Rub A Dub Style : The Roots of Modern Dancehall
Beth Lesser - Writings

RUB A DUB STYLE – THE ROOTS OF MODERN DANCEHALL (2012)

This book is being offered as a gift of gratitude to the people who have created this magical and inspiring thing called reggae music. I hope that this book will provide a greater understanding of what went into making and sustaining this music, and a greater appreciation of the music itself. As this book is available to everyone free of charge, it would be wonderful if those who are willing and able could find a way to get some monetary returns to those artists who have dedicated their lives to making this music and have precious little to show for it today (like many of the artists mentioned in this book).

Rub A Dub Style : The Roots of Modern Dancehall
Beth Lesser - Writings

RUB A DUB STYLE – THE ROOTS OF MODERN DANCEHALL (2012)

This book is being offered as a gift of gratitude to the people who have created this magical and inspiring thing called reggae music. I hope that this book will provide a greater understanding of what went into making and sustaining this music, and a greater appreciation of the music itself. As this book is available to everyone free of charge, it would be wonderful if those who are willing and able could find a way to get some monetary returns to those artists who have dedicated their lives to making this music and have precious little to show for it today (like many of the artists mentioned in this book).

(This book contains only text. The photos included here are added to make the layout look better.)

THE EARLY DAYS

In the early 1980s, when Dancehall hit the record markets abroad, many long time reggae enthusiasts were disheartened. Fans had been comfortable with roots music – Burning Spear, Bob Marley, Yabby You, Augustus Pablo, Culture. They felt they knew what reggae was. As they most people understood it, reggae was music that carried a message. Reggae advocated change, overthrowing the colonialist system and lifting the suffering masses out of poverty. Reggae was the music that gave a voice to those who would speak out against a status quo that had traditionally silenced the voices of the poor. Young people around the world felt a firm affinity with this message. It resonated with their ideal of creating a world without war, oppression and commercialism.

But, the mood in Jamaica had changed. The new decade saw a move away from reggae as reggae fans had known it for almost a decade. Many roots artists seemed to fade into the background as young unknowns arose to take their place. When Bob Marley, the undisputed king of reggae, died in 1981, many people felt that reggae had ceased to exist – that without Bob, there could be no reggae. In an attempt to keep his legacy, and the music, alive, efforts were made to name various bands and individual artists as his heirs to the throne. But, the attempts were fruitless, because by 1981, the music had changed.

The music that replaced roots reggae seemed, to the many disillusioned fans, to be trivial and devoid of deep meaning, lacking the potential to right the wrongs and injustices of society. All the brimstone and fire where gone. The new music of the ’80s appeared materialistic. It was often sexually suggestive, sensationalist, focused on the excitement of the moment. A large group of former reggae supporters felt abandoned and moved away from the music. But many more new fans flocked to this exhilarating, provocative, bracing new form of entertainment. Jamaica was reclaiming its music and bringing back home. After years of artists vying for foreign exposure, reggae was becoming more purely ‘Jamaican’ than it had even been in its short history. Dancehall had arrived and was bringing big changes to the musical landscape.

THE POWER OF THE SOUND SYSTEM

Jamaicans loved their music, and they liked to adapt anything new that came along as a way of accessing music – like radio, TV, personal record players and tape recorders. Jamaicans, at least in the ghetto areas, lived every day surrounded by music in a way that people in colder climates have never experienced. Music was there because people wanted it, and sought it out. In earlier days, before radio and personal stereos, people would stand outside record shops just to hear the new jazz tunes from the U.S.. Self-taught dancer Pluggy Satchmo remembers his youth, just after World War II, “We go out to the record store, Hedley Jones [Bop City], evening time and listen him play jazz and we used to practice dance. People coming from work used to see me, Pam Pam, Fish and the rest of little youth them that deh bout there a dance in the evening.”

Pluggy and his friends would wander day and night in search of music. Even the Pocomania meetings provided some relief in the quest for melody and beat. “If you want fun, you have to go out there and listen the street meeting- people playing drum and singing revival songs. They have three drum and they preach and they tie they hair and they sing. And if there is no [other music], we go and listen them.”

Two other options were the ‘Garvey meetings’ and the massive funerals the UNIA (United Negro Improvement Association) held on Sundays in downtown Kingston. At the meetings, the representatives of the UNIA would dress in white with red, green and gold braids and military style decorations. A speaker would address the crowd, a military drum band played and the chorus sang songs of repatriation, of returning to Africa. On occasional Sundays, the UNIA held massive funeral processions that would wind their way through the downtown area. Those who agreed to give over their property or savings to the organization were guaranteed to be taken care of on passing away. They got a funeral worthy of a head of state, and the city dwellers would watch the grand parade, often the most exciting entertainment a Sunday had to offer.

