Rub A Dub Style – Chapter 8

The Roots Radics

“They used to be the hottest session musicians during the ‘80s. You know, they had a real nice groove together and everybody was just loving it.”
Drummer and deejay Barnabas

“After I get those rhythm from Junjo now, him say me and him can do some business together. That’s when the Roots Radics come in,” Jah Life remembers. Once they had finished working with the rhythms Junjo already had, the partners had to start building some new backing tracks at Channel One Studio.

Throughout the later ‘70s, drummer Sly Dunbar and bass player Robbie Shakespeare had held court as the studio’s house band, The Revolutionaries. But Sly and Robbie weren’t available to do session work anymore. The two had long held the dream of starting their own production company. So, they embarked on a heroic schedule of touring, first with Peter Tosh, a tour that covered Europe, North America and The Caribbean, and later with Jimmy Cliff, The Mighty Diamonds and Black Uhuru. In addition, by 1980, they were under contract to Chris Blackwell to work at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to lay down tracks for various Island Records artists. Blackwell envisioned creating for reggae, with his own label, the same type of “session factory” as STAX and Motown had done earlier. Sly & Robbie would be the foundation. The hard work paid off and they were able to start their very successful Taxi label. As part of the arrangement, Blackwell agreed to handle Sly and Robbie’s Taxi productions abroad. Island’s Mango subsidiary began handling the overseas pressing and distribution of Taxi, helping making an international star out of Ini Kamouse and furthering the already established career of Black Uhuru.

As the duo was still working for the studio while producing material for themselves, their relationship with Jojo Hookim began to become strained. Although Sly and Robbie were often working with leftover session tracks and using whatever free studio time they could earn through session work, Jojo worried that they would be holding back their best material for themselves. So, he was happy to welcome in a new group of session men. Credited on record labels at the time as The Channel One All Stars, they included, at various times, Flabba Holt on bass, Santa on drums, Bingi Bunny or Bo Peep on rhythm guitar, Chinna Smith or Noel ‘Sowell’ Bailey on lead guitar, Gladdy Anderson or Ansell Collins on keyboards. They were joined by horn players Headley Bennett on Sax, Val Bennett on sax and Bobby Ellis on Trumpet. Percussion was by Bongo Herman, Sky Juice and Skully Zenda. Sky Juice was fresh from the dancehall having been a selector on the Channel One sound. Having three people available for percussion added a variety and depth to their early sound that wasn’t always sustained during the years to follow.

Jah Life and Junjo brought Barrington Levy to Channel One and began recording rhythms tracks. At some point, Jah Life sent someone to go and buy some old Studio One and Treasure Isle albums so that the band could work out new arrangements of the Rock Steady classics. After the tracks were laid, Junjo and Jah Life took Barrington to King Tubby’s to do the voicing.

When the Barrington songs began to penetrate the music markets, this group of loosely affiliated musicians became the most active session men in Jamaica. The eclectic influences provided by the various musicians that made up The Roots Radics, as they came to be called, gelled into a sound that was fresh and different, something a little lighter, more buoyant than the heavy rockers of the ‘70s. However, what really distinguished the Radics sound from the music of the ‘70s was the beat. The Radics had gone back to pure one-drop style in which one beat is left out of each bar creating that swooping feel, a sensation of falling and rising in quick succession, that ‘dip’. The new sound was a throwback to the days of Rock Steady with the rhythm guitar line, once again, duplicating the bass line.

Yet, it wasn’t exactly rock steady all over again. The style that the Channel One All Stars session band came up with for the Barrington tracks still had links to the old ‘70s sound – like the reverb and the deep layers of percussion. But the mix and the tempo were heading in a new direction leading, eventually, to a sound which was far sparser, more stripped down, with less percussion.

Harmonica player Jimmy Becker, who played on many of the Radics sessions in the ‘80s, called it the ‘minimalist’ sound, as the horns section was dropped in favor of keyboards. “A lot of the Junjo [Lawes] stuff didn’t even have horns on it. And horns in reggae is a trademark sound. I think a lot of it was possibly finances. If you hear a lot of that stuff, if they are playing a Studio One rhythm, and say the Studio One rhythm had horns on it, you would hear the guitar player or the keyboard player playing the horn line.”

A quick thinking Junjo once claimed that he was making “economy” rhythms for the people by not adding all the expensive extras but, in reality, that was just the style. The Radics created slower rhythms with far more empty space – lots of room for the bass and drums to spring forth with maximum impact.

