feature: reminiscing – reggae was hot in the 70’s!

September 1, 2014

One of the first dub records I ever heard was “Flour Power.” A madman rant by Naggo Morris over a lazy mule trot of a groove, it was a 45 airmailed to me from Antigua by a friend I had made while visiting relatives there in 1975. I was 15. The number one black radio station in New York was WBLS. It was class and panache incarnate, the home of the velvety voiced DJ Frankie Crocker, but reggae music wasn’t part of their playlist. I had to turn the dial to WNEW a rock station that only played tracks by big names like Peter Tosh and Bob Marley or downgrade to WLIB, a crackling AM station that would include the odd hit by the Mighty Diamonds or the Meditations between calypso tunes.

By jennifer jazz, AFROPUNK Contributor *

By the time I was 18, I was an intense college dropout with a rebellious sense of style. I couldn’t get enough of brooding basslines, emphatic pops of rimshot, echoing voices from outer space preaching afro-astral propaganda in a patois similar to that spoken by old folks in my family. When Gregory Isaacs sang:

If I could reach the border
then I will step across,
So please take me to the border.
No matter what’s the cost cause
I am leaving out of Babylon, leaving out…

the lyrics were the voiceover to my everyday life since my parents were in the throes of the divorce from hell. The louder the cries grew, the faster I fled from our evergreen shrouded English Tudor in Mount Vernon towards the neon lit border that led to the Bronx. I would have flown up the steps of the 241rst Street subway station interrupting the sky like a watchtower along the DMZ if not for my habit of stepping inside Wackie’s first. I was the only girl among the dreadlocks and rude boys in Clarke’s and pipe legged trousers pushing up on the counter to ask Lloyd Bullwackie Barnes to spin the latest releases, many recorded in his studio in the back and stamped with his own label. Whether he dropped an ultra echoey version of “Sleng Teng” or “Wa Do Dem” by Eek-A-Mouse on the turntable, shockwaves the likes of which had never been felt before spread through the neighborhood and anyone who didn’t already notice realized aliens had landed.

The afro had been the most radical manifestation of black hair imaginable, so no one was ready for locks or the Rastas who had them. They came from beyond. They were black separatists who had unseated the blue eyed messiah and replaced him with Selassie. They were peace and love promoting messengers of Jah or hedonist sex gods. It really all depended.

Sting’s mournful rasp would eventually become commonplace, but in 1979, “Walking on the Moon” was the poetic soundtrack to a New York in which Midtown was the heart of the red light district and whole streets from the Lower East Side to the South Bronx were rubble filled craters.

From The Slit’s cover of Dennis Brown’s “Man Next Door” to The Clash’s cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” to Gang of Four chanting: damaged goods. Send them back, white reggae tastes tended to be British with a sarcastic streak or I-Roy and Dillinger grooves that paired well with bong smoking. Yes. “Uptown Top Ranking” was on the jukebox at Max’s Kansas City. For that I will forever be grateful, but I preferred spots that were strickly rockas like the Village Hut in Brooklyn. It was the size of an airport hangar, but the sound system was thorough. Every corner of it shook like jelly.

At Barclay’s Social Club on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, Ken Booth and Heptones oldies were the house favorites. Act III was nearby. It had a chic awning and offered valet parking. I was there to see “Baltimore” performed live while the song was new and the chorus still stole my breath away, but the Tamlins did a no-show. Worse, however, was riding a bus from King’s Cross to Peckham in the dead of night of a mean London winter to some dive called the Top Rank Suite to NOT see Hugh Mundell play.

Negril was on Second Avenue below 14th in the heart of punkland though the Jamaican couples that flocked towards the dance floor as soon as the romantic horns of Louisa Mark’s “Sixth Street” called didn’t notice. Isaiah’s was a laidback Manhattan reggae party that floated from venue to venue. Better, was the Reggae Lounge when it was inside a vacant commercial building on Astor Place and Broadway. There, in the wee hours of the morning, Brigadier Jerry chanting Hey yootman you betta gwan a school cause times get crucial provoked the crowd to frenzy. Me and every other girl indifferently resting against a wall suddenly gliding into the arms of the nearest gamey smelling Romeo to ride his hips like waves.

Nothing was more irie though than the Tuesday night party at One’s on Hudson Street. The DJ was Dirty Harry. A former sax player with Burning Spear and cast member of the cult film “Rockers,” he was a man of few words with an entire wardrobe of vintage military gear and two-toned Civil War caps with crossed guns above the bills that he wore over his dreads at just the right tilt. Only once per set would he exit the glass booth and bop towards the bar at a spasmy rhythm. While he sipped a cognac, Monyaka played, the audience focused on the keyboard player in awe of the art of bubbling and women of a certain age anxious to relive kinky vacations in the Caribbean circled.

Every club worth its salt has its anthem. At One’s, it was “Hole in the Bucket” by Papa Kojak and Liza, the version part of Dennis Brown’s “Aint That Lovin You.” When the toasting started, pure euphoria drifted over the dance floor. The bass got all up inside and the rest was an out of body experience. I was a hardcore wallflower. Kept my spot and minded my business, but there was one night when Harry gave me some of what he was sipping and I felt strangely confident so introduced myself to Earl Chin, the host of Rockers TV. Jacob Miller was with him. It was clear that he wished I’d go away. And another when I gave my phone number to the son of a legendary Jamaican record producer. I won’t mention his name since the fool was married. Followed him to Handsworth to find out what it’s like to get your heart broken. This was in 1981. Right before the riots. But that’s another story.

* jennifer jazz on Twitter: