Album: Dread In A Babylon
Throughout the course of music history, nearly every genre has had changes so significant, that some offshoots of the core genre barely resemble the original. From punk turning to grunge or jazz morphing into electronica, it is often difficult to trace the roots of certain styles. Similarly, there are a number of modern music styles that, while bearing a strong resemblance to the original sound, it has now lost the authenticity and spirit of the founders. This is perhaps no more evident then in one of the most questionable forms of music, DJing. Within the modern music scene, there are many who feel that it is not a "real" music style, as it is little more then one person playing other peoples' music in a slightly different manner. The problem is, one cannot write off the entire history of DJing, as in the beginning, there was far more to the practice then just spinning records. The art of Djing, or turntabling began in the late 1960's and early 1970's in the dance halls of Jamaica, and this is also where the "dub" sound was birthed. Among the early pioneers of the style, there was no single artist who was more important, or more impressive then the man who they call The Originator, U-Roy. Mixing together fantastic dub beats, and also being largely responsible for the practice of "toasting," it is due to the efforts and vision of U-Roy that there is a hip-hop genre today. While he continues to make music today, there is perhaps no better a representation of his sound, and no more important a record for so many genres then U-Roy's brilliant 1975 release, Dread In A Babylon.
As the 1960's turned into the 1970's, portable sound systems became more readily available, and large dance parties began to move out of the dance halls and into open, public spaces. This trend, which occurred across the globe, made the necessity of a DJ far more important. Yet, it was far more then just playing songs; the DJ had to be able to keep the crowd's mood good with his skills on the microphone. Presenting clever rhyming and commentary, which took on the name "toasting," this is where the entire hip-hop genre began. In fact, early hip-hop DJ's, like DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa were far more akin to "toasters" then they were to modern day emcees. Among all these early toasters, U-Roy was unquestionably the finest of the group, and the rhymes that he presented over early dub plates are like nothing else found at the time. U-Roy's debut record completely changed the face of Jamaican music, proving that there was far more to the island then just the reggae sound. The cover of Dread In A Babylon has also become massively memorable, as there are actually four different versions, all featuring the same theme: U-Roy disappearing behind a giant cloud of smoke. Without question, one of the most iconic album covers in history, many make the case that, even without the fantastic music, the album would have done well simply by this cover.
Though the cover is quite memorable, the fact of the matter is, the music found therein is like nothing else that was being done at the time, and for such a pioneering record, the quality is absolutely stunning. The relaxing yet bouncing, simple dub tracks perfectly present the addictive sound and mood of dub music. Punctuated by bright horns, the light guitar riffs (the SKA sound is one of the core parts of dub music), and the intermittent keyboard parts make these instrumental tracks as enjoyable as the lyrics. These dub tracks, formally known as "dub plates" were specially created just for the DJ's, and many of the early dub plates were created by engineer Osbourne Ruddock, better known as King Tubby. The tracks were almost all one-off vinyl recordings, completely instrumental versions, often of well-known songs. The dub plates featured notable echoes and other sound effects, and it is often these effects that give the music its larger, almost spacey feel. Since most of these recordings were "one off's," each DJ was able to develop their own, unique sound, and the "best" DJ's were also able to get the "better" dub plates. The uniqueness of each dub plate also made each "sound system" party completely original, and it also forced the DJ's to be constantly creative, as they needed new rhymes for each new dub plate.
This necessity for constantly lyrical expertise is what sets the great toasters above the average toasters. Those who were able to bring brilliant and energizing lyrics to the dub plates quickly gained notoriety, and as the 1970's progressed, many of these great toasters began making formal studio recordings. When U-Roy entered the studio for his debut record, the world was treated to his fantastic voice, and Dread In A Babylon has a wonderfully authentic feel, as his calls and cries on every song give the feeling of a live sound system party. The tracks flow seamlessly into the next, and the ten tracks run about a half hour, which is the perfect time for an exceptional DJ set. Dread In A Babylon even managed to produce a hit, as "Runaway Girl" introduced the world to the new sound of the islands. The song comes from the Ken Boothe cover of the John Holt classic, "Just Another Girl," and the dub-step mood that it is given by U-Roy breathes a new life into the song. While "Runaway Girl" is a fantastic track, the true gem of the album is found on the song "African Message." Joyfully toasting over a re-worked version of Boothe's "Moving Away," the prominent high-hat and brilliant bassline makes this one of the most amazing tracks to ever emerge from the islands. U-Roy's excitement is contagious, and it is one of the greatest grooves ever released.
Whether it is the wonderfully melodic music or U-Roy's fantastic, energetic voice, there has never been another album which so perfectly captures the sound and mood of a street party as one finds on Dread In A Babylon. Serving as the basis for hip-hop and pushing forward the dub and dance hall styles, few artists have singlehandedly advanced music as much as U-Roy. Though he has been somewhat forgotten over time, there is no question that without his pioneering musical works, modern music simply would not exist in its current state. By far one of the most prolific and talented of all of the Jamaican sound system DJ's, U-Roy's voice overflows with positive energy, and his toasting is truly second to none. All of his albums are perfect soundtracks for any party from any era, and this ability to make his music transcend generations is one of the many aspects that makes the music of U-Roy so sensational. Even when U-Roy throws in what in modern times may be seen as a questionable lyric, the fact of the matter is, his charisma and the infectious grooves overpower any shortcomings that may be found on the record. While modern DJ's are often seen as nothing more than talentless music mixers, the early performers of the style were unquestionably true artists, and with their unrivaled ability to freestyle over unique dub tracks, countless genres were birthed from the Jamaican sound system scene. By far the greatest of all the Jamaican "toasters," and easily one of the most important figures in music history, U-Roy brought this sound to the world, and his 1975 debut album, Dread In A Babylon remains one of the most brilliant records ever, as well as marking a pivotal moment in music history.
Standout tracks: "Runaway Girl," "Natty Don't Fear," and "African Message."