If 2009 taught us anything at all, it was to expect the unexpected when it comes to whom and where is producing top notch vibes in Reggae music. Of course this was a lesson we all should’ve known before January 1, 2009, however, I simply cannot recall a year in which there were so many surprises of varying degrees and “so many” of the “so many” in the (very) positive sense. Of course I could talk about Lion D (which is something I have absolutely no problem doing), Buggy or any of the other strong young(er) artists who chimed in with BIG debut releases, but instead, to draw comparisons here I’m going to focus on what was actually a surprisingly FAR more popular trend in 2009. Think of artists like Nereus Joseph (him in particular), think of the very impressive Jahmings Maccow, think of Ishi Dube and even, to a lesser degree (although to a MUCH GREATER degree in one sense), Culture Brown (more on him in a minute I’m sure). All of these artists and several more that we’ve discussed in the past eleven months or so have in common a trait of being pretty distinguished veteran artists who have essentially developed their skills and worked their crafts out of the public limelight, so when they get to the point of most recently presenting, in this day and age where everything is promoted more and more, it reaches people like me and you, and is SO much closer to the ’finished product’ that you’re almost shocked that you haven’t come across them more over the years. Such was most glaringly the case with Nereus Joseph whose Real Rebels Can’t Die came through so BIG that it was almost impossible to ignore to a point. And when you REALLY listen to that album you, like me, just might be drawn into looking back again at exactly what else Joseph had been doing up to that point in his career whether you had actually heard of him or not, the thought is something like that cannot possibly figuratively fall right out of the sky (and it can’t). Jahmings Maccow is a similar example. I had definitely known of the very impressive veteran from out of Anguilla, but in retrospect would I have assumed him capable, based on the little I knew of him, of doing what he did on the increasingly EXCELLENT Man Redemption album? I don’t think so. In the case of Culture Brown the same is true, but on a different scale. How can this seemingly very obscure artist just rise up one day and decide that he’s going to give the world a whopping THIRTY-THREE track statement of his powers and actually believe that it will sell??? Even though it wasn’t one of my favourite albums of the year, Culture Brown’s Poor was still very BIG in terms of its aspirations and I’m pretty sure it sold very well for him as well. So, in continuing to clean up the solid releases from 2009, perhaps I should be less surprised at what I’ve found in this case, but ‘still’ I just find myself shaking my head at times that I didn’t catch on a wee bit earlier.
Catch onto who? Steele. Steele has elements of all three examples I’ve mentioned and perhaps he shares much in common with those artists also. Certainly the most linkable trait he shares with one of them is that he, like Culture Brown, is a Jamaican born transplant who is now plying his trade in the hat of the US, the great country of Canada. The Canadian scene has been VERY strong for awhile now, with big projects from the likes of the very impressive Tanya Mullings and Jahranimo as well as others who CONSISTENTLY represent for the ‘great white north’. Of course having a fairly large West Indian population in general will do that for you and Canada also seems to have pretty good resources and I’ll use Jahranimo as an example because his most recent release, 2008’s Praises album is STILL getting pushed pretty nicely. Steele, however, is an artist most interesting because I had to hesitate in seeing exactly where I first heard his name and upon further reflection it was exactly where I thought - he very consistently voices for one of my favourite producers (more on that in a bit) - but when you really get into researching Steele’s career, you see that, including this release here, he has THREE albums to his credit and has a fairly large fan base and has even had a tune with Queen Ifrica (which I knew, but NEVER associated with him) and a next with George Nooks. And I never might’ve made that connection were it not for the fact that I took a great interest (FINALLY) in seeing his name across a compilation and decided to do a bit more research and discovered that Steele was in the process (had just completed actually) of delivering his latest work of art to the masses, The Man, The Music. This follows two previous releases, 2004’s Uncorrupted and 2007’s The Love Of Jah (both of which I’m now tempted to track down). In retrospect now, I’m glad that I finally decided to take a further look into who ‘Steele’ was instead of accepting his name as ‘some dude who voiced for Lloyd Campbell and Joe Fraser Records’ occasionally, otherwise I would have missed one of the more SOLID efforts of a very solid 2009. The Hanover native (biggup Peter Broggs) has a very unique, but familiar style as it appears he’s the type of singer who probably developed (and thrived) in the church and under a gospel order, which is very much something he retains today in his music, as well as an obvious inclination, at times, towards R&B. The good thing is, however, that what Steele does, USUALLY, occurs in the scope of making Reggae music so it doesn’t alienate heavy modern Reggae heads like you and I. Also, he has a LOVELY voice and in mixing the styles that he does, the result is something which is ‘typically’ (and I use that word with a lot of trepidation, because I’m not calling anything Steele does musically TYPICAL, it is only (seemingly) typical for him) kind of close to Lover’s Rock and in that respect, I’d have to call this The Man, The Music, one of the more solid such albums of 2009, altogether.
