BLACK UHURU / “Emotional Slaughter”

Last week we talked about Black Uhuru’s classic album and song, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. This week, I want to drop a few other Black Uhuru classics on you. I also want to talk a little about Black Uhuru’s distinctive sound, particularly the sound they perfected during the early ‘80s, when they teamed up with Sly & Robbie, signed to Island Records and became an internationally-known band. The first thing I notice when listening to Black Uhuru back-to-back with other reggae — especially classic-style roots reggae — is how much faster Black Uhuru’s songs sound. I’m not saying Black Uhuru’s tempos actually are faster than most other reggae, but it certainly feels that way. A lot of that is in the drums. On all the Black Uhuru music you’ll hear this week, the drummer is Lowell ‘Sly’ Dunbar, one half of the legendary production team Sly & Robbie. So what is it about Sly’s drumming? black uhuru 03.jpg First, Sly’s drums are almost always mixed in the forefront. Listen to classic roots records like Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey,” Dennis Brown’s “Wolves & Leopards” or The Heptones’ “Book Of Rules” (I picked those randomly; substitute just about any roots song and the comparison will work), and instrumentally, the dominant thing you’ll hear is a deep, throbbing bassline and a skanking electric guitar (or sometimes, piano or electric keyboard standing in for the guitar). The drums are always there, but after the opening breakdown, the drummer is usually just keeping time. He’s the drum equivalent of a rhythm guitarist: a necessary, but by no means featured, part of the mix. (And, by the way, if anyone can explain to me why something like 99.9% of all roots reggae songs have that drum breakdown in the intro, please write in to let me know.) Now listen to a Black Uhuru record like “Youth Of Englinton” or “Whole World Is Africa.” It’s an entirely different aesthetic. The strong bassline is still there, but now the drums are much more forceful and pronounced. It’s almost as though the drums and bass are locked together to form something we might call a ‘drum-and-bassline.’ Neither sounds as though they could be separated from the other. With Sly, you also tend to get two strong drumlicks per bar instead of one or none (as you might hear in an earlier roots record). This combination (the drums being placed upfront in the mix along with the double-time drumming) gives many of Black Uhuru’s records a marching or skipping feel. Particularly in contrast to the slowed-down, trippy feel of roots reggae, Black Uhuru’s songs always seem to be pushing forward. It’s as if the songs themselves are trying to quicken their own pace. black uhuru 04.jpg Without the soothing effect of the Black Uhuru vocalists — Michael Rose, Duckie Simpson and Puma Jones — that constant excitability might be irritating. As it is though, Uhuru’s music presents an interesting contrast. There’s Sly & Robbie’s drum and bass pushing the riddim forward, while Rose, Simpson and Puma’s cool vocals pull back. There’s a sense of musical tension in Black Uhuru’s best songs, a tension created when the vocals meet the riddim. Listen to the vocal part of “Sinsemilla.” There’s Rose on lead vocals, singing powerfully but smoothly, extending every word he can. “I’ve seen doctors saaaaaay / It heals naturallyyyyyyy.” And, Rose takes long pauses between his phrases, he isn’t in a rush to do anything. He’s like a preacher who knows the congregation is in the palm of his hand. They’re waiting for his every word; why should he hurry? Meanwhile, Simpson and Jones are near-perfect accompanists. Their two-part harmony is so flawless, they usually sound like one voice. The backing duo is always good, but on “Emotional Slaughter” they’re at their best. “Emotional Slaughter” is the rare Black Uhuru song that actually does sound mellow. Even on background vocals, Simpson and Jones carry the record. When I think of the song, what I remember most isn’t the lyrics or the rhythm, it’s the background harmony – Simpson and Jones chanting over and over, “emotional slaughter!” No overview of Black Uhuru would be complete without at least a brief mention of Michael Rose’s lyrics. Over the years, Rose has proven himself to be a master of economy. Lyrically, none of his songs are particularly dense, but Rose picks his words with care. His best work means a lot more than it says. His memorable phrases — “the youth of Englinton won’t put down their Remington,” “the whole world is Africa, but it’s divided in continent states,” “I’ve seen children downtown, begging everyone they see” — stick with you long after you’re finished listening. The ‘sufferer’s lament’ is a standard conceit of roots reggae, but Rose did it as well as anyone and also, by the early ‘80s, Rose was carrying the torch virtually alone. By then, America had turned to disco and Jamaica had turned to dancehall. One last thing. There are other (and earlier) examples of roots reggae that emphasizes the drums over the skank and cranks up the tempo. I’m thinking of Bob Marley’s “Jamming” or “Exodus.” Or maybe Bunny Wailer’s “Rockers” or Peter Tosh’s “Stepping Razor.” (Just to go ahead and name a record by each of the original trio. Seen?) By the early ‘80s, I think reggae artists had finally gotten tired of playing in the same style. After all, it had been well over a decade since rocksteady slowed into reggae, which begat roots; that’s a long time to play what must have felt like “the same thing.” Sure, today we go back to listen and we realize that reggae was never so good again as it was in the ‘70s. But back then, the new synthesizers and drum machines weren’t ‘cheesy’ and ‘over-processed.’ No, they were revolutionary and cutting edge. What artist doesn’t want to progress, change, grow? It’s only in retrospect that we think of the ‘70s as a glory age. So anyhow, it isn’t that Black Uhuru was doing something that had never been done in reggae. It was more that they took an existing aesthetic and ran with it, creating a signature sound that even today remains one of the most distinctive in the history of the music.

