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Icons of Reggae Talk History and Evolution
Reggae historian David Katz played selector and interviewer as he led, three iconic and prolific producers of Jamaican music, Bunny Striker Lee, King Jammy and Bobby Digital, through a discussion about their careers, the evolution of the music and their thoughts on the contemporary music landscape. The panel discussion was the second to last presentation on Day 2 of the International Reggae Conference 2013.
“We can consider the producers of reggae here in Jamaica as akin to the film director,” said Katz during the introduction of the panel. He explained that the producers help to shape the creative process as well as maintain responsibility for finance.
The discussion was rich with anecdotes about the history and development of Jamaican popular music as these three pivotal producers mined their memories. They spoke about the music’s evolution from ska to rocksteady and through to reggae as well as the emergence of dub and the eventual dominance of digital sound. As the three spoke, Katz occasionally underscored their stories with music, ensuring that the audience fully understood the important music they had produced.
Throughout the discussion, their respect for each other was clear. What was also interesting was that the three represented a critical example of the Jamaican music industry’s informal academy. Bunny Striker Lee, the eldest of the three noted that he had received his first chance at being a producer through the efforts of Duke Reid, who gave him free studio time. In turn, Striker Lee groomed King Jammy, who passed on his knowledge to Bobby Digital.
“Bunny Lee was the teacher,” Jammy said. “He taught me most of the things I knew in production.” Bobby Digital would later refer to his time working for Jammy as being in class. “For those of you who don’t know, Bobby Digital was one of the most brilliant engineers to work for me,” Jammy later confessed.
King Jammy also spoke about the creation of the Sleng Teng rhythm, the beat that heralded the ascendancy of digitally created rhythms in Jamaican music. “We built Sleng Teng in 1984 , coming on to the end of ’84 and we released it in ’85,” Jammy explained. “The initial stage of the rhythm was like a buck up,” he said. He explained that at first the rhythm did not sound like drum and bass but had to be slowed down then and worked over to attain the iconic sound.
Yet fate almost intervened when the rhythm went missing. Fortunately, it was finally found and to ensure that no more mistakes could occur they quickly voiced Wayne Smith followed by Tenor Saw, Sugar Minott and others.
Bobby Digital also provided some interesting tales. He spoke about his respect for the late Garnett Silk whom he described as the only singer to make him feel goose bumps. He also expressed respect for Shabba Ranks and his work ethic, revealing that the dancehall anthem ‘Wicked Inna Bed’ was actually voiced in his bedroom rather than in studio.
“[With] mic inna hand and not on stand and di man dj like him inna dance,” Digital said of Shabba Ranks. “You know when a man hungry for sup’m, dat yute did hungry,” he said. He explained that Shabba’s drive resulted in his willingness to put out the extra effort as well as take criticism for improvement.
The International Reggae Conference is produced by the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI, Mona. The biennial conference was held at the campus of the UWI, February 14 - 16, 2013.