Heart on sleeves: 50 years of Jamaican album covers tell the story of a nation

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As Jamaican music evolved from tourist-pleasing calypso to the explosive culture of dancehall, the artwork that adorned its record sleeves told the story, too, of the unique social development of a dynamic young nation.

Wilfred Limonious is one of the most distinctive artists in reggae, though his style was neither rocksteady, ska nor dub. His instrument of choice was the graphic designer's pen and his medium the 12-inch cardboard sleeves used to clothe and decorate long-playing vinyl records.

On the shelves of record stores, a Limonious cover is instantly recognisable. His artwork might not instantly catch the eye of a gallery owner but to record buyers, it adds value to the music it was designed to promote.

His skill was that of the cartoonist. A graduate of the Jamaica School of Art, he worked professionally for the Jamaica Star national newspaper, where his much-loved cartoon strip "Chicken" captured the unique humour and spirit of the Caribbean islanders – especially on the tough streets of the capital, Kingston.

So when reggae went through a style revolution in the 1980s with the explosion of a new dancehall culture indigenous to Jamaica, Limonious became the go-to artist for sleeve design. Occasionally, he would sign his work with his surname, written discreetly in capital letters.

A classic Limonious is his cover for a 1985 album from the Channel One studio called Stalag, 17-18 and 19, featuring a cartoon depiction of a prison camp transformed into a reggae dancehall where the cons, soldiers and female guards are gyrating to giant speakers. The image is peppered with humorous comments. "Even the rats are dancing," says the reggae writer Steve Barrow as he points to a pair of prison rodents at the bottom of the sleeve, accompanied by a Limonious note: "A dem rat yah nyam up man ina prison".

"He's telling you these are tough rats," says Barrow. "That's the archetypal Limonious. It's the detail – you look at it as you would a cartoon in a newspaper, and because of his work he was familiar with Jamaican street dialogue. This is pure DC Thomson, the Bash Street Kids almost."

And now at last, the late Limonious – who also studied for a while in Romford, Essex – and some of the other Jamaican artists who have made the island's music into more than just an audio experience are getting deserved recognition as Barrow and his co-author Stuart Baker have compiled their art and design into Reggae Soundsytem, a coffee-table compendium which is alive with colour.

The book is also a reflection of Jamaican history, from its British colonial years on through its fight for national identity, taking in social and political issues and the presence in the culture of drugs and firearms. All these subjects are vividly depicted in reggae sleeve art.

The covers of calypso records from the 1950s show a crudely stereotyped Jamaica, then still a British territory, where the women danced under palm trees and the smiling musicians wore straw hats. "The music was something more to sell to the tourists," says Barrow. "You see Jamaica portrayed as a kind of tourist paradise with dusky maidens or a folklore troupe dancing on the lawn of a big hotel."

But the albums that came out after the country gained independence in 1962 reflect a growing confidence and show how the fresh sound of ska embodied the new Jamaica and how music producers looked to America for credibility as they sought to create a Caribbean dance equivalent to "The Twist".

As the music became even more distinctively Jamaican in the late 1960s, the word reggae began to occur on covers – sometimes spelt as reggay. "It wasn't fully codified at that time," says Barrow, comparing the Sonny Bradshaw Seven's On Tour with Reggay! from 1969 to Ernest Ranglin's Boss Reggae from the following year.

By the 1970s, black consciousness had become the central theme of the music. Albums began to appear with drawings of lions and African landscapes, such as T Campbell's work for Dennis Brown's album Visions in 1977. One of the best-known artists of this roots-reggae style is Ras Daniel Heartman, whose 1972 drawing of a Rastafarian boy, Prince Emanuel, has become a famous poster image.

Limonious and other cartoon-style artists such as Jethro "Paco" Dennis emerged in the 1980s alongside the new and frenetic digitally produced reggae that came to the fore as Jamaica was struggling with political upheaval and violence. That tension is epitomised in Junior Delgado's Bushmaster Revolution of 1982, which captures in photographs the CIA's fear of a Cuban-style uprising.

Barrow and Baker have used album covers to reflect the island's long-running fascination with firearms, from the cowboy film-poster style exemplified by Toyan's How the West was Won in 1981, to the disturbing gun glorification of early 1990s ragga, which reached its height with Ninjaman's 1990 album My Weapon.

"There's nobody who lives in Jamaica who doesn't know the local badman," says Barrow. "Some people never cross their paths but they all know who they are. It's a part of life and the dancehall is not going to flinch from showing that, because if it did, it would lose its credibility."

That same authenticity is reflected in album-cover photography, too, such as in the 1985 album Sunday Dish by Early B, who is shown in his shack cooking up some rice and peas. "That one's real ghetto style," says Barrow. "They're selling this as hard as it gets, he's making Sunday dinner in the zinc-fence ghetto." Appealing to the hardcore local audience, it was a long way from the tourist-inspired covers of a generation before.

Barrow, 67, who is familiar to any reggae fan for his peerless sleevenotes and his role in the Blood & Fire sound system, has lived through Jamaican music's evolution, even from a distance in east London. As a teenager he was a patron of the earliest clubs to play West Indian music in Britain, the Flamingo and the Roaring Twenties in London's Soho, and in later life he could walk through Kingston's Greenwich Farm district and be hailed – "Wh'appen Fatha Steve?" – in recognition of his devotion to the culture.

And his collection of album cover art? It is not just a visual journey through the development of one of modern music's most dynamic genres, it is also a compelling history of a young nation and its people.

'Reggae Soundsystem: Original Reggae Album Cover Art' by Steve Barrow and Stuart Baker (£30, Soul Jazz Books) is out on 12 November

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