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With his crooner's voice and sociopolitical lyrics, Everton Blender is one of the leaders of a growing trend in Jamaican music: a renaissance of the rasta roots vibration within the island's dominant dancehall scene. Known as "conscious dancehall," it's a sign that the spirit of reggae is alive and well after all.
For Blender, born Everton Dennis Williams in Clarendon before moving to Kingston as a young child, his moniker serves as a perfect metaphor for what he does: blends his smooth and earthy lovers rock-style tenor with computer-driven beats. Although his just-released album, the phenomenal King Man, is an almost purely roots effort, his music has always straddled Jamaican music's genre lines.
"I tell you the truth, you say it's a dancehall music and reggae music, you have to say are the same thing," says Blender in a heavy patois from his home in Kingston. "When you go to the dancehall, you might hear some derogative song, which weigh pon the reggae music. You have to play the reggae music clean, reggae music's more about international. But I say call it music. A man cannot sing reggae and at the same time him put slack in the tune. So that's not reggae, that's slackness."
For years critics have talked of the death of reggae, asserting that it has stagnated and gone the way of ska and rocksteady before it. They say that the beginning of its demise began sometime in the early Eighties, not coincidentally around the time Bob Marley passed away in May of 1981. To be sure, the Seventies saw an explosion of talented artists, a renaissance that may never be repeated. With the surge of Rastafarianism and the rise of violence and social problems in Jamaica, times were ripe for social consciousness that has always been a vital part of the music. Its message of peace and harmony has survived, however, thanks to groups like Culture, the Congos, and Inner Circle, as well as solo acts like Tony Rebel, Michael Rose, and Junior Reid. Even within dancehall's ranks, where DJs deliver money and sex-themed boasts, there have been Rastaman singers like Blender, Admiral Tibet, and Yami Bolo.
Blender doesn't see the difference between dancehall and roots reggae as a battle of fighters versus peace lovers but a matter of generational taste. "Dancehall style is really for a younger type. When you're young, you used to want dancehall with the DJ and everything," explains Blender, who first came to fame by landing records on the dancehall charts. "Dancehall bust me, but dancehall make me bust. No matter what political song, we used to want a dancehall."
Though he's been making hit songs since 1991's "Create A Sound," Blender's brush with the music industry goes back to the late Seventies, when he appeared with the Destiny Sound System and released singles like "Where is Love" in 1979 and "Baba Black Sheep" in 1985. His lack of commercial success then forced him to retreat from the business and return to his former trade as a house painter. He eventually realized, however, that being a recording artist was more lucrative.
"At first I came out in the late Seventies, it was nice. We didn't get our money still, but to do it was nice. Because we used to sing here and there and truly love the music. We love what we're doing. But with children the final say you can't live like a fool," says Blender, who notes his daughter was born in 1985. "So we try and take our food and what we can get out of it.
"But it's not all about money [but] Jah and the love in the music," he continues. "In those days sometimes the producers are more interested in bling-bling. It was tough, but we tell ourselves that it's gonna lead somewhere. Everything now I'm gonna reach. I wanna carry things to a level [and show] that things can go to a higher level at all times."
While Blender has used digital rhythms on his past efforts, King Man finds him immersing himself into a Seventies-style roots sound complete with a full live band and horn section. He sings about dancehall subjects like girls and his Beemer on "King Man," and the tune "True Love" has a slow lovers rock lilt to it, but the former uses Nyabingi drums and the latter is a righteous message about true love for yourself and the world. He covers Bobby Russell's "Little Green Apples," an AM radio chestnut popularized by O.C. Smith in the late Sixties, and the hard-edged soul standard "Is It Because I'm Black." The album bathes the listener in warmth and inspirational songs of Jah, peace, and fighting against injustice. "I did all types of music: lovers rock, a cover of one of my favorite singers, Delroy Wilson, 'Who Cares,'" he explains. "So we try to mix the album up."