The Radics rhythms, like many new trends, started with a little borrowing from the past. Sly and Robbie can be heard moving in a new direction in some of their work from around this time. “If you listen to a song like Baltimore,” Jimmy Becker explains, “that’s in that slower groove.” Sly was experimenting with different beats, changing the pace on certain tracks, many of which were recorded for singer Gregory Isaacs.

The Tamlins – Baltimore

Gregory Isaacs was among that early group of artists who bucked the system by starting their own labels. Way back in 1973, working with Singer Errol Dunkley, Gregory opened African Museum, a record store, in downtown Kingston and began producing himself and others. He continued to record for other producers while putting the revenue back into his own work. Unlike many others who have tried the same thing, Gregory succeeded. He was signed to the UK company Virgin’s Frontline label who released albums for him containing the 45s he had put out independently on his African Museum label. He became one of best known reggae singers abroad and he was in demand for shows all around the world.

The original lineup of the Radics was formed to support the hugely successful Gregory Isaacs on tour when Sly and Robbie got too busy. The Riddim Twins were booked up in the Nassau Compass Point Studio where they were working for Island records backing such rock luminaries as Grace Jones and Joe Cocker. When the Radics began backing him, Gregory was about to tour with a lineup of songs he had developed with Sly and Robbie, who had played on his most recent albums, Cool Ruler and Soon Forward. A quick listen to both LPs reveals that the music was already changing. Songs like ‘Our Relationship’, ‘Jah Music’ and ‘Mr. Brown’ have an entirely different feel to them. These songs feature rolling bass lines with a dip and a gentle sway. The Radics brought this sensibility into Channel One Studio and began working with Junjo Lawes to make some of the biggest this of the decade.

Gregory Isaacs – Mr Brown

The Bass: Flabba Holt

“The bass that I got is an old time Fender Jazz bass, and it’s one of the wickedest sound in the world. Bass guitar is the thing whe’ carry off music. Drum sound is a very important thing, but the bass line, trust me, if you listen to a sound and if you don’t hear the bass, that heaviness in the sound, it’s like it ain’t got no taste. The bass line is the leader for everything. If you listen all them Studio One, it’s the bass that carry off the song.”

Errol ‘Flabba’ Holt started out in music as a dancer. “I was one of the best dancers, me and Johnny Osbourne. I used to go on Vere John Opportunity Hour and I came first. I was one of Jamaica best ‘legs man’. Nobody coulda dance like me.”

Flabba had begun experimenting when a friend of his handed him a bass guitar one day and suggested he try it. He was surprised by the feel of it and said to himself, “It’s coming like singing. It look easy but it hard.’” (Flabba was also singing at the time, as he continued to do, however infrequently, throughout his career.) The bass appealed to him and Errol left the dancing and the singing for a time, and dedicated himself to learning to play.

Hanging out at Chancery Lane, a.k.a. ‘Idlers Rest’, Flabba met Eric ‘Bingi Bunny’ Lamont who became the rhythm guitar player for the Radics. At the time Bingi Bunny was working with Blacka Morwell. The Morwells, the group founded by Maurice “Blacka” Wellington in 1973, released a series of 45s and a handful of albums in the ‘70s with Bingi Bunny on guitar and singing lead. Songs like ‘Crab Race’ and ‘Kingston 12 Toughie’ were deservedly popular. But Bingi Bunny felt the group was Blacka’s thing and wanted more artistic control, so he started doing his own productions, releasing, first, an album featuring singer Peter Broggs, aka Progressive Youth in 1979, followed by one of his own, Me and Jane (Cha Cha 1982). Through his friendship with Bingi Bunny, Flabba became a sort of ‘associate member’ of The Morwells, sometimes playing with them or singing harmony.

Peter Broggs – Cool Down (from the Progressive Youth LP)

During this time, Flabba also worked with producer Alvin Ranglin, of GG’s Records, singing harmony and managing production in the studio. That’s how he began a long association with Gregory Isaacs, singing back up on songs like ‘Number One’, ‘Front Door’, and ‘What a Feeling’. The association continued with Flabba working with Gregory on the production of the Night Nurse LP in 1982.

