Category Archives: Book reviews

The aesthetics of dancehall according to Wilfred Limonious

000-wilfred-limonious-in-fine-style-cover-angleThere are books about singers, groups, producers, music studios, music genres and technicians and engineers. But not much has over the years been written or published about the artists that are responsible for an integral part of the music business – the graphic designers.

The most well-known in reggae circuits is probably Tony McDermott who designed countless of classic sleeves for Greensleeves in the late 70s and early 80s. Then there is Neville Garrick who designed for Island Records, including immortal album jackets for Bob Marley and Ijahman Levi.

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But there are of course others as well. And one of the most important is Wilfred Limonious, a Jamaican cartoonist that during the 80s became one of the key visual architects for dancehall album jackets and record-label logos. His outrageous humor and wit were perfect for this emerging new genre that challenged roots reggae with its more light-hearted and slacker sound and style.

His legacy has now been recorded in the massive and superb In Fine Style: The Dancehall Art of Wilfred Limonious. With this enlightning retrospective Christopher Bateman and Al “Fingers” Newman consolidate Wilfred Limonious’ role as one of the founding fathers of dancehall art.

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Wilfred Limonious’ style is unique and sheds light on the primary aesthetics of Jamaican dancehall culture from the 80s. And what sets him apart from several other graphic designers of that era is his raw, scribbled and often stereotyped characters and hilarious and patois-filled social commentaries that can often be found in speech bubbles.

But the book tells a story beyond his graphic work for music producers. It also showcases other illustrations as well as his comic strips for Jamaican national newspapers. It’s an extensive and thorough reflection of a visual mastermind that skillfully interpret a cultural movement.

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Peter Tosh – a myth unveiled

untitledWhen you hear the name The Wailers, you’ll probably immediately think about Bob Marley. For many he’s the original Wailer and The Wailers are often recognized as his backing band.

But that’s wrong, of course. The original Wailers were a quartet and later a trio consisting of Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. They split up in the early 70s and went their separate ways. Bob Marley became a superstar and a spokesman for all things reggae. Bunny Wailer kept a rather low profile and let his music do all the talking.

Peter Tosh was far from quiet, something that’s evident after you’ve read John Masouri’s Steppin’ Razor: The Life of Peter Tosh. This biography covers the life of a sometimes overlooked superstar.

Through his music and in interviews he gave the poor a voice. He often spoke passionately about equality and justice. He stirred up controversy with his outspoken lyrics and tunes like Oh Bumbo Klaat, Legalize It and the funky Buk-In-Hamm Palace.

But being the voice of the poor and criticizing the system and politicians can be dangerous, as Peter Tosh experienced firsthand. He was physically assaulted by the police in Jamaica and he was verbally abused by the media, particularly by rock critics in the UK.

But Peter Tosh was a rebel. He had his principles and would never go against them. He had his own game and his own set of rules. He played by them. Like it or not.

Peter Tosh also had a big ego, and over the years he lost faith in the music business and his Rolling Stones-owned label. He became disappointed in the lack of success and disillusioned by bureaucracy and the media that never fully understood him nor his music or mission.

Down the road things started to go wrong. Terribly wrong. His friends didn’t recognize him and his erratic behavior got increasingly worse. Whether this is due to an extreme amount of high grade ganja consumption, or Marlene Brown, a girlfriend described as something of a Yoko Ono for Peter Tosh, is unclear.

But according to several sources in the well-researched book she’s to blame for much that went wrong in the later parts of Peter Tosh’s life. She’s described as the reason for his demise and eventually his untimely death at the age of 42.

Peter Tosh was murdered in his home in Jamaica. Not by Marlene Brown. The motive behind the murder is blurry, but there are several theories of which one is about money.

He was an angry man and a highly complex individual with both a militant and a spiritual side. To this day and while he was still alive, he was in the constant shadow of Bob Marley; partly because his music was not as uplifting and direct as Bob Marley’s, but his lyrics were also darker and more controversial.

Peter Tosh struggled all his life, something that becomes apparent when reading the book. He was a charismatic protest singer of a kind that is rarely seen or heard today, and during his too short life he was on a mission. He was a musical outlaw that fought for freedom and promoted the herb. Not loved by all, and hated by some. Particularly the system, or shit-stem as Peter Tosh used to say.

But that was him. A man with a misson. A man on a mission. And a man that stood up for what he believed in, regardless who he would provoke.

