Are my roots showing?

Jamaican music, British music - they've been locked in a symbiotic dance of life for 40 years, reports Kevin Braddock from the shady lanes of Kingston. But never like this. Let the legendary Big Youth be your guide to the Two Culture Clash...
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The Independent Culture

The legends walk the streets in Jamaica, and they do so slowly. They move with a purposeful but nonchalant amble, as only Jamaicans can, along lanes walled with corrugated iron, past sleeping dogs, to pull up a stool and toke ganja in the midday heat. Today's legend happens to be Big Youth. He is a contemporary of Bob Marley, a magnificently dreadlocked veteran of some 54 years, most of which have been used to narrate the variety of Kingston life: singing and "toasting" reggae - which is not so much a musical genre as an entire mode and chronicle of Jamaican being.

Big Youth relaxes into the afternoon in Matthew's Lane. This sunbaked, careworn track lies deep in downtown Kingston, a tinderbox in the midst of Marley's Concrete Jungle. In the past, local disputes were settled here at the point of an M-16 rifle - Matthew's Lane marks the territorial front line separating the political factions pledged to the island's adversarial JLP and PNP parties. Today the violence is gone, but the people like Big Youth remain, as does the happier legacy of their music.

"Bob Marley come to dis place for teaching; Marcus Garvey used to run around 'ere," he explains in a patois as broad as his dreads are long. "Right now, there is love in Kingston, in Matthew's Lane an' Tivoli Gardens... everybody livin' good, yeah? Nobody war, nobody gettin' shot after nobody. That's why after 30 years I could be sitting in Matthew's Lane. As a man I live a public life so many years." He gestures around the shacks and painted walls. "This is my house, this is in mi born town. You have to stick to your roots."

Provided you are in the right company, meetings like this - the equivalent of strolling around Liverpool and running into Paul McCartney - occur routinely in Jamaica. Visitors to the island often describe its sweltering jungles and ramshackle towns as being almost physically alive with music. Everyone you meet in the land of bass insists on the all-important "vibe", which pulses from each back yard, shopfront, roadside shack, pub, car stereo, dancehall, nook and cranny, weaving deeply into the fabric of island life. There is literally nowhere on the island reggae isn't played or heard.

Jon Carter, the DJ and husband of Radio 1's Sara Cox, who has recorded before in Jamaica, recalls Sunday mornings where, "when the sun comes up, you can hear all the sound systems playing reggae versions of gospel music. It's incredible," he says, "like a gigantic dub church coming through the jungle." And it does so because its artists are the same as its street folk, people who never left the places and experiences that their music expresses. While musicians in the UK often seem content to recede into the background after a run of success, and then return as heritage acts, a musical vocation in Jamaica means a job for life as a sort of soi disant ambassador for the island's soul. Big Youth, for example, has no idea how many songs he has "voiced" in a career spanning 30 years. Probably thousands - he's lost count. "I make so much music," he nods. "And I just live! I always record, always making sounds, yuh 'ear? Life is just normal and natural, vibes and inspiration."

Unmatched in both productivity and enthusiasm for music, the tastes of Jamaica's tiny population - just 2.5 million - exert an octopoid influence over global music culture that far exceeds any of its Caribbean neighbours (and is only exceeded itself by the US and UK and possibly Brazil). Since hip-hop allowed itself to become the global language of product placement, Jamaica's native sounds have re-emerged as a heavier, blacker, thrilling undertow in contemporary music, led by figures such as Sean Paul, Beenie Man and Shaggy who combine cast-iron credibility "back-a yard" with worldwide chart appeal.

Reggae's unofficial second home has long been the UK, the former colonial ruler of Jamaica. Waves of immigration since the Fifties brought new sounds from the West Indies almost from the moment they emerged. The early strains of ska, bluebeat and rocksteady arrived in the Fities and Sixties. In the Seventies and Eighties Britain's growing base of reggae fans enjoyed dub and Lovers' Rock (the melodic, romantic, feminised obverse of the fiercely masculine Roots coin). Both the underground and, increasingly, the charts have vibrated to the sounds of dancehall and "bashment" from the Nineties onward.

Meanwhile Jamaica's biggest stars have both understood and nurtured this two-way commerce, from Bob Marley to Gregory Isaacs, Shabba Ranks and the poppier figures above. Each August bank holiday when the Notting Hill Carnival ignites the smarter west-London postcodes, Europe's largest festival reveals the true colours of our metropolitan underground tastes.

Reggae's DNA has been an integral part of British pop's genetic structure for 40 years, its threads of influence as explicit in the neo-mod skankings of The Specials and Madness as they were obvious in the deeper rumblings of Soul II Soul, Massive Attack and, more recently, Basement Jaxx. Let's not think, even for a moment, about 10cc's "Dreadlock Holiday" and instead consider the way the spacey, reverb-laden dubs of King Tubby and Lee "Scratch" Perry are as vital to the way British dance music defines itself as New York disco.

Then there's the way more recent evolutions in dancehall by such pioneers as Ninjaman, Supercat and Yellowman have determined the direction of the British-bred drum'n'bass, UK garage and "grime" of Goldie, So Solid Crew, Ms Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal as much as American hip hop. Back in the early Eighties Brixton's dub poet laureate Linton Kwesi Johnston declared "Inglan is a bitch": yet it's a "bitch" with a profound affinity for the music of a tiny island thousands of miles across the Atlantic.

"I was one of the first performers outta Jamaica that really strike London, I'm proud to say," Big Youth reflects. "We were the one who had the yout' getting up in lines to buy records. When we toured in '77, England was the place to go. European people love the real roots - where yuh speak the truth."