From his success with Night Nurse, Flabba continued producing, along with his friend Leggo Beast (Trevor Douglas) who opened a studio in the ‘90s on Orange St, former home of Cash & Carry Records. Together they released albums with Dennis Brown and Israel Vibration. He also worked with a little known deejay named Chuckleberry, an album for RAS Records called Cost of Living, and went on to work closely with the professional and popular Beres Hammond. Sadly, Bingi Bunny passed away in 1993, from prostate cancer.

Drums: Style Scott and Santa

Santa Davis, who played on the early Barrington Levy releases and stayed with the band until 1981, hadn’t planned on a career in music. “At first, I wanted to be in the police force. Then one night I saw two cops got shot. That was the end of that. That was at a young age. I was hanging out with little kids, like myself, who wasn’t really doing right. So, I said to myself. I need to make a difference [meaning “to change”]. And, at 11 years old, I went and joined the drum corp. And that’s where I actually started.”

After learning strict discipline with the Catholic Church affiliated drum corps, for which he is still grateful, Santa decided to dedicate himself full time to music. So, he joined a band called The Graduates. The leader of the band, an alto sax player, had been living in the U.S.. “He kind of put me in mind of a kind of [John] Coltrane type because he used to like a lot of jazzy kind of stuff. He had a record shop and he used to play a lot of jazz and I used to hear that. So, I kind of came into business at a time when you used to hear a lot of foreign music, a lot of jazz, a lot of blues. The whole works.”

The complexity of the music he was hearing appealed to Santa. The second band he joined was also run by a jazz fan. “He kinda got me more into it, cause he said, ‘Look you got to listen to these kinda songs’. Then he got me listening to time signature. We play four/four, but then you have jazz which has different time signatures seven/four, five/eight. So, I started to listen to these kinds of polyrhythms – mainly a lot of African music. Even today, I play a lot of those kinds of styles. I listened to Middle Eastern music, classical music – no holds barred – I listen to every genre of music that I can lay my hands on. So, I think I was influenced by listening to all those different types of music. And I say, ‘OK. I can fuse that into reggae, make my style in reggae be different’.”

Santa, with his endless sources of inspiration, was so creative that he never played the same pattern twice. He was always looking for a way to improvise. “While I’m playing, even in the act of playing, I’m thinking about something, trying to re-invent. Like – God bless his soul – Joe Higgs, he looked at me one day – he looked at me real serious – and said, ‘You see, you nah have no discipline, you know’, and I was like ‘Woa!’ I thought I was doing something bad. And he looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have any discipline.’ And I said, ‘A how you mean me nah have no discipline?’ He said ‘You nah have no discipline. But that’s what makes you so good!’”

In 1981, Santa become Peter Tosh’s touring drummer and Lincoln Valentine ‘Style’ Scott stepped in. Style, who had also been in the military drum corps, was fresh off a tour with Prince Far I around England. Overseas, he ended up playing with a little group called Creation Rebel. He never actually lived there, but commuted to his gigs abroad. Scott recalls, “Eventually Prince Far said, ‘Bwoy, you got to stop that and cool out and stay in Jamaica and build that name’. And then I find, really, it was a good idea”. So Style joined the Radics and remained in Jamaica.

Style was also influenced by a little known Jamaican drummer, Wayne Anton, aka Money Man, who “specialized in funky. I used to listen to him and watch him from the time I was small.”

Style Scott didn’t have any of Santa’s little flourishes. He was pretty straight ahead, maintaining a regular, metronomic beat right through. “Style just played slower,” recalls Jimmy Becker, who played with the Radics on several sessions. “He didn’t throw in any of the little nuances that Sly would throw in. And at times, I think it [Style’s way of playing] was a little harder. The Radics slowed the groove down.”

Guitar: Dwight Pinkney

Guitar player, Dwight Pinkney joined following Style Scott and replaced current lead guitar Sowell who had gone to England, fallen in love with the place, and stayed. Starting out in the ‘60s, with the group, The Sharks who were recording for Coxsone Dodd, Dwight wrote a “little song” named ‘How Can I Live’, which the group recorded in 1967 featuring Dwight strumming a flamenco style on his guitar. The song was such a massive hit that it continued to be done over many times by singers through the years, including Dennis Brown who made a hit out of it for Joe Gibbs in 1978 as ‘How Can I Leave’. The Sharks also worked as a session band at Studio One.

