Not so long ago, reggae was a victim of corporate schizophrenia: Record companies tended either to exploit and abuse the form or to neglect it entirely. The current disposition of major labels toward signing reggae artists is encouraging, but what happens after the ink dries can be very disappointing for those who've cheered the genre's uphill struggle.
New releases by Dennis Brown, Third World and Jah Mallah demonstrate all too clearly the problems these artists face when they strike a deal in Babylon. And for once, I'm inclined to give the mean old money-grubbing record companies the benefit of the doubt and place the blame squarely on the heads of the dreads.
Brown's "Foul Play" opens with two strong tracks that vibrate with energy and commitment. "On the Rocks" has everything a vinal-vender could ask for: danceability, drive, and an unforgettable hook. The interplay of percussion and horn section on that cut and "The Existence of Jah" shows that aggressiveness and restraint aren't necessarily contradictory qualities.
But just when you start thinking what a fine synthesis of Jamaican/American sensibilities this album is, the center drops out. "Come On Baby" is as stale a slice of soul as its title, and by the time "If I Follow My Heart" rolls around, Jamaica seems like just another vacation spot for soul crooners.
Not that repetitious Rasta ramblings constitute good reggae, either. Third World's problem is the same one it's always been, only worse: Their paeans to Rastafari on "Rock the World" are as genuine and heartfelt as ever, but the slickly produced, cloying arrangements are anathema to the lyrics.
Some of the cuts are not even recognizable as reggae. "Dubb Music," for instance, is neither Dub nor Rub-a-dub, but a dippy dose of disco. Earth-Wind-and-Fire-meets-Natty-Dread may sound fairly I-ree in theory, but in practice it's downright I-ritating.
Which brings us to Jah Mallah. This band not only lacks the urgency of Brown and the sincerity of Third World, it's also sadly deficient in originality and taste. Its brand of raggae is whiter and brighter than anything Joe Jackson could contrive, and the concession-to-Babylon version of John Fogerty's "Bad Moon Rising" couldn't even pass as a spoof. v
The hard part about all this is that, if reggae is to make a go of it Stateside, there has to be some kind of cultural compromise, at least initially.
The reasons America trails so far behind the rest of the world in picking up on the form are complex and sometimes disturbing, fraught as they are with inter- and intra-racial overtones. We are beginning to turn the corner, at least in terms of the music, and these artists obviously don't want to lose the momentum or create a self-defeating culture shock.
One can only praise their efforts to strike a balance, but it's lamentable that in doing so, they often give up more ground than they gain. The songs represented here are much more accessible to the uninitiated then, say, Linton Kwesi Johnson's "Street 66" or "Bass Culture." But the point at which Americans start listening to reggae hardly seems the right time to worry about accessibility.
Bob Marley's "Redemption Songs" is a perfect, poignant example of how to reach Americans on the subject of reggae and Rastafarianism. The simple plea of the lyrics ("Won't you help me sing/dese songs of freedom") is made point-blank by the irony of the country-twang intro and the strictly Anglo beat. Its understated eloquence far outcries all the exhortations to embrace ideology and culture that went before it.
But that was Marley, and Marley never saw compromise as concession. By dragging the listener through all the soul and disco slop of the late, unlamented recent past, this sample of reggae artists loses the point in the shuffle.
To paraphrase Mikey Dread, the way to bridge the cultural gap might be simply to plunge in and "take it forward from the top, original style," since style is what it's all about.After all, if Americans just want dread inna Motown, there's always Chrysler.
THE ALBUMS DENNIS BROWN, Foul Play, A&M SP-4850; THIRD WORLD, Rock the World, Columbia FC 37402; JAH MALLAH, Modern MR38-135; THE SHOW DENNIS BROWN, Tuesday at 2 and 11 at the Bayou.