In order to understand what this record is about, it is first of all necessary to sketch in brief the history of reggae music in the UK – if you’ll bear with me. This, after all, is an album that relies on a context, and that context must be understood.
Whilst the history of reggae is often seen simply in terms of what was happening in Jamaica, and whilst this is understandable, reggae wasn’t just consumed in the Caribbean. As the first Jamaicans arrived on the Windrush, they didn’t all rush out to buy Adam Faith and Cliff Richard albums, but brought their music and culture with them.
As the years progressed and more and more Jamaicans settled in the UK, and communities began to form in cities like Bristol and London, the sound systems, a staple of Jamaican life, soon began to emerge.
And despite their distance from the studios of downtown Kingston, the competition and ethos was just the same. As another dub plate would be flying out of the studios of producers like Coxsone Dodd or Duke Reid straight to the Jamaican sound men, copies would be winging their way across the Atlantic to satisfy the growing ex-pat communities.
But the emphasis was still on the music produced in Jamaica.It was many years before the first home-grown UK reggae bands would begin to create their own music that would stand up against the Jamaican imports. A major revolution was the advance of synthesizer technology and its relative affordability, where before the Jamaican producers were using the most rudimentary of tools to create their epics, they still needed a band and all the hassle that entails. Now a couple of guys with a cheap keyboard could create the music they had in mind.
London’s Unity Hi-Power sound system was one of the many to take advantage of such instruments. The music they were to create was to provide the blueprint and an inspiration for much of the music that was to emerge over the next decade. Many of the MCs who worked with Unity would go on to be influential in the emerging rave scene, whether as MCs or producers. The dancehall sound was to form the backbone of the Bristol sound, as bands like Massive Attack took the primitive bleeps and bass and reinvented the sound as a truly British phenomenon. To this day it still exerts an influence as artists like Roots Manuva fuse the dancehall sound with hip-hop to create a distinctly British sound.
Over these thirteen tracks, and their versions (stripped down instrumental dubs), we have some of the sweetest music ever made on these shores. Bass that demands to be heard, sonar blips that echo and reverberate around in the mix, whilst the MCs do their business over the top. The democratic nature of the sound systems meant that the crowd would soon let you know if they liked or disliked a particular track, so the songs that have made it to this compilation have passed the test of one of the most discerning A & R departments in the world – the sound system dance floor. An essential selection, both for the historically curious and the true lover of music.