Tanya Stephens is dancehall’s diva. Emerging in the mid-90s at the same time as two other queens (Lady Saw and Ce’cile), Tanya Stephens quickly made a name for herself with her nasal tone and inspirational lyrics. She didn’t hesitate to shake up the machismo perpetuated by Kingston’s toasters, battling homophobia and disrespect towards women. She spoke her mind, stating that she has “never come across any male that really challenged me compositionally”. Following her successful 1994 debut Big Things a Gwaan which featured Yami Bolo on a cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”, she made waves in 1996 with “Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet”. Stephens layered vocals over the riddim “Joyride” written by Dave Kelly, one of the most successful producers of the 90s. It was her first viral hit. Stephens signed with Donovan Germain’s label Penthouse before creating her own label: Madhouse Records. After a detour to Sweden at the turn of the millennium for the pop/folk abum Sintoxicated she returned to dancehall on Gangsta Blues in 2006 with tracks written by Kingston hot shots Bobby Digital and Fatis Burrell. The album was carried by a song produced by the German indie label Germaican – “It’s A Pity”. The hit would travel around the world on Seeed’s Doctor’s Darling Riddim, a hormone-boosted version of Gregory Isaac’s Night Nurse.
Like many others, Cornell Campbell’s career started at Studio One, the legendary Jamaican label which was set up in the 60s. After a few ska and rocksteady tracks, his first hit was a reggae song – “Queen of the Minstrels” - with his group The Eternals. The Jamaican classic showcased his famous falsetto, winning him comparisons to the likes of Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield. At the start of the following decade he made the wise decision to link up with producer Bunny Lee, bringing him a string of more hits. He brought out the smooth song “Jah Jah Me Horn Ya” in 1973, kick-starting the lovers rock period (typified by slow songs that mixed rocksteady, soul and reggae). Two years later - and still with Bunny Lee - he brought out Gorgon, which earned him his nickname ‘Two Face Rasta’, as well as the two hit songs “Natty Dread in a Greenwich Farm” and “Dance in a Greenwich Farm”. Like many singers from the 60s and 70s, Cornell Campbell found it hard transitioning to dancehall and digital reggae in the 80s. He recorded a few fairly unsuccessful tracks with King Jammy, the star of the era. He resurfaced in 2001 thanks to the German duo Maurizio (working under their alias Rhythm and Sound), who provided the ultra-deep bass on “King in My Empire”, one of the best songs of Campbell’s career. “He fumbled for a few seconds, gave it a try and it was off: he recorded it in one take. We were shaking behind the console”, Mark Ernestus, one half of Maurizo, told us at the time. Still popular in Europe, the Jamaican collaborated with the London-based outfit Soothsayers on the album Tradition in 2018, proving that his superb voice is still intact today.
It took a long time for Johnny Osbourne to break through. After releasing his debut album Come Back Darling in 1969 (produced by Winston Riley) he emigrated to Canada to join his family. He didn’t sit still in Toronto and sang in various local bands, though it wasn’t until he returned to Jamaica that he saw his success materialise. It was a stunning comeback. He recorded a masterpiece (Truth and Rights), his one and only album for Studio One. It was pure roots reggae with a stunning title track and gems like “Children Are Crying” and “Can’t Buy Love”. Apart from a few roots anthems like “Water Pumping” or “Love is Universal”, Johnny Osbourne branched out in the 80s and became one of the stars of digital reggae with the album Rougher Than Them for Bobby Digital. He also brought out the catchy hit “Budy Bye” in 1985 on the riddim that launched the Sleng Teng movement in Jamaica which has been remixed thousands of times by British jungle producers. Since then, “No Ice Cream Sound” has been sampled by the Beastie Boys on “Putting Shame in Your Game”, “Mr Marshall” was recycled by Major Lazer and Flux Pavillion on “Jah No Partial”, “Fally Ranking” was used in a great dubstep remix on V.I.V.E.K’s DEEP MEDi Musik and “Truth & Rights” served as the basis for Nèg Marrons’s hit “Le Bilan”. Put simply, we haven’t heard enough of Johnny Osbourne’s voice just yet.
In order to understand 70s rasta reggae all you need to do is listen to Yabby You’s Dread Prophecy. It’s a triple album that appeared on the English reedition label Blood & Fire which compiles this strange singer/producer’s essential discography. Vivian Jackson (his real name) spent his youth hanging around Kingston’s rasta communities and renouncing his Catholic faith which earned him the nickname ‘Jesus Dread’. One day in 1969 when he was talking about his faith, a storm broke out and he heard angels singing “Be you, yabby yabby you”. He got some money together and three years later recorded the hit at King Tubby’s studio: “Conquering Lion”, with the haunting chorus (Be you, yabby yabby you) which gave him his new nickname. He followed with “Jah Vengeance” and “Run Come Rally” which were recorded at another shaman’s place - Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio - keeping that squeaky guitar, irresistible skank and otherworldly voice. Yabby You turned reggae into a voodoo ritual and nobody since has quite matched the mystical quality his productions. Despite suffering from arthritis which forced him to walk around on crutches, he went on to produce some brilliant songs by the likes of Wayne Wade (”Man of the Living”), Michael Rose, Michael Prophet and Trinity. He faded from the scene in the late 70s before reappearing with Mad Professor on Yabby You Meets Mad Professor and Black Steel at Ariwa Studio, his final triumph before his death in 2010.
Hired as a sound engineer for Jamaica’s public radio (the JBC) Mikey Dread got up in front of the mic one year later in 1977 for his broadcast Dread at the Controls. The show consisted of four hours of reggae and was hugely popular for two years on the island. After going on strike to try earn a slot during prime time (which was refused), Mikey Dread quit the airwaves in 1979 to go into production. Using Lee Perry’s and Joe Gibbs’ studios, he produced for some of the biggest names of the time: Eddie Fitzroy, Junior Murvin and Hopeton Lindo, who thanks to him brought out his huge hit “Black History”. He wasn’t half bad when he went solo either, releasing three amazing roots reggae albums: Dread at the Controls, Evolutionary Rockers and World War III (containing the hit “Break Down the Walls”), where you can hear his rub-a-dub singing style nestled amongst all the sound effects (rewinds, sirens, voiceovers and echoes). However, Mikey Dread – who died in 2008 – is mostly remembered for building bridges between Jamaica and England by collaborating with The Clash on the hit “Bankrobber” and then on the album Sandinista for a new punk reggae fiesta, three years after the one thrown by Bob Marley.
Early bloomer Marcia Griffiths started recording at the age of 11. Over the years she’s surrounded herself with Bobs: Bob Andy first, forming the duo Bob & Marcia from 1970 to 1974. Together they performed the hit “Young, Gifted and Black” (a Nina Simone cover). Rearranged with a string section by the Trojan label, the song was huge in England. In 1974, she met up with another Bob – Bob Marley this time. She joined the I-Threes, The Wailers’ famous choir, created to make up for the departures of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. After Bob Marley died, she went back to performing solo and recorded a strange song in 1982 written by Bunny Wailer: “Electric Boogie”, which was released in 1990 on her album Carousel. Based on a video of a group of young people dancing the ‘Electric Slide’, the song became a slightly kitschy classic in the United States where it is apparently still popular at weddings and one of Marcia Griffiths’ biggest sellers. Though reggae fans mostly remember her for her cover of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, released on her album Play Me Sweet and Nice, which is only made up of covers (Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Neil Diamond...). A must for fans of the sensational 70s soul reggae period.
Linval Thompson was one of those musicians who could do it all. Well, almost. After starting out as a singer for the producer Keith Hudson, he first made a name for himself with the track Kung-Fu Man, recorded by Phil Pratt at Lee Perry’s Black Ark. A singer turned producer, Phil Pratt was a model for Linval Thompson who soon took matters into his own hands by setting up his own label Thompson Sounds. Using King Tubby’s studio (singing for him for free in exchange) he released his first big hit in 1977: “Jah Jah Guiding Star”. It was produced by a young man named Henry Lawes who would be known as “Junjo” a few years later, a key producer of the early 80s. Together they created Thompson’s classic “I Love Marijuana”, one of the most popular ganja songs of all time. He also signed with Bunny Lee’s hitmaking label (including Don’t Cut Off Your Dreadlocks and 12 Tribes of Israel) and was eventually swept away by the arrival of digital reggae. Linval Thompson has made his mark on reggae by producing for some of today’s most popular artists, from Freddie McGregor to Johnny Osbourne, Barry Brown and Cornell Campbell.