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Al Fingers’ fascinating story on Clarks

In early 2010 Vybz Kartel and his former fellow Gaza members Popcaan and Gaza Slim dropped the shoe anthem Clarks on ZJ Chrome’s Mad Collab riddim. In the first verse Vybz Kartel stated “mi nuh love crep enuh Clarks mi prefer, Clarks with the leather yea, Clarks with the fur, Clarks fi di summer, Clarks fi di winter, Clarks fi di sun, Clarks fi di water”.

It became a massive hit that year and was soon followed by two new cuts from the Wurl Boss – Clarks Again and Clarks 3 (Wear Weh Yuh Want) on the Wallabee riddim. At the same time the demand for Clarks increased in the Caribbean.

But this was not the first time Clarks had been celebrated in reggae. Dillinger had done it. Eek-A-Mouse too. But the best known Clark’s tribute up until Vybz Kartel’s anthem is Little John’s Clarks Booty released in 1985. And if you browse record sleeves from the 70’s and 80’s you’re bound to find Clarks. Just look at Dennis Alcapone’s Guns Don’t Argue or Michael Prophet’s self-titled album.

Street style has no boundaries and follows no rules. Converse is worn by punks and rockers all over the world, skinheads prefer Dr. Martens and Adidas Superstars was celebrated by Run DMC in the early days of hip-hop.

The story about Clarks dominance in Jamaican reggae and dancehall culture is fascinating since it’s a shoe partly synonymous with comfortable footwear for children and pensioners. It intrigued London-based DJ, musician and graphic designer Al Fingers so much that he recently put out a nearly 200 page book on the subject.

Pompidou and General Leon in King Jammy's yard in 1986. Photo by Beth Lesser.

Pompidou and General Leon in King Jammy’s yard in 1986. Photo by Beth Lesser.

Clarks in Jamaica is a stylish and colorful photo-essay of Clarks’ celebrated status on the island, where Wallabees and Desert Boots have ruled dancehalls ever since the 60’s. But it’s also a lesson in general Jamaican fashion, social history and the importance of brands and brand values.

Style and fashion are integral to Jamaicans, especially in dancehall culture, and Al Fingers and photographer Mark Read tell the story from Clarks earliest years in the 19th century via its arrival in the West Indies about 100 years ago to today’s iconic status.

Triston Palmer in Kingston in 1982. Photo courtesy of Greensleeves.

Triston Palmer in Kingston in 1982. Photo courtesy of Greensleeves.

It features current and historic photographs as well as never before-seen archival material and is based on interviews with veteran and contemporary artists and producers as well as industry people like Chris Lane and John MacGillivray from Dub Vendor.

Clarks in Jamaica gives interesting insights of how a comfortable shoe established in Somerset in 1825 could be the choice of rudeboy’s and Rasta’s. It also gives an exciting overview of Jamaican fashion and how Jamaican’s dress to impress.

What’s the recipe for its success? Check the book yourself, but it has a little something to do with simplicity, durability and price.

I currently don’t own any Clarks, but ten years ago I had around four or five pairs. When I read this book I suddenly felt an urge to address this problem and update my wardrobe.

Jah Stitch in Kingston in 2011. Photo by Mark Read.

Jah Stitch in Kingston in 2011. Photo by Mark Read.

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An attractive visual history of reggae vinyl

Layout 1A while ago a watched an interior design show on TV and one thing that baffled me was a new trend in Hollywood where the rich and famous hired consultants to arrange their book shelves. The consultant came to their house and interviewed them about their literature preferences and then bought books that looked good in the shelf and books that they were supposed to have, i.e. the classics.

Two books that that fit at least one of these demands are the latest reggae coffee table books from label and publishing agency SoulJazz.

Reggae Soundsystem – Original Reggae Album Cover Art contains 300 full-size original album sleeve designs from the 50’s to the 90’s, complete with informative text on each musical section, compiled by Steve Barrow – co-author of The Rough Guide to Reggae and co-founder of Blood and Fire Records – and Stuart Baker, founder of SoulJazz. It has also special sections for one riddim albums, soundclash albums and gun focused album sleeves.

Reggae 45 Soundsystem – The Label Art of Reggae Singles features the artwork and histories of 1,200 records spanning the course of Jamaican music from its beginnings in the late 1950’s through to the end of the 1970’s. This one is also compiled by Steve Barrow and Stuart Baker, but written by reggae historian Noel Hawks together with Steve Barrow.Layout 1

Both books create a stunning visual history of Jamaican popular culture and its musical developments – from traditional mento and calypso in the 50’s to the rise of ska and rocksteady in the 60’s, the emergance of dub, DJ and roots in the 70’s through the arrival of dancehall at the start of the 80’s up until the early 90’s.

