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Trojan Presents: Ragga - 40 Modern Dancehall Classics

CD1
Rub A Dub Soldier - Paul Blake & The Bloodfire Posse
Call The Police - Ini Kamoze
Herbman Hustling - Sugar Minott
Capture Rasta - Culture
Mr Consular - Home T-4 & Yellowman
The Exit - Dennis Brown
Lazy Body - Sophia George
Sweet Reggae Music - Nitty Gritty
Ragga-Muffin Year - Junior Delgado
Pirate - Ini Kamoze
Computer Knife And Fork - Nicodemus
Fit Yu Haffi Fit - Black Uhuru
Night Life Lady - Half Pint
Tenement Yard - Sophia George
Big Belly Man - Admiral Bailey
Slim Belly Man - Tonto Irie
Make Dem Com (aka Ready Fi Dem) - Nitty Gritty
No Wanga Gut - Tiger & Admiral Bailey
Mass Out - Pinchers
You Never Know - Delroy Williams
CD2
Type Of Loving - Horace Martin & Tiger
Save The Last Dance For Me - Tinga Stewart/Ninjaman
Distant Lover - Cultural Roots
Solomon Style - Josie Wales
Big And Bad - Papa San
Pumpkin Belly - Tenor Saw
Hanging Tree - Junior Delgado
Bam Bam - Tiger
Zig It Up - Ninjaman & Flourgon
Baby Can I Hold You Tonight - Sanchez
Gun In A Baggy - Little Lenny
Musical Murder - Sugar Minott
Unno Fi Move - Shabba Ranks
Murder She Wrote - Chaka Demus & Pliers
Don't Throw It All away - Barrington Levy
You're The Only One I Need - Eek-A-Mouse
Bogle - Buju Banton
Tease Me - Chaka Demus & Pliers
Three Against War - Tristan, Dennis & Beenie Man
Slam - Beenie Man

Classic sounds come in many forms, and the music that was once shocking becomes just cool oldies. Jamaican music was once amazed at the audacity of computer-based rhythms. Now they are totally part of the island's musical landscape. But let us not forget the pioneers of modern Reggae, those who dared to boldly go where no silicon chip had gone before. They are the Raggamuffins, and we are here to praise them and their buck wild style.

Ragga grew out of Dancehall, the ruling form of Reggae in the early 1980s. This sound came straight from the sound systems and was Reggae stripped to the bone with minimal effects and familiar rhythms remade in skeletal form. Played by human beings, Dancehall offered fun, sex and the occasional lyric about suffering as a kind of reminder that Jamaica is a poor country and many of the people were half starving. But in the mid-1980s, something changed. The music was still Dancehall but it took on a new attitude. Computerised instruments became the norm, and drum machines went from being toys that you messed about with, to the heartbeat of Reggae. There is no one moment where Jamaican music went from Dancehall to Ragga, but you could trace it back to one riddim: 'Sleng Teng'.

Unleashed in 1985 by the producer Prince Jammy, this one riddim was supposedly an accident, made up when a singer, Wayne Smith was messing about with a Casio keyboard and happened on a demo programme that had a cool drum rhythm. Jammy put on tape and Smith sang a song about ganja on it. The record was a sensation, selling tens of thousands. But it was a Marmite 45: as many people disliked it as loved it. To some it was an abomination - not remotely Reggae. To others, it epitomised excitement. Whatever it was, it was definitely a hit, and you just had to respond to it. Pretty soon Jammy was knocking out dozens of versions of it, and every other producer and singer was scrambling to get on board. Even Roots legends like Culture made records on the riddim. And while Culture fans expressed their dismay, the record became Culture's biggest tune for years. But to complain about such a turn of events was to misunderstand the fundamental nature of Reggae. And to understand that, we have to rewind a year to 1984.

Between the fun and excitement, there was a seam of Ragga with lyrics that recognised that the music got its name because it was the music of the sufferers, the poor raggamuffin kids without a cent, who could no more fill a pair of baggy jeans than they could afford a fancy black BMW.

In 1986 the Roots singer Junior Delgado, fresh from a prison sentence in the UK, came back to Jamaica to record with his former mentor Augustus Pablo. The pair might have been expected to reproduce the deep vibe that made them icons of the dub era, but instead they embraced the new sounds. The result was the stunning and edgy 'Ragga-Muffin Year', released to considerable acclaim on Island in 1986. This was Ragga Roots, carrying a powerful message of the poor youths rising while retaining the digital sound of its era. Delgado wasn't the lone rootsman in the new style. Dennis Brown cut an album for King Jammy, 'The Exit', which Trojan released; Nitty Gritty effortlessly straddled Roots and Ragga topics; Delroy Williams was another Pablo protégé who was happy in both styles. Here was a music revealing its deeper side.

As Ragga developed, the records acquired a confident swagger. The ruling sound of the time was that of Prince Jammy, who promoted himself to King, and whose sound system was powered by the endless stream of stars who took their turns to voice his riddims. These were fashioned by Steely (Wycliffe Johnson) and Clevie (Cleveland Browne, the brother of the Bloodfire Posse's Danny Browne), who were the era's leading electronic rhythm section. Jammy often used Mikey Bennett of the group Home T4 as arranger. The formula worked; Tenor Saw's 'Pumpkin Belly' was typical of literally dozens of hits that emerged from Jammy's studio in Waterhouse, Kingston, in the second half of the 80s. Singers and Deejays competed to be part of the success, and Ragga created its own stars; the sweet-voiced skinny lad Sanchez; the sharply humorous DJ Papa San, a series of ruling MCs like Tiger, Josey Wales and Shabba Ranks, who finally emerged triumphant; the prodigious child talents that Jamaica specialised in like Beenie Man; and eventually, Pop stars like Chaka Demus & Pliers, who enjoyed a string of hits worldwide in the singer-DJ combination style that had enlivened Reggae since the early 1970s. The stars' names suggested a rejection of convention and total immersion in Ragga.

Ragga remained under attack for 'gunman lyrics', wherein DJs compared their lyrics to weapons designed to take out the competition. It was an attitude born of soundclashes in the dancehall, where one sound took on another to win the acclaim of the crowd. The fact is that the attitude was nothing new: didn't Derrick Morgan sing that he was the conqueror in the early 60s Ska era, another fiercely competitive period of Reggae? And when Little Lenny was criticised for the apparently lewd smash hit 'Gun In A Baggy' - baggy means panties - the moaners failed to realise that he had created a metaphor for Aids that street kids could understand: he was saying that unprotected sex could kill as surely as a gun.

Ragga started to burn out in the 1990s; its stars were destined to soar fast and fall just as quickly, each one replaced by another hungry raggamuffin kid from a sound system with a few lyrics on his lips and little idea about building a long-term career. Talents such as Ninjaman and Papa San became born again; other stars were increasingly concerned with Roots lyrics, and others, such as Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks, both of whom had developed an international audience, came under fire in the West for homophobic lyrics, even though they retained followings in Jamaica. Ragga went serious, and was replaced by a new Roots movement aka Bobo Ashanti, Eurodub, and Bashment, an even rawer form of Ragga that did not become as popular internationally. Ragga was not built to last, it was created purely for its moment. Yet, when you hear it today, it is fully a part of Jamaican music's history, suggesting its era is as surely as all styles that had preceded it. Shocking? Not now. But still rocking? most definitely.

Ian McCann - Editor of Record Collector magazine
 
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