Gregory Isaacs – “The Cool Ruler”

Gregory Isaacs is one of reggae music’s most distinguished singers. Famous as the “Cool Ruler” for his outstandingly smooth and moving voice, Isaacs recorded many successes during the 1970s and 80s, including the lasting favourite “Night Nurse”, and remained dynamic as a recording artist, live performer and producer in the decades that followed. Even though his best known for romantic ballads, delivered with an insinuation of helplessness, he also excelled at songs of social protest and work that expressed a resolute pride in his African heritage.

Gregory Anthony Isaacs was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on July 15 1951 and grew up in the poor neighbourhood of Denham Town. As a boy, Gregory was inspired by American soul artists such as Sam Cooke and Ben E King, by local acts and, above all, by the singing of his mother (whom his father abandoned when Gregory was a child). Encouraged by his peers at school and his teacher, he entered talent contests and soon became involved in the music industry, making his first (self-produced) recording in 1968; a duet with Winston Sinclair called “Another Heartache”.

 

After a brief period as part of a Motown-style trio named The Concords, who split in 1970, Isaacs launched his solo career. He founded African Museum with the singer Errol Dunkley, and had his first significant success with “My Only Lover”, often labelled the exemplary “lovers’ rock” song.

By the late 1970s, Isaacs was one of Jamaica’s major stars and frequently touring the United States and Britain. His casting as a street hustler in the 1978 movie Rockers aided to create the outlaw persona that would lead him later to claim of having been arrested more than 50 times.

As his songwriting abilities developed, Isaacs shifted attention to address social injustice, in work that expressed longing for his ancestral African homeland, and grew dreadlocks as a sign of his commitment to the Rastafarian faith. At Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio, he completed the anthem-like “Mr Cop” in 1976 and the censorious “Black against Black”, which decried self-destructive ghetto violence, and “Slave Master”, which became something of anti-colonial anthem in the slums of Kingston: “Every time I hