by Steve Milne
from Full Watts V1#3
Look up wicked in the dictionary and you'll find Linval Thompson's picture. Well maybe not yet but if the folks at Webster's ever hear Jah Jah Dreader Than Dread (Munich), the recently issued collection of Thompson's productions, it's a sure bet his photo will appear in future editions. The distinctly heavy quality of Thompson's productions, for himself and other artists, defined the roots dancehall sound of the late '70s/early '80s and was immediately emulated by Henry "Junjo" Laws and others.
Shortly after his emergence as a singer in the mid-70s, Thompson established his own label and
began producing. It didn't take long for him to find his sound. In an attempt to realize what he heard in his head, Thompson put together the lethal combination of the Roots Radics, Channel One, Scientist and the hardest deejays and most soulful singers raming the dancehalls of JA. That massive sound, epitomized by tracks like "Poor Man Style" by Barrington Levy, "A Message" by Freddie McKay, "We Must Unite" by the Viceroys, "Follow Fashion" by Sammy Dread, "Terrorists in the City" by Eek A Mouse and "Six Babylon" by Linval himself, was wildly popular wherever people danced to reggae, whether in Jamaica, England, the U.S. or Japan and it has aged remarkably well. In fact, Thompson's productions sound as fresh and vibrant as the day they were recorded. And as a singer, Thompson's deceptively sweet voice cut through the thick Roots Radics/Scientist mix like a knife. He set the mold for other youthman "ghetto" singers that followed such as Barrington Levy and Triston Palmer. Make no mistake, Thompson created a dread-full vibe which reverberates just as intense today as it did nearly 20 years ago. When you see the name Linval Thompson on a record or CD, it means this session is wicked.
The release of Jah Jah Dreader Than Dread, part of the Austin-based Munich Record label's Majestic Reggae series, may have astounded some longtime reggae collectors. Yes, Thompson contributed a great deal to reggae, but his hit making days as a producer are 15 years in the past and as a singer he is not as well known as some of the artists who attained worldwide success with his help such as Freddie McGregor, Eek A Mouse and Scientist. Even during the height of his singing career in the early '80s, there were no big American tours that would have broadened Thompson's name recognition and audience. Add to that a relatively dormant career in the music business since the mid-80s (Thompson has been managing a real estate business in Stony Hill, outside Kingston) and you have an artist lauded by knowledgeable reggae-philes and practically unknown by the rest. Just by releasing Jah Jah Dreader Than Dread Munich corroborates the veneration felt by Thompson fans. The handsomely packaged collection with liner notes by Steve Barrow assembles some of Thompson's most crucial productions including previously unreleased and hard to find tracks. It's an exciting compilation that has sparked Thompson's resurgence in the music business.
A teen prodigy, Thompson initially wrote music as a natural form of artistic expression. "I've been writing very early and I've been making records since I was going to high school. Maybe about 12 or 13 I start to write but I never really tink dat it was somethin' I can really come and record. I jus' write it. From dere, all my hits, I write everything. I jus' keep on writing, writing. Everyting was conscious."
Much of Thompson's early musical activity actually took place in the Big Apple. The Kingston native moved to Queens, New York to be with his mother when he was about 15 years old. He soon met up with another transplanted Jamaican youth who would go on to prominance in the music world. "I was singing with a band in America. Bunny Ruggs, he also was dere. He grow up also in America. So we all was dere in a band singin'. Den we come back to Jamaica and record. But we used to record in America also. My firs' song I did in America name 'There is No Other Woman in This World.' I produce it. I don't think you can find a copy of it right now."
By the time he returned to Jamaica around 1974/'75 a buzz had already developed about Thompson in the Kingston music scene and several producers decided to give the youth a shot beginning with Phil Pratt. "Some people from America, some guys dem was putting me against Dennis Brown, saying I 'ave a sound like Dennis Brown. So de news been going around. And den I go and make two songs. 'Jah Jah Dreader Than Dread' I make dat firs' for a guy name Phil Pratt and den I sing it back for myself."
