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Rub A Dub Style Chapter 11 « DanceCrasher

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Rub A Dub Style Chapter 11

General Echo & Stereophonic

After bubbling underground in the dancehall for years, slackness suddenly leapt forward in the late ‘70s to become the most popular drawing card in the session, the required style for a rising deejay who wanted to attract attention. While the peace treaty had been in effect, deejays had begun to hear slackness in session in other neighborhoods and began to bring it back to their individual communities. By 1980, deejays who couldn’t contribute their own little slack talk got left behind.

The king for slackness at the time was the legendary General Echo, aka Ranking Slackness. A humble man with a wicked sense of humor, General Echo (Earl Robinson) was born in 1955 and grew up on Maiden Lane, Kingston, Jamaica. An only child, he was doted on by his mother after his father died leaving the two of them alone. Although she was a devout Christian, (“a real church going woman”, according to Sister Nancy), who toiled long and hard to support her son, Echo’s mother never interfered with his musical career. And, he in turn, always lived with her and supported her with his earnings. Echo’s mother also wisely stayed out of the way when Echo was practicing on his little component set around the back of the house. Out of deference, Echo used to keep the sound turned low while he rehearsed.

In 1975, Echo was just starting out. He ran a little sound system of his own, Echotone Hifi, playing mainly soul records. But when he heard Ranking Joe deejaying his slackness, Echo was moved to take up talking.

The various peace treaties freed the people in Kingston to travel out of their own districts to dances and allowed the slackness style to spread. Deejay Sassafrass recalls, “That was when things really open up. Because, previous to that, you couldn’t move around, leave from one area to another to another. So, that really opened it up and that’s when Echo really get to shine now. Cause he could go places, both in Laborite area and Socialist area. So, he was really in demand – on both sides.”

Deejay Welton Irie agreed, “In 1978, when all the warring political gangs made peace, that’s when dancehall exploded, ’cause everybody could go anywhere. People, who normally couldn’t go somewhere, could go. So, the crowd was big, thick! Echotone now was a very small sound and the dances would be so packed you could hardly hear the sound – they would be blocking it.”

Because of his wide appeal, Echo began to come under pressure from local bosses. Typically, political meetings were wrapped up with a dance running late into the night. If your sound was invited to play, you could hardy refuse, and Echo was frequently expected to perform at party functions in his neighborhood.

“Echo had no political aspirations, one way or another,” Echo’s producer, Manzie, recalled. “He never cared whether it was PNP or JLP. But he lived in a JLP area so he was branded. So, that’s what caused that ‘tug-and-war’ now. It was all good during peace time. But the peace thing start breaking down now.”

To avoid pressure to go along with either side, in 1978 Echo gave up self employment and left Echotone to work, for a short time, on Ray Symbolic with Ranking Joe. It was easier to let someone else navigate the minefield of booking and managing the sound, allowing Echo to focus on what he did best, which was performing. From there, he joined the sound he is most famous for, Stereophonic.

When Echo came on board, Stereophonic was already a popular, competitive sound with deejay Welton Irie, singer Maddo and selector Fluxy. Stereophonic was, “A much bigger sound than his own. But they never really have a ‘star’,” Manzie remembers. ““So, when he jump to that now, it was like, OK – the best deejay in the dancehall on a big sound now. Stereophonic just take off!”

In the beginning, Stereophonic sound was called Sir John’s, after the owner Leon John, aka Big John, and it‘s headquarters was at 30 Windward Road, Kingston two, referred to as the Bionic Lawn. Welton Irie had been working the sound along with Colonel Fluxy as the selector, and Denie and Donovan as the box men. When Echo joined, he brought along his old friend, Oh Lord*

* According to Welton, “This song that he made, ‘People Are You Ready’, Tappa Zuckie recorded it [Oh Lord, Stars 1978], but that was his [Echo’s] signature song, ‘People are you ready? Bo! Oh Lord’. When he said Oh Lord, he was actually referring to his sidekick, Oh Lord. If you listen a lot of them old tapes [dances on cassette], he always be referring to Oh Lord.”

An X-rated General Echo on Stereophonic 1979
[audio:http://www.dancecrasher.co.uk/features/rubadubstyle/11/stereophonic_1979part1.mp3]

Echo, with his unabashed lyrical content, made an indelible impression on dancehall. Not only did he raise the stakes by deejaying bolder lyrics than ever, Echo consolidated “slackness” into a complete package, a kind of burlesque that included sound effects, jokes, stories, impersonations, singing and deejaying. At times, he was more like a rapping standup comic. Echo would go through a succession of bawdy tales, from ‘Bathroom Sex’ in which, as a child, he would “peep pon” his mother and father in the bathroom, to ‘Hotel Fee’, where he saves his money for a hotel quickie. A virtual one man show, Echo had an astounding capacity to invent lyrics.

This new slackness style that Echo built with his personal dynamism and inventiveness, proved so compelling that deejays were under great pressure to conform. Welton recalls, “The first time I went into Echo’s area, to Stereophonic, chatting my culture, everybody stood outside the gate and nobody would come in. A man come to me and say, ‘Boss, you no chat slackness – Chat one!’ The first slackness me chat, gate tear down! Bouncer, the gateman, pops down the gate – the dance ram! I was in the west now, which was Echo’s area, so in order to come in his place and be accepted, I started writing and building the slack lyrics.”

Ranking Joe (then known as Little Joe) was one of the top ranking deejays and the one who introduced many people to slackness. Welton Irie remembers first hearing rude lyrics in the dance with Ranking Joe deejaying on Ray Symbolic. “That was very mild compared to what is going on now. That was [considered] slackness because everybody else was culture. You had Big Youth, U Roy, U Brown – all culture. [Ranking Joe was saying] the tamest things, but at that time but he was the only one saying those things, so it was a big deal. Echo took it from him and took it to a slacker level.”

Whereas Ranking Joe was talking some rude lyrics here and there, he never devoted himself to it the way Echo did. Welton Irie, also a deejay known for slackness, gives Echo full credit for promoting the style. “Echo really exploded and bust slackness big time! He was the best at it, regardless of who else was saying it. Cause he actually made up lyrics about those things and other guys copy cat. He was the best at it and his following kinda proved that. Cause all the little girls – teenagers and in their twenties – couldn’t get enough!”.

The unquestionable appeal of slackness to women was puzzling and disturbing to many on the outside. “Much to the chagrin of many middle class feminists and religious leaders,” commented bandleader, Frankie Campbell, “it was the women who screamed loudest and danced longest to the slackest artistes.” According to Welton Irie, “[Echo] had this big girl following. In the west, there were much more girls than men because a lot of the guys either died in political war or they were in prison. So, there were women, an excess amount. So, the funniest thing, the women usually love to hear the slackness, the most outrageous things. They’re the one making noise and, them time there, they used to wear some shorts – long before we hear about ‘batty rider’.*

* Shorts that ride high up on the posterior, exposing several extra inches of skin

In 1978, girls had some shorts exposing them butt cheeks and they used have the shoes named ‘ballerina’, the Chinese ‘ballet’ shoes, the kung fu shoes that the Chinese wear. That was the order of the day. And all the girls in the Echotone dance would be dressed like that.”

Yet, far from coming across as boorish and uncouth, Echo was able to pull it all off because he executed his lyrics with a certain good humor, self effacement and charm. Even his non X-rated lyrics contained his particular brand of comedy*.

* In fact, the LP containing that song, Echo’s Rocking and Swing, produced by Manzie (Dudley Swaby) and released in 1980, contained no slackness at all, but is still marked with his particular brand of humour.

In the Big Youth tradition, Echo sang more than most other deejays at the time. He combined the skills of comic, impersonator and raconteur, and came up with a very different style of toasting. Maddo comments, “Echo is a comedian. If you did one of Echo lyrics – and then Echo did it- you would sound like an idiot.” He cites the song Arlene where Echo sings about his girlfriend who loves to eat beans: “One little bean, two little bean, three little bean and a more bean please, Arlene a must be dream you de dream”. Only Echo could make a simple line like that sound hilarious.

