Boom Times

If there was a Dow Jones average for reggae, last year's numbers would have gone through the roof. "Boom! Boom! Boom! year" couldn't begin to describe the surge. International demand, especially for dancehall, grew exponentially. Somehow, the supply side kept up: Artists with cross-cultural star power turned out enthralling, authentically Jamaican music by the jetload. Then after getting sponsored by major labels, they starting making pop music, too. One way or another, Sean Paul, Wayne Wonder, Elephant Man, and even old pal Supercat (with 112) bumped Justin and Britney off TRL. Amazing.

Maybe it started with Lenky Marsden's Diwali riddim from '02. Or maybe it was Beenie Man hooking up with the Neptunes back in the Y2K. In any case, 2003 was the Roman Empire of all reggae years. Reggae hasn't been this big since Bob Marley. Bob the massive is that massive again.

Reggae in 'ought three was also fun, prolific, and magical. Fresh and tasty became one and the same, as the new sounds dropping in clubs every weekend, or wafting out of car windows, kept booties shaking, minds lifted, and downyard's streets and lanes represented. With riddims such as Egyptian, Bollywood, and Fiesta, producers took advantage of the range of live instrument sounds now available via digital technology. Tablas, steel drums, congos, and sitars were as common as drum machine kicks and synths. Fierce competition between knob twiddlers to outdo one another's exotic sounds yielded a never-boring, if sometimes cluttered, spectrum of styles. Perennial stars King Jammy, Dave Kelly, and Steelie and Cleevie shone alongside luminaries Marsden, Donovan "Vendetta" Bennett (none hotter than Don Vendetta in '03!), Ward 21, Jam 2 James, and others. All are craftsmen in their prime. Even dub took new, if not rousing, directions, moving toward the electronica camp with novelty muzak such as Dub Side of the Moon.

All the movement on the production fronts overshadowed the DJs and singers who set off the best beats. Suffice to say: Vybz Kartel is the real deal; Elephant Man deserves all the crossover success he'll reap in '04; T.O.K's dark harmonies are necessary; so are Ward 21's hip-hop hybrids; Wayne Marshall is good for a hook but not a solo album; Beenie's still killing it even if America seems to have lost interest; Sasha and Ce'Cile slay every riddim they ride, without only selling sex like Lady Saw; and Lexxus still moves his heavy voice as if it was weightless.

Even more important, midtempo reggae got edgy, with an increasing number of roots and lover's rock crooners seeking digital makeovers -- and not a minute too soon, despite protests from purists, as malaise was beginning to set in for some of them (see: all of Luciano's albums last year). Call the trend "Dancehall Eye for the Roots Guy." Wayne Wonder, with his panties-melting voice and trite lyrics, blew up with crisp beats by the above cats. Rasta singjay Turbulence entered the public's higher consciousness with three albums (Different Thing, The Truth, Future) that split the difference between soft and sharp -- though none as well as Anthony B's Street Knowledge. And Buju Banton's Friends for Life, which slowed ragga's rambunctiousness down to a head-nodding tempo, was the year's best disc to throw in the car stereo on a first date when it was released last March. At least it was until Sizzla's Rise to the Occasion came along in November. That largely self-produced gem, ruggedly exquisite and refreshingly focused, redeemed the robed Bobo's scattered, occasionally misogynist output from the past few years.

After a year of many blessings for reggae, let's hope the success keeps spreading -- and doesn't spoil us. How nice it is to have to say that!