The Wire

In Writing

The Portal: Jamaica's Lyrical Histories

May 2014

Derek Walmsley traces the tracks that give their own spin on the history of not just reggae, but the entire existence of Jamaica, continuing discussion from his Compiler essay (The Wire 363) on one of David Rodigan's Super Cat dubplates. Plus: Scroll to the bottom to hear the YouTube playlist.

Brigadier Jerry "Jamaica Jamaica"
"Jamaica Jamaica" by Brigadier Jerry from 1985 might have kicked the whole thing off. Like a lot of the tracks that follow, it's on the "Answer" rhythm (by some accounts, the most versioned rhythm in reggae), and it's more of a geography than a history lesson – Jerry recounts a drive criss-crossing the island meeting family and friends (including his grandfather, a farmer, where he picks up some bananas and potatoes).

Super Cat "Jamaica Jamaica"
Super Cat used the same hook for his own song of the same name, released in different versions in both 1985 and 1986. The Kingston deejay, who would spend a big slice of the 1990s in New York dabbling in hiphop, concentrates in forensic detail on Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the island, enumerating his upbringing in "Geneva" (sic), and his education as navigator and sailor, and narrates Jamaican history all the way up to the present day. It's an amazing feat of amateur antiquarianism – all the more so as almost all of it rhymes with "Jamaica".

Early B "History Of Jamaica"
Super Cat’s deejay mentor on the Soul Imperial Hi-Fi sound system was Earlando Arrington Neil, better known as Early B, and his "History Of Jamaica" (released on LP in 1985) is the heavyweight champion of deejay history lessons. It sets out its stall with the precision of an encyclopedia: "Jamaican is a island in the Caribbean sea/Between latitudes 17 and 18/And 700 hundred miles towards have Miami/A 4000 square mile have property/The highest spot fe reach that the Blue Mountain peak/I tell you that a 7400 feet". There's almost two solid minutes of non-stop historical narration before Early B goes back to the start and repeats the lesson.

Johnny Ringo "History Of Jamaica"
Johnny Ringo, who'd recorded with Welton Irie and Yellowman in Jamaica, toured the UK in the mid-80s and recorded tracks for the influential Fashion label around the time, including the JA To UK MC Clash split LP with Asher Senator. Ringo’s "History Of Jamaica" is the sharpest and funniest of all the history tracks. In the track, while the queen is visiting Jamaica in 1983, Ringo is called to the Norman Manley airport to engage her in some chit-chat. After she shakes his hand, she asks him to tell some of his history, and he starts all the way from the very beginning: "Columbus left spain in 1493/A year after that we get the discovery". The message is clear: Johnny Ringo is schooling the Queen, not the other way around.

Ras Kass "Nature Of The Threat"
There are similar history lessons in other genres, most obviously the street poetry of The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. But nothing in reggae quite matches hiphop MC Ras Kass's "Nature Of The Threat". Over seven minutes, with no choruses or bridges, Ras Kass breaks down the origins of racism and his own radical readings of genetics, race and Judeo-Christian religion, with occasional outbursts of homophobia and misogyny. Despite the aggressive (and shaky) polemic, it's a startling listen, and an alternative history that you won't find in the school books.

Jamaica's Lyrical History: YouTube playlist

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