Monday, April 6, 2009

The Architect: A Review of Riddim Driven: Rock Steady by Various Artists

Of course in music it is the vocal artists who tend to reap the most attention and, probably, deservedly so as the people who work behind the scenes do so in order to make the vocalists even bigger stars. However, I find that within Reggae music especially, there has always been a situation where those who work behind the scenes tend to receive even MORE credit and, arguably, just as much, if not more attention than the vocal acts with whom they work. I have ABSOLUTELY no problem with this, especially in the case of a producer. In the case of the Dancehall, specifically, the trend which has developed as of the last few years is that we’ll see an up and coming producer either virtually align themselves with an equally up and coming artist and, in making tunes with that artist, will BUSS at the same time as that artist which is just such a wonderful case in my opinion. Definitely the prime case of this as of late would be Don Corleone and Vybz Kartel who BOTH rose to prominence alongside each other, more a half decade ago now. It was so interesting that when Kartel made it to his very first album, Up 2 Di Time, in 2003, most of the tunes on which he had established his name were done for Corleone. Songs like Sweet To The Belly, Why You Doing It and even underground hits like Start Well were all for the producer as were newer links at the time such as the hilarious Robbery and Kartel & Kardinal, a link with Canadian DJ/Hip-Hopper Kardinal Offishall. Kartel went on to, and still does, record with Corleone even after branching out more and more, with both having helped establish each other as TOP CLASS Dancehall talents. The same thing could be said, even more recently for production group Daseca, who did the same thing with Mavado (and Busy Signal sort of, but are now OFFICIALLY linked with Serani and Bugle). In the roots arena, however, things are a bit different, in my opinion because there is more and more competition. Think about it like this? How many international based WELL REGARDED producers of Dancehall music can you name? Sitting here thinking off of the top of my head, and sticking with non-French/Creole producers, the only one which comes to mind would be Elly Ess and company at Rock Star Entertainment, and even if I’m overlooking someone (which I have to think that I am) there is simply not that much competition. With Roots Reggae producers, however, there are relatively decent names on nearly every continent on the planet with whom ‘competition’ for the big artists and the big tunes are laid, essentially even taking Roots music to a global level even MORE competitive than back home in Jamaica.

However, were you to actually have a Jamaican producer who could, more or less, lay a substantial claim to being THE main Roots Reggae producer of the new school generation of artist, this person would hypothetically wield such an extreme level of power as he/she would have such an extreme access to THE big time artists, far more so than their international peers. If there were such an individual, its also fair to say that he/she would spend their years basically STOCKING hits for not only the solidified talents in the game, but the up and comers as well, to whom they would have access to LONG before international ears had even been opened to their vibes and if this producer actually has REAL SKILL, he/she might even be setting themselves up to be one of the greatest of all time. Well, thankfully such an individual does actually exist in this day and age as BY FAR the producer who has aligned himself not only with an artist or two, here and there (and he has done that as well) but the entire up and coming GENERATION of youths making music for His Majesty in Jamaica has been one (pretty young himself) Kemar ‘Flava’ McGregor. If you can name a relatively successful Roots Reggae artist who has been making at least DECENT vibes within the past couple of years or so, McGregor has most likely voiced them (even if the artist is a bit past their best years) and done VERY good with them. And besides that, the man has scored full on HITS with many of them as well. AND, were that not enough (and it was) he has also produced full blown albums for several of them as well. Add to that mixing pot that it was McGregor who had a significant hand in the early development of one future superstar Gyptian and is currently serving the same role for the very gifted up and comer Nesbeth and the man has simply had the Midas Touch over the last few years. Of course, things have been quite well for him on his own as well as his productions have been getting so much attention and spins all over the world and he has been receiving probably more riddim albums than any producer on earth. Right now, in Jamaica’s Reggae landscape, there are two producers whose riddims are a virtual LOCK to make it to albums, Jukeboxx’s Shane Brown (because he actually has a deal) and McGregor. Thus, it is no surprise that he, just as he did in 2008 with the MASSIVE Rub-A-Dub riddim, which proved to be my favourite riddim of the year, McGregor and his No Doubt Records make their respective 2009 debut with the big Rock Steady Riddim (of course he had the Drop It Riddim release in between as well) on VP’s famed Riddim Driven series. To my ears, the Rock Steady is a bit different from McGregor’s other productions in that it is a bit more VIBRANT on the surface than some of the others and, as is his usual, what he does is seem to pick a base sound for the riddim (in this case, the Rock Steady has what sounds like a piano/key board) around which all of the other wonderful sounds revolve. As also is his usual, McGregor links some of the BIGGEST in big talent Jamaica has to offer and does so with a few twists and turns from a few No Doubt Records first timers. The results are yet another very well done project which, although it does reach the standards set by the HUGE Rub-A-Dub riddim, is certain to please any fan of modern Reggae, myself definitely included.

