Searching For the Missing Bassline

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Growing in the dancehalls of the 80’s and saving my school dinner money for the hottest tune recorded from David Rodigans Roots Rockers show. (I don’t want to drop the old line “it was better in our day”) but I seem to remember Bassline being at the centre of not just reggae but all dance music.

I was lucky enough to live in a row of houses that were all reggae fans and bass coming through the walls was just normal everyday life.

I would have already been playing bass for a while and could recognise every song just by hearing the bassline, no words required. that would mean that regardless of what else was going on in the song the bassline must have been the most prominent and unique part of the music. Then you start understanding that the whole “Riddim” thing that surrounds reggae music is all about the bassline.

The point i’m trying to tiptoe around is what has happened to the original concept of bassline being at the centre of the music. Sound system has always been at the centre of reggae culture and unless the rules have changed, bass was always the frequency that determined whether your sound system was a man or a boy. The Dub/Roots sound systems like U.K’s Channel One, Iration Steppers etc are still playing bass orientated music with four to the floor drum patterns and heavy bass. These sound systems are not where I think the problem lies. My issue is with mainstream reggae, what would be classed as the new roots movement. Yes some of it sounds really nice but sound system culture was never built on nice. It was built on bass.

A lot has been spoken over the years about digital music killing authentic reggae music but as a youth that witnessed the Jammys revolution in the mid 80’s I still remember heavy bass being at the centre of tunes like Hog in me Minty by Nitty Gritty, Agony by Pinchers, Dangerous System By Pad Anthony etc. Steelie and Cleavie had remained true to the root of reggae music when they constructed these riddims. Even the 90’s dancehall of producers like Dave Kelly with tunes like Action by Nadine Sutherland and Terror Fabulous, I still remember bass being at the centre of this era.

So what happened after the year 2000?

I’m guessing a new wave of producers influenced by Hip Hop and R’n’B began to emerge. The great reggae musicians of the 60’s and 70’s made it no secret that they were heavily influenced by American soul and this is how elements like flying cymbal, steppas etc made their way into reggae music. Regardless of what new fad seemed to appear, bass always remained at the centre of the party.

Neo soul became the new R’n’B of the naughties and Hip Hop has suffered to many law suits so the producers have started to ease up on the sampling. Doctor Dre is the producer of the moment but do his productions still carry that heavyweight bass from the previous 90’s production like Snoop’s Whats My Name or even Pac’s California Love which were both disciples of 70’s funk.

The R’N’B vocalists are now looking for pop hits so Neo, Usher and Beyonce are now on some Euro House bullshit. If the reggae musicians and producers of this era are now following our U.S friends then we are well and truly f****d.

In the mid 2000’s dancehall producer Don Corleone drops his Drop Leaf Riddim which on first glance seems to feel like a breath of fresh air. Nice bassline, nice chord progression, TOK, Jah Cure and Morgan Heritage have voiced some nice vocals. Hang on a minute! everything sounds nice and pretty and to add insult to injury everything coming out of Jamaica sounds nice and pretty. The rough edges of reggae are now obsolete and to make things worse authentic sound system rub a dub basslines have totally disappeared.

At this point I would of been touring with Johnny Clarke for at least 5 years. We bump into the new wave of musicians out of Jamaica on a regular basis at european festivals. As we exchange notes on which artist we are playing with, I notice a lot of the new school musicians have no idea who Johnny Clarke is. Now i get to paint the picture of this separation between the old and the new and when you put this together with the fact that hardcore dancehall is now the mainstream music of Jamaica. It all starts to make sense. The root has been removed from the music.

Meanwhile in Europe Roots Reggae is at an all time high. The European bands have been doing their homework and producing some good artists and music. Sound system culture is still fresh and the music reflects so. There is a ray of hope when i’m walking out from just playing a Horace Andy show and I here this heavy drums and bass on a tune and have to go back inside to check it out. The tune in question turned out to be The Lenky produced Come Around by Collie Budz. It uses a sample from an old Zap Pow song but the bass and kick drum are reproduced too loud and I LOVE IT. I don’t know if this has ever been mentioned before but I think this was a turning point for Jamaican reggae music to reclaim it’s title. (even though Collie Budz wasn’t Jamaican)

I still believe there is a disconnection between the music and the sound system. I’m not sure if the soundmen out there have embraced the new roots movement of Chronixx, Iba Mahr, Jesse Royal etc.

My personal opinion is producers have to get back to making music with sound system being the goal of where the heart of the music is held. Note for the soundmen too. In the 70’s and 80’s soundclash culture was all about being fresh and up to date not just proving you can revive an artist that you can play because you can afford it.

Lets work together.

Here’s an interesting conversation between U.K HiP Hop DJ Tim Westwood, Shaggy and Gyptian. Fast forward to the 3.00 min mark and listen up to 4.30.

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