RIFFS: CD release honors reggae’s ‘crown prince’

Friday, December 19, 2008 at 1:01am
The late great Dennis Brown

No less an authoritative figure than Bob Marley dubbed Dennis Brown “the Crown Prince of Reggae,” and throughout an extraordinary career that began at age 13, he was arguably the genre’s finest pure singer.

His velvet voice was always rich, resonant and alluring, and Brown’s proficiency with ballads and love songs was so great that he helped launch a reggae strain that would be deemed “Lovers Rock.” But despite his huge popularity throughout the Caribbean and in England, Brown only enjoyed sporadic success in America.

Part of the problem was material. Brown cranked out hit after hit in Jamaica, but his American label releases never came close to duplicating those made at home. Also reggae has always had problems getting radio airplay, particularly on urban and R&B stations.

But he remained a fan favorite among the reggae faithful until his premature death in 1999 at age 42. Brown’s impact was so great his funeral resulted in a temporary peace between political enemies P.J. Patterson, former Jamaican Prime Minister, and Edward Seaga of the Labour Party, who both spoke at his three-hour funeral.

The Best of Dennis Brown (Heartbeat/Rounder) doesn’t cover the very beginning of Brown’s recording ventures, but it does contain many phenomenal works. He made numerous classic hits teaming with producer Winston Holness, better known as “Niney the Observer.”

“Westbound Train” was a worldwide smash, and Brown’s performances on “Tenement Yard,” “Africa,” “Tribulation” and “Black Liberation” showed that he could sing protest, topical, social and roots Rasta material with zeal and fire.

Still, it was his sentimental and romantic fare that many people preferred, and this 18-song set has ample examples of that side as well. These include “Cassandra,” “Coming Home Tonight” and “Give Me Your Loving.” The set also has two fine bonus cuts — newly extended renditions of “Here I Come (Love and Hate)/Jah Come Here” and “Wolf and Leopards/Step on the Dragon” that combine fiery Brown leads with crackling toasts from I-Roy.

“Cheated by the Father” and “My Whole World” are other great cuts on what’s arguably the best single-disc anthology that cover the finest selections that resulted from the Dennis Brown/Niney the Observer collaborations that stretched over parts of three decades.

While he’ll never have the symbolic impact of Marley (who also often cited Brown as his favorite singer) or even equal the sales of more pop-oriented and crossover types like Maxi Priest, Shaggy (who sang at his funeral) or Third World, Brown is unquestionably one of reggae and Caribbean music’s all-time greats.

Contemporary reggae releases

Let’s Get Physical (VP) is the latest from Elephant Man, and it’s a primer for how much funk, R&B and hip-hop influence permeates today’s dancehall sound. Chris Brown joins him on “Feel the Steam,” while Rhianna’s steamy contributions heat up “Throw Your Hands Up” and Busta Rhymes injects his usual comedic verbal takes in “The Way We Roll,” along with Shaggy.

Add guest shots on other tunes from Wyclef, P.Diddy, Swizz Beatz, Assassin and Young Joc and there are times when only the cadence and patois coming from Elephant Man reveal this has any links to Jamaica.

Most of the themes and lyrics are miles away from political or spiritual territory, although “Five-O” (both original and remix) and “Our World” do bring in some degree of topical discussion. It’s well produced and sonically great, but Let’s Get Physical is strictly for the contemporary reggae buff.

The same holds true to some degree for both Dancehall Vibes and Dancehall Crazy (both Jamdown). These samplers offer recent hits and tunes that were huge in the dancehalls. But a key difference is that there are some strong message cuts on Dancehall Vibes, among them Powerman’s “Drive By Shooting” and Lady Saw’s “Hail Jah.”

“Ready Fi Kill” from the duo of Delly Ranks & Zoom T, “Nuh Fraid A Yuh” by Scare Dem featuring Nadz and “Nothing Nah Gwann” from Professor Nuts also delve into some social issues. But the songs that are more fun like Buccaneer’s “Boochaq,” Cobra’s “Look Good” and “Bruise Up” and T.O.K.’s “Curfew” prove furthest away from the loping, syncopated reggae trademark.

There are few entries into the political realm on Dancehall Crazy. The closest is “Poor Soul,” from Degree, that does illuminate some of the poverty that still plagues so much of Jamaica. But otherwise it’s mostly light, celebratory tunes, from “Jamdown Rock” featuring Young Prince & Real T to Devonte’s “Sweet Honey,” and two versions of the title track from Don Yute.

Since dancehall music has always been a party sound, it’s not a surprise that you don’t get too many pieces exploring social ills or exhorting God. But past incarnations of dancehall did seem to me to maintain more musical ties to the reggae sound than much of the current material, something that’s also a reflection of the global impact of hip-hop and African-American influences.

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