The Sharks – How Can I Live

Dwight’s next move was to join the band, Zap Pow. Zap Pow, formed in 1970, was a very experimental jazz-reggae band that started out with David Madden on trumpet, Mike Williams on bass, and Dwight Pinkney on guitar. Many of Jamaica’s top musicians passed through Zap Pow over the next couple of decades. The unit played stage shows and did session work but never scored well in popular recordings. Known for their professionalism and originality, the individual musicians were in demand for studio work. There is a collection of their early work available on Rhino records.

Coming from his days as a student of The Jamaica School of Music, Dwight Pinkney saw the Radics style as being ‘rough and ready’, but with the sharp edges smoothed down. “The people who were producing at that time were simple people. Like Junjo. What I brought to the Radics was a little formalization of the basic, ‘people’ sound. In other words, instead of playing just a one chord or a two chord behind a creation of work, I was able to contribute in terms of getting some expansion to the arrangement.”

Dwight felt that, with his musical education and formal training, he could lift that music up a little higher by seeing that it was properly arranged and properly recorded. He still wanted the music to remain simple enough to be accessible, “so that [the music] always was roots, [and] still have that integrity” and still reach a larger, more sophisticated audience abroad.

“Instead of playing a progression with 12 chords in a song, we simplified it. What we tried to do is to make music as simple as possible but a driving force, [so] that the people in the dancehall could relate to it easily, people who are not musically trained could also relate to it easily. That’s what really create the popularity of it, that it was easy going down. You could hear a song one time and sing along the bass line. And the drums – the drum was basic, you know. Sometimes less is more – and that was one of our formula. The Roots Radics was five musicians, apart from adding horns (for those sessions that required them). There was not a lot of instrumentation coming in. What we did was maximizing – from the recording stage – maximizing the few instruments that we used. We got the most out of it.”

Roots Radics – African Connection

Santa still laments the loss of percussion in so much modern music, something the Radics had in the beginning, but began to fade as the ‘80s progressed. “A lot of people don’t realize how important it is to have these things in the music. [But], it’s like when you’re cooking, you use some black pepper and you use some red pepper and you might use some garlic powder. We call it seasoning. Percussion was the seasoning. It was important because, when I used to work with percussion players back in the days, with Skully, Sticky, Sky Juice – that used to influence [me].

“We used to play off of each other. So, a lot of the beat and the stickiness that you hear, and the vibe, was coming because the percussion player plays something and you answer him or you play something and the percussion player answer you. Everything was bouncing off of each other. The bass player play a certain thing or the singer sing something and you interact with what
him say.”

Roots Man Skanking

Finally, with the addition of keyboard player Steely Johnson from the group Generation Gap and the Black Roots players, the official Roots Radics line up was complete. The Radics were bubbling. As Dwight Pinckney said at the time, “Whatever we play on record, it makes the record a seller you know. That’s why we get so many sessions. Because the artists know… they have a big advantage using The Radics.” Bingi Bunny agreed, “Right now, every producer saves his session money until we come back [from touring] and can play for him. There are other musicians, but producers need the Radics sound for a hit record.”

The pull of the new band was so great that it managed to capture dedicated rootsman Bunny Wailer, perhaps the last person one would have expected to see hopping on the dancehall bandwagon.

Quite apart from being a devout Rasta, Bunny Wailer was a canny businessman and he immediately saw that the rules of the game had changed. In 198l, Bunny Wailer crossed the line into dancehall territory with his breakthrough LP, Rock and Groove. Instead of “Can’t kill the Rastaman”, he was now watching the “rootsman skanking all night long” to the “top ranking” sound with his new album, backed by the Roots Radics

Rope in … cause this ya session is vital
Cause it’s a cool runnings, and now dancehall a go nice
Cool runnings, this ya rhythm a go drip like sugar and spice
Cool runnings, rock with your deejay all night long
Cool runnings, while the disc jockey plays your favorite song
– Cool Runnings, Rock and Groove LP, Solomonic ‘81


“Getting current- that was his idea,” Guitarist Dwight Pinkney commented. “At that time, recording with the Radics, he would have a 99% chance of having a hit song. We just work in collaboration. Not that he came into the studio and said, ‘Alright, Radics, give me a dancehall tune’. He had his own ideas how he wanted things to sound, but he knew that, through us, he would get exactly what he wanted – contemporary, at that time, with the dancehall. That is how it work. He gave us his ideas and we just converted it [into a dancehall format].” The album, although quite a departure for the former ‘Blackheart Man’, was a huge success, and hearing an established artist like Wailer anointing the Radics riddims was another significant milestone towards the acceptance of the burgeoning dancehall sound.

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