Echo could deftly handle tales involving several characters, giving each individual a separate and distinct manner of speaking. In his ‘Drunken Master’ lyrics (a spoof on the 1978 Jackie Chan movie that was inspiring deejay lyrics at the time), he uses the gruff, slurry voice of the drunk husband along with the high pitched whine of his long suffering wife, as he come home from the bar in the evening, drunk once again. In his popular lyric about ‘Jean and Miss Follow-Fashion’, Echo does the voices of both women as he encounters them in various locations and offers them a drink or something to eat. The running gag is that Miss Follow-fashion is “hard of hearing” so she mishears what Jean orders:

Jean, what you drinking?
(girl‘s voice) Oh Echo, I’ll have a Ting
Miss Follow Fashion, what you having?
(Different girl’s voice) Echo, gimme some of the same bird wing…

The misunderstandings get progressively more ‘slack’ with each verse. Imitations were Echo’s specialty and he would work them into the lyrics, usually embedding them in one of his stories like “Who was Adam and Eve” (over the Mighty Diamond’s ‘Love Me Girl’, a.k.a ‘The General’).

When we go a bed she just a act funny
Me say, the gal no wan’ take off her panty
Me have fe fuck it, make the pussy sing like Harry Belafonte:
How it sing?
‘Day-O! Day-O! Day a light and me wan’ go home!……’

Round the back, Ram the cho cho,
Make the pussy sing like Louis Satchmo,
A how the pussy sing, Echo?
‘Hello Dolly, Oh! Hello Dolly, It’s so nice to see you back where you
belong…’

But the verse that would bring down the house was his finale:
This little girl love to fuss and fight
Me have fe juke the little pussy ’til it sing like Barry White:
‘Don’t go changing, trying to please me. You know I’d never let you down uumumma’…” *

* The song is actually by Billy Joel, Just the Way You Are, albeit delivered in a Barry White style

All this from a man with a Christian upbringing who neither smoked nor drank. “Him was so nice,” remarks Sassafrass- a commonly expressed opinion. But once Echo got a hold of the microphone, he was transformed. He was confident, boastful and full of mischief – a persona Yellowman would adapt with even greater success a few short years later.

Sister Nancy And Lady Anne

Sister Nancy alongside Sister Rosie on Stereophonic 1980
[audio:http://www.dancecrasher.co.uk/features/rubadubstyle/11/stereophonic_1980.mp3]
Stereophonic Sound was also unusual for hosting a female deejay, and sometimes more than one. At the time, women were supposed to be singers who primarily sang lovers-rock and soul covers. A few were roots and culture, like Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt. But the majority, like June Lodge and Carlene Davis, stuck largely to foreign love songs and ballads.

Sister Nancy and Lady Anne challenged that mold. The two worked Stereophonic as regular crew members, opening up a field that had previously been all but closed to women. Gaining that acceptance wasn’t easy. But, Sister Nancy was a tough lady and a good deejay. She walked with her own posse, and she was completely devoted to the dance.

“When Sister Nancy came in,” Maddo recalls, “and then they found out she was Brigadier’s sister*, we were like, ‘Nancy, you can deejay?’ and she was like, ‘yea’. But, when we gave her the mic, the first time, we couldn’t stand her. Her voice was so high pitched. It was unbelievable.”

* Deejay Brigadier Jerry

People weren’t used to hearing a female voice. “They would tease me… they would boo me too and tell me I don’t sound good,” Nancy recalls. “A lot of them tell me, ‘Your voice sound so fine [thin], you sound like a rat baby’. They say, ‘Your voice is so squeaky’. They tell me all kind of thing, and I say, ‘Yea. I ain’t going nowhere'”.

In the hopes of integrating herself, Nancy took up the itinerant life of the crew. On dance nights, “The truck came – that time we used to go on the truck back. Nobody come pick you up in no limousine. No car. Nothing like that. You go on the truck back with the sound system, with the boxes and everything, just sit on the box, that’s how I used to travel. You sleep same place. They don’t get no hotel for you or nothing like that. You may get something to eat and a bottle of beer to drink. That’s what they used to pay me. I never used to get money”.