Jamaica’s prodigy left us too quickly. As a promising competitive runner in his teens, Hugh Mundell first tried his luck at singing at Joe Gibbs’s studio, recording “Where Is Natty Dread” - a track that was never released. Fortunately for him, Augustus Pablo, the king of melodica, came along and offered him a second chance. A week later, Hugh Mundell recorded his velvety voice over the first tracks that would make up the album Africa Must Be Free By 1983. Released in 1978, it’s an essential record for any self-respecting reggae fan. With his youthful timbre and his innocence-filled lyrics, Hugh Mundell was like a diamond in the rough. His sound was polished by producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes, who had just brought out a series of hits with Barrington Levi, Yellowman and Eek-A-Mouse on his label Volcano. Junjo brought the singer into the studio and put him next to Israel Vibration’s legendary backing band – the Roots Radics. They came out with the album Mundell, another classic with hits like Jacqueline and Rasta Handle, two tracks that were supported by the new “rockers” rhythm invented by Sly Dunbar. At the age of 19, Hugh Mundell became the new star of Kingston – one of the world’s most violent cities. Two years later in 1983 he was killed in his car in front of his protégé Junior Reid’s eyes, adding to an all-too-long list of Jamaican geniuses who have died before their time.
Jacob Miller is the only man who can compete with Bob Marley in Jamaicans’ hearts. As Kingston’s idol number 2, he was one of the few local artists who tried to open up to pop and international music. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. His first single “Love Is A Message” released on Studio One in 1968 was a flop, though he returned six years later with Augustus Pablo. In 1974, he brought out the essential album Who Say Jah No Dread, rearranging “Love Is a Message” and “Keep On Knocking” which started with the lyrics: “Never can say goodbye to me, Love is a message that I must send to you”. “Baby I Love You So”, the album’s other hit, was released as a 45 rpm with the dub version “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” on the B side, a track which was so popular that the record was reprinted with dub on the A side! As the writer of several roots reggae classics (”Tenement Yard”, “Healing of the Nation”, “Peace Treaty”, “Standing Firm”...), Jacob Miller was also recruited as the lead singer for Inner Circle. Influenced by New York guitarist Joe Ortiz, the group tried fusing reggae with rock and pop, especially on the album Everything Is Great which appeared in 1978. Despite sounding a little kitschy today, the album bears witness to his goals. Gaining fame after starring in the reggae cult film Rockers, his aura spread even further after he participated in the One Love Peace Concert in 1978. At the height of his fame he died in a car accident with his son in 1980 at the age of 27, just one year before Bob Marley’s death, leaving Jamaica heartbroken.
As a star of Bunny Lee’s label in the 70s alongside names like Johnny Clarke, Cornell Campbell and Linval Thompson, Barry Brown didn’t have a long career but it was a prolific one – 11 albums between 1979 and 1984 and a series of hits. Hits like “Step It Up Youthman” from the eponymous album, “Big Big Pollution” and “Politician”. They were political songs which brought about change alongside Horace Andy (to whom he is often compared for the timbre of his voice). He then recorded for all Kingston’s big studios – Studio One and Channel One with the hit “Far East”, Prince Jammy (who hadn’t yet become King) on the dancehall record Showcase and even Linval Thompson’s Thompson Sound label… Mired by health and drug problems, his album releases became more sporadic at the end of the 80s, though he did work with the British dub pioneer Jah Shaka, lending his intoxicating voice to soundsystems, and also with Mafia & Fluxy, the “new Sly & Robbie”. Barry Brown passed away in 2004 but remains one of reggae’s favourites to this day.