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Roots Radical 

Rocker-T wants to unite roots reggae's spirituality with dancehall's hedonistic swagger

Wednesday, Apr 2 2003
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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.

"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.

Rocker is also something of a one-man band, producing the tracks and playing melodica, guitars, keyboards, bass, Rastafarian praise drums, and electronic percussion. And thanks to his fanatical attention to detail, even the computer-generated sounds seem rich and organic.

"My goal is to take dancehall and roots and make it one music," he explains. "Some people [in dancehall] don't try to hide that it's computer music, but my whole philosophy is to not make it sound non-real. The songs might have some freaky sounds in them or whatever, but I always want to make sure you could go play it with a live band, no matter what it is."

The need to keep one foot planted in the live-band aesthetic and the other in studio trickery is a result of Rocker-T's diverse musical past. He came of age in New York during the genesis of punk and rap in the early '80s. "It was a beautiful time," he says. "You'd go to a show, and the DJ would be playing reggae and hip hop, but the bands would be punk bands. Then at ska shows, they'd play punk records."

Rocker's first band grew out of this mixture. The Noise Police was a three-piece that played hardcore punk and skanky reggae, with Rocker on guitar and vocals. As the three bandmates' tastes veered toward traditional Caribbean ska and English 2-tone, the trio changed its name to the Ska-Danks and eventually added a horn section, a keyboardist, and a reggae toaster. The group did quite well, playing every week and recording an album called Give Thanks that was released by KRS-One, hip hop's biggest patron of reggae music.

As Skadanks dropped its article and hyphen and became more of a progressive reggae act, Rocker spent his spare minutes in front of subway stations rapping over songs by hip hop artists like T La Rock and the Fat Boys. Then in 1986, he heard dancehall legend Super Cat, and his entire approach to singing changed.

"Super Cat gave me a whole different perspective on rhyming," he recalls. "He made me totally fiend on patois and want to chat. It was just a completely new form of music as far as I was concerned."

In 1987 he met Jamalski, another American dancehall DJ-in-training. (He'd go on to be San Francisco's best-loved jungle MC before moving to Paris.) Together, the pair would "terrorize every mike we could get our hands on and do shows as KRS-One's crazy reggae guests," Rocker says. He also became a regular in front of Rob Kenner's BBC2 Sound System and Puppy Ranks' Eruption Hi Power before starting his own Jah Warrior Shelter High-Fidelity sound system in the early '90s in and around New York City. (Rocker lived in San Francisco off and on throughout the decade, but now he resides in Madison, Wis.)

Rocker had found his home, both musically and culturally, in the Caribbean world. "I had been around West Indians before," he says, "and I just started being around Jamaicans all the time and wanted to go anywhere that was Ghanaian, Trinidadian, or Jamaican."

Rocker became a Rastafarian, although he also maintained a deep interest in Eastern and Hindu belief systems. (The cover art of More Luv shows Krishna and Vishnu dancing on either sides of a red, yellow, and green Star of David.) Even with his deep knowledge of Rastafari and his skills on the mike, he says there was constant harassment at shows and within portions of the West Indian community.

"Jamaican people ... there's a whole portion of them who will just fight anything that's not their nation -- they can be very nationalist," he says. "But the majority is country people, and they don't have any of those vibes. If they like something, they're not afraid to show it. The last thing they want to think about is something negative, so even throughout all these times of people calling us 'fakin' Jamaicans' and everything, there would always be people coming up after the shows, especially in Jamaica, saying, 'Don't let anyone tell you that, keep doing your ting because it's blessed.'"

There will still be some who argue Rocker's very presence in the dancehall is a travesty, the beginning of the end for perhaps the last exclusively black music in America. The question remains: Should he be allowed to do what he does, maybe altering reggae in the way that Eminem did rap?

"The question's a good one overall for any white musician going into dancehall," answers Steffen Franz, owner of Positive Sound Massive Records. "Dancehall is not a music for the faint of heart, especially when you're the only white person in the dance, and you're the one onstage."

"What I say is give him that test. See if he can rock the place regardless of whether he's a white guy or a black guy, and see if he prevails. I think the line you see now is really more between slackness and consciousness rather than between black and white. Because people are willing to come out and support music as a whole until they're offended or rejected in some way by the music. As long as he can bring people out in these times, that's doing reggae and the world a good thing."

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Darren Keast

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