Jah Mikey & Danny Dread of Stur-Mars - 1986

Jah Mikey & Danny Dread of Stur-Mars – 1986

While downtown ghetto-ites didn’t go into the more upscale clubs, they had access to live bands through the Coney Islands that would crop up on the weekends. Inside a designated area (like a “lawn”, as they were known), people would set up tables for gambling with dice. A band would play and people could come in for free and dance. At the time, the bands were playing American music of the swing era. That’s what Jamaicans wanted to hear. “Most of our habits come from the American music,” Pluggy remembers. “It make me a dancer – Ella Fitzgerald, Glen Miller, Mister Jordon, Louis Prima, Thelonious Monk, Gene Krupa.”

Before the Second World War, big bands flourished in Kingston. According to Bunny Lee, “They used to play over some American tune like Sentimental Reasons. You used to have the bandstand in the nighttime – you used to go up there and hear them playing. [Jamaican] bands like Sonny Bradshaw and Eric Dean used to play at Beaumont and all them place.”

But the war proved to be a fatal blow to the big band scene. The orchestras, which contained as many as ten people, were decimated by the call to arms. Nightclubs shut down. As former Bop City owner, Hedley Jones explained, “Live music had all but disappeared in the city, most musicians having been absorbed in farm or munitions work, aiding the war effort in the USA, or engaged in the then growing North Coast Tourist Industry.”

What were denizens of the nation’s capital to do for entertainment when the bands started dwindling? Two men in Kingston who owned PA systems, Count Nick and Count Goody kept the music flowing, albeit on record rather than live. These public address systems were designed to amplify the spoken word, not to handle the subtleties of music. But they made some kind of “musical noise”. So, people began using them to amplify records and inviting crowds to come and listen and dance.

Back home from the war, Hedley Jones Sr. took a government offer of a loan of 50 pounds and invested in a repair shop that also sold imported records, Bop City, that soon began to attract dancers and music fans from all over the city. In 1947, “With my record sales department in place, I designed and built a high fidelity audio amplifier using my newly acquired electronic technology. Equipped with what I presumed to be the best recorded sound reproducer anywhere, I set out on a Saturday night near mid 1947 to demonstrate my thunder. I started to play some Perez Prado recordings. A crowd gathered and from the crowd emerged two street-side dancers. They called themselves PamPam and Chicken. Little did I realize that Tom Wong’s sound was contracted to perform at the Jubilee Tile Gardens, almost opposite my business place. Tom’s puny sound with his re-entrant steel horns was no competition for my bass reflex baffles, mid-range speakers and high-range tweeters. His dance, in Jamaican parlance, flopped.”

Tom Wong, a table tennis player from Jones Town who operated a hardware store, took in the whole scene and, according to Mr. Jones, “The following Monday morning, I was in for a surprise, as Tom paid me a visit, complete with cash down for one of my amplifiers. Within two weeks his system was transformed with a Jones amplifier and two bass reflex speaker baffles loaded with twelve-inch heavy-duty Celestion speakers. The true Jamaican Sound system was born and scratchy recorded noises receded into oblivion forever.” With his new-found powerful and clean sound, Mr. Wong started calling himself Tom the Great Sebastian, and his ‘set’, now more than just a P.A. system, he began to call a “sound system”.

Youth Promotion Dance - 1987

Youth Promotion Dance – 1987

SOUND SYSTEMS RULE

From that day on, ‘sound systems’ ruled Jamaica. Carlton Hines named his vocal trio after Tetrack, a sound system that used to play in his childhood neighborhood of Franklyn Town, Kingston. The three members of the group Tetrack grew up with the sweet rock steady melodies constantly in the background, day and night, during lunch, after school, when eating dinner and even while doing homework. As the children fell asleep each night, the music continued to drift in through the windows and into their dreams.

Children grew up wanting to be close to where music was happening. The challenge for the young ones was how to sneak into the dancehalls at night. Jah Wise remembers, “In those days, little boy don’t go to dance. They wouldn’t allow that. You could go in the dance early, but when the dance start, you have fe come out. The promoter [tell you to leave]. You could go in there early, but when the liquor start sell, the teenagers have fe come out. When I was little, nine, ten, if you do something on the street there, they would tell your mother. So, you would behave.” To begin the session, the selector would play the ‘sign – on’ tune, “and the small kids step out now.” But you didn’t really need to go inside the ‘lawn’ to hear the music; the power of the equipment pushed the sound waves for miles through the moist Jamaican air.

“Those times, you could listen to sound anywhere. Could be one mile, five mile, you could listen to the sound,” Jah Wise recalls. The memory of music floating by from a close, but uncertain, location is still palpable for many Jamaicans. Deejay Dillinger recalls, “They used to climb the ackee tree and put the steel horns – so you could hear the sound from all three miles [away]. The steel horns carry the sound from afar. You could be miles away and hear the music playing. Sometimes I would be in my bed and I hear a steel horn clapping on my window pane and I would have to get up and follow that sound. It’s like I’m in a trance. So I would just have to walk until I find that sound. Like it hypnotize you.” Zaggaloo, selector for Arrows in the ’80s, remembers the first dance he went to, drawn by the sound of Cornell Campbell singing ‘Stars’ carried on the night breeze.

