a distinction in his conception of music as a “feelingful” realm of experience, a useful concept not because it implies that music is “untranslatable and irreducible to the verbal mode but that its generality and multiplicity of possible messages and interpretations brings out a special kind of ‘feelingful’ activity and engagement . . . that unites the material and mental dimensions of musical experience as fully embodied” (91). Aligning himself with John Blacking in conceiving of music as a “primary modeling system . . . with unique and irreducible symbolic properties” (94), Feld reformulates Seeger’s distinction: music represents an “instantaneously apprehensible metaphorical expression of one symbolic order” while speech about music constitutes “metaphorical expression of another order that reflects secondary interpretive awareness, recognition, or engagement” (95).

Despite Feld’s compelling explication of the rich possibilities of the speech mode’s “metaphorical expression of another order,” it is this fundamental secondariness of speech about music which, in part, motivates the new forms of ethnomusicological practice I offer today. (I have, after all, provided a great deal of “speech about music about music” already, and – lest I appear too cavalier – I should note that I see musically-expressed ideas about music as complementing, not supplanting, current practices.) If “speech about music” is, as Feld asserts, “an attempt to construct a metaphoric discourse to signify awareness of the more fundamental metaphoric discourse that music communicates in its own right” (93), why aren’t we more concerned with expressing our ideas, our analyses, our constellations and conversations, in this “fundamental metaphoric discourse that music communicates in its own right”?

I believe the reasons are several, among them: disciplinary orthodoxies, institutional barriers, and the fact that the tools that make such an approach possible have only recently become widely available and accessible to those outside the realm of elite electronic music production. I also believe that the reasons for embracing these tools and approaches at this moment far outweigh the potential perils of going against the grain of convention with regard to academic publishing and notions of musical ownership and fair use. In this way, I recognize that such a position might be seen as activist, and so I would like to embrace this orientation as well, drawing one more intellectual lineage before offering a few examples.

Because musically-expressed ideas about music represent, in my opinion, an irresistible opportunity to share my research and perspectives with a wider group of interlocutors and listeners than, say, that of the fine group assembled here this morning, I see such an approach dovetailing in a number of ways with Charles Keil’s notion of “applied ethnomusicology.” Despite my embrace of what Keil in his seminal essay pejoratively refers to as “electrocuted music” (407), I think that we share an overriding concern with the impact that ethnomusicological practices and perspectives can have in the so-called public sphere, with the ways that, as Keil puts it, “our work can make a difference, that it can intersect both the world outside and the university in more challenging and constructive ways” (ibid.). Although Keil distrusts the mediation of musical practice by electronic technologies, in my own experience, especially as a volunteer in community centers where I’ve shared beat-making techniques with inner-city youths – not to mention as a blogger attempting to cultivate an international conversation about music, culture, and society – it seems clear that music software, and the technologies that enable one to share music and thoughts about it, have had a rather stimulating and democratizing effect on musical production and reception.

Today’s popular styles, most of which are made on computers and distributed on the internet, represent important ways to connect with young people and with non-expert peers more generally. Writing in the early 80s, before the advent and radical repurposing of more widely accessible electronic music technologies, Keil saw “the seductiveness of electric amplification and mediation” as making the application of ethnomusicology rather “difficult” (408). I suspect that Keil, in his commitment to “sustained,” local communities, might distrust such aspects of “mass culture” (407) as I here call to embrace, if in something of an interventionist manner. If we think instead through the lens of “mash culture,” we might hear what Keil bemoans as “packaged disco distortions” as things that can be repackaged, remixed, and repurposed, and to the same sort of critical ends, perhaps, as Keil sought to pursue (408). My position, then, attempts to grapple with the inevitable layers of mediation in modern cultural practice and seeks to make sense of (if not to signify on) such mediation – to provoke and to teach, to study and to play.

Digital technologies offer unprecedented possibilities, as Christopher Small might say, for us to music about music. If ethnomusicologists have exploited the mechanical reproduction of sound for some time now, we have in general limited our use to playing discrete musical examples in the classroom and recording performances in the lab or the field. Programs such as Ableton Live, however, facilitate the playing and mixing of multiple sound sources while offering a host of techniques for isolating and manipulating particular musical passages. Such software allows one to tap into the power of direct, digital reproduction where previously one might have had to rely on methods such as transposition (say, to a piano), translation, or transcription of musical examples. One can draw connections between different performances and styles, raise questions – both of a musical and socio-cultural nature – and highlight particular relationships in an immediate, audible manner.

