By Ian S. Port
By Cory Sklar
By Godofredo Vasquez
By Gil Riego Jr.
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Christopher Victorio
By Ian S. Port
There are plenty of tales in the jazz and blues scenes of young players facing trials by fire early in their careers -- stories of greenhorn saxmen having to sit in with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five combo and such. Rocker-T -- a Brooklyn-born reggae vocalist, producer, and selector -- faced a similar challenge when he went to Jamaica for the first time in 1994.
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"The people I was with knew I was a DJ," he says via phone from the office of Positive Sound Massive, the San Francisco label that's releasing his new album, More Luv. "So they took me to the Portmore Entertainment Center and told the crew that was throwing the party that I chatted [rapped]. So this whole scene occurs -- this skinny little white kid from New York saying he's a DJ."
"[Dancehall heavyweights] Roundhead and Capelton were on the mike ahead of me, and they were fully slack [sexually explicit]. Not even a ganja tune in there, just pure punany tune and gangsta tune. And the place was going crazy.
"So the promoter says, 'You think you're all that? You're up next.'
"I went up there and told the audience, 'This is my first time in Jamaica, and I'm really upset that I'm in a dancehall and I don't hear anything about Rastafari. Everybody's just coming up here and talking slackness. I don't understand this. This is not what I expected.'
"The place went dead silent."
At that point in his career, Rocker-T was a decently respected performer in New York City. But the blackest club in Queens was a world away from reggae's birthplace, where the most prominently known white man -- Island Records' Chris Blackwell -- was vilified for fleecing Bob Marley of his royalties. A reggae chatter with a mane of blond dreads was bizarre enough, but one who claimed to be a Rasta was unheard of. So by dissing the kings of dancehall -- who are often serious gun men and/or drug runners, and whose fans are as rabid as soccer hooligans -- Rocker-T was taking his life in his hands.
"Then I told them, 'I'm not going to go one night in Jamaica without hearing a crowd scream out, "Rastafari."' So the whole place yelled back, 'Jah! Rastafari!'
"So then I went into some deep lyrics about how, if I met [Rastafarian savior] Haile Selassie in person, I'd cry. And the crowd went totally off."
"I've never been afraid to come up to the mike and say, 'That was slackness. That was wack,'" he continues. "Never been ashamed to say, 'I don't understand how people can have so much time on the mike, and all they've got to say is crap.'"
But getting dancehall artists to give up their gutter rhymes is like asking Donald Rumsfeld to lay down his guns. Rocker-T definitely has many obstacles to overcome. Not only is he working under the broad umbrella of reggae, a music that's yet to have a cross-racial icon like Elvis, Eminem, or Tiger Woods, but he's also working in a subgenre (dancehall) that's even less tolerant of women, gays, and outsiders than hip hop is. Additionally, he's attempting to bridge two increasingly alienated cousins within reggae -- the urban, rap-oriented style of dancehall (think current Top 40 star Sean Paul), and the countrified, Rasta-leaning roots vibe of the Wailers. To that end, he'll play an all-black club in Chicago one week and the mushroom- and patchouli-soaked Reggae on the River festival the next.
Rocker-T may want to unify all of these factions, but the cover photo on his 1999 solo debut, If Ya Luv Luv Show Ya Luv, doesn't appear promising: With his doo rag and rustic broom, he looks more like a stoned farmer from the early 20th century than some reggae prophet.
Like fine weed, Rocker-T's reggae manner is a high-grade yet hybridized strain. His toasting style traces the uncommon "sing-jay" lineage that Tony Rebel and other late-'70s DJs founded, and that Eek-A-Mouse popularized in the '80s. Characterized by a buoyancy that swings between rhyming chatting and traditional roots singing, sing-jay is a kinder, gentler breed of dancehall that's beloved by college and hippie audiences. With a voice much higher than the usual gravel-throated dancehall baritones, Rocker jumps from patois monologues to lightning-quick raps to wispy, soulful singing. The varied pacing and constant flipping of styles enables him to command the instrumental "riddims" in a way that's totally his own, floating high over the keyboards one second and then crashing down to the syrupy bass line the next.
Such versatility allows Rocker to cover reggae's vast vocal history over the course of his albums. More Luv opens with "Wherever You Go, Whatever You Need," with the artist praising Jah in the Rasta word-sound language, changing "universe" to "I-niverse" (because "I" is the most supreme pronoun for Rastas). On "Rainbow Country" he slips into teary "lover's rock" crooning, a style that is reggae's closest approximation of American R&B. Then, on the title tune, he becomes a nimble-tongued word twister. The album is truly impressive in its smorgasbord of techniques and its ability to make infectious, poppy tunes out of reggae's building blocks.
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