Like its two elder siblings, the album comes via Mobs Productions who, along with Steele himself [Mark Steele] take production credits for the album. The riddims throughout the seventeen tracks come from a variety of different producing sources, not the least of which are Steele himself and a gentleman by the name of Ernie Trelfall of Reflex Music Studio AND the album (WONDERFULLY) appears to have the backing of the Canadian Government and was, to some degree, sponsored financially by it, which is great of course. So apparently the Canadian Government knows a good thing when they see it and they’ve deemed Steele’s brand new album The Man, The Music a “good thing” and justly so to my opinion. Kicking things off on this good thing is one of the ‘goodest’ things on the album, ‘Another Confrontation’. This one is a very clever love song and it’s aided by the fact that it flows across Joe Fraser’s DIVINE Chi Chi Bud riddim. The tune is one which nimbly shows that women’s intuition isn’t exactly 100% accurate, especially not in the eyes of an honest man. Beautiful start! The second tune goes to show (along with the first) the developing musical direction (tangibly speaking) which the album ultimately goes in. ‘Let’s Stay Together’ is of course a remake of the tune by the same name from legendary American R&B crooner, Al Green. Steele definitely does the tune justice (which isn’t an easy thing to do, it’s VERY complicatedly sang, even in its original form) and it’s definitely a nice addition here as well and on paper at least, one of the major attractions. That being said, arguably the strongest t tune of the opening lot is BY FAR the least ‘flashy’ one and it’s also one which I’ve noticed has been doing quite well on the Canadian charts (biggup that guy who sends me those figures every week) also, ‘Love Story’. For me this SWEET tune reaches as high as being the second finest tune on The Man, The Music, in full. The piece is your basic no frills type of love song, but it’s just vibed and sang and arranged SO WELL that fans of Lover’s Rock will definitely LOVE it, even fair-weathered ones like myself. Big tune.
