Music: Classic Reggae Reissues

Jamaican music is suddenly the ubiquitous chaser to this summer's nasty shot of a heatwave. Rising star Cham's "Ghetto Story" single was a monster hit in Jamaica; an album of the same name was released in the United States this week. Dancehall king Sean Paul is racking up an impressive list of collaborators (Mariah Carey, Kelis and Wyclef Jean) and nominations (MTV's Music Video Awards gave him two nods for his hit "Temperature"). Beenie Man, another dancehall star who has an album out next month, received less-than-glowing press recently when his virulently homophobic lyrics led to the shutdown of an AIDS charity concert he was scheduled to anchor.

But the freshest sounds now arriving in music stores from that small Caribbean island are 20, 30 and in some cases 40 years old. Rivals in a reggae arms race that dates to at least 1959, both Studio One and Trojan Records have reached deep into their formidable vaults and emerged with stacks of beautifully remastered recordings that should make any fan of Jamaican music feel plenty irie . Even, heck, especially , if everything you know about reggae is limited to your college roommate's overplayed copy of Bob Marley's "Legends," there's never been a lesson that sounded this good. "Records are history," says Paul Miller, the New York producer and author who records as DJ Spooky. "I really love old Jamaican stuff. When you really listen to how beautiful it is, you think how impoverished our imagination is now."

Miller ought to know. Raised in Washington, D.C., he used to travel to Jamaica every summer as a precocious record collector with his mother, who went on business. He gets top billing on Trojan's newest release, "DJ Spooky Presents: In Fine Style," but it's the artists whose music he's picked for inclusion in this two-disc compilation that deserve the real credit. Some of the biggest names in reggae recorded for Trojan—Desmond Dekker, Peter Tosh, Ken Boothe—and they're included here, alongside artists better known only to diehard fans, like B. B. Seaton and Dandy Livingstone.

Until it was acquired by Sanctuary Records in 2001, Trojan would release archival recordings almost indiscriminately, putting together spotty and poorly mastered three-disc theme compilations (often copied not from the original acetates but rather mass-produced vinyl). With "DJ Spooky Presents," the label seems to be signaling an intent to put more thought and care into its releases. Earlier this month it also released a gorgeous collection of rootsman Horace Andy's late-'70s recordings with producer Tapper Zukie. The title track off of "Natty Dread a Weh She Want" was a wildly popular love song, but also of particular note are socially conscious tracks like "Freedom." Coming soon are reissues of Desmond Dekker, Keith Hudson, Upsetters and Marcia Griffiths albums.

To be sure, the picks on "DJ Spooky Presents" still comprise a hodgepodge. This is hardly a meticulous study of the evolution of reggae (which went from upbeat, shuffling ska to slower and tougher rocksteady on into effects-laden dub over the course of about two decades). Miller eschews classic hits in favor of obscure, surprising and occasionally muddy and menacing recordings. The resulting impression is of a musical heritage deeply influenced by American R&B that would go on to be an influence in its own right: what is U-Roy doing chanting and boasting on 1969's "Dynamic Fashion Way" if not laying the foundations for rap a generation later? "What I'm looking at is how electronic music came out of the idea of the studio as a composing tool," says Miller. "These guys were Danger Mouse before he was on the scene." Consider the album's inclusion of Big Youth's 1973 hit. "Screaming Target" was recorded over a K. C. White track called "No, No, No" which was itself a cover of Dawn Penn's 1967 Studio One single "You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)."

This fact underscores an important aspect about roots reggae. Much like the early years of the blues, artists often, to put it mildly, borrowed from each other. They would dub new lyrics over bootlegged instrumental tracks, or riddims , to such an extent that today there are often competing claims to a given recording. "Until recently, the Jamaican recording industry operated in a very different way to the U.S. and Europe, with artists happily making recordings for pretty much anyone who wanted to pay them to record," Trojan executive John Reed writes in an e-mail. "It was very arbitrary and exclusive agreements were virtually unheard of." This fact has added a little spice—to say nothing of accusations of outright theft—to the rivalry between Trojan and Studio One, a label that stakes an equally (if not more) central claim on the development of Jamaican music.