Unfortunately Thompson's work with Pratt was shelved but another session followed soon afterward with Lee "Scratch" Perry that proved more fruitful. "I had been dere at (Perry's) studio and ask him if he could record me and he said 'yes, come in.' De firs' song dat I sing for Lee Perry is a song name 'Kung Fu Fighting.'" Not to be confused with the Carl Douglas song of the same name, "Kung Fu Fighting" was an original composition by Thompson that exploited the martial arts craze sweeping the island. Still, with no major hit under his belt, Thompson was just another youthman hanging out at various studios hoping for a chance to record.
It was singing sensation Johnny Clarke, one of the Jamaica's biggest stars in the mid-70s, who helped establish Thompson's breakout session. Clarke, who recorded almost exlusively for producer Bunny "Striker" Lee, brought Thompson around with him to King Tubby's facility. "Johnny Clarke he was my friend. We used to live on de same street. He was de singer who was really singin' in my time, makin' a lot of hits. I kinda know him so we start to spar together and from dere I been to King Tubby's studio in Waterhouse. Everyday I been dere waan to make a song and den one day come, dey say 'go an' sing.' So I sing de firs' song "Don't Cut Off Your Dreadlocks" and dat was a very big hit. Firs' song I sing for Bunny Lee."
Thompson's first recordings for Lee were issued on a 1975 album titled Don't Cut Off Your Dreadlocks (now available as Cool Down (Abraham/Clocktower). The collection is a classic slice of mid-70s dancehall roots featuring The Agrovators band (Tony Chin, Chinna Smith, Santa Davis, etc.,.). The following year Thompson released his first self-produced album, the quintessential I Love Marijuana (Trojan). The title track was originally issued as a single on Thompson's newly established Thompson Sound label. "I produce a song name 'I Love Mariguana.' It was a hit in England." The single also lists Henry "Junjo" Laws as the co-producer/arranger. "(Junjo) was a friend of mine. I'm de one who really bring him in de producing business and den he start to record Barrington Levy."
For the most part, Thompson's sessions started with a collection of self-penned songs that were arranged in the studio with the musicians. "We sing first and den when we get de vibes of de riddim we say 'okay, we're gonna stick to dis style.' I used to put in on my cassette at home before I really go to de studio so I kinda know what kinda sound I really looking for."
Thompson split his time between producing other artists and recording his own material which ranged from militant shots like "Six Babylon" ("Dat time police used to really attack de dreadlocks dem in Kingston, all over in Jamaica. You 'ave a spliff a smoke, police come lock you up, beat you up. So dat was really our experience. We jus' write dat song") to lovers music like "Look How Me Sexy" ("Dat song was really two of us write it. Junjo Laws write it and den I finish it. He was writin' about his girl. An' den he called me to put on my voice on it. So I write de rest of lyrics. Two of us really compose dat song and put it together").
By the early '80s it appeared Thompson's outside production duties were eclipsing his own solo career. He produced albums by Freddie McGregor (Big Ship), The Meditations (No More Friend), Eek A Mouse (The Mouse and The Man), Scientist (Encounters Pac-Man), The Viceroys (We Must Unite) and Barrington Levy (Poor Man Style). His signature production style, characterized by hard riddims presented in a heavy, dub-like mix, was the top ranking sound in reggae. Thompson's sound, along with the records Junjo Laws was producing, was the pinnacle of deep, dancehall roots, never to be surpassed by another producer's sound. The next stage for dancehall reggae, in fact, was a 360-degree turn away from Thompson's thick bedrock sound to the sprightly, feeble computer riddims.
Thompson employed the Roots Radics for his productions, the only musicians fit for the job. "Everybody did 'ave dere own band making songs for dem like you 'ave The Aggrovators and The Revolutionaries. We kinda tried to make our own band. So we picked out musicians and we picked like Steelie, Flabba Holt, Santa and some more guys like Gladdy. We used to 'ave a mixture of musicians: Flabba on bass, Style on drums, Santa on drums, Steelie on piano, Bingy Bunny on guitar. And we kinda get a sound. Everybody was crazy about dat sound in London."
