Sly & Robbie – “Silent Assassin” (1989)

One of the nice things about record shopping in NYC was the abundance of used hip hop and reggae in the shops. We don’t see much of that way out here in Seattle, so I spent some extra time digging in those sections. And that’s how I ran across this intriguing piece of wax – a record by reggae superstars Sly & Robbie, but produced by KRS-One and featuring raps by KRS, Young MC, and Queen Latifah. For five bucks I had to take this home and see what it’s all about.

As you’d expect Silent Assassin has a strong reggae foundation, one that sometimes drives the entire song, like on “Woman for the Job”, and at others is more of a chorus-like flourish such as on parts of “Rebel”. Because this is a Sly & Robbie record, we’re also treated to some amazing bass lines and some snappy snares. I get the sense the backing tracks are as heavily sample as many hip hop albums are, but instead are played live by the reggae duo, giving everything a familiar but still fresh sound.

Definitely an enjoyable record and one worth picking up.

Audio Active – “Robot War” 12″ (1997)

Sometimes fate forces you to buy a record. A few weeks back we were in Hiroshima, Japan with plans of stopping at Dumb Records. When we got there they weren’t open yet so we decided to head back up to the main street and just wander around for a bit, but then right there on the corner we spotted the sign for Stereo Records and figured we’d just go check them out first. Stereo Records is a great shop – small like most record stores in Japan, but well organized and full of awesome stuff. I pulled a 12″ called Robot War out of the Japanese Pop/Rock section simply because it looked interesting, and imagine my surprise when I flipped it over and saw that it was recorded at On-U Sound and produced by none other than Adrian Sherwood. My love for all things On-U is not a secret, and this just seemed like the perfect conjunction of events, as if the universe was trying to tell me that I needed this record. And who am I to argue with the universe?

A blend of dub reggae and electronica, Sherwood’s fingerprints can be felt all over Robot War. And is that Gary Clail I hear repeated saying “Robot War” throughout the song? He isn’t credited, but it sure sounds like him and he would have been hanging out doing other stuff at On-U during this period. The B side track “Stiff Wheel” puts aside any notions of reggae and instead comes at you like a cosmic dub space jam, the strong bass line keeping the beat while everything else flares off all around like a fireworks display. Some classic On-U stuff.

Hjálmar – “Ferðasót” (2007)

People are generally surprised to learn that Iceland has an above average quality reggae scene. After all, the style is associated with a warm semi-tropical island, not a cold moss-covered one. Is there something about the style that speaks to the islander experience? I don’t know.

Before the recent wave of Icelandic reggae being led by bands such as Ojba Rasta, AmabAdamA, and RVK Soundsystem, there was Hjálmar. Formed in Keflavík in 2004 the band released a string of successful albums through the 2000s, many of which are considered all-time classics in Iceland.

Ferðasót, released in 2007, was the band’s third full-length album. I was fortunate enough to run across a fantastic quality copy on eBay the other day for a more-than-reasonable ten bucks, so there was no way I could pass it up. I hadn’t listened to them much over the years other than their 2013 album with Jim Tenor, the heavy Dub of Doom, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. And I have to say… it doesn’t sound very reggae to my ears. There are some elements here and there, but overall it has more of a folk or world feel to it. “Nú Er Lag” is about as close as we get to traditional reggae.

Bob Marley & The Wailers – “Uprising” (1980 / 1983)

Reggae is one of those all-purpose genres to me. Having some people over and want to have a good time? Put on some reggae. Want to sit around and chill and zone out? Put on some reggae. Reggae music is like the bird in the recurring Portlandia skit. No matter what the question is, the answer is “put a bird on it”. It goes with everything.

After a record-breaking rainy winter, the Seattle area is about to break another weather related record, this time the most consecutive days without any measurable precipitation – something like 51 straight days. I think well break the record next week. Plus it’s been been super hot by our standards, and most folks (including us) here don’t have air conditioning. So the other night when it got up to 84 degrees… inside our freaking house… Holly requested some reggae because it seemed to fit our sweaty moods. But you know what? We decided to crank the volume on Uprising, pour a couple of ice-filled cocktails, and go sit on the step right outside our sliding door to the backyard instead of sweltering in the living room. And it was pretty perfect (but still hot).

I’m no expert on the Bob Marley catalog. That being said, to my ears Uprising is a very spiritual album. It’s there in the lyrics with songs like “Coming In From the Cold,” “Zion Train,” “Forever Loving Jah,” and “Redemption Song,” (♠) but it’s there in the music as well. There’s a certain musical southern Christian spiritualism (and I’m talking something more raw and visceral, not more refined church music), but done with an island aesthetic and a Rastafarian sensibility. Was some of that driven by Marley’s cancer diagnosis in 1977? I don’t know… and cancer certainly didn’t seem to slow him down until 1980, the same year Uprising came out. It’s hard to believe we lost him when he was only 36.

“Redemption Song” is the zenith of the Marley catalog, the kind of song that transcends race and geography and gender and [insert something here]. Certainly the African slave experience is a cornerstone of the song, and I’m not trying to minimize that influence or co-opt it; but the message quickly expands to encompass everyone. Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds. And that’s why it resonates so strongly across so many lines – the concept of feeling lost and forsaken and needing to find hope to help carry you through is a universal one. Better advice and truer words have never been spoken, and Marley’s soulful delivery makes me tear up a little every time I hear it.

Exodus may be more highly regarded, but I’ll take Uprising every time.

(♠) Of course there’s also “Pimper’s Paradise,” though the lyrics are hardly pro-pimp nor do they paint a pretty picture of the lives of women who have pimps.

“Melodica Melodies” Compilation (1981)

Augustus Pablo made me a fan of that most ridiculous of instruments, the melodica, that strange combination of a woodwind instrument and a kazoo and a piano necktie. It’s absurd, but when you play some reggae riddims with it… magic happens. So when I saw this 1981 collection of melodica reggae tunes the other day I had to buy it, both because it was all melodica all the time and frankly because it’s a vintage reggae record; not sure about the music scene where you live, but up here in Seattle most 1980s and earlier reggae comes to you via reissues.

I decided to play Melodica Melodies tonight because at 7PM my living room feels like Jamaica. After a crazy wet and cold winter that even had Seattle natives complaining about the rain, we’ve been in a warm dry spell and right now it’s 81 degrees in my living room and more than a bit humid. If it gets any hotter the vinyl will warp.

The songs on this comp are a combination of dub tunes and straight reggae… though even the reggae jams are more musical than vocal. It’s everything you’d expect it to be, and that’s exactly what I need on a hot night with a cool drink. Melodica Melodies is a smooth chill trip, and well worth checking out.