* * *
This post has gotten way too long, but I also have to mention Black Uhuru’s The Dub Factor. It’s probably the only dub album I’ve ever heard with dubs so fully realized that they (the dubs) work as their own songs. I don’t know who was behind the control boards, but whoever it was, he (or she?) freaked the hell out of already-great songs, and in the process, created brand new songs. Most dubs simply strip out the vocals, emphasize the bass and then play with sound effects a little. But as you listen to these dubs, notice all of the elements that aren’t even there in the vocal versions. Also notice the loving detail that went into chopping up individual syllables of the vocals. There’s one bit in “Slaughter,” the dub of “Emotional Slaughter,” when the dub captures, extends and repeats just the opening ‘s’ of the word ‘slaughter.’ That’s attention to detail. That’s a bad-ass dub. —Mtume ya Salaam Tracks: - “Whole World Is Africa” and “Sinsemilla” from Sinsemilla (Island, 1980). - “Youth Of Englington” from Red (Island, 1981). - “Chill Out” and “Emotional Slaughter” from Chill Out (Island, 1982). - “Slaughter” and “Youth” from The Dub Factor (Island, 1983).             What We Want?           Solidarity! Big Babylon is all a-trembling and that’s a good thing cause when the downpressor a falling, the downpressed got room to rise. black uhuru 02.jpg For me, Black Uhuru was the reggae I listened to and enjoyed most after Bob. Musically strong (once the dynamic Sly & Robbie hooked up their rhythm machine to the soaring harmonies and lyrical forwardness of the trio voices), Black Uhuru had a stepping razor groove that wouldn’t quit. (Listen to the the live version of “Darkness” in the jukebox and imagine yourself on the dancefloor; you hear how Sly & Robbie lock into the groove but find little ways to vary the one drop so it is always in the pocket but always moving in interesting ways.) For me, first it’s Chill Out and Dub Factor (take them together, like beans and rice, make a mixtape that will last for hours). Second, Anthem. Then Red. And a few cuts from Sinsemilla. But the aforementioned top three, definitely, always, constant reggae rotation. So, Mtume, I’ve added some Black Uhuru tracks to the jukebox. (We’re way over two hours of music this week. So what? No foul, no harm. When it’s good, go with it!) I'll also point to a non-Sly & Robbie track that I came across while looking for something else. It’s simply called “Black Uhuru” in the jukebox. It’s a remix by the Fila Brazillia production crew from their album Brazilification. It’s neither dark nor hard — one might snidely refer to it as dub-lite — but the Black Uhuru voices are still there, floating thru the mix. Finally, as you might of guessed from the opening of this note, I’m a big fan of “Solidarity” — especially in these a dreaded times. I also deeply dig “What Is Life.” These strong and push forward tracks represent (full and hard) the kind of music we need to hear at least once a day, 365. —Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Sunday, September 16th, 2007 at 12:08 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “BLACK UHURU / “Emotional Slaughter””