As the second youngest of 15, in a household dominated by older brothers, Nancy grew up impervious to teasing and with a powerful will of her own. Accustomed from childhood to persist against all odds, Nancy knew what she wanted to do and refused to take no for an answer. “You know, I was dedicated! Anywhere the sound play, anywhere they go, I was always there. I was willing to work with the guys and everything. It doesn’t matter what they say to me or reject me. They took me serious after a while. Cause I keep going there. Everywhere they play, I’d be on the truck back with them. Them say, ‘We cyaan get rid of this gal! We cyaan get rid of this gal! Everywhere we go she follow we’.”

Finally, they gave in. After months of hanging around, Stereophonic gave her a break. Big John made her one of the crew. “They say, ‘OK, you know what, you’re on the payroll.’ So, each dance, they would give me $50. By the time I get $50 – man, I was rich! I was rich! I could buy anything, and everything. More than three days, I have that $50 spending. Stereophonic [owner Big John] was the first person who pay me $50.”

Echo really supported his female artists, and they were considered part of the crew. “Echo was the teacher then,” Lady Anne recalled. “Echo did just love us. He just love us, me and Nancy. So, I would say Echo is a great inspiration for both me and Nancy. He took us everywhere he was going and he would show us how to grab the mic. He was the real big man behind us then.” While Echo was being chastised for “degrading women” on the microphone, he was the first one to open up opportunities for them in what was, up to that point, a totally male dominated field.

At the time, Anne was only working part time, but Nancy never left. “Nancy used to go every night,” Anne explains. “I never used to go every night. I had to go to school. So you find I go three or four nights out of the week, but Nancy go seven days.”

It was her older brother Brigadier that really inspired Nancy. “I used to listen to him so much. Usually when he used to take a shower, that’s when you would hear him deejay. For real! Some nights we can’t find him and we’ll be in the back of the yard and we hear his voice coming from up in the hills and he is over in the hills on Emperor Marcus [sound]. He’s doing what he does. And I tell myself, ‘I can do that! I know I can do that’. I start follow him without his knowledge and I would go to dance. Once in a while, when I know he’s not there, I may try talk on the mic, and when he comes and he hear, he is mad! I couldn’t go where my brother was ’cause he didn’t want me there. He don’t want me in the dance. When I come, he would tell me, ‘Go home! Go home!'”

At the time that Echo was killed in 1980, Nancy was pregnant. “I waited until I had my baby. Then I started with Studio 54 and Aces with Yellowman.” In 1980 she recorded her first LP with Winston Riley, One Two, with her Transport Connection lyrics on it She followed it up in 1982 with The Yellow, The Purple & The Nancy, featuring Yellowman & Fathead along with Waterhouse deejay Purpleman. Riley also made her the first women to record over his ‘Stalag 17’ rhythm resulting in the hit, ‘Bam Bam’, a massive hit. A remix of the song by Krinjah in 2001 created a sensation, and a big revival for Nancy who went on to voice a fresh version of it for RCola in 2006, leading to its being sampled and mixed into several hip hop hits.

Slackness On Record

Nancy never released slack recordings. Women just didn’t do that back then. But General Echo did. Releasing an X rated disc was always problematic. On the one hand, the lyrics and style had enormous appeal. But on the other, the song would get no radio play or media exposure in Jamaica (except some hearty criticism).

Echo’s first LP, released in 1979 by Manzie, Rocking and Swing, had no outright slackness on it. But the album he recorded for Winston Riley the same year did. Slackest LP (credited to ‘Ranking Slackness’ rather than General Echo) contained all of his best loved lyrics as he performed them on the sound, including ‘Lift Up Your Dress Fat Gal’, ‘Cockie No Beg No Friend’, ‘Adam and Eve’ and ‘Bathroom Sex’’. The LP was the closest thing to catching a live Stereophonic session, a high quality, well produced album of pure X-rated lyrics. Riley was willing to take an educated gamble that, despite the risqué content not being OK for radio play, the album would sell. And he was right.

Slackness began to appear more regularly (although never very frequently) on record, and took off like a meteor in the dancehall. Producer Junjo Lawes, now having a pipeline to the UK based reggae company Greensleeves, sent over his own General Echo album, 12 inch of Pleasure in 1980. Unfortunately, the rhythms he gave Echo were draggy and slow and did not provide a good framework for Echo’s easy rocking vocals.

