Reggae Inna Babylon: Mike Brooks and Lee "Scratch" Perry
Twelve releases down the road after its founding in 1998, the Moll-Selekta label continues to mine the depths of Jamaican roots reggae. Last year's reissue of King Tubby's The Roots of Dub/Dub from the Roots was an ecstatic high point; not all the artists on the label are as well known as the great granddaddy of dub, but each has a voice (literal or figurative) of his own and something distinct to say.
The Earth Is the Fullness
Take for instance Mike Brooks, whose presence as a singer has been anything but dominant, though his falsetto voice is attractive in its own right. Some may remember his production work with the Revolutionaries from '74 to '77. Brooks appeared on Just the Vibes 1976-1983 (2000), and he's back with more '70s and '80s material on The Earth Is the Fullness , most of it recorded at Kingston's Channel One studio. These tracks are noteworthy for their deep, socially conscious lyrics and laid back but catchy melodies. Good songs, plain and simple.
Brooks started his career back in 1972 with the title track, mixed by Lee Perry at the Black Ark before the studio was even completed. Two versions appear at the end of the disc, and while the sound quality may dip relative to the otherwise superior phonics of the Channel One material, they provide a fascinating window in time. Like much of Jamaican music from the period, the overall feel of the music is uplifting and playful, but the higher meaning is heavy as rocks. A sing-song trumpet melody may spark you to hum along, and Perry's borderline-crazy hands on the knobs are evident throughout, but the message comes through loud and clear with the lyrics: "If you do good, good will follow you/If you live for yourself alone, you will suffer."
The opening "Jah Is My Light" (produced by Mike Brooks and Earl "Flabba" Holt) is straightforward enough ("I cannot live without Jah/I love Him so"), though it represents a departure from the Heptones' original love song, "My Guiding Star." The underlying theme of faith persists throughout, though you'll also hear Rastafarian messages on the subjects of materialism ("a good friend is better than money"), ganja ("it bring joy to my life"), and righteousness ("too much fornication in Babylon"). Two tracks stretch beyond the four-minute mark: "Who Have Eyes To See" (produced by Prince Far I), which has a trance-inducing reverberant, echoing quality; and "No Brother Man" (produced by Phil Pratt), builtlike much great reggaeupon a very simple instrumental foundation.
What a difference three decades can make. The common thread between these two releases is the presence of Lee "Scratch" Perry, who mixed Mike Brooks' first record; but if "The Earth Is the Fullest" was ultra-serious, Panic in Babylon is all fun and games.
Unlike the former record, this one is a new release, and Perry isn't behind the console. That says a lot. Lee Perry has been responsible for some truly massive high points in the history of reggae and dub since his pioneering work in the '70s (check out the four-disc Arkology set for a comprehensive introduction), but he's also been involved with some real disasters along the way. Caveat emptor, as they say. They say the man isn't too stable.
Fortunately Panic in Babylon is a good fun record, a little on the wacky side but musically even. Perry handles the vocals (as well as costumes and antics, if you catch him with this group live in Europe, which I would recommend based on the live closing track and having heard tales). He's backed by the Whitebellyrats: DJ Star Trek (bass), Lorenzo Viennet (guitars), and Daniel Spahni (drums). Star Trek and P. Brunkow (of Major Boys) handle the production (and not Perry, which is important to note).
The key to making a record like this work is to ensure that Perry's nutty lyrical spontaneity can thrive within an otherwise rehearsed (and carefully produced) musical setting. On "Pussy Man" he rambles on over an up-tempo reggae groove of an old school temperament, complete with synth horns, keyboards, and guitar: "I am Lee Scratch Perry the cocky man... I'm Doctor Dick... I'm Doctor Quick... I'm Doctor Tree... I'm Doctor Lee... I'm Doctor Me..." and so on. You get the general idea. Nothing too serious. Typical of this record. Two songs later, "Voodoo" invokes Marcus Garvey, the Queen of England, the Pope, George Bush, and the twelfth tribe of Israel, though exactly what message the song is meant to convey (if anything) is up for grabs.
One of Perry's hallmarks on record is the creative use of studio tricks to enhance performances, and while electronic processing is used throughout Panic In Babylon to enhance texture and broaden the sonic palette (it's also used on Perry's voice, though not very memorably), this is not a dub record in the usual sense. The tempos are mostly sped up, time is not particularly elastic, and there's none of the expansive head room that begs for intoxication.
The Whitebellyrats play a solid backing role, but this is Lee Perry's record all the way. He's still out in space, touching down now and then to confuse the rest of us earthlings. See if you can figure this "dub poetry" out.
The Earth Is the Fullness
Tracks: Jah Is My Light; Moving; No Compassion; No Brother Man (long version); Money; Ship Sails; Good Herb; Holy Holy Lu Jah; Who Have Eyes to See (long version); Forever Life; Children of Babylon; The Earth is the Fullness; Fullness (version).
Personnel: Mike Brooks, vocals with various unspecified other musicians. Produced and mixed by Mike Brooks, Prince Far I, Phil Pratt, Errol "Flabba" Holt, David Jahson, and Lee Perry. Recorded at Channel One, Harry J's, and Black Ark.
Panic in Babylon
Tracks: Rastafari; Purity Rock; Pussy Man; Fight To The Finish; Voodoo; Panic in Babylon; Perry's Ballad; I Am A Psychiatrist; Inspector Gadget 2004; Are You Coming Home?; Baby Krishna; Greetings; Devil Dead Live.
Personnel: Lee "Scratch" Perry: vocals; DJ Star Trek: bass; Lorenzo Viennet: guitars; and Daniel Spahni: drums. Produced by DJ Star Trek and P. Brunkow.