That convergence comes vividly alive on a new album, Two Culture Clash, which pulls off an idea so blindingly obvious it's astonishing nobody had conceived of it before: pairing British electronic dance producers with Jamaican singers and DJs with the express purpose of exploring the creative linkage between the two cultures. It was an idea forged in a suitably transient space - the departure lounge of Kingston's Manley Airport.

Two Culture Clash was born when a mover - the music-business executive/studio owner Jon Baker - met a shaker, Mark Jones, whose independent record label Wall Of Sound is home to such groundbreaking dance music artists as the Norwegian instrumentalists Royksopp. Almost inevitably, the idea presented a logistical nightmare. "It could've been a disaster," confirms Mark Jones. "But the record could only have been made in Jamaica. I wanted people to meet face to face, and you can hear that in the music. Spiritually, the link between the UK and Jamaica is there; on each of the islands, everybody is obsessed with music."

The ambition of Two Culture Clash is matched by the calibre of its performers. It collates a cross-generational squad of 16 Jamaican singers (technically DJs) - abidingly active veterans such as Big Youth, Horace Andy and Ernest Ranglin cross swords with established blades (Barrington Levy, Patra, General Degree, Innocent Crew) and a platoon of newer names including Ce'cile, Miss Thing, Spragga Benz and the gladiatorial Ward 21 crew, who get their name from the psychiatric wing of Kingston's University Hospital. Meanwhile 13 hot producers from the dance music undergrowth were flown into Baker's GeeJam studio complex in the jungle above Portantonio, among them Mercury Prize-winner Roni Size, Jon Carter, Justin Robertson and Jacques Lu Cont, a widely fancied young producer whose other job is to play bass for Madonna. The fusioneering began in January. The result is a collection whose nuances extend far beyond the compass of the upbeat "One-Loveisms" of Saint Bob of the Pop Charts - by whose more commercial works mainstream audiences and advertising executives have traditionally understood reggae. "These youts have vision," says Big Youth. "It's a joy, man."

"To be honest, the fusion is crazy," observes General Degree, a wiry and somewhat perplexed 32-year-old DJ, who describes his track with Jacques Lu Cont as "acid house". "You're hearing dancehall, you're hearing the techno vibe as well and you're hearing people like Big Youth from the early days of reggae. And it's good to work from that time to the now. When people hear the LP, they'll know it's a two-culture clash."

The album was recorded at Jon Baker's GeeJam studios, where banks of ultra-high-tech music equipment bleep and wink in plushly appointed wooden huts overlooking the sea. It's a wholesome environment, not to say paradisiacal. Reggae artists are among the fittest, most competitive musicians on earth, hothoused into commercial shape by the relentless productivity of a ferocious studio system. Singers are paid a flat fee to "voice sides" (ie turn up at the studio and put a vocal to a ready-made rhythm track). This somewhat ad hoc way of making records is a by-product of the way the "riddim", or instrumental track, is star of the cultural show in Jamaica. At any one time, hundreds of riddims can be vying for the attention of a voracious audience, with singers recording a "version" of each. Hence the curiously Jamaican phenomenon of a consumer base sustaining a market for the same song sung by hundreds of different artists at once (the current riddims in vogue go by the names "Chrome", "Rebirth", "Mad Guitar", "Thriller" and "Blackout"). Yet the established network of island studios - King Jammy's, Penthouse, Music Works - is being challenged at last by a new generation of bedroom-based studio set-ups, where cheap computer technology now assures the same kind of DIY productivity that directly spawned the boom in dance music in the UK over the past decade and a half.

"Now, things get so advanced, a studio could be right here in your backyard," explains the singer Bling Dawg, the voice of City Hi-Fi's track "Ole". "I seen guys recording a dub plate in a car on [computer music application] Protools. That's Jamaica, man - it's always competition down there. You could write five songs and that would last one day. It makes you real sharp as an artist - you always gotta be on it."

"Its crazy," concurs 28-year-old Ce'cile, a singer whose full-frontal lyrics contrast with her extremely sweet demeanour. "Competitive doesn't do justice to it."

But that's the way it's always been. Music by any means necessary is the unspoken code here, and this hot afternoon GeeJam's in-house engineering team, Tkae Sanchez and Al Borosie, a 28-year-old Rastafarian of Italian origin, are guiding the veteran Jamaica guitarist Ernest Ranglin through his take for Justin Robertson's "Save Me". The tapes begin to turn, and 72-year-old Ranglin - a quiet, sagacious figure - spontaneously and note-perfectly completes his take in one pass. He'd never heard the song before today. The packed studio afternoon duly breaks into applause, and an electrical storm sparks above the sea outside. He looks up with a smile, and says: "Shall I do some more?"

A more dynamic and harmonious "clash" of the Anglo-Saxon and the Caribbean it's impossible to imagine. "That was the greatest musical experience of my life," a breathless Robertson later tells me. "Ernest Ranglin is a particular hero of mine - it's not often you get to work with someone as instinctive. The attitude is that the performance is all, so the people give it their all."

Which is why in Jamaica today, as in London during the Notting Hill Carnival, music is a living thing, as immediately sensory as the fug of ganja smoke it regularly floats in with. When the artists who worked on Two Culture Clash retreat, as they do night after night, to the dark, shuddering dancehall called The Roof in the nearby town of Portantonio, it feels yet more alive.

You watch the crowds move to the sound of Cutty Ranks and General Degree, Sizzla and Lee Perry, and you see a bottle of Foreign Export Guinness on the bartop jump in time with the world's heaviest music. The vibrations seem to reverberate up out of the ground beneath your feet. *

Two Culture Clash live sound system plays at Hammersmith Palais, London W6 (0871 230 2636 or www.channel4.com/sessions), on Wednesday. The single 'How Do You Love', featuring Patra and Danny English, is released on 16 August. The album follows on 23 August

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