Deejay Ringo released an LP, Two Coxman (Ariola, 1981), with a photo on the cover of him standing in his underwear with his slacks dropped around his knees. The songs included ‘Untidy Pum’, ‘Fuck Shop Is Not For The Handicapped’ and ‘Pum Pum Ugly’. Welton Irie also recorded an ‘X rated’LP, It Feels So Good (Joe Gibbs 1980) with ‘Fishie Anniversary’ and ‘Toilet Sex’. But neither one had the impact of the Echo release. Clint Eastwood followed the trend and managed to get a release on Greensleeves for his LP, Sex Education, which really had just the one title song in a slack style.

However, by 1982, some top slack entertainers were abandoning the style altogether in search of airplay. Lone Ranger, who appeared on both Virgo and Soul to Soul as “number one slackness deejay”, suddenly underwent a change of heart and cleared out of the slackness field, at least on records. His decision paid off and he maintained a very profitable recording career.

Ranking Joe had a similar epiphany. Joe commented, “I start to sight certain Rastafari thing. What you say on the mic and what you say in the dance can control people.” No longer as young and impulsive as before, he began to realize the permanence that putting something on vinyl implies. “It nice to listen to in the dance, but when you record, it’s on the record and it’s going to stay for life.” Then one day, a station in Texas said they couldn’t play his songs because of the slack content. “I would go on certain radio station and find out they wouldn’t play any slackness songs. That really move me and from that I say, ‘I’m going to try to keep away [from slackness]’. You have to do more things that can really get airplay. So that really changed.” It would take the arrival of Yellowman to make recording slackness cool again.

Echo’s Killing

Stereophonic was going strong and Echo was the most popular deejay on the island. But, it all came to an abrupt end at noon on Saturday November 22, 1980. Big John, Echo and Flux were driving along Constant Spring Road near Half Way Tree Road, on their way from the equipment technician to a dance in the country, when two policemen in a squad car stopped them for a search. No one will ever know exactly what happened next. The police allege that there was an illegal gun in the car and that a shootout followed. No police were injured. However, all three men inside the car were killed. The officers did eventually come to trial but were completely exonerated of all charges. “As Mrs. Robinson [Echo’s mother] said, her own lawyer was ‘deaf and dumb’ regarding the case, and the gun the trio was supposed to have had was never produced in court as evidence.”*

* Jamaican Gleaner, 1980, exact date unknown

Maddo recorded a song about the Half Way Tree killing, Bite Di Dust [Maddo- Bite Di Dust/ Maddo & Jango- Half Way Tree Killing (Bionic)]. Then he stopped recording and eventually left the country.

Maddo – Bite Di Dust
[audio:http://www.dancecrasher.co.uk/features/rubadubstyle/11/bitedidust.mp3]

Manzie offers his explanation, “Big John wasn’t a man who went around making trouble or problems or whatsoever. John was no political activist. John was just a businessman that had a bar, with a little club to it and he distribute liquor and stuff like that. What I really think happened was surrounding around that gun that was in the car. Big John had a legal firearm. And I think that Police pull down on the car. Maybe they spot the gun. Maybe he tried to explain about the gun but the police don’t want to hear nothing. Cause, when you see three man in a car like that – and, you know, in Jamaica, its politics time ca’ that election was maybe a month away, and there was this whole tension in the air. By that time, the peace treaty had fallen apart long time. So, I think that is what cause them to lose their lives- that gun, and the police with their mentality to shoot first and ask questions after.”

Echo was an unlikely a candidate for assassination. As deejay Lord Sassafrass remembers him, Echo was “very, very humble. You know, a lot of time, when all that bad political stuff going on, that time, him come to me and say, ‘I have to try diffuse things’. There wasn’t an inch of violence in him. He was just a humble person.”

For the next few years, Big John’s son Rocky took over the sound officially. In 1983, Maddo left for the United States, first to Connecticut, then Maine. With all the main talent gone, the sound had no choice but to fold, leaving the field clear for Gemini Disco to claim the territory, and deejays like Welton Irie, Ringo and Lone Ranger, all from eastern Kingston, to carry the standard until slackness found its second champion in the form of a little known albino toaster named Yellowman.

Chapter 12: Gemini Disco with Welton Irie, Ringo & Squiddley Ranking

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