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