My interest in the possibility of expressing ideas about music through music emerges not just from a consideration of the methodological literature but also from my experiences as a listener and performer. It was while acting as a participant-observer at clubs in Boston and on the blogosphere that I began to notice the subtle pedagogical power of particular forms of musical performance – in particular, DJ-mixing and mashup production, both of which are based on the art of juxtaposition, whether sequential or simultaneous – to shape one’s sense of the ways that musical style articulates, in a feelingful way, with ideas about community, tradition, influence, and interaction. The parallel emergence of genre-blending DJs and genre-bending mashup artists drew my attention to the intrinsic cultural critique in such juxtapositions. I became aware of the ways one could structure a musical argument – drawing genealogies, counterposing seemingly distant sounds, mixing and mashing the obvious as well as the unlikely. To mix in Richard Taruskin’s voice yet again, I was struck, repeatedly, by how, as he readily admits, “good performers can teach receptive scholars a great deal” (63). Thus, what I propose here is not so much an imposition of ethnomusicological method on mash culture, but a recognition and embrace of the ways that the two can work in dialogue, with music scholars highlighting the cultural work that mashups and mixes do as we employ these very forms to share our perspectives on music’s social and cultural significance – perhaps even issuing a creative challenge to producers and DJs to consider the forms and meanings of their mixes and mashes beyond clever or purely pleasurable correspondences in title, theme, tempo, rhythm, or key.

But enough speech about music about music! Let’s hear (and see) a few examples of music about music:

1) "the lion seeps tonight" (click on title for sound clips and commentary)
2) "musical examples" (click on title for sound clips and commentary)
3) "big gyptian" (click on title for sound clips and commentary)

. . .

If musically-expressed ideas about music remain an undeveloped area of our work, it will be, I suspect, due to some of the impediments I mentioned above. One major obstacle is the current copyright regime and the strictures it creates throughout the publishing world. In a climate in which editors and publishers discourage the quotation of song lyrics and even, in some cases, robust transcriptions, it is almost impossible to imagine attempting to share in a forum more public than one’s local classroom – or regional meeting – the kinds of musical-expressions I’ve just played for you. Although the internet would seem to present an obvious place to publish such multimedia works, the institutions from which we derive so much of our support – our departments and libraries for example – are not often very able, or willing, to push the legal definitions of “fair use” in the academy. Far too frequently, it falls to us as individuals to advocate for our rights on our own, which requires no small degree of technological fluency and no small amount of courage (or folly, depending where you stand).

Another factor which may hamper the advent of musically-expressed ideas about music is the often unspoken dichotomy among ethnomusicologists separating those primarily engaged with performance from those primary engaged in the production of written works, with the former often relegated to the role of enthusiast. Though I risk associating myself here with the undervalued camp in this implicit division, I am more interested in blurring these lines, promoting a practice of performance as scholarship without the attendant connotation of a certain lack of rigor. I would like to hope that the pedagogical and critical value of this approach, like Taruskin’s ideal electronic music, might speak for itself.

Finally, because such a practice can produce “musical examples” that are at once analytically interesting and aesthetically pleasing, the contexts for which they are suitable extend beyond the classroom to the club and the internet, among other non-traditional venues for ethnomusicological publication. One can thus communicate the issues and concepts of our field in a mode of discourse more accessible to those unfamiliar with our specialized lexicon.

For all the reasons above, then, we ethnomusicologists who are committed to “applying” our methods and sharing our perspectives with the wider world might consider musically-expressed ideas about music as offering a compelling way to advance our discipline amid the sea changes of the digital age.

Works Cited

Bull, Michael and Les Back, eds. 2003. "Introduction: Into Sound." In The Audio Culture Reader, 1-24. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Feld, Steven. 1984. “Communication, Music and Speech about Music.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 16:1-18.

Fiske, John. 1987. Television Culture. New York: Routledge.

Hood, Mantle. 1971. “The Music Mode of Discourse.” In The Ethnomusicologist, 230-242. New York: McGraw Hill.

Keil, Charles. 1982. “Applied Ethnomusicology and a Rebirth of Music from the Spirit of Tragedy.” Ethnomusicology 26(3): 407-411.

Seeger, Charles. 1987. "Speech, Music and Speech about Music." In Studies in Musicology 1935-1975, 16-35. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press.

