Ranking Joe - Zion High

Zion High
Home Sweet Home Version
Bubbling Fountain (Dennis Brown)
Love Jah
Round The World
Rent Man (Black Uhuru)
Rent Man Style
Wood For My Fire (Black Uhuru)
Wood For My Fire
A Cup Of Tea (Dennis Brown)
A Fish For You
Slave Driver (Dennis Brown)
Slave Driver
This compilation - based on Ranking Joe’s 1980 vinyl LP “Round The World” and featuring tracks with producer the late Dennis Brown and Black Uhuru - captures the 20-year old deejay at the peak of his dancehall dominance. It illustrates perfectly the dictum “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”, featuring the deejay in full flow over some of Dennis Brown's productions of the period. The Black Uhuru tracks, recorded with Sly & Robbie just before the group launched itself on its international career, have long been unavailable; these cuts - as with Dennis Brown’s vocal on “Bubbling Fountain” - are making their first appearance on CD in this compilation.

Ranking Joe was born Joseph Jackson on 1st July 1959, in the Kingston 13 area around Waltham Park Road. As he grew up in this hard ghetto area, he was surrounded by sound system culture - his father ran a small set that played at domino tournaments and similar local functions. Joe used to practise deejaying on his father's set when he left the house, using a homemade microphone made from a telephone receiver, inspired by the successful deejays of the day like U-Roy, I-Roy, Dennis Alcapone, King Stitt, Scotty and Big Youth.

“I grew up in the same area, 33 Lane, 35 Lane, Braeton Avenue, Chisholm Avenue. First school I went to was St. Peter Cleaver in Waltham Park Road, then Torrance Junior Secondary School. Lef’ that school an’ go a Parade Garden School down by Duke Street, downtown Kingston.

From deh so me start electronics - I was interested in building amplifiers. I used to love hear sound system play, and check the quality of sound. Then I start check Tubby’s an’ say me would like to be apprentice, amplifier building.....Tubby’s said [to me] that apprentice would come and tek away him tool, so he never want [to] do that no more. So that lead me to Idler’s Rest, and I start meeting the stars who I only hear about before".

As a sound system follower Joe was eager to try his hand at deejaying; it wasn’t long before he was being handed the mic by such as Dennis Alcapone and Lizzy, then deejaying El Paso Hi-Fi and based in the same area as Joe. Joe also worked on a set called ‘Sure Shot’ and deejayed alongside Dillinger on a sound called Smith The Weapon. Like many other youths before him, Joe started entering in the numerous talent competitions as a deejay: he also began touring the island with the Sonny Bradshaw band, to whom he had been introduced by vocalist Jackie Brown: “Jackie Brown use to carry me round the talent shows, as ‘DJ Jolly', named for the Jolly bus company - places like Bohemia Club, Hagley Park Road. Every Wednesday they used to have talent shows. I use to work with a guy name Teddy Brown, who sing like Dennis Brown, and I start deejay like U-Roy”.

These early experiences gave him the confidence to try his luck auditioning for Studio One on Brentford Road; he had a met up with a man called Ray, who would shortly build his own sound system known as Ray Symbolic. It was Ray who had taken Joe down to Studio One in the first place. For his debut for Mr Dodd, he delivered lyrics commenting on the ‘Gun Court’, the judicial institution introduced in June 1976 by Michael Manley’s PNP government in an effort to stop the rising wave of political violence that was bringing chaos to Kingston’s ghetto areas. It rode a cut of Larry Marshall’s classic “Mean Girl”:

“The first song was released from Studio One [“Gun Court“] . That start give me a feeling of ‘new kid on the block’ - people start recognise me now, an’ say “ A you name Little Joe.....”