Another constant in Thompson's productions was location of the sessions: Channel One. "Dat was de right studio for de roots dancehall style sound. We used to make de riddim at Channel One and den we take back de riddim track over to King Tubby's and mix it at King Tubby's so we kinda get a sound. Me and Junjo Laws, we kinda conquer dat sound. And dat's a sound de are crazing about right now. Every echo slap, only King Tubby's could give you dat mix with Scientist."
Greensleeves Records recently reissued two of Thompson's early '80s album on one CD: the essential Look How Me Sexy/Baby Father. One of the hardest tracks on the double album is the caustic "I Spy." "'I Spy' was a song dat people really used to watch you, everyting you do. Nobody mind dem own business. So is like we write a song about dem. You call dem 'I Spy' ca' dem watch everyting you do. Jah give me de power to write an' anyting me write it's someting me really go through. I only write truths and rights and when me smoke up de mariguana it give me a vibes, a powerful vibes." Another highlight is "Baby Mother" and the follow up, "Baby Father," both inspired by Thompson's domestic happenings. "In dat time when I make dat 'Baby Mother' song I tink I 'ave two girls pregnant at the same time. So dat kinda give me a vibes to write dat song like dat. Y'know you 'ave two version. You 'ave 'Baby Father' an' you 'ave 'Baby Mother.'"
Munich's Jah Jah Dreader Than Dread compilation is a welcome addition to Thompson's rich discography. Choice selections include Wayne Wade's "Round The World" and Welton Irie's "Come We Just A Come." The CD's title comes from one of Thompson's most vital works, a song that first appeard on the Six Babylon (Clocktower) album. "Dat was power from Jah. Jah Jah is God an' he's powerful. He's de Father. So he's dreader than dread. Nothin' can 'ave de power like God, y'know wah mean. And God is Jah. So Jah Jah dreader than dread. If you doin' bad ting, what you gonna do when de father arrive in dis time?"
The renewed interest in Thompson's style of dancehall reggae is satisfying to the singer/producer and substantiate's his hesitancy toward computer riddims. Making reggae records 15 years ago involved much more creativity. "Jus' de vibes in us to do dat experimentation. Make de tracks at Channel One an' go to Tubby's and mix it. In de '70s and '80s we are de artists who really used to kinda run de dancehall." Those were exciting times in Thompson's career and he's ready to run things again with a series of newly issued material and re-releases. "I'm plannin' to go an' do some recording with myself. I mostly do some remix of my songs dem right now. Ca' right now I'm in de studio doin' a mix with some Johnny Osbourne song. I'm tryin' to do some mixin' myself, some re-release, singles and albums. You will see more of my production releasin' on de '70s an' 80s, re-release an' also what never been release."
Except for the superb Sly & Robbie produced album Starlight (Mango) from 1988 and a string of singles through the '90s, (his most recent being "Leggo The Violence" on the Cat Paw riddim released as a 7" on the Jammy$ label) Thompson's presence in reggae has been minimal. The computer riddims that ruled dancehall did not meet with his approval. Today, dancehall needs a shot in the arm and Thompson could be just the one to administer it. "To make it strong you need somethin' like
dat style of artist an' style of soun' on de riddim tracks to really move back in de dancehall right now. Ca' it's like de dancehall kinda quiet so you need somethin' like my style of riddim tracks an' de singers dem to really kinda run de dancehall right now. So dat style of singers, dat's why I pick dose style. Live drum an' bass. Dat's de bes'. Nothin' can beat dat. I believe in dat."
Copyright 1997 Steve Milne/Full Watts, reprinted by permission of author
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Related information on Linval Thompson:
Linval Thompson Discography in progress
Linval Thompson interview by Carter Van Pelt
Linval Follows His Heart Again (7/26/98)