Tuesday, April 26, 2011

'On Common Ground': A Review of The Message Riddim

Reggae music is often criticized by non-fans who look at the structure of a producer taking single riddim and recording it behind a variety of vocalists. As I’ve discussed in the past, many non-fans look at the practise as somewhat “lazy” and “boring”, but for you and I, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The fact that it is done and done in over-regularity and we still have a system where songs on any given riddim are looked upon as individual tracks, on the whole, for me at least, is a sign of just how talented our artists and producers are and can be. Now with that being said, I will admit that amongst some of the lower level producers, voicing some of the lower level artists, this is definitely a problem . . . Which is why they both, collectively, remain on said “lower level”. On the top shelf, however, such a thing doesn’t even come into question. Currently (and for the past decade or so), residing on one of the highest branches of the tree that is Reggae music is definitely Don Corleon. To my line of very modern thinking, while you may favour others slightly over him, you simply are going to be unable to put together an even remotely coherent and consistent argument that Corleon isn’t one of the greatest producers, all-around, that Reggae has ever seen. A producer of his talents can ‘get away’ with anything and although it may not seem like so, given the fact that he’s become so ingrained in the music and so familiar to its fans, Corleon has taken his listeners on quite a few different trips throughout his storied career. The biggest would also be the first which was taking himself from a producer known as ‘the guy who made all that stuff Kartel came up rhyming on’ to ‘the guy who made the Drop Leaf Riddim and those two STRANGE Sizzla albums’. And if you think about all of that, which ended ~ five years ago, THAT alone, would have been an interesting career, but all of these years later and Corleon’s not only still going, but he’s, arguably, better than ever. These days the super-producer is still serving up surprising moments. Two of his most recent creations, The Major & Minor Riddims, ended up as co-portions of the same double riddim album and reportedly he’s also working on a dub album (which I cannot wait for!). Sandwiched in between those (and whatever else he’s been working on) was this very interesting from Don Corleon which, quietly, may be one of his most colourful and conceptualized to date - The Message Riddim.

The Message Riddim Mix

Sometimes when you hear a riddim, even sans vocalist, you can just tell exactly what type of tunes would appear over it - What type of songs it was made to support. I can remember back to one of the first reviews I wrote on this blog for the Sweet Riddim, which was a modern Lover’s Rock composition and that was pretty clear to hear and that’s how it played out and how it was ultimately marketed as well. Similarly, I just made a mention of the Lovers Rock Riddim which, unsurprisingly, backs mostly love songs as well. Sometimes everything just makes sense. To me things aren’t so crystal clear listening to the Message Riddim. While I do listen to its typically sterling sound and am greatly impressed by it, it doesn’t ring through as loudly as some others being directly made for a purpose. And, perhaps, it wasn’t actually constructed for a specific ‘theme’ at all and what ended up happening with it was purely a matter of circumstance and/or coincidence. Of course it doesn’t really give a shit what I think on the matter, however, what is important and prevailing in terms of the eventuality of the Message Riddim is that, apparently when we finished with it, Don Corleon heard something very powerful and very specific. He heard an impact!

It’s so interesting that the twelve tracks on the Message Riddim are all (with one exception) what we would socially and/or spiritually aware songs, but I and a few other people apparently don’t really hear a substantial change between it and the Drop Leaf, the Seasons, the Minor Riddims, respectively. Sure, they all have their idiosyncrasies and things which make them unique, but had you played me this riddim back in 2004 when the Drop Leaf was in the process of metaphorically walking on water because it was so damn good, I don’t think I would have been very surprised that THIS is what Don Corleon would have moved onto six or seven years down the line. So, with the composition being not such a drastic leap from what he normally brings (and I would like to reiterate that this thing is BEAUTIFUL. It is a GORGEOUS riddim), it was retrospectively surprising that he chose to voice artist who only were coming with something BIG to say about society and topics more often found in Roots Reggae than in Dancehall or Lover’s Rock music. Just as interesting is when you consider that you won’t look up and down the roster of vocalist Corleon draws on to voice the Message and see names like Luciano and Sizzla Kalonji or even Lutan Fyah or Tarrus Riley (both of whom have been on his recent projects) or some of the other names more closely and actively associated with the type of song which appears here. Nope. Instead, Corleone draws on a very eclectic group which is full of regulars, old and new and a few surprise names as well to build the ranks of tunes on the riddim and for me that was such a refreshing idea. Like I said, when you get into this level of production - the music is at its greatest really - the proverbial boundaries of not only what is acceptable, but what ACHIEVES become more and more blurred. In this case, it comes in to the degree that, amongst literally dozens and dozens of others, the Message Riddim produces one of the most fascinating riddim albums of Don Corleon’s career to date.