Flabba Holt - 1983

Flabba Holt – 1983

A youthful Flabba Holt would follow the melody in hopes of finding a session where he could show off his dancing skills as a “legs man”. “When I was small, I usually go up and down the place to hear sound. I walk from Trench Town go to Jones Town, listening the steel horn in the tree tops. And sometimes when the wind blow, you can hardly hear the sound so you have to keep on listen, listen, listen…”

Sound system sessions were more than mere entertainment. They became the life sustaining cultural and economic centre of a community. Some sets where small affairs, mainly used for weddings and private parties. Some were massive and played to large crowds in established venues. Some played funk and others, rockers. But even the tiniest community had someone playing music for public consumption. The underground economy they created allowed ordinary people who had a small amount of money to invest and experience a modest return on capital.

However risky it might be, with the police breaking up sessions and the ever present possibility of violence, it was one of the few opportunities available. Furthermore, employment with the sound provided an alternative to crime for the unemployed. Each dance session offered the whole community an opportunity to make a few dollars on the side. As evening fell, the street leading to the “lawn”, the venue for the dance, would be lined with food vendors selling complete meals of curry goat or jerk chicken with rice and peas, while the peanut sellers would walk along the side. The ‘cane man’ would be chopping the sugar cane into individual pieces. Inside, the promoter would be sure to sell off a quantity of Heineken, Red Stripe and Guinness. “At the time, there was nothing else [to do for a living] but music,” Recalls Prince Jazzbo, one of the deejay originals. It wasn’t much. Music was not a money making career choice. Salaries were low. The sound was being paid maybe $300 by the promoter, and ‘playing out’ involved purchasing records and ‘dubplates’, maintaining the equipment and hiring a crew of anywhere from five to 15 people.

Despite the low pay and the tough conditions, it was a way of surviving with the added bonus that the men who worked with the sounds were big men in the community. Kids used to dream of growing up to be deejays or selectors. “When I was a kid, I used to put up empty box and run telephone wire and pretend I am playing a sound,” Ranking Trevor recalls. Parents didn’t take to the idea very well. “[My mother] thought it was just for rejects, like music is nothing. Not important. Music is joke,” recalls singer Anthony Malvo. “That is when you want to [be] idle. That is not a profession.”

Working with a sound involved following a clearly defined career path. The aspirant generally entered at the bottom, as a ‘box man’, carrying the boxes from the truck to the venue and back again. “That was the start of it, until I start to work with Gold Soul [Sound System],” Trevor continues. “[I had to] lift up the box and go around with the sound until I start holding the mic. [The deejays] start out as box men. You work with the sound first.”

Jammy Crew with their truck - 1987

Jammy Crew with their truck – 1987

The day of the dance, the crew would load all the boxes onto the truck. Then, each man hopped into the back, and found a seat on top of the equipment for the long and bumpy ride. People often died falling off the back, as the truck careened around sharp curves on the twisting mountain roads. At the other end, the sound was unpacked and the wires connected. “Your face was so black from the exhaust,” singer Anthony Malvo explains. “[But] you didn’t care. You just get a little [water] pipe and wash off and you start to sing from [when] the sound turn on. You go all night until the dance done… By the time you pop back the sound on the truck, you have a little time to sleep, but you have no bed. So, you sit on a chair, or find a corner where you can get a little nap. Then you are back on the truck again.”

The main jobs in the crew were the performers – deejays, singers, and even instrumentalists, the selector – the man who picked out and played the records, the operator who adjusted the sound, the technical crew who wired the sound on location, the box men who lifted the heavy equipment and loaded it on and off the truck and the driver. The only requirement for these jobs was an ability to forgo immediate comforts and to dedicate oneself heart and soul to music, where ever it lead. The reward was the love and admiration of the community, the ability to bring a little money home to the family, the excitement of going around the island with the crew and being greeted by enthusiastic fans in every town.

View or Download the PDF of the book HERE.

Beth Lesser

During the 1980s, my husband and I traveled frequently to Kingston, Jamaica and Brooklyn, NY from our home in Toronto, Canada to follow the changing reggae scene. In that period reggae was changing fast, moving from the heavy roots sound of suffering and redemption to the lighter, faster, digitized sound of modern dancehall.

My husband and I saw it happen. We saw Junjo’s Volcano empire rise meteorically and them crash as his young artists emigrated or met untimely deaths. We witnessed Jah Love’s Brigadier Jerry take over the dancehall scene without ever having recorded a 45 – powered by the new popularity of dance hall cassettes.

We were in Waterhouse when King Jammy unleashed his Sleng Teng rhythm to an analog world and, one by one, producers dropped their previously recorded rhythms and started building again from scratch using programmable keyboards and drum machines. We were in Jammy’s yard while he cut the dubplates for the Clash of the Century, the event that brought dancehall culture to the larger Jamaican audience.

Over those years, I collected an archive of material that I would like to make available to the public – to present and future reggae scholars and fans.

Photo right: Beth Lesser and David Kingston get married at Youth Promotion.

All images & text © Beth Lesser

Beth Lesser and David Kingston get married at Youth Promotion