Each iteration of this journal has found me striving to preach both to the choir and beyond, by hopefully inviting means. Some years ago, Paul Buckmaster (composer of the 12 Monkeys film score and string arranger for the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers lp…and for Elton John, too, but we'll forgive him) chastised me gently, as he is a good egg, for assuming too much of my readership's knowledge. He felt that my writing should be more instructive for those new to the subject at hand. I agreed with Mr. Buckmaster, then and now.
Of course, that doesn't make introducing this week's entry any easier, as our featured album represents a number of entwined threads:
• Jamaica's DJ culture of the '70s, which in turn spawned hip-hop and rap and the debatable 'science' of remixing
• that most prolific record producer, Lee "Scratch" Perry, an inventive runt whose mixes are recognizable from note one and whose significance in the history of popular music is unimpeachable
• the embrace of weirdness for its own sake as an esthetic strategy, utilized — perhaps unconsciously — by artist and producer alike, often to self-immolating extremes (literally, in Perry's case, as he ended the chapter of his greatest creativity by torching his own studio)
• the admixture of music, humor, millennial cult religion, paranoia and drugs
What say, we just take the last three for granted? It would make my life so much easier. OK, anyone unfamiliar with Lee Perry and the musical output of his backyard studio, a blaze of hard work and bizarre inspiration lasting three or maybe four years (depending on the strength of your affection), is directed to David Katz's biography and the Scratch-themed back number of the Beastie Boys' magazine Grand Royal. Those acquainted with the quixotic, ultra-distinctive and probably pathological career paths of record producers Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Joe Meek and Todd Rundgren should have no trouble mapping Thread #3 onto today's topic. And as I'm certain you've all taken drugs and laughed achingly at nothing in particular while music was playing and then wondered why, perhaps hoping that membership in the Church of the Subgenius might solve your existential dilemma...well, I think that takes care of Thread #4. Are we happy thus far, Mr. Buckmaster?
It would be easy to dismiss Prince Jazzbo as an also-ran in reggae, a DJ who validated trends rather than instigating them. Consider the pantheon* of Jamaican DJ's:
• U-Roy, the first true star of 'talkover,' shrieking and cackling nursery rhymes and ass-backward limericks over instrumental mixes of hit songs;
• I-Roy, his toasting glacially cool, wicked and literate, fast as lightning, a consummate wise-ass with a gift for extemporaneous lyrics comparable only to Lou Reed;
• Big Youth, spearheading the second wave of DJ's during the 'cultural' era, the perfect blend of good humor, Rasta dread, fascinating orthodonture and the manic presence of a late night horror movie host, crazy about motorcycles, Marcus Garvey, John Coltrane and herb;
• Prince Far-I, the sub-glottal rumble of his voice probably registering on the Richter scale above that of Barry White, filled with righteous indignation (Inspirational quote: "I grieve for this generation"), the lone source of information whom I'd believe, were the world about to end.
Jazzbo shared qualities with each of these characters, though to my ear he never came across as an originator. For many reggae fans, he was the guy who lost a cutting contest with I-Roy. As documented in David Katz's indispensable oral history of reggae, Solid Foundation (Bloomsbury, 2003), the war of words between Prince Jazzbo and I-Roy was a marketing gimmick instigated by the manager of Monica's, the Toronto hairdressing shop that became a serious reggae emporium in the '70s, as mentioned in my Medley Dub entry.
It all began cute, but sure as my mom or Michael Madsen's Mr. Blonde will tell you, the kids play rough and somebody — in this case, Prince Jazzbo — gonna end up crying. His "Straight to I-Roy's Head" single charged that I-Roy was a mere U-Roy imitator, a barb too polite by half. Jazzbo was a ghetto kid, unschooled and fundamentally kind. I-Roy was anything but, as he proceeded to rip several new orifices in the carcass of Jazzbo's career with the demented relish of a Sergio Leone villain. I-Roy's intimation that Prince J was gay was but one among many of the former's rapid-fire ripostes, each more lethal than the last. This was about as bad as it could get in Jamaica, an island whose males suffer a paralyzing fear of homosexuals and the menstrual cycle (to the latter, blood clot, bumba clot, etc. as the last words in deprecation, not to mention grounds for justifiable homicide). Jazzbo couldn't compete, ultimately, and threw in the towel. Incidentally, the 45's documenting Jazzbo's and I-Roy's feud were collated on an lp, Step Forward Youth, which I have yet to find, this collection distinct from the entirely weak conciliatory duet CD they released over a decade later.
We will never know Prince Jazzbo's true place in the greater scheme, had his recorded debut (Choice of Version) appeared as scheduled in the early '70s; producer Coxsone Dodd delayed its release by a couple of decades and more. As such, the album known variously as Natty Passing Thru' (for its initial release on the Black Wax label in Jamaica) or Ital Corner (when later issued in the U.S. by Brad Osbourne's Clocktower imprint) represents Prince Jazzbo's moment in the sun. It was tracked in its entirety early in 1974 at producer Lee "Scratch" Perry's newly opened four-track studio, the Black Ark, a garage-sized structure in Perry's backyard, with Perry's house band as rhythm section.
The Upsetters were Scratch's answer to the Meters, whose New Orleans funk was plagiarized often and effectively on early Upsetters instrumentals. Most of Ital Corner's tracks were cut for Jazzbo's use, according to David Katz's exhaustively researched People Funny Boy: the Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry (Payback Press, 2000). Some rhythms, though, will prove immediately familiar, the accompaniment of Max Romeo's "One Step Forward" recycled as the basis of Jazzbo's "Ital Corner." The sound is pure Scratch, reggae-as-moiré-pattern, the entire band and vocalist pushed through phase shifters and excessive spring reverb. The other Black Ark productions released on Island Records had the benefit of English mastering engineers. Ital Corner is rougher around the edges, dark as India ink and enhanced with portents of doom. We hear the DJ at the bottom of a very deep pit, en route to Hell; the horn section squalls like insects over a distant hill at dusk.
Throughout, Prince Jazzbo plays the sufferer, enumerating the difficulties of a Rastafarian marooned several area codes distant from his true Ethiopian home. Jazzbo's raps document his struggles through the veil of tears known as Babylon or Jamaica, as Noel Coward and Ian Fleming might have recognized it. Our Prince bad-raps the Pope and rails against the breadheads with vehemence that would do Neil of The Young Ones proud. All told, Jazzbo summons feelings of wrath and paranoia and vengeance that, combined with the fog of herb, create an ambience that is very dread indeed. And, from time to time, a tad dyslexic, as typified by Scratch's decision to let an episode of the Rhoda TV sitcom play into the mix of "Blood Dunza." (Myself, I'll take the Pope over Valerie Harper, but to each man his own image of iniquity.) An outtake from the Ital Corner sessions, "Croaking Lizard," appeared a few months later as part of the Upsetters' Super Ape, a rococo masterpiece still available on aluminum, the Sgt. Pepper's… of reggae, deconstructed and over-embroidered all at once. Differing from other NCIP entries to date, Ital Corner has been issued on CD, though obviously ripped from a vinyl pressing and not so well at that. I hope today's entry is an improvement.
It has been mooted that the more tightly wound rhythms of rock steady unspooled into the slower tempo of reggae in response to very loaded types dancing outdoors in the depths of an especially muggy Jamaican summer. I'd venture that now's the perfect time to reenact history. It's Friday, for Jah's sake. Torch one, people! Check it! Seen? As I would really, really tell ya!
* Well, my pantheon, anyway. Make your own if you don't like it.