'Rise Up' by Ce'Cile

I am a fan, generally speaking, of these type of ‘concept’ riddims. I do think it takes a great deal more planning by the producer and the artists and that is particularly true in this case as, as I said, we don’t get a healthy dosage of the ‘usual suspects’ when it comes to voicing cultural and social material. That is never more apparent than on the first tune on the riddim album for Don Corleon’s latest master class, The Message Riddim, as not only making an appearance, but also coming through with the single biggest and ‘signature’ moment of the riddim is a surprising Ce’Cile with ‘Rise Up’. The songstress has a big and consistent history of serving up big tunes, but normally it’s the hype Dancehall tune or, as of late, she’s been keen on dropping dominant love songs, but this one just stretches her borders a bit more and brings forth some of the versatility for which she is known behind the scenes and deposits it right in front of listeners. At the same time she sets the tone for the situation around the riddim, perhaps, as well:

“Mi juss fi like fi sing a love song pon a big, bad riddim so mi drive go link Don
Him seh Ce’Cile -
‘Yow wi haffi find a plan’
‘Gwaan hold a meds, mi waan yuh gi di people a culture one’
So mi look inna myself
Dem seh ‘word is powerful’
That mean mi powerful wid every note mi utter
With this power that I’ve gained -
If one life mi caah change, then I shouldn’t even bother”

“Wi haffi rise up!
Haffi wake up!
Look pon wi good country wi mashing up
If wi waan things fi betta
Wi haffi talk up
You juss as bad if you keep yah mouth shut!”

BOOM! Although it’s well unexpected, Ce’Cile has pushed to the point where it seems as if (just as in the point I’m trying to make about Don) EVERYTHING is within her grasp and while I’m sure she’s done socially energized tunes in the past, I can’t think of anything which struck on such a powerful level, so hopefully she goes in that direction just a little more often. Chasing Ce’Cile on the album, with the biblical ‘Words’ is an artist who may just have as much potential as anyone with Reggae music today, Da Professor. He’s impressed on just about everything I’ve heard from the artist at this point and this tune certainly isn’t the exception. Following Ce’Cile, who essentially does a social commentary, Da Professor gives a big praising track and you really start to hear the kind of slight ‘expansion’ in the riddim. Like I said, I didn’t hear a certain level of specificity within it, but Don did and it STILL manages to ‘travel’ just a bit even within that scope. More impressive, still, is (CUTIE!) Ikaya who meshes together the spiritual and the social/cultural with her BIG tune, ‘Flyaway’. Equally at home deejaying and singing (and she has a very powerful voice to my ears, Ikaya is proving herself very ‘useful’ in Reggae music and to date, ‘Flyaway’ should well be considered one of her strongest efforts and we hope to hear the audio and visual beauty on more of Don’s productions in the future as well.

'Brave Ones' by Ky-Mani Marley

Along with Ce’Cile the Message Riddim does feature its fair share of other big names as well. In the grandest sense, the biggest of them all is probably Ky-Mani Marley who bring us ‘Brave Ones’, which has probably become one of the single biggest tunes (in terms of being a hit) on this riddim. I haven’t been the biggest of supporters, particularly not as of late (and pretty much from ever since he dropped his last album, ”Radio” back in 2007), but I do give credit where its due because ‘Brave Ones’ is a very very nice song. And Marley has been working more and more with Don, so I’m well looking forward to his next album.

