By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
To reword another messenger, it's more common for an SUV to pass through the hole in a record than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of reggae. From the artists' angle, this means that a dirt-poor deejay will haunt a studio for years hoping for a "bly," or break, while a wealthy one will likely flinch at paying such dubious dues. Look no further than the controversy over Sean Paul's "uptown" roots to see that his exception proves a clear rule. The fact is, little Jamaica's stunningly prolific music industry runs on the same fuel New York uses to produce a disproportionate number of basketball and rap phenoms.
Unfortunately, in the food chain of the reggae music industry, the artists start off as food. For every Elephant Man who grows massive from a combination of talent and timing, a major label will chew up and spit out a dozen vital musicians, and possibly also absorb and dismantle their studios and boutique imprints. Virgin Records' work with Beenie Man and Shaggy and Atlantic's influence on Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder's discs are billboard-sized examples of how the hunt for cro$$over appeal will convince even the most talented artists to consent to talent-diluting makeovers. When all goes according to plan, slick-hop production allows these artists to be overplayed until they wear out their credibility. This gets justified by the trickle-down theory of exposure that holds the more popular reggae gets, the more all its artists benefit. But in reality, downyard's latest crossover superstars are just writ large examples of what happens at every level of the record industry: commodification compromising quality.
Even at the grassroots, it comes down to a basic Catch-22: An artist can't sell a song until it's already a hit. This is because supply outweighs demand. Labels hold all the cards because the competition among artists is so fierce. When test singles by in-house talent hit, they're gathered onto compilations like VP's Reggae Gold series, Greensleeves' Reggae Music Sampler, and Jet Star's Reggae Hits. As these move, profits are siphoned off to distributors, marketers, and label honchos. Wannabes outside the studio grow hungrier to get involved, which in turn reminds the artists responsible for the music just how easily they can be replaced.
True, the same labels devote quality comps to ragga, roots, and lover's rock, all of which can give new artists exposure. But these also highlight the fact that a performer must be identified early and often with a sharply defined production style and a particular school of vocal themes (from the subcategories of "slackness" and "consciousness") and delivery (singer, deejay, or singjay).
The rub is that the more one sells, the less one sells oneself. Poverty inspires beautiful music that the rich will pay to hear as long as it's tailored to their expectations. Meanwhile the realest stuff is banished to relative obscurity, generating little profit. "Them belly full but we hun-gry," Bob Marley cried gorgeously, but that number never made Legend. Instead suburbanites repaid in platinum his hopes that they "like jammin' too."
For now, the relatively secret songs, the throbbing soundtrack of the massive, proliferates. More than buyers of rock, rap, or R&B, reggae shoppers reward soul over bombast, mike skills over image, and innovation (at least within well-defined genres) over mediocrity. Maybe this is because many reggae consumers are futon-on-the-floor, incense-in-broken-coffee-cups broke. In any case, there are no reggae boy bands, even if T.O.K. kind of looks like one. In addition to avoiding the wack, reggae consumers are willing to vote with their dollars on who gets a "bly." For example, young'un Natural Black's Spiritual Food recently broke the top ten on the reggae charts from word of mouth and his stellar melodies. Perhaps another rootsy/electronic singjay in the Sizzla mode, Turbulence, will follow suit this spring with his second album, Different Thing.
In the end, though, from the ache in Glen Washington's voice to the cool ferocity in Bounty Killer's, reggae music is not so much a ticket out of Jamaican hardship as a way through it. At its truest, music is alchemy, a balm for poverty. For this reason above all, the massive can't sell out entirely until the final belly is full. And even then, I'm not convinced that the last of the hungry would want to make that trade. After all, while there's more to reggae culture than music, how could it celebrate such a victory without dancing?