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Unofficial Channels Extra: Jamaican DJ Dancehall Tapes

Edwin Pouncey on Jamaican Dancehall's bulletins from the frontlines

In 1981 UK reggae label Greensleeves released Two Bad DJ, the debut album from Clint Eastwood and his sartorially styled sidekick General Saint. Produced by the label’s founder Chris Cracknell and (the late) Henry “Junjo” Lawes, Eastwood & Saint’s insanely addictive lyrical bombardment (liberally peppered with “Oink!”s and “Ribbit”s) was an effective addition to the Jamaican DJ Dancehall scene that had been kick-started back into action for the 80s to create – what the title of one Greensleeves compilation album announced as – A Whole New Generation Of DJ. A selection of those involved in this more vibrant and entertaining style of toasting included Errol Shorter, Captain Sinbad (aka Carl Dwyer), Toyan, Nicodemus, Papa Tullo, UK Yardie Ranking Dread (aka Winston Brown), Eek-A-Mouse (aka Ripton Joseph Hilton) and the great Yellowman, all of whom were jostling each other for their place in the spotlight at the microphone stand.

One of the most respected and popular DJs at this time was Lone Ranger (aka Anthony Waldron) whose studio recordings for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One label and, more famously, his “Barnabas Collins” horror hit for Alvin Ranglin’s GG Records had catapulted him into DJ stardom. While the flood of Lone Ranger albums that were released as a result of his popularity were massively enjoyable, enthusiastic reports from the roots reggae underground about the power of his live sound system shows in Jamaica only made the DJ’s UK fan base even hungrier to see and hear their hero in action over here. While no official live recordings were available, cassette tapes of selected shows slowly began to circulate, giving an instant sonic snapshot of the DJ sound system scene in operation during the early 80s. In the same way that Sun Ra thought of his live recordings as cosmic newspapers, these roughly recorded and amateurishly mixed tapes were coming straight from the heart of Jamaican ghetto land, utilising the reportage lyrics of DJs and the latest reggae rhythms to produce a bulletin from the frontline that was as much about social commentary and politics as it was about music.

Halfway through the cassette – over the booming bass speakers and crackling dub plate rhythm backing of Soul-To-Soul Hi-Fi – Ranger lets rip with a selection of old and new lyrics, including a live rendition of “Barnabas Collins” that made the studio version sound like a nursery rhyme in comparison. On this live tape the TV vampire host protagonist of Ranger’s song rises from his cardboard coffin and casts a grim sonic spectre over the dancehall. “Barney chew your neck like a Wrigleys”, growls Ranger with grand guignol relish as the mood changes from mock horror to slick humour and the full weight of the crashing, echoing sound system collapses around him, the crowd urging him on.

Lone Ranger would eventually make his UK debut one wintry December evening in 1981 at Dingwalls in Camden Lock and, inspired by his performance on the cassette I had been given, I traipsed across town to see him in the hope of obtaining an interview with the man behind the mask for Sounds music paper. Soft spoken and enthusiastic about his work, Ranger told me about his career so far, his new recording projects and the heartfelt respect he had for his fellow DJs. Following the interview, Ranger took to the small Dingwalls stage and gave his ecstatic London audience a showcase of his DJing talent that, had it not been snowing heavily outside, was an almost perfect replica of a sultry sound system explosion in down town Jamaica.

The following year Greensleeves released their Lone Ranger album called (somewhat unimaginatively) Hi-Yo, Silver, Away! but, with only the occasional flash of brilliance to keep it afloat, the session paled against the searing bursts of raw energy that had burned and bubbled on his contribution to the now sacred Soul-To-Soul Hi-Fi tape.

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