Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King
On April 22, 1978 30,000 people filled Kingston’s National Stadium to see the One Love Peace concert. On the bill was singer Dennis Brown, pop-reggae sensation Inner Circle, the vocal trio The Mighty diamonds, the toaster Trinity, the spliff-toting militant Peter Tosh and reggae’s international poster boy, Bob Marley. In the audience were representatives of Jamaica’s two warring political factions: Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National party and the leader of the opposition Jamaican Labor Party, Edward Seaga. Meant to celebrate the temporary truce between the parties’ armed gangs, the concert is vividly remembered for the moment when Bob Marley brought both leaders onstage for a reluctant, yet still historical handshake.
In his history of reggae’s evolution, Bass Culture, British journalist Lloyd Bradley recounts the concert to show how reggae has developed “muscles that unique among popular music anywhere in the world. Over the course of 500 lively pages Bradley describes how reggae’s muscles developed from an especially intense convergence of society, politics, economics and culture.
To draw his picture of reggae as an organic-sometimes dysfunctional-extension of Jamaican society, Bradley relies on a wealth of first-person interviews with reggae’s innovators. As he traces reggae’s development from the American R&B-dominated 50s dancehalls to ska, rocksteady, roots, dub, and the digitized slackness of 80s dancehall, a tone more journalistic than scholarly emerges. This tone fits the subject matter perfectly, for reggae developed away from the public eye with little notice from the press. It grew out of the people: by word-of-mouth and a group of DIY-minded producers who had one eye on profit and another on the music. Bradley enlivens his narrative with blocks of quotes from those who were there: Prince Buster, one of the music’s first major producers; Dennis Buvell, an early champion of UK-based reggae; Big Youth, reggae’s first ‘cultural deejay; as well as important studio musicians like bassist Leroy Sibbles and drummer Sly Dunbar. Bradley’s populist perspective makes reggae into a direct reflection of its native culture, which highlights its strengths as well as its limitations.
Along with such first hand accounts, the reader gets a healthy dose of Jamaica’s history. Bradley follows the island’s painful transition from British colony to independent nation, details the rise of Rastafarian culture, chronicles the mass emigration of the 60s to the US and UK (and the subsequent effect on reggae’s international standing), and tells of the growing social inequalities and economic collapse of the 70s, and the ensuing violent political battles.
Against this backdrop of turmoil, Jamaica created its own unique music industry, one whose story provides not only the history of a people, but a microcosm of the worldwide music industry’s growth in the 20th century. Artistically speaking, reggae foreshadowed, if not outright influenced many of modern popular music’s trademarks: the producer and engineer as artist, remixing, the MC as musician, the primacy of rhythm (in the form of drum and bass) in a song’s mix. He analyzes these innovations as a product of the country’s limited technical and economic resources and cultural aspirations, instead of taking the easy route by crediting them to a few musical ‘geniuses.’ He acknowledges this complex relationship when he states, “...in a nation as small as Jamaica, you can never hope to put much daylight between business, politics and art, or the potential commercialization of art.”
Bradley’s populist narrative style does not leave much room for him to place reggae’s evolution in a broader musical history; unfortunate, because many intriguing parallels came up in the course of my reading, most notably to jazz. Both were developed by a people working their way out from hundreds of years of slavery and social oppression, and both adapted and synthesized what was readily available in their environment to express their identities. Reggae grew from American R&B, soul, mento and calypso, while jazz transformed African rhythms, the blues, ragtime, and elements of European harmony. At some point, both also took on the cause of black nationalism. Most importantly, they were forged in the crucible of the dancehall. Here the parallel ends, for jazz has most decidedly moved from the dancehall to the concert hall, while reggae never left.