As I just alluded to with ‘Let’s Stay Together’, this album contains a few remakes of tunes, which is something I find myself frowning upon less and less these days actually, especially when they’re done more specifically in a Reggae style and are done WELL. Incidentally the other three on the album come in succession later on. The first of the three ‘Can’t Live’ is one which I had to look up and I didn’t want to look up too much, so I could judge this version on its own merits and in doing that, it’s a pretty good song I should say. It’s kind of sappy, but it’s very delightful and in a lover’s style I could definitely see this one making an impact. Next in was a tune I already knew (speaking of sappy), but one which came as a pleasant surprise, ‘Breakfast In Bed’. This is the strongest remake on the entire album in my opinion and I love the vibes it brings, it’s still quite original despite being a remake. And lastly is definitely the most identifiable of the bunch, ‘Let’s Get It On’, from the immortal Marvin Gaye. This one I didn’t actually like very much to be honest. Gaye has always been a popular figure in Reggae music (off the top of my head I can think of three remakes of his tunes within the last decade or so from top notch artists) and I have no problem with this tune being done, but this one proves to be an exceptionally difficult one to use (even though that funky little riddim is absolutely delightful). Still, the album’s biggest moment comes in the form of the other direction The Man, The Music takes on, in using Joe Fraser Records’ riddims. Besides the opener, there’s the DIVINE ’In Love Again’ which is the best thing I hear on the entire album. This one, I feel, is a step forward (in the right direction) from the opener, as Steele goes into discussing the hardships of being in a relationship (particularly a marriage) and FALLING BACK IN LOVE WITH HIS WIFE! Which is something I take into another direction personally - as a part of just appreciating someone and ALL of them, the good and the bad and loving them for it all. The tune is powerful, it’s the best written tune on the album and it’s the best. Period. Immediately following ’In Love Again’ is one of two tunes across the Jah Live riddim from Joe Fraser (and Dean Fraser), ’Love Yourself First’. This one builds (in my opinion) on the idea expressed in the previous tune and it is very strong also and it features nice female singer Many Wood as well. On that same riddim, earlier on the album is ‘Know Yourself’, a tune which I’m still working with from a lyrical standpoint because I think it has a strange little lyrical piece to it, but that is my issue with being overly attentive I’m sure. Big tune still. STILL, it’s away from the limelight on some of the other tunes on the album where some of the real SUBSTANCE of the album is made. Check, the three nice spiritual efforts, ‘God That I Serve’, ‘Keep Holding On’ and ‘I Love You Iyah’. All three of these are very strong. The first has the distinction of coming through on the BEAUTIFUL Party Time riddim (which I recognized from Cocoa Tea’s MASSIVE tune ‘Good Life’). That is one of the better sang tunes from Steele on the album. The second is very nice also, but the third ‘I Love You Iyah’, which has this VERY COOL vibes to it, in the midst of being a strong tune also, is the very best such tune on the album in my opinion. There’s also a kind of bluesy sounding tune, ‘Ghetto Woman’, in the middle of all that, which isn’t one of my favourites, but is so damn interesting that it’ll surely catch your attention to say the least. It’s meant (I THINK) to be an inspirational tune for the women of the ghetto (which is DIRECTLY a very different type of message than you usually hear, where an artist will speak to ‘ghetto people’ in general, but not specifically to the women as Steele does here which is very nice). And Steele ends things on a very high note with the wonderfully perplexing ‘I Wanna Know’. This tune is SO different because what Steele does is to kind of put a categorization on HELP - in the sense of not who is worthy, but who is actually ABLE to be helped. It’s kind of a tune trying to decipher what and who is TOO FAR GONE in order to be helped. It’s a very realistic concept and thought to have and not just some broad and clichéd thought that everyone can ‘make it’, ‘hold firm’ or ‘push through’, because realistically, you and I both know that isn’t the case. BIG BIG ending as Steele definitely gives us something to think about on his way out of the door on The Man, The Music.
Overall, I didn’t (only 2320 words to this point), but I could have gone so far with this one in terms of analysis. It’s a deceptively RICH album in terms of the message, particularly on tunes like the closer, ‘Know For Sure’ and ‘In Love Again’ (others also) and I think for that reason, those most likely to enjoy Steele’s The Man, The Music are, first and foremost, MATURE listeners. Regardless of your experience with Steele’s music or even Reggae music in general, you’re not going to have a good time with this one or be able to REALLY take it in if you’re unable to pay a good attention. And that’s certainly not to say that the album isn’t superficially entertaining, because it is very well done sonically. I don’t know who Ernie Trelfall is or what Reflex Studio is, but in future releases from Canada, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for both and certainly the star of the show here is in top notch form. There’re some SERIOUS talents out there who’re just making incredible vibes oblivious to the attention of a great deal of the Reggae listening world. 2009 was a big and beautiful example of that. In Steele what we have is definitely one of the most talented of the bunch, one of the most unusual of the bunch and a name which won’t be unfamiliar to me in the future because I’ll surely be on board for his future releases. Well done.