Taruskin, Richard. 1983/1995. “On Letting the Music Speak for Itself.” In Text and Act, 51-66. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


studio one love

got a piece in this week's phoenix reviewing a new studio one reissue series from cambridge's heartbeat records and considering the legacy of coxsone dodd's indomitable imprint.

although the discs are perhaps pitched more for the masses than the selectors out there (read: more classics than rarities), everyone should own a copy of killer instrumentals. y'ear?

you can read/hear more about the series over at heartbeat, including a slick studio one timeline. they're also hosting a short video about studio one that's well worth watching.

now, being the verbose vagrant that i am, once again i far exceeded my wordcount (caveat editor), so i'm reprinting the "extended" version below. big up to matt ashare for mixing down a nice, tight likkle dub version fit to print. read it here.


coxsone at the console (photo by david corio)

Still Number One: Jamaica’s Premier Studio, Reissued

When people think reggae, the first name that comes to mind is Bob Marley. Far fewer know the name of the man who not only gave Marley and the Wailers their start but who was perhaps more instrumental in laying reggae's solid foundation than any other individual: Clement "Coxsone" Dodd. A sound system innovator and record producer and the first black studio-owner in Jamaica, Dodd parlayed entrepreneurial acumen and impeccable taste in records into what may be the largest legacy in recorded music, bar none. Studio One, his recording facility and label imprint, played a central role during the Jamaican recording boom of the 1960s, strongly shaping ska, rocksteady, and reggae.

In addition to issuing hundreds of albums and countless hit singles while introducing and developing many of Jamaica's greatest vocal talents, Studio One boasted a house band which comprised some of the island’s finest instrumentalists. Having cut their teeth in Kingston's jazz bands and on the hotel and cruise-ship circuit, these players were versatile virtuosos. Under the guidance of Dodd and his team of crack engineers – among them, Sylvan Morris and a young Lee "Scratch" Perry – Studio One's house musicians produced a corpus of instrumental backing tracks, or riddims, that would outpace even the original songs recorded on them, providing what has amounted to a Jamaican "Real Book," of sorts: a collection of compositions (and, importantly, recordings – for their sound quality is crucial to their character) that have been versioned, re-licked, and sampled thousands of times over. In many ways, then, the sound of Jamaica is the sound of Studio One, even when the label doesn't say so. Dodd himself was known to estimate that Studio One was responsible for 80% of modern Jamaican music, which, if one counts allusions to Studio One songs and reworkings of Studio One riddims, is not such an outrageous claim.

"Coxsone" Dodd earned his nickname, after a famous Yorkshire cricketer, for his athletic prowess in school, but it was Dodd's engagement with American culture – in particular, the music of African-Americans – that would prove his ticket to success. Indeed, the new sound of Jamaica as forged at Studio One, a sound as engaged with contemporary R&B and soul as with Jamaican folk and pop traditions, expressed a new sort of cultural alignment for many Jamaicans, especially after gaining independence from Britain in 1962. Even before shedding colonial shackles, Jamaicans had been tuning into the sounds of America via radio broadcasts and records, some of which came to the island via the island's longstanding diasporic network of migrant workers and émigrés. It was while working temporarily in Florida, picking fruit by day and dancing to jukeboxes by night, that Dodd began collecting R&B records and, inspired by the jive-talk stylings of black radio disc jockeys, imagining ways of entertaining a hometown crowd by playing the hottest dance numbers of the day, slow songs included. He commissioned some custom-made components and returned to Kingston with big speakers and big plans. Before long, "Sir Coxsone's Downbeat" was the eminent sound system on the downtown scene, presenting – with its collection of rare records or "specials" and charismatic, scat-singing, shoutout-slinging DJs – a formidable challenge to established competitors such as Duke Reid.

As Dodd tells it, when the American music industry shifted from R&B to rock'n'roll, he decided it was in his best interests to produce local recordings to meet the dancehall's demand for more boogie woogie and jump blues. Of course, even a quick listen to Studio One’s catalog demonstrates a sustained engagement with contemporary American music, including rock and country but especially gospel, soul, and the emerging style of funk. Still, it is significant that Dodd frames the narrative of Studio One in this manner, emphasizing a connection to African-American styles and noting that at a certain point the Jamaican music industry – increasingly powered by the feedback loop between sound systems and their sister studios – began advancing a sound as local as it was international.

