Win-Win?

"Artistic creativity is a wonderful gift, but unless it is properly channeled and marketed, it does not put food on the table," writes Michael de Koningh during the foreword for his compelling paean to capitalism as culture driver, Young, Gifted and Black: The Story of Trojan Records. Nor does it change the world, he argues. Only good business minds can do that, like the ones behind the once-dominant British label that introduced non-Jamaicans to Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and a gazillion other reggae stars.

According to de Koningh, profit motive fueled Jamaican music as early as the Fifties, when gun-toting ex-cop Duke "The Trojan" Reid began spinning American R&B on fledgling radio station RJR in order to promote his liquor store. He eventually built a mobile sound system (his English-manufactured Trojan van earned him his name), strong-arming and sabotaging other systems springing up throughout Kingston's ghettoes. When Elvis turned whites onto R&B, American labels got bottlenecked by clean-cut rock and roll wannabes, so Reid and others built Jamaica's first ramshackle studios, recording tracks by artists like Derrick Morgan on the cheap that were more in line with blacker tastes.

By the Sixties London record men were hitting up Reid and every other available producer for product to shill to England's West Indian population. The savviest of the lot included Chris Blackwell and his assistant David Betteridge of Island Records, and Indian-Jamaican Lee Gopthal of B&C Records. Each had cut his teeth hawking records out of shoddy rooms and car boots. Island Records would launch the first U.K. incarnation of Trojan (named to capitalize on Reid's rep) in 1967; when it faltered after several unsuccessful singles, Trojan was revived by B&C, which had recently merged with Island, in 1968.

Under B&C's care Trojan brought the skills to satisfy the swelling reggae-buying public. Its staff often pushed hot new songs from (Trojan-owned) studios to the pressing plant to (Trojan-owned) stores in a single day. During its heyday in the early Seventies, the company released an average of ten singles a week, and those that charted were never out of print. The young, gifted, and mostly white brain trust innovated in every aspect of business: advertising on pirate radio; buying music (often for little more than "a tee shirt and a Coke") instead of paying royalties; creating dozens of smaller imprints to simulate product variety; using these imprints to lowball artists, with each new imprint offering less for their material; managing (but not developing) artists; releasing the pioneering Tighten Up compilations; and gradually pursuing a reggae monopoly. Trojan also opened doors for England's Jamaican community, lessening the need for imports and creating a unique regional sound in the more pop-oriented English reggae (which later spawned lover's rock).

By the mid-Seventies, however, Trojan was dying, poisoned from within. The company's greed led it to release loads of subpar material, just to keep producers on a short leash. Its long-running exploitation of artists left it unable to keep talent from bolting for greener pastures. Since being sold to Saga Records in 1975, it has bounced among highest bidders who have gambled on exploiting its unparalleled back catalogue with eye-catching box sets. This year Sanctuary Records Group, which bought it in 2001, released Trojan Rastafari Box Set and High Explosion: DJ Sounds from 1970-1976, two new collections stuffed with enough discographies and fact lists to make a trainspotter fall prostrate. Each mixes dozens of dated but historically revelatory B-sides with gems that are just plain immortal.

"This station. Rule the nation. With version," insists U-Roy on the oft-sampled intro to "Rule the Nation," before bursting into his chattering and shrieking shtick over a bubbly instrumental track. It's the perfect opening for High Explosion's visit to an era of genius fools commandeering microphones over far-out beats. The set is sprinkled with indelible earfuls: I-Roy's voice on "Hi Jacking" slowing at the end of each line, as always, until it creaks; Lloyd Young's toasts on the title track accompanied by the devil's kindergarten jam band, all raucous melodica and toy piano; and Shorty the President's boasts over percussive, echo chamber whistling, like a funky jungle bird song, on "President Mash Up the Resident."

As charming as the DJ material is, a listen to the Rastafari set makes one wonder why anyone needed chatters in the first place when the singers of the day routinely mined such coolly aching tones as Sugar Minott's on "So Many Things"; Al Campbell's on the darkly shimmering "Free Up Rasta"; and the Maytones' exquisite female-over-falsetto formula on "Throw Down Your Arms." And on "Nyah Bingi," Jimmy Riley's husky wailing of "Nyah Bingi has a heart of righteousness! Nyah Bingi won't settle for nothing less!" sounds heroic even before his churning eight-piece band careens into a dubbed-out climax. Jah! Rastafari!

Such rare yet righteous music begs the question: Between Trojan management and its artists, who was the wooden horse that sneaked into the pop market, and who was the cargo? That is, did good business sense slip quality reggae into England and the world, or did the music's inherent power carry a few further than they deserved?

Who knows? Does it matter? To quote singer Barry Brown on yet another freshly unearthed classic, "Natty Roots Man," "We're all the same one/Jah Jah love everybody."

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Greg Doherty