When browsing the books – especially the one focusing on album art – is it apparent how creative Jamaican artists were and often still are. The sleeves are clever and well-crafted and often comments local Jamaican issues – cultural or political.

I’m huge fan of Stir It Up, another book that features Jamaican album sleeve design, but these two from SoulJazz definitely excel any other book on reggae album cover design.

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Jimmy Cliff is a rootless wandering spirit

During the past 50 years or so reggae has had a tremendous impact on the world music scene. House is heavily influenced by dub and techniques such as versioning – or remixing as it is called in other genres – is widely used on the global music scene.

But reggae is of course also Bob Marley, and the genre is more or less synonymous with his music and tunes such as No Woman No Cry, Redemption Song and Three Little Birds.

In the shadow of Bob Marley several other artists and groups struggled to get their fair share of the global market. One that almost made it as far as Bob Marley is Jimmy Cliff. But due to a number of reasons he didn’t reach the same huge amount of followers.

These reasons – and a lot of other interesting facts and stories – are told in David Katz’ Jimmy Cliff: An unauthorised biography on Signal Books, and part of the Caribbean Lives series.

David Katz is the author of several other articles and books covering reggae, among them People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry and the ultra-heavy Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae.

Being an unauthorised biography means that the book doesn’t rely on recent interviews with Jimmy Cliff. According to an interview with the author Jimmy Cliff was approached, but “didn’t respond this time around”. However, David Katz has met Jimmy Cliff on previous occasions and used that material for this book. He has also interviewed a number of other musicians and people that have worked with Jimmy Cliff over the years.

The picture painted of him is a loving one. Jimmy Cliff is a highly creative, hardworking musician that doesn’t think twice about trying genres other than reggae. He has also struggled to reach his current position on the music scene.

He has been criticized for his music and for visiting South Africa during Apartheid. It is also clear that Jimmy Cliff is a spiritual individual, but has had an eclectic history having been a Muslim, a Christian and somewhat of a Rastafarian. His firm beliefs may have been hard to categorize in one religion.

Jimmy Cliff is also rootless. Both when it comes to music and to housing.

He travelled early to the U.S. and to the UK trying his hands on a variety of genres. From the 70’s and onwards his travelling increased and his touring took him around the world. His home has been in Jamaica, Brazil, UK and France. And probably several other places as well.

Music wise he has always been curious, which has made his albums non-cohesive. Usually one side with pop-oriented material and one side leaning towards reggae. Even though he has made roots reggae, Jimmy Cliff is not always viewed as a reggae artist, due to his passion to explore musical boundaries.

David Katz has given life to a complex individual and written a well-researched and easily readable portrait of one of the giants in the world of music.

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Studio One sleeves showcased by Soul Jazz

A few months ago I heard that Soul Jazz Records was back on track reissuing material from Studio One Records. It was terrific news and it almost felt like a good old friend had been heard from again.

Because the nearly 30 releases from Soul Jazz with music from Studio One are all essential. They’re beautifully packed and contain music that has helped define and refine reggae.

A virtual who is who in the world of reggae in the 60’s and 70’s recorded for Studio One at some point in their career – Ken Boothe, The Heptones, Bob Marley, Alton Ellis, Burning Spear and so forth. The list could go on and on and on.

The first project that has been materialized from the revitalized cooperation is The Album Cover Art of Studio One Records, a deluxe 200 pages plus 12×12” hardback, with an introduction by Steve Barrow, author of the Rough Guide to Reggae and co-founder of Blood and Fire Records. It includes hundreds of Studio One sleeves, of which many I haven’t seen before nor even heard of.

It’s divided in eight different sections – artists, calypso, dub, gospel, showcase, labels, disco and versions. The versions section is interesting since it shows that several of the releases changed appearance over the course of time. Some releases had up to five different sleeves.

The Album Cover Art of Studio One Records is a goldmine for designistas and reggae aficionados alike.

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The story behind Island Records unfolded

Does the name Chris Blackwell ring a bell? No? Don’t sweat it, he is not that well-known to most people I guess.

Anyway, he’s the founder of Island Records, one of the most influential labels of the twentieth century.

This pioneering company acquired by Polygram in 1989 and today part of Universal Music Group  introduced the world to acts such as U2, Tom Waits, Eric B & Rakim, Roxy Music and the late Amy Winehouse. But also a large number of successful reggae singers and bands. Bob Marley being one of those.

The story behind Island and its artists has now been described in the beautifully illustrated celebration The Story of Island Records – Keep on Running, edited by Suzette Newman and Chris Salewicz, and released in conjunction with the label’s fiftieth anniversary.