With a worthwhile effort under his belt which sold well at the time for Jamaica's foundation label, Joe soon began recording for other producers, including Bunny Lee [“Tradition Skank”], Pete Weston [“750 Four” and “Don‘t Give Up“], future Congos vocalist Watty Burnett [“Jacket” and “Psalm 54"], Enos McLeod [“Bag A Wire” and “Mount Zion”], Derrick Howard [“Natty Don’t Make War”] and Ivanhoe ‘Lloydie Slim’ Smith [“No Vacancy Fe Bald Head”]. Although it is fair to say that none of these 45s were massive hits, they kept the young deejay’s name in front of the public, together with his appearances on sound systems.

Joe consolidated his position in 1977, recording sides for George McLean [“Long Run Short Catch” and “Peace Talk”] and more importantly 'Prince’ Tony Robinson, who renamed him Ranking Joe and for whom he cut a series of singles which sold reasonably well. These included “John Never See Them Coming”, “Navel String Cutter”, “Up The Big Hill“, “A You Mr Finnegan” and the excellent version of Busty Brown’s do-over of “Queen Majesty” titled “Her Majesty Version 3”, with Joe’s debt to his stylistic mentor U-Roy made manifest. All these tracks were included on his debut LP “The Best Of Ranking Joe” for the same producer’s Groovemaster label. At the same time he contributed as a deejay to three 12” singles released by Joe Gibbs, Culture’s “Baldhead Bridge”, Marcia Aitken’s “Boy You Hold Me” and the Mighty Diamonds' recut of “Just Like A River".

Joe had also recorded in 1977 for club-owner Dickie Wong’s Tit For Tat label which celebrated Steve Austin, inspired by the TV show “The Bionic Man”. In 1978 he recorded for Martin Mandingo Williams [“Hotter Claps”], the Mighty Diamonds [“Natty BMW”] and for former Studio one drummer Phil Matthias; he also enjoyed a couple of big hits for Mrs Sonia Pottinger‘s ‘Hi-Note’ label, “Shine Eye Girl” and “General”. Joe Gibbs also released a Ranking Joe album in 1979 [“Natty Superstar“], with more hit 45s like “Leave Fi Mi Girl Arleen", which also did a lot to maintain his reputation in the ultra-competitive Jamaican dancehall arena.

During this period Joe began working again with Ray Symbolic Hi Fi:

“Ray came from Chisholm Avenue, Waltham Park - he start the sound long before me - it was a soul sound , beca’ soul music was the ‘in ting’ at that time. But certain place , people don’t want to hear no more soul again - you already 'ave sound like Gemini, Mello Canary, Merritone and Soul Merchant play ‘nuff soul anyway. But when me start play Ray Symbolic, me meet Jah Screw and the sound start turn into a rubadub sound - that was about 1977, 1978. Through me start talk an’ say “Ray Symbolic a Bionic” - off a the Steve Austin TV show [“The Bionic Man”] , an’ me talk non-stop, so they call me the bionic deejay, who talk non-stop from 8 o’clock through till 6 o’clock nex’ morning. Me nah put down mike an’ tek no break.....

Soon after that, the sound win a lot a sound clash, and win ‘Sound Of The The Year' an' dem ting deh.......”

Ray took a break to rebuild the sound around this time, and so Joe and his selector Jah Screw moved over to U-Roy ‘s sound system Stur-Gav Hi Fi:

“Then we move over to Stur-Gav - one time we play a dance fi Bunny Wailer with Stur-Gav, an’ we meet Errol Dunkley, who ask us to come to England. Then Ray come back again with some new amp, an’ mek we an offer to join him again. So then we tek up Errol Dunkley’s offer to come to England, only with Ray Symbolic instead of Stur-Gav. That was the first time a real Jamaican sound ever come to England an’ we tear down the place”.