“We need to make a stop
Beg you some clearance
Why dem ah judge mi fi mi Rasta appearance?
No, dem ah seh dem nah no vacancy
And ah seh dem ah go call so mi fi wait and see
Selassie Sons -
Wi ah di brave ones!
Wi nah no time fi go mingle wid pagans
Trod di right road
Even if a poverty
Try hold on in this world of calamity”

In the more localized and colloquial sense, the biggest name to voice the Message is the previously alluded to Vybz Kartel. His tune, ‘Poor People Land’, is decent and somewhat odd (I’m not going to make the obvious lyrical joke here, I’ll leave that to you geography heads), but it’s nothing too out of the ordinary from Kartel when he makes this type of song and it may be one of his better ones in awhile also. Richie Spice (who is kind of the type of artist you expect on such a project, but he doesn’t seem to be as active as some of his peers) is probably the next biggest name on the riddim and he’s well within his element with the inspirational ‘Got To Make It’. This song is interesting because I think that it opens the riddim even more. You’d listen to it for just about any other vocalist and it seems very straight forward, but normally when Spice does well he does so over a set which has more of a ‘free’ nature to it and because he does quite well on this tune, you’re inclined to think that, perhaps, the Message isn’t as straight forward as first suspected, at least not to me.

'Take Control' by Protoje

Another couple of very expected Don Corleon regulars, Protoje and Pressure Busspipe, also show up for the Message Riddim with ‘Take Control’ and ‘Jah Love’, respectively. It took the former some time to grow on me with its kind of LOUD style, but it is a nice track. The latter, on the other hand, like much of Pressure’s stuff with me these days, IMMEDIATELY struck me. Seriously, these days you’re looking at less than a handful of artists who’re consistently doing work on Pressure’s level and even though his song is somewhat stereotypical in terms of its theme, when he gets rolling and begins to collect a lyrical momentum, Pressure is just DISTINGUISHING himself from the rest of the pack and doing so just about every time out.

“War and crime nah go mek things betta
Everyday another youth dead by di Beretta
Ah tell mi how dem bad and head hot like peppa
And ah come and take life lak dem ah di life maker
Love fi run di place and assault all matters
When time food fi share even if a some crackers
From you nah no love you gonna bun lak copper
Jah ah rise and all enemies scatter”

And finally we have four artists who are relatively new to Don Corleon productions to my knowledge (or just new in general). First is Kartel spar Jah Vinci who, although I don’t pay a great deal of attention to his work, definitely does have some genuine talent which is on full display on his tune on the Message, the praising ‘Wicked Heart’. VERY welcomed is Swedish powerhouse Million Stylez who calls for ‘Brighter Days’. Stylez, like Ziggi, like Gentleman and a few others is an extremely naturally gifted European artist and even though it took me an embarrassingly long time to get that point, I’m well on board these days and keeping an ear free for his output. Wonderfully there’s another female voice on the Message as a flaming (CUTIE!) Sophia Squire (she’s been on a great roll over the last year or so) checks in with ‘Love’ which is one of my personal favourite tunes on the riddim. Despite its title, the song is one which is more geared towards the tangible world and what she’s saying is to flood out the place with LOVE and we’ll get better results in the world. Of course, I’m making things sound more simple than they are, but you’ll well need to focus on the lyrics on this tune because they’re powerful and it is one of the most INTELLIGENT songs on the riddim. Lastly is Vital with ‘Don’t Say No’. Okay, I know of a Vital, but this singer (who sounds somewhere between Gyptian, Jah Cure and Horace Andy) isn’t that same HARD edged DJ (at least I hope he isn’t), but whoever he is, he does well on his tune which becomes the changeup on the riddim. ‘Don’t Say No’ is basically a love song. It’s probably a ‘complex’ love song, but a love song nevertheless and the only of its kind on the riddim. The song is good enough to make me wonder what may’ve become of the entire project had Don decided to make it a lover’s set or a mixed bag altogether, but in retrospect I’m glad it turned out the way that it did.

'Love' by Sophia Squire

Overall, I will say that the only real complaints that I have here is that everything seems to go by far too quickly. There’re twelve tracks in total with the majority of the songs being between 3:30 and 3:47 (actually all of them with the exception of ‘Brave Ones’ which is 3:24) and it just goes by too fast and I wish Don would’ve taken it to people such as Lutan Fyah and maybe even Jah Cure. Also, following the Major & Minor Riddims, the Message Riddim becomes the second consecutive (at least) riddim album from the producer which DOES NOT feature a clean riddim version and that’s just mandatory these days! As it stands, however, the Message Riddim is EXCELLENT and it produces a set of tunes which (although not enough of them) are just as strong on this THEMED colourful set. It will be interesting to see if Don Corleon does similar things in the future and if he does I’d challenge even the most casual of Reggae heads to claim that THIS is lazy or boring - It isn’t!

Rated: 4/5
Don Corleon Records

Don Corleon Records

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