Studio One soon became the premier studio for this emerging, modern Jamaican sound, especially with the advent of ska in the early 60s. After Jamaica's most popular ska group, the Skatalites (who recorded many sides for Coxsone), broke up in the mid-60s, several key instrumentalists and composers-arrangers, among them trombonist Don Drummond and keyboardist Jackie Mittoo, would become the core of Studio One's house band. When ska yielded to rocksteady's bubbling, electric basslines, soulful group harmonies, pop idol balladry, and rude boy attitude, Studio One elevated singers such as Alton Ellis and groups like the Heptones into the national spotlight and onto the charts. And when, in 1968 or so, a new style seemed to emerge – a style which, with its popping organs, echo-laden guitars, and hard, "one-drop" drums, seemed to embody the ragged, rugged character of the place that produced it (thus, according to some, earning the tag reggae, a local slang term) – Studio One again stood at the forefront, producing some of the earliest recordings and riddims now identified retrospectively as fitting, if not setting, the reggae mold. In the decades since, despite being challenged by many studios which followed suit, Studio One's legacy has only been strengthened by the degree to which the songs and riddims Coxsone recorded there in the late 60s continue to inform reggae style.

Now, almost two years after Dodd passed away in May of 2004 (just days after seeing Brentford Road re-crowned Studio One Boulevard), Cambridge-based Heartbeat Records, a subsidiary of Rounder, has launched an ambitious Studio One reissue project, a new beginning for an old relationship. Heartbeat began re-releasing Studio One material, particularly for an American and international audience, shortly after Dodd moved his operations, including a record shop, to Fulton Street in Brooklyn. Since 1983 Heartbeat has released over 250 reggae albums, including over 60 from Studio One. At the helm of the reissue series is the same person who has overseen all of Heartbeat's reggae and Studio One releases, Chris Wilson, a Jamaican-born Boston transplant who considers Coxsone "a mentor and a friend." An acquaintance since the days when he would go to Dodd's Kingston shop to hunt down the newest pressings, Wilson spent his formative years in Jamaica before heading north to college in the 70s. Like many of his peers, during the 60s Wilson found himself completely enthralled by the young nation's new music, as well as by what he calls the contemporary "black music" coming from the big neighbor to the north. Coxsone's label, with its reputation for quality, found a special and prominent place in Wilson's collection. He would often buy Studio One records without even listening to them.

Heartbeat's reissue series can be understood as a tribute to Dodd as well as an attempt by Wilson not simply to project the legacy of Studio One but to put his stamp on a catalog that he has lived with for a long time. Wilson would like Studio One to be remembered alongside such labels as Motown or Stax in significance, and it is hard to imagine, with Dodd no longer with us, who would be better prepared to advance such an argument. Whereas other reggae reissues are often limited by the necessity of working from vinyl sources, thanks to his longtime relationship to Dodd, Wilson has had privileged access to original tapes and even the machines on which they were recorded. As a result, Heartbeat's reggae releases, especially the newly remastered Studio One series, possess a strength and quality of sound commensurate with the heavy music produced by Dodd and his many collaborators. Wilson oversees all the mastering sessions, and he's got the ears for the job. A musician himself, having played for years with Boston's I-Tones, Wilson is well acquainted with reggae's distinctive aesthetic: he knows how big the bass should be, how crisp the percussion, how clear the voices, how warm the sound. He has worked with every major studio in Jamaica.

Wilson is a connoisseur to be sure – but without the pretension that marks reggae's share of "moldy figs." Contrary to the fetishization of the rare that guides reggae reissues packaged for the eBay set, the tracks collected on The Best of Studio One and Full Up: More Hits from Studio One were chosen because they were among Wilson's favorites, not his obscurities. There are some unreleased tracks scattered across the reissues, but in general Wilson is most concerned with reaching the ears of the uninitiated. The two best-ofs collect the cream of the Studio One crop. These are "big chunes" all around, the favorites of yesteryear and the sort of tracks that would garner a pull-up at any "oldies dance" in Jamaica today.