Founded by legendary producer-entrepreneur Clement (Sir Coxsone) Dodd in 1963, Studio One developed a roster of musicians that helped nurse a new sound much in the way the Memphis-based Stax label and Barry Gordy's Motown did in the States. Dodd released his first singles in 1959 for a label he called World Disc, the same year Arthur (Duke) Reid issued Trojan's first 45s, but the two had been rivals for years before that, each of them DJs competing fiercely to debut American R&B singles at Kingston's dancehalls.

With Studio One—the first wholly black-owned recording studio in Jamaica—Dodd scored hits immediately, starting with "Simmer Down" by the Wailers, led by a young Bob Marley. That song, along with 40 others, is included in the remastered "One Love at Studio One 1964-1966," an essential compilation of joyful Jamaican roots music. (Marley would later also record for Trojan.) Assembled with and distributed by Heartbeat records, "One Love" captures an island beginning to find its voice, especially when taken with the stream of other Studio One records getting the Heartbeat treatment this summer.

Records like "Bobby Bobylon," Freddy McGregor's deeply soulful 1980 debut. The reissue nearly doubles the original album's running time with extended mixes and songs like the lovely "Little Girl" that have never been on CD before. The disc is also another striking example of the island's mashup culture: the infectious title track is dubbed over "One Step Beyond," an older Jackie Mittoo recording of a song that had earlier been a hit for Prince Buster, who recorded it for his own label. "Bandulo" is sung over the riddim from the Invaders' "Soulful Music" from 1968. And so on.

Just as exciting is the reissue, with six bonus songs, of "The Best of Delroy Wilson," a shimmering portrait of a rocksteady king and one of Jamaica's biggest stars of the 1960s and '70s. Wilson was an influence on Marley and in early songs like "One Last Kiss" it's easy to hear why. Later, Wilson would lay down deeper, slyer grooves such as "Run, Run" that practically dare you not to bob your head. Truly die-hard fans will salivate over the compilation "Version Dread," 18 previously unreleased instrumental Studio One B-sides ("versions" of singles that DJs could play and loop without as many pesky vocals getting in the way) which chronicle the early studio experiments that would eventually culminate in the kaleidoscopic sound known as dub. It's an interesting artifact, but for the uninitiated, these tunes are more repetitive than rarified.

Which leads us to one man who did some of the most pioneering studio work ever anywhere—for Studio One, Trojan and several of his own labels. As George Martin did with the Beatles, Lee (Scratch) Perry was among the first to view the studio itself as an instrument, introducing one of the first samples (a recording of a crying baby), and using reverberation, echoes and delays to develop the dub sound with contemporaries like King Tubby and Bunny Lee. He gets his props on the DJ Spooky compilation both as a producer and performer. He was also the mastermind of another Trojan classic, "Lee Perry Presents ... African Roots," a superlative, if not perfectly remastered, collection of Perry's late '70s recordings of Seke Molenga and Kalo Kawongolo, two Zimbabwean expatriates. Perry is at the height of his powers here. The fusion of Congolese soukous with reggae is a natural one, especially when elements of Nigerian Afro-pop and American soul slink into the mix, as they do on the songs "Moto Ya Motema" and "Mengeib."

Sadly for quality artists like Molenga and Kawongolo, Freddie McGregor and Delroy Wilson, the ascendancy of Bob Marley obliterated any chance at enduring fame off the island. "Jamaican music in the U.S. until Bob Marley came had only been novelties—after that it was just Bob Marley," says Heartbeat's Chris Wilson, who oversees many Studio One reissues. "I am trying to fill in the blanks." Lucky for fans of the music, Studio One and Trojan are both doing their part to keep the best in roots reggae alive—and remind the current crop of hip-hop heavy Jamaican artists where they come from.