For all you wondering about those impeccably handsome CD jackets in the dub section selling for a hearty $18.99 or so, meet the Soul Jazz label. Over the past several years, these Britons have unearthed piles of Jamaican reggae, ska, dancehall, roots and rocksteady tunes from the mid ’60s through the early ’80s in their Studio One series, and have subsequently released eclectic new albums by (mostly) interesting bands spanning an impressive variety of genres. Compiled as a tribute album to the recently deceased Studio One superproducer Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, Studio One Classics is — like the Nuggets series is to mid-’60s guitar rock — a primer to a golden age.
Studio One Classics‘ eighteen tracks are consistently strong, and it’s a sobering exercise to compare these radio hits from back in the day to our MTV fluff. Most of these songs are two-and-a-half-minute pop gems, very simple in structure, 0ften with the same type of adolescently romantic lyrics so many of our radio hits employ. But there’s something eminently more believable about the Studio One artists’ delivery.
Could a contemporary version of Carlton and the Shoes sing, “Love me forever and I’ll be true to you, girl,” and still sound so good? Probably not, as Coxsone’s reggae-disco production is enrapturing, entrancing — just perfect. The songs that aren’t (albeit very charmingly) romanticizing the opposite sex tend to be refreshingly optimistic. Prince Jazzbo, for instance, croons about the benefits of literacy on “Back to School.”
A Wailers tune from 1965 is interesting source material, although they clearly hadn’t yet locked into the endo-cloud groove that characterizes their later music. Lone Ranger’s 1981 song, “Automatic,” finds him quasi-rapping with a heavy Jamaican accent — with just as much style as Grandmaster Flash, thanks very much, albeit far less intelligibly — a forward-thinking concept considering that some of the best of today’s hip-hop artists are the cloudiest mindfuckers. There’s a palpable theme-song appeal to many of the tracks — notably Sound Dimension’s “Rockfort Rock” and Don Drummond’s “Confucious” — thanks to ubiquitous horns. You know a stoned Madlib is off somewhere enjoying this.
Strangely, although Studio One Classics‘ songs span 1964-1982, there’s a remarkable consistency in style and sound. Which isn’t at all to condemn Studio One and Coxsone of redundantly treading water. The accessibility of the Studio One sound, combined with its indelible coolness, is a special combination, and now that Soul Jazz has assumed the task of re-releasing a chunk of the Studio One catalogue, there are a lot of reasons to be thankful that Coxsone didn’t slide into fickle trendiness.