Lloyd Bradley
Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King

By Kate Butler

It is unlikely that the full history of ska, rocksteady and reggae music has been so well documented, hand in hand with the history of the black people of Jamaica and their diaspora. Bradley starts the story in the 1950s, when the soundsystems came into being, and progresses through the indigenous music production scene that would spawn ska in the early sixties, rocksteady in the mid sixties, ultimately reggae in the late sixties and right up to present day where you have Rastaman Phillip 'Fatis' Burrell running the Xterminator label. Meanwhile he delves into the history of the Rastafarian philosophy, dating from the 1930s, independence from Britain in the early sixties, and the impact the huge immigration of Jamaicans to Britain and the US before and since then. Bradley not only leaves no stone unturned, but he also deals with his subject matter in an unassuming, straightforward manner. He makes a very complex and weighty story extremely digestible.

Bradley also has a huge degree of enthusiasm for his story and it's effusive. It's a story of the cultural history of a black nation and their folk music in utterly deprived living conditions. Yet he has no interest in idealising the situation, making out that the music came from a strong community; this was a country not only made extremely poor by foreign intervention (surprise, surprise) but post colonialism meant they also suffered from a typical lack of confidence which resulted in black on black exploitation.

Meanwhile the music was going down. He threads the stories of the original soundsystem men, Clement Dodd (who went on to found the Studio One label), Duke Reid and Prince Buster. This branches out into the multitude of characters who became involved in seminal musical moments, far too many to mention here, although the notion of ‘roots’ is something that comes across strongly throughout the book. There's no doubt according to Bradley that Jamaican folk music came out of the culture of sound systems. More precisely it came about because of the demand. Again and again Bradley shows how the audience and the dancers influenced how the music turned. One producer, Bunny Lee maintains that rocksteady was the name for a style of slower dancing before the music had even caught up. Vere John's 'Opportunity Hour' allowed singers and musicians a make or break time at the hands of the audience. Later on Dodd would enlist musicians and singers for his Studio One label on Sunday afternoon auditions, purely on the basis of how the crowd would react to them.

Quite literally though, people voted with their feet. Dancing music, with that big fat bass that we all know and love so well, was made for the dancers. Just how it should be. Don't miss this book; as Prince Buster says in the intro, 'Jamaican music at last has the book it deserves'.
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