Sunday, October 9, 2011

Super Jerry: Sweet Universe, 1987

A lot of reggae fans nowadays are divided over their preferred style. Some like the digital style, which emerged in the 80's and spread as dancehall was starting to eclipse the popularity of reggae in Jamaica. Digital instruments including drum machines as well as digital mixing and mastering technologies feature prominently in this music. Other reggae listeners prefer the heavy analog sound of roots. Because I tend to fall with the latter camp, the B side of this album feels weak to me, but I am very interested in the three cuts that make up the A side. On those tracks, producer Super Jerry manages to preserve the weight of the roots sound in spite of the obvious digital presence on the album.

How did Super Jerry manage a fusion of two apparently incompatible styles? Aside from the inclusion of drum machines and digital synths, the A side stays generally true to roots form. The basslines carry the harmony and rhythm like the basses of classic roots, and the ever-present loops and overdubs recall the instrumental and dub mixes pioneered by many of Jamaica's great analog producers. In some places, real drums are even dubbed over the drum machine track, and the minor keys in which these songs are set give the A side a conventionally solemn air. Even though this album lacks the satisfying warmth of more traditional roots reggae, Super Jerry successfully conveys the essence of roots reggae in a medium that many listeners consider hostile to roots forms. It struck me that when digital reggae started stealing the show from the analog varieties, producers and musicians were not only hunting for new sounds but also new forms.

The preference for analog reggae is more than an issue of technological purity, it is a preference for an aesthetic sensibility that changed as technology changed, though not necessarily as a result of technology. I think that this explains why artists like Yellowman, who worked in hybridized reggae-dancehall styles and used digital technology are at least as popular with roots fans as they are with digi fans if not more so. Given that the 80's saw the rise of radically different technologies that people had little precedent for understanding as they learned how to integrate them into music, a lot of the music from back then sounds dated today. In response, we give producers and musicians of that era too little credit for trying to forge new genres. When those genres don't appeal to us, we assume that they are accidents of history, and when we like the music, we think that it is to the credit of the artist that they were able to resist the more unfortunate aesthetic choices of their era. I think that we because we blame people's ill-adept use of emerging technologies for a string of what now seem like gaudy trends, we go too far and use this explanation to gloss over a lot of 80's music industry history.

Drums: Ras Kidus
Keyboards: Claude Bent, Winston Wright, Ras Kidus
Horns: David Madden, Dean Frazer
Guitar: Bince Black, Dwight Pickney, Lloyd Parkes
Bass: Claude Bent, Jacob
Producer: Super Jerry
All songs written by Thomas Easton
Recorded at Sparks Studio in California.

Chant to Jah by Easy Jams