The early eighties were particularly testing times for reggae music. Once again it was considered to be deeply unfashionable and the same tired old criticisms were heaped upon it of monotony and lack of variation. The untimely death of Bob Marley in 1981 was a major blow in every sense because reggae was now without its superstar and focal point. A terrible tragedy, but life and the music continued as it always had done. Unfortunately the rock press did not see it like this and became obsessed with trying to find a successor. Consequently any artist with a modicum of talent and a couple of hits was at once tagged 'the new Bob Marley' and when they, quite naturally, failed to live up to the hype were written off as rapidly as they had been built up. This led to the conclusion that all was over for reggae music which would have been laughable had it not been so sad. There will never be another Bob Marley. Reggae was a force that carried a whole plethora of cultural aspirations and musical inventiveness long before the rest of the world caught up with the awesome talent of Bob Marley & The Wailers. It continued to be that same force afterwards although a casual observer would not have noticed as the lie became the truth in the minds of too many people. Reggae sensibly ignored all this and, as in similar times of crisis, retreated further into itself again back to its early roots in the dance halls and away from the world's centre stage as the music took a deep collective breath, regrouped itself, and returned to the fray with fresh waves of talent and production ideas.
This exciting new sound was pioneered by the Roots Radics: Errol 'Flabba' Holt on bass, Eric 'Bingy Bunny' Lamont on rhythm guitar, Dwight Pinkney and Noel 'Sowell' Bailey also on guitars, Lincoln 'Style' Scott on drums, Gladstone 'Gladdy' Anderson and Wycliffe 'Steely' Johnson on keyboards occasionally augmented by other session stars. Their sound was more in tune with what was happening in the dance halls than perhaps at any time since the sound system operators had started to make their own R&B recordings in the late fifties and was once again custom made directly for a very specific audience. No attempts were made to court the fickle international market, who were too busy looking for Bob's successor in a succession of blind alleys, and the sound was stripped to the bone, basic and less instantly dynamic than many of the so called 'golden age' records. It was a triumph of content over form and whatever it might have lacked in prettiness was more than made up for in weight and power. 'Style' Scott had learnt his art while serving in the Jamaican Army - especially on the snare drum and had returned from a European tour with Prince Far I and Creation Rebel in 1979 with his head full of syncopated ideas. His most important and immediately effective innovations were his continual emphasis on a 'kicking' bass drum beat, that was usually played in a more 'broken up' style than had been previously acceptable, a thunderous 'cracking' snare drum and his exemplary hi hat phrasing. Combined with Flabba Holt's rolling, winding bass guitar, the production techniques of Jo Jo Hookim (whose work we are concentrating on here) and up and coming producers such as Henry 'Junjo' Lawes and former vocalist Linval Thompson - the resultant brew mixed down by Overton 'Scientist' Brown - and you had a music that would carry reggae forward again and defy the critics. Dance Hall Style!
Early pioneers of the Dance Hall Style were the Hookim Brothers, founders of Channel One in the early seventies, and a studio and label that's usually remembered for their groundbreaking work with the Revolutionaries in the mid-seventies - the so called militant 'Rockers' style. Jo Jo Hookim has this to say about how it evolved: "After a while with us at Channel One Sly and Robbie started to produce records for themselves and we figured they were holding back," which was quite logical, of course, why would anyone want to give their best work to a next man? Jo Jo reluctantly had to let them go "We can't hold them any further!" and started to look for replacements. The Radics were establishing a name for themselves for their work with Gregory Isaacs and they soon began to work regularly down on Maxfield Avenue for the Hookims.
Jo Jo had moved to New York in 1977 following his brother Paulie's death... "Paulie got killed on the Greenwich Town beach playing dominoes at three in the morning around an oil drum table. A man emptied his gun in Paulie and he died on the spot." Yet another senseless, tragic Kingston killing. Jo Jo says the move was for financial reasons but Paulie's death was a deciding factor. However Jo Jo still returned to Jamaica once a month to supervise their recording sessions. In his absence Ernest would be in charge and Kenneth was left to look after the new artists as Jo Jo felt he was not experienced enough to work with the established stars. His role was to gather the required artists together and have them ready for work. Niney the Observer was briefly associated with Channel One - he did their very popular Yellowman recordings during this period and I Roy too helped out - but Channel One (now releasing records on the Hitbound label) was very much still a family business. The tapes were brought up to New York by Jo Jo and released on 10" 'dub plate style' records initially for the sound systems but they soon caught on with the record buyers too. Jo Jo recalls "It didn't make sense to put out records in Jamaica - there was no profit at all. Even if you sell five thousand records it sounds reasonable but no one considers the money it takes to put out the records - so you make a hit record and it can't make money! The ten inch records were mastered on my own dub machine. They were lighter, smaller than a twelve inch (although you could fit no more on a twelve inch) less to manufacture and more profit". What's more the public got a dub for the price of a record! The popularity of these records in New York and the U.K. ensured an eventual Jamaican 7" release. Jo Jo was responsible for the innovative 'Clash' series "Anything you see on record I have the idea!" and the original concept was to couple an established artist with a newer one but as the series progressed the idea got lost in the mix. Kenneth was by now allowed to supervise some of these sessions for the new artists but Ernest and Jo Jo would still do the mixing and the final work.
The Hookims had their pick of the best artists and Jo Jo was always sure that Kenneth would have only the cream waiting for him as he touched down in Kingston. Stars such as Frankie Paul, who has since assured his place in the reggae music hall of fame, was new to the business at this time and his 'Clash' album with Sugar Minott, already an established name, brought him to the public's attention most notably with the thrilling 'Worries In The Dance'. Gemini Sound was the top Kingston Sound System in the early eighties and their two biggest deejays Johnny Ringo & Welton Irie travelled down to Maxfield Avenue to record some of their crowd pleasing lyrics for vinyl release. This was the time when cassette tapes recorded live in the dance were becoming common currency and these two mic. men were among the first to be recognised throughout the worldwide reggae community for their live work rather than their records and neither lost the magic in the transition from dance hall to studio. Barrington Levy was fast establishing himself among the higher echelons of Jamaican vocal talent at a frighteningly youthful age. His work with Junjo on the 'Bounty Hunter' album laid the ground rules for much of the music of the decade and he was to exercise his bigness time and time again as the eighties progressed. We don't hear enough of Michael Palmer nowadays and his unique style too seems to have been forgotten but when Gemini Sound touched down for their U.K. tour in 1984 and regularly ran his 'Smoke The Weed' on dub plate the dance halls went wild. Established stars such as Patrick Andy, Barry Brown & The Gladiators proved that it was possible to still record meaningfully in the new style as the effortlessly made the transition from one type of backing track to another. Don Carlos too made his name down at Channel One after leaving Black Uhuru with his mournful yet inspiring style as the rhythms of the day continued to carry the message.
The last word has to be from Jo Jo: "If you don't know what you're doing you're gonna get burnt. You have to be fair with artists... but it is tough to satisfy them."
Luckily for all music lovers the Hookims have known exactly what they're doing over the years, have never been burnt and have always worked to satisfy not only their artists but also their public every time.