If I recall correctly, Kemar McGregor and No Doubt Records’ Rub-A-Dub riddim was the very first time they had linked with VP Records. That riddim featured so many of VP’s own talents like Etana, Morgan Heritage and Richie Spice, who had projects going at the time and BIG tunes on the riddim, that it seemed like a ‘no-brainer’ for move for VP to make. Consider it another no-brainer that the Rock Steady features no less than seven official VP/Greensleeves artists in its fifteen tunes and nine, in total, who have released albums for the now merged label. Also unsurprisingly is it that getting things started on Riddim Driven: Rock Steady from VP Records and No Doubt Records are no less than three consecutive VP artists all of whom do very good work. The first is the woman and the artist of the moment, Ms. Etana who is a holdover from the Rub-A-Dub and checks in on the Rock Steady with the OUTSTANDING Bad Mind which, at least in my opinion, tops the Rock Steady riddim as it’s finest tune altogether. Etana is an artist who I STILL don’t think has begun her prime and when she does, should she start consistently filing better tunes than Bad Mind, we may be looking at a legend in her. This tune is BEAUTIFUL and MEANINGFUL at the same time as the Princess of August Town sounds nearly PERFECT while taking a much deserved swipe at the bad minded and dirty hearted people. A HUGE tune and the sweetest opener possible with the riddim’s finest. Next up is a bit of a surprise as I-Wayne for the first time to my knowledge voices a No Doubt riddim (I could be wrong) with what turned out to be a decent hit for him, One Hit Wonder. The tune addresses the notion that the Portmore singer could somehow fade away in the game and become a one hit wonder of sorts. Of course, he wonderfully ties it together to make a point beyond just himself and really it was just interesting to hear him speak so openly on the matter. Big tune. Coming back from the Rub-A-Dub is also Mr. Plane Land himself, Richie Spice who rides the Rock Steady with Why Should I. I haven’t been too high on the singer as of late but I have to give credit where it’s due and Why Should I is a pretty nice vibes and Spice sounds VERY good on the vocals definitely. Very good opening.

Although the Rock Steady is brimming with artists from the Rub-A-Dub and/or typical No Doubt Records regulars, there were a couple of welcome surprises here I was very happy to see. Surprises like Cocoa Tea who comes in with a tune in Sweeter which requires a bit of listening to grow on you but when you really get it’s vibes, it’s a very nice tune and longtime I’ve waited to hear the coolest man on earth ride a Kemar McGregor riddim. Konshens’ is another name I was surprise to see voice the Rock Steady and he really, while going (RIDICULOUSLY) really straight forward on his tune, Let Me Know (almost sounding R&B-ish at times) proves to give a nice effort. Konshens, I feel, is an artist still searching for his real identity and in the meantime he’s all over the place and I’ve heard FAR worse ‘experiments’ than the lover’s tune Let Me Know (even though it is kind of corny). The biggest surprise here, however, was probably long underrated veteran sweet singing Stevie Face from out of St. Thomas (Jamaica). Face seems to be making a big statement with the quality of his recent tunes and his effort on the Rock Steady definitely has to be amongst his finest and I’m looking forward to seeing the singer on future No Doubt riddims. And if that weren’t enough sweet singing veterans for you (and it should’ve been), there’s also Glen Washington with a tune that missed his most recent album, Destiny (for VP, duh!) the very nice and solid lover’s vibe Not Going To Wait. That’s not at all to overlook some of the more popular names and usual faces on the riddim, however, as several of them score nicely as well. Such is the case with No Doubt’s own Nesbeth who strikes out against corruption on the EXCELLENT social commentary, Injustice. Because he actually is an artist on the label, Nesbeth should CONSISTENTLY voice some of the best and with a wicked tune like this, he’s well on his way. The surprisingly ELUSIVE Capleton returns following his effort on the Rub-A-Dub to No Doubt studios to deliver a tune which is still growing on me pretty nicely, Save Dem. This song just has ALMOST the feel Capleton is notorious for pushing on those BIG anthem-like Roots masterpieces which he is famous for and HOPEFULLY, FINALLY 2009 is the year for The Prophet’s next long awaited album and hopefully Save Dem, a very LYRICAL tune for the youths is included on the tracklist. Excellent tune there. To my opinion, Fantan Mojah had the single best tune on the Rub-A-Dub riddim altogether with his RINGING tune, The Most High. While he doesn’t repeat by taking top honours here, Mojah’s song for the Rock Steady, Rising, the somewhat subtle, yet EDGY tune definitely ranks amongst the class on the on the riddim (speaking of big roots anthems, Mojah’s kind of ‘built in echo’ he has on his voice makes almost every song he does such a tune inherently). I’m having a tough time avoiding Teflon these days, another ‘veteran’ from the Rub-A-Dub and I’m not complaining here at all as he delivers what is my choice as the Rock Steady’s second best tune in full, the WICKED One Thing, a BLAZING social commentary. Teflon is really coming into his own as an artist full on and definitely check out this tune (and his recent debut album, Motherless Child), probably the single best lyrical performance on the riddim. Another holdover, the vocally impressive Ginjah continues his streak of BRILLIANCE on the moving tune Where Is It. Take a few spins on this one as he sings it so impressively, its somewhat easy to overlook the lyrics, but when you really take in the song as a whole, you’ll see it as one of the riddim’s best. Speaking of riddim’s best (and lyrical) personal favourite enters both categories as he ends Riddim Driven: Rock Steady with his FINE Girl Don’t Cry. Somewhat in the same nature as the LARGE Wipe Those Tears (Phantom War album) the tune definitely carries a sweet, although sorrowful, vibes to it and, of course, the lyrics are consistently on point from the Spanish Town chanter seemingly incapable of delivering even a substandard VERSE these days to end the album in very fine form.

Overall, of course the Rock Steady is most likely to be compared to the MASSIVE Rub-A-Dub and in that comparison (and only in that comparison) it will fail. However, should you just listen to this riddim as it is (and unfortunately VP hasn’t included a clean version of the riddim) and the vocal performances on it, you can well appreciate it’s own power. It certainly falls into the same level of class as other Kemar McGregor productions like the Trumpet, the 83, the Key and the Drop It (his finest two being the aforementioned Rub-A-Dub and the Triumphant from 2005 which was arguably even stronger). The Rock Steady riddim edition of VP’s Riddim Driven is recommended to fans of modern Reggae (with a slight preference for new school material and maybe even a bit of Dancehall). ANYTIME Kemar McGregor delivers a new production, its definitely something to take a bit listen to and no different is the Rock Steady, the latest STRONG release from the best damn Roots Reggae producer in the world. Period.
Rated 4/5 stars
VP Records

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