We recently spoke with Mike Alleyne, author of The Encyclopedia of Reggae:The Golden Age of Roots Reggae, an indispensable book for reggae, dub and world music fans. Alleyne is currently at work on a book about Jimi Hendrix, which he describes as "a reference book for interested fans who aren’t necessarily total fanatics" and will have an encyclopedic structure covering key records, musicians, labels and other associated people and places in Hendrix’s career, also including posthumous releases. He hopes to have it out in 2017 which will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first Jimi Hendrix Experience album. Here's what Mike had to say about the golden age of reggae.
So how does one go about writing an encyclopedia? Does it start with a list? And, given the incredible visual material and graphic design included, just how many years was this book in the making?
I suppose it begins with an idea and then several lists that eventually become part of a larger one. There’s really no completely accurate answer for how long it took to construct the book. From my perspective, it was underway when I encountered reggae while growing up in England in the late 1960s when the genre first emerged. That initial exposure fuelled my curiosity about artists, record labels, the production process, discographies and the multiple dynamics surrounding releases. Working with the book’s publisher took a few complex years, and I probably would have preferred having a few more.
It’s amazing the musical diversity within the “golden age of reggae;” mento, ska, rocksteady, roots, dub, DJ music, and dancehall, but it’s very clearly all part of the “roots” system. I don’t think, other than perhaps jazz, there’s a musical form which mutated so much, but still retained much of its unique DNA. Any thoughts on that?
People often overlook its innate diversity and it’s certainly worth considering exactly what branches of the genre reggae’s listeners favor. Not only has it retained a distinctive series of identities that remain interconnected, but reggae has also affected the DNA of popular music in general. It’s a point that should be repeatedly emphasized because pop’s international soundscape — from the Eagles’ Hotel California (as one example) to countless electronic dance acts — would be very different and less interesting without it. Out of reggae’s multiple dimensions, I personally think that dub is the most progressive and futuristic style, but all of reggae’s styles arise from a different cultural perspective on sound, rhythm and musicality.
You were a Londoner during that “first wave” of reggae in the late 60s. What was the impact like, both culturally and musically? And did the reggae/punk collusion in the mid ‘70s surprise you, or did that make sense to you?
I was quite young when reggae first surfaced. While I heard the music when the West Indian adults had their house parties, it was initially very strange hearing the songs on mainstream radio. Reggae was outsider music that didn’t conform to many established pop notions of production valued by the BBC, so it seemed incredible that it broke through. Later, it became clear that growing popularity forced airplay, then there was also the dilution that I frequently reference in the book involving the addition of incongruous strings to recordings to make them more accessible for mainstream audiences. So in the late 1960s, you’d hear Jimi Hendrix one minute and then Desmond Dekker.
The reggae and punk alliances made clear sense to me from a political standpoint (marginal groups connecting), but as often happens in popular music the fusion became another diluted commodity. We should have foreseen the arrival of The Police – neither punk nor reggae, but a commercially viable admixture of elements of the two genres.
You say “as long as there is reggae, there will always be roots.” I loved this book because, as a fan and collector, reggae as a music form, seems to me to be virtually disappearing, if not already gone. Amongst other things, the digital revolution changed the musical part, and the coincidental rise of cocaine use over ganja changed the vibe. Is roots reggae gone for good?
No, I think there will always be an audience for roots reggae, but the sense that its heyday has passed was one of the motivations for creating the book, importantly subtitled “The Golden Age of Roots Reggae.” Emerging reggae talents are often unduly tagged as ‘the next Bob Marley’, but that era will never be repeated. Reggae sales are also quite low, with no artist ever likely to have the same simultaneous ideological and commercial impact as Marley who remains one of the few names recognized by mainstream audiences. However, we can hope for artists who can stylistically take the roots essence into the future to make it relevant for newer audiences.
Decision time: give us the ONE reggae desert island disc that you’re going to take with you above all others?
It’s almost impossible to choose just one disc, but I think Horace Andy’s In the Light – Dub (1977) is one of the best albums ever made. It’s a record that embodies the aura of roots reggae at its peak and epitomizes the transformative sonic power of dub. It’s also a great example of how imagination can transcend the type of technological limitation faced by most Jamaican studios at the time, lacking the luxury of 24-track facilities that had become the norm across Europe and America.
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