Listeners whose exposure to classic reggae remains limited to Legend and The Harder They Come will be surprised by the versatility of Jamaican pop presented here. Studio One's 60s output centered around sweet, sophisticated songs, often more related to mid-century American pop standards than the repetitive vamps that would follow in James Brown's wake (in Jamaica as well as the U.S.). These songs, many of which are ballads (though often with double-time rhythms chugging underneath), tend toward more elaborate song structures, with bridges nestled between choruses, extended chord progressions, intricate band arrangements, and group harmonies drawing on doo-wop and American gospel as much as Jamaica's own Afro-Christian hymnal traditions. Those acquainted with the soul and R&B traditions will hear a good number of echoes in this mirror-mirror music. There are love songs, sad songs, and songs about songs – even more than there are songs about politics or ganja (though those show up too). And then of course, there's the unparalleled sound of these recordings: the drums crack, the bass pounds, and the horns and voices, guitars and keyboards mingle in the mid-range, all bathed in a unique analog warmth that owes as much to the room on Brentford Road itself as the tape and amps and microphones and studio-engineer wizardry.

The two discs also extend to Studio One's 70s output, including performances by DJs such as Sugar Minott, Lone Ranger, and Michigan & Smiley, flowing "talk-over" style atop well-worn riddims. And though newcomers were re-licking these same riddims at the same time - often to great effect, adding their own touches – Studio One always had the original tapes to work with, giving them something of an edge all the while. As Wilson writes, "They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We say Downbeat is still the ruler!" The discs' sequencing occasionally calls one's attention to Studio One's own practice of versioning, as when Lone Ranger's "Love Bump" follows Slim Smith's "Rougher Yet," the former gleefully riding the riddim of the latter.

Wilson recognizes that Studio One's legacy is based as much on Coxsone's catalog of songs as on the riddims underlying them, riddims which have had a life of their own, propelling the lion's share of Jamaican music since the late 60s. The music of Studio One is, in this manner, truly seminal, having planted seeds of a perennial variety. Subsequent producers – from "Junjo" Lawes to Bobby Digital, Sly & Robbie to Steely & Clevie – have re-licked Studio One's biggest riddims hundreds and hundreds of times. The "Real Rock," for example, which one hears underpinning Willie Williams's "Armagideon Time" on Full Up, might be the most versioned riddim of all time, accounting for upwards of 500 subsequent recordings and – when we take into account the underground economy of "dubplates" – probably a great many more. To highlight this aspect of Dodd's legacy, Heartbeat had the good sense to collect a good number of Studio One's most popular and influential riddims on a third disc in the reissue series: Downbeat the Ruler: Killer Instrumentals. "No filler," says Wilson about the set of 18 taut riddims, and he's right. The disc is a must-have for beat heads, reggae purists, and lovers of groovy instrumentals alike.

Finally, Marley devotees will be pleased to learn that the fourth release in this first batch of reissues is a double-disc collection of Bob Marley and the Wailers recorded during their formative years at Studio One (1964-66). For anyone who hasn't made it past Legend, the discs will prove revelatory. And they will prove a delight, if not a surprise, even to those who have heard far more of Marley's oeuvre. The early, big hits are here ("Simmer Down"), as are older versions of familiar – or overplayed – songs (a gritty, uptempo "One Love"), while a cache of more obscure recordings (Bob Marley singing about Jesus?!) rounds out the set. With a wide palette of voices in Bob, Bunny, Peter, and Junior, and the day's best arrangements by the day's best band, the music bursts with exuberance, sounding like soul at one turn, gospel at the next, doo-wop on the corner, and rocksteady on the road. In the strict sense of the term, there's really little reggae, if any, on these discs, considering that reggae as a style really only emerged around 1968. The familiar elements are there, though: heavy bass, snapping snares, sweet voices, and, sometimes, guitars strumming or horns bleating in between the beats.

With its vintage design and classic photos, Heartbeat's Studio One reissue series is handsomely packaged. But don’t be fooled: the music is what matters here. This is Chris Wilson's loving tribute to Coxsone Dodd. And it's got a vibes, man. A vinylist at heart, Wilson has been sure to reward his brethren, so the vinyl pressings of the reissue series all contain bonus tracks – usually DJs toasting over classic riddims or extended mixes of familiar favorites. More volumes in the series will follow, including spotlights on Delroy Wilson, Freddy McGregor, John Holt, the Heptones, and a collection called Version Dread, which compiles B-sides from Studio One's heavy, rootsy 70s releases. So, in a sense, the collaboration continues, and Downbeat rule still – about which, as they say in Jamaica, give thanks.

heartbeat's chris wilson


sky for the trees


lemon-red was a popular blog and it still is

so i was pretty psyched to participate in this.


how yuh peel?


everybody know it's