dacks Says:
October 19th, 2007 at 10:19 am

Hi BOL guys-

Always enjoying your posts. I wanted to add a few long-winded observations about the genius of Sly Dunbar .

Although Sly was a revolutionary drummer, I wouldn’t give short shrift to drummers of the earlier reggae eras. One major difference between the reggae of the early to mid 70s and that of the late 70s and beyond was technological – at the dawn of the decade, most of the best loved reggae was cut on a 4 track recorder. The instrument that suffers most in these circumstances is drums, which require many microphones and channels on a mixing board. Hence, the best arrangements for drums (as in ‘Wolves And Leopards’ and ‘Book of Rules’) would stack them with the other rhythm instruments. The one drop rhythm perfected by Wailers’ drummer Carlton Barrett is probably so influential on an international level because the Wailers recorded under the best possible conditions during their Island years, which highlighted Barrett’s undisputed mastery of this technique. But don’t sleep on Horsemouth Wallace, who’s far from background material on the “Marcus Garvey” album and brings the jazz to so much Studio One material of the early 70s.

But Sly stands apart from his influences. Once Channel One studio opened with 16 then 24 tracks in 1976, there was more room for drums. The influence of disco was best expressed in Sly’s metronomic drumming style (reputedly encouraged by Lee Perry because he wanted Sly to play along to drum machines), and became ubiquitous as he became the principal drummer and one of the prime creative movers at Channel One. In fact, the studio closed down for months in 1977 as Sly worked with the engineers to come up with a perfect drum sound for the studio. So… more tracks/greater fidelity, the influence of disco, and Sly’s precise style and ability to control his sound in the studio were all important inputs. His drumming marked the birth of dancehall which I would strongly argue that Blcak Uhuru was a part of, rather than a continuation of the roots era (the no-horns minimalism of the “Showcase” album is about as trancey as it gets over a powerful sound system). All the upfront drums songs you mentioned came after this turning point – and Sly in fact is the drummer on “Stepping Razor” and Bob Marley insisted that Carlton Barrett’s drumming sound like Sly’s ‘rockers’ beats on “Exodus”.

Furthermore, Sly’s translations of folkloric Jamaican rhythms from mento to calypso to various forms of Rasta drumming with his use of the ultra-synthetic Roland syndrum (the bubbly effect on “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” of your previous post – the story goes he heard the syndrum on M’s “Pop Muzik” while on tour with Peter Tosh and bought one shortly thereafter) created entirely new rhythms and possibilities for Jamaica. Robbie’s melodic basslines – tell me there isn’t a bit of Paul McCartney in his playing, especially those Black Uhuru tracks – matched Sly’s odd syncopations and that made them the cutting edge rhythm team in the whole world thanks to their work at Compass Point studios in the Bahamas. As for the synths, at least they had the good fortune to work with Wally Badarou (Level 42, Talking Heads), one of the most distinctive keyboard programmers of the early 80s, and if all that no-wave punk-funk of that era is now remembered fondly, surely these keyboard sounds still have some gravitas to them.

Michael Rose, by the way, has released two excellent albums (with dub companions) in recent years – “Warrior” and “African Roots” produced by Canadian expat Twilight Circus and featuring many of the Uhuru players including Sly.

Keep up the great work guys!

our pages Says:
July 28th, 2015 at 1:33 pm

fascinating idea

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