Joe is right to emphasize the importance of Jah Screw [Paul Love] , who later became a successful producer in his own right with hits by Barrington Levy and others:

“My selector was Jah Screw. We meet him at Ray Symbolic then we become a dominant duo as selector and deejay combination. People never see anything like that before. While I was rapping, he would present the next songs and I would mention it before the people them would actually hear it. So them was “how come I know about that?” We have a combination. He would spin over the records fast as I would [give] some quick chat between the records as he flip them over and by the time people hear the song they keep dancing. And I create the style ”Bong Diddley” - the fast-rapping, twist-tongue style. At that time, every deejay had a style. My style have to come like when I’m deejaying and he would draw down on the fader, like the rhythm would stop, but people wouldn’t know where that rhythm would stop and I would keep talking and they would keep dancing“.

By this time, Joe had enjoyed further successes on record; he was the first deejay to record for Sly & Robbie’s Taxi label, with a version of Gregory Isaacs’ massive hit “Soon Forward” entitled “Stop You Coming and Come”. He also scored hits for Jo Jo Hookim’s Channel One outfit with tracks like “Nine Month Belly” and the brilliant toast to Junior Byles’ classic roots song “Fade Away” [“Weakheart Fade Away”]. He also started his own outfit, releasing his own productions, like the superb version of “Keep On Moving” called “Killing & Killing”. Like his contemporary and friend U. Brown, Joe’s speeded-up take on deejay godfather U-Roy’s style proved the perfect antidote to the legions of Big Youth imitators who had dominated the preceding years. In 1978-79, between them they defined the cutting edge of deejay tradition and carried the swing both in the dance and on record.

In 1979, Joe hooked up with Dennis Brown, who he had known and respected from his beginnings in the music business. The respect was mutual, and Dennis, who was busy with his own label DEB Productions, soon asked Joe to make an album for him:

“The Dennis Brown album come about beca’ Dennis respect me as a deejay an’ hear me a mash up the place on sound system like Stur-Gav. Sometimes he use to be in the dance, an’ compliment on my work. Beca’ we use to get tunes from Dennis - pre release, on dub - and when he hear me a work on those songs, he like them and say we could do somet’ing."

The first tune they did together was a version of Dennis’ recut of the Heptones’ Studio one classic “Party Time”:

“Now he say we could do something together. I first do a song for him name “Party Time”. It was the Heptones song, it was some of his early productions. He normally distribute through Joe Gibbs. I do that track for him, his vocal along side my [deejay]".

As Joe says today :

“The vibes was so great and it lead to the album “Round the World"...... So we started work on the album - we go a King Tubby’s , and me tek off me shirt and do the album in two hours - straight cut, bam-bam - it was like playing a sound system. Tubbs an’ Scientist mix it, an’ Dennis release the album in the UK. An’ then Channel One leggo fi him own [“Weak Heart Fade Away“, released by Greensleeves in the UK], so me ‘ave two album out deh a sell.......” Indeed, the affection he has for the late ‘Crown Prince’ is still there, as Joe told writer Carter van Pelt:

“Dennis always have a nice personality. He have a smile. He’s an easy going person. He wasn’t a person who is bigheaded or something like that. The fame wouldn’t bother him, ‘cause he was just easy going and he was the easiest person as an artist that one could really meet. He was always welcoming people and always show up with him face in a smile. You never really see him in an angry-angry mood. When he come to New York, is me and him and Roman Stewart. Roman and him grew up together. Roman and him singing from they was kids. And when I’m in Jamaica, always link up with him and Gregory and the whole of us. ‘Cause when you in Jamaica you have to go on the corner, you know? Like [at] Randy’s or Mixing Lab or thing like that. We always been together. So he’s deeply missed".

Joe - like most people in the reggae world - was aware of Dennis Brown’s personal problems with hard drugs:

“Over the years, he contribute a lot to the music business. When one tends to do a lot of good, people don’t remember what else they do wrong. Or one thing that they don’t agree with. He come to do a work and write his music and his book and left something for one to cherish and respect and learn from as a guideline. So I always remember him for the goodness he has done and not certain things which I don’t really agree with. Sometimes the Father show you two different sides of a person. Listening to his music can guide you along, and whatever he do behind the scenes is still a guideline for us too, to make us recognize that it’s not right. And we must try to stay away from that. So you can learn from the positive and the negative. I look at it that way. You might not agree with that side, but you have to come to knowledge that there is good and bad. Wrong and right. He have right and left. So a person walking on the right side sometimes tend to cross over on the left side. As long as they’re a human being, that’s going to happen. It’s a lesson for each and every one of us. But I always tend to be more positive of the right things that he has done and always remember him of the right.”

