Reggae trinity ascend to the heights of a pop chart heaven

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The Independent Online
IT IS an achievement undreamed-of even during the heady days from 1969 to 1971, or the post-punk boom at the end of the 1970s: reggae artists at Numbers One, Two and Three in the pop charts.

Messrs Shaggy, Snow, and Shabba Ranks have made reggae famous again. Their style is 'raggamuffin' or 'ragga' reggae, harsh electronic rhythms and fast-spoken lyrics. Ragga reggae has been in existence since the mid-'80s, but this saga began in November when Greensleeves, a tiny reggae label, released Shaggy's 'Oh Carolina' as a 12-inch single. Catchy enough to sing along to, and light-hearted enough for you to want to (this area is notorious for its lyrical embrace of misogyny, homophobia and armed violence), the record was the reggae chart Christmas Number One. Less predictable was a mainstream demand in London that continued into the New Year - a result of dance music-based local radio stations seizing on it as a credible alternative to house and rap, and nightclubs across the board electing it to Festive Season Jolly-Up status.

By mid-January it was out as a less-expensive seven-inch single with a bar code - without one, sales cannot be registered on the Gallup computer that compiles the pop charts, but few reggae singles bother as they sell mostly in non-chart-return shops. A month later it was the most-requested record on the Capital Radio Hitline, then sold enough just in the South-east (about 20,000) to enter the chart - singles' sales are at an all-time ebb, and January/February is always the slackest time of year - and had acquired enough support at Radio One to get on their all-important daytime playlist.

To date it has sold 400,000 copies (few reggae singles ever get past the 10,000 mark in the UK), and it opened the door for similar sounds. Shabba Ranks' 'Mr Loverman' is a well-timed re-release of a minor pop chart hit from last year. Ranks' profile was boosted by his guesting on Eddie Murphy's 'I Was A King' single and his public support of Buju Banton, a ragga reggae star who, in song, endorses the killing of gays. When 'Oh Carolina' was a hit, mainstream DJs began playing 'Mr Loverman' again as it was often the only other such record they owned.

Snow, as a Caucasian raggamuffin, has a certain Vanilla Ice-type novelty value. In the wake of the other two ragga hits, he became a favourite on such influential mediums as MTV and The Chart Show. Media exposure and major corporate muscle - he shares a record label with Simply Red - put Snow's 'Informer' on the radio, in the shops and in the charts.

Apart from these specific reasons for each record's success, what can explain this reggae onslaught? Chris Cracknell, Greensleeves' director, said: 'When most people think of reggae they think 'Jamaican', but none of these records are - Shaggy and Shabba are both out of New York and Snow is Canadian. And the whole feel is closer to American rap or dance.

'Also, like Shabba and Snow, Shaggy's accent isn't impenetrably Jamaican.'

However, at the sharp end - high street stores - the word is that the reggae 'revival' could prove a three-hit wonder. According to Andy, senior salesperson at That Record Shop in North London's Kentish Town: 'We predicted these chart placings, because of the amount of ordinary punters coming in asking about them. It was like they wanted some sort of respite from 'No Limit' by 2 Unlimited - or, as they were calling it, 'No Lyric' by 2 Untalented. They wanted a bouncy pop song they could bop about to and sing - not Suede or Whitney Houston. We won't see too many more though, because kids have almost completely stopped asking for them - it's as if they've got their two raggamuffin records and they don't want any more.'

(Photographs omitted)