“The Second Attraction Reggae Artist to Bob Marley: Sifting through the Many Worthy Candidates”

I dunno what it is, but something about the month of July just screams “reggae,” to me. Certainly, the origin of the music would seem to have to do something with it — just all the hot, swampy motifs going on, as well as that Sublime song offering the image of “Summertime / And the living’s easy” in addition to the living actually being easy, in the summer.
Reggae, for all its niche popularity or cult following, is a very underexposed, misunderstood style, even in America, which is of course to say nothing of Britain, a country whose biographer Tim Footman once dismissed it as a manifestation of “homophobia.” Well, the Britons’ entire rejection of jazz should tell you some things about their differences from us.
Reggae isn’t quite a quintessentially American concoction, but it’s pretty darn close — Mad Professor’s “dub” reggae is very stylistically aligned with hip-hop and ska, reggae’s fast, urgent cousin, made a surge onto mainstream radio in the late ‘90s with The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (reggae’s biggest hit arguably being Wayne Smith’s “Under Me Sleng Teng”). Of course, this could just have to do with America’s tendency to usurp and commandeer all things exotic (such a compulsion being certainly applicable to the British as well, just in different cases). Well, we capture what we think is useful and today, with the overabundance of simplistic lo-fi and insipid pop, I find the lavish, full instrumentation and complex scores of Bob Marley and the Wailers, featuring full synth bravado and sporadic, unpredictable guitar, quite refreshing.
Now, it should be noted that Peter Tosh is generally held as AT LEAST the second best reggae artist of all time. Certainly, his credentials are nothing to scoff at: he was once a member of Bob Marley’s Wailers and even co-wrote “Get up, Stand up,” including his own version as the opener to his Scrolls of a Prophet: The Best of Peter Tosh. Mick Jagger even performs with him on “(You Gotta Walk and) Don’t Look Back,” which indeed a really fine song. As far as him actually being better than Bob Marley, which some frankly music snobs proffer, I think that’s a little ridiculous: none of his songs are anywhere near as good as “No Woman, No Cry,” “One Love” or “Lively up Yourself,” and as far as I know none of his progeny have gone on to successful and rewarding musical careers, like Ziggy and Damien Marley.
Tosh makes at least a solid case for second with the intimidating, Sublime-covered “Steppin’ Razor” and the apocalypse-handling, spirituality-gleaning “Downpressor Man” (along with what I allot as a sorely lacking version of “Get up, Stand up,” compared with Marley’s), but let’s backtrack a bit to Wayne Smith here: this “Under Me Sleng Teng” song is definitely one of the great lost radio hits of the 1980s (a he** of a lot better than that UB40 crap), and even his second-ranked tune on Spotify “Icky All Over” I found very awesome, albeit extremely similar to the ubiquitous “Under Me Sleng Teng.”
Mad Professor is a music snob’s reggae — I used to space out to it all the time in the sweltering days at this book warehouse where I worked, the whole album Dub Me Crazy!! (which I think featured like a modulated-voice spoken outro at the end courtesy of Neil Fraser himself). At IU I was lucky enough to take in a concert of the great Burning Spear, a stoic and distant figure who always seems to weave some of the most complex and beautiful background vocals into his accessible hymns. Another touring and recording novelty last decade was the Virgin Islands outfit known as Midnite.
And then there’s Toots and the Maytals — these guys are sort of in their own separate class and probably make the best case other than Tosh for second-best-of-all-time. I remember buying a CD of theirs at Tracks Records in Bloomington, Indiana while in college and just marveling before the variety and depth of the songs, as well as the fun they were having while playing and belting them out. For one, you’ve got “54-46 That’s My Number” which went on to spawn a key Sublime cover, Frederick “Toots” Hibbert unsheathing vibrant inflections and tones to really push the vocals into proud, anthemic places. You’ve got the ghetto-handling, gritty “Alidina” featuring the expert analysis of “I saw you standing on the corner looking insane”, uttered with such a cheeky easiness as to render the whole thing amusing (I noticed “Alidina” is unfortunately omitted from the band’s current flavor-of-the-week best-of). Much of this adds up to the band’s pleasing ability to not take themselves as seriously as Peter Tosh does, and “Monkey Man” and “Pressure Drop” handle, basically, the masses of humanity and the powers that be, bemoaning perceived maladies therein in the most melodic forms possible.
Jimmy Cliff probably has the biggest reggae radio hit ever, “The Harder They Come,” and indeed overall is an absolute master of his craft, wielding songs like the humanistic “Vietnam” and the, well, also humanistic “You Can Get it if You Really Want” and “Struggling Man,” as well as issuing great covers of “I Can See Clearly Now” and “Wild World” — da** near infallible stuff. My point is, our perspective on reggae is way too reduced in this country. When people get into Bob Marley, for one, they usually just get Legend (I even heard it’s still currently one of the 20 fastest-selling vinyls in America to this day), but in reality, Live, which features “Lively up Yourself” and “Burnin’ and Lootin’” as well as a couple tracks from Legend like the celestial “No Woman, No Cry,” at very least rivals it in beauty and listener-absorbing ability. In reality, I’ve never heard a bad Bob Marley song (actually I find “Jammin’” sort of annoying and stagnant) — most of their album tracks I’ve experienced have paid off, from Natty Dread, and studio albums like that. Americans, don’t feel like you’re committing cultural grand theft if you fully indulge in the great, lush and melodic art form that is reggae music. If Jimmy Cliff’s catalog is any indication, it’s a medium very much intertwined with American popular music, evident in the success of “The Harder They Come” as well as the excellent covers he’s pulled off. “You Can Get it if You Really Want” could very well be the theme song of an American TV sit-com, or high school classroom, as well, if more people would just hear it. Let’s not let reggae become an arena of snobby tastemaking and white liberal guilt — it will always be a bonus for these unique, precocious artists if we get their gorgeous work and their unique perspectives exposed.

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