After Ray Symbolic’s successful and groundbreaking tour of the UK in 1980, Joe returned to Jamaica, where he and Jah Screw began producing in earnest during late 1980 and 1981; their joint productions were issued for a time in the UK by Copasetic Records, including albums like Joe's set “Armagideon Time” , as well as the last dub album ever mixed by King Tubby himself on the original mixing desk, the crucial [and aptly named] “Dangerous Dub”. No doubt the Ray Symbolic tour - and Joe’s abilities on the mic in particular - influenced the generation of UK-based deejays like Papa Levi and Tippa Irie who further developed the fast-talking style. Joe made another album, this time for the definitive dancehall producer of the early 1980s, the late Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes [ “Saturday Night Jamdown Style”, again released by Greensleeves Records in the UK]. The duo of Joe & Screw also produced a lot of music for US-based Jamaican producer Tad Dawkins, although regrettably, this music appeared uncredited to either. This lack of credit led them both to develop their own separate labels.

By the mid-1980s, Joe had relocated to the USA, residing in Bronx, New York. He still deejayed on sound systems like African Love, Down Beat and Sir Tommy’s, and continued recording himself and many other artists on his frequent visits to Jamaica. In the early days of self-production, Joe had named his label ‘Sharp Axe’; when he became officially resident in the USA, he changed the label’s name to ‘Ranking Joe Universal', under which imprint he continues recording and releasing music to the present. Additionally, Joe has recorded albums for the UK’s Mad Professor and Jah Warrior.

I first met up with Ranking Joe in the late 1980s, having been introduced to him by Jah Screw. When the Blood and Fire label started and we began presenting a sound system show in 1997 to help promote our label and the type of music we present, Joe agreed to work with us. Since then, we have played all over Europe and the USA, and I have been privileged to witness the authentic dancehall artistry of Ranking Joe in over 100 appearances, alongside other legendary mic-men like U-Brown, Trinity, Dillinger, Joseph Cotton and Joe’s old mentor Dennis Alcapone. I have to say that Joe has never failed to impress audiences with his sheer power and non-stop bubbling on the microphone, as well as by his consistent good humour and vibes. When I first started visiting Jamaica myself from 1991, I was struck by the number of deejays who paid their respect to Ranking Joe, including such as the late Pan Head, Papa San, Anthony B, and Charlie Chaplin. I also remember Charlie Chaplin paying fulsome tribute to Joe as his 'trainer’ when the pair deejayed at the prestigious Arts Festival, the Steirische Herbst, held in Graz, Austria in September 1996. At the same festival, Joe deejayed at a breakfast function held for the then Minister of Culture of that country, although I can’t tell you what was his reaction to Joe’s virtuoso rapid delivery - but surely he recognised a man who could talk more quickly than him ! It therefore would seem fitting to leave the last words to Joe, responding to a question about the still-unrecognised ‘heritage’ of the Jamaican dancehall again from Carter van Pelt’s excellent interview:

A lot of people don’t aware of the musical heritage. Through they lose the artists or the artists pass on to different places. Listen to the songs carefully and cherish the songs. I like the people in Europe and Japan and in the US - they cherish every moment of the artist. And they know your bio and they know what you is all about. And when you come to perform, they still give you that feeling like in the 70s and keep your vibes going when you perform for them. They appreciate it. You don’t have to try to be like a different person. You just be yourself.”

Amen to that, Joe.
Steve Barrow - May 2003
© Blood & Fire