The story of Chris Blackwell and his label is a fascinating and impressive one. A true entrepreneur with a determination to present new music to the world.

Chris Blackwell’s biggest accomplishment is probably bringing Jamaican music, and especially reggae, to the mainstream. He did so initially with his own production Boogie in My Bones, an early Jamaican shuffle/RnB tune by Laurel Aitken put out in 1958.

The first worldwide hit on Island was Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop released in 1964. And from there on the success stories just pile up, especially with UK rock music and reggae.

In the 70’s and 80’s Island put out several of the most acclaimed reggae albums to date, including Catch a Fire by The Wailers, Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear, Funky Kingston from Toots & The Maytals and Black Uhuru’s Sensimilla as well as the soundtrack to the cult movie The Harder They Come.

Island also put out a number of wicked albums from UK reggae bands such as Aswad and Steel Pulse. The label was also responsible for a bunch of forward-thinking releases, for example Ijahman’s Haile I Hymn and The Upsetters’ Superape.

Chris Blackwell was a clever marketer and knew how to promote reggae to the general public, and the white European middle class.

In the 70’s Island was challenged in the roots reggae market, especially by another UK independent label – Virgin. Richard Branson and his colleagues managed to sign artists such as The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds, Culture, Johnny Clarke and U Roy.

Viewed in retrospective it seems that Island probably reached a broader audience, while Virgin put out albums that were more for hardcore enthusiasts.

The Story of Island Records gives a broad picture of the label and includes essays by ten contemporary music critics, including well-known reggae authors and writers such as the aforementioned Chris Salewicz, who has written several books including the authorized biography of Bob Marley titled Songs of Freedom, Lloyd Bradley, responsible for the comprehensive Bass Culture, Vivien Goldman, who has written two books on Bob Marley and David Katz, who has written People Funny Boy and Solid Foundation.

Included in this chronological and comprehensive retrospective is also rare photographs, artist portraits and album cover art. It’s essential to every music fan or anyone interested in design.

Chris Blackwell once said “If you felt the artwork was intriguing then there must be something going on in the inside”. This is true not only to the albums released by Island, but also to this great book.

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The Dead Yard explores Jamaica and beyond

Jamaica is an island that holds many stories and mysteries. Some of them are told by guide books such as Lonely Planet. But if you want to reach beyond Montego Bay you should check out The Dead Yard – A Story of Modern Jamaica. A book that reveals many sides of this well documented island.

The Dead Yard is not a book about reggae. Nor is it an ordinary guide book. It is a scholarly written document about the past, present and future of a tropical paradise that has been subject for colonialism for many years. And the author Ian Thompson digs deep in the dark history of the former British Empire.

Ian Thompson must have spent many long hours in the library to research this book. He has also spent two years walking the streets, riding the buses and talking to a broad range of people of many different classes and colors.

He has interviewed artists, expats, religious leaders and ordinary Jamaicans as well as a host of others. This gives The Dead Yard its unique character with its mixture of an academic essay and journalistic documentary.

All the stories told in The Dead Yard show the beauty and tragedy of contemporary Jamaica. I have never been there, but when I do get there, I have a feeling I am thoroughly prepared for my journey.

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Jeremy Collingwood knows his Lee Perry collection

Lee Perry is undoubtly one of the most acclaimed producers in reggae music, and his work is well-known to music aficionados, but also to a broader public. This is probably for two reasons – his work with Bob Marley and Max Romeo as well as his mythical persona.

About ten years ago, music journalist David Katz put out the critically acclaimed book People Funny Boy, a book that gives a rather full examination of Lee Perry’s life and work through many interviews.

Last year saw the release of another book on Lee Perry – Kiss Me Neck by Jeremy Collingwood, a long time reggae fan that has been documenting Jamaican music on CD and in books for a decade.

Kiss Me Neck is divided in three main sections – a description of Lee Perry and the Jamaican music business from the 60’s up until the 90’s, a discography and appendices.

In most books the descriptive parts are the longest. In Kiss Me Neck it is the other way around. Out of the 300 pages, about 230 are dedicated to discography and appendices.

When reflecting on the amount of work that has been put into the sorting of records and information, I actually feel overwhelmed. I mean, it is so much information. You have Jamaican singles, albums, UK singles, UK and European discos, tunes related to Lee Perry, mysteries, confusions and doubts about singles and albums. And so forth.

This book is written for collectors. The 70 pages about Lee Perry and Jamaica are much better described and well-written in People Funny Boy or in other books on reggae. If you decide to get better – or, rather, infinitely better – acquainted with Lee Perry and feel you need to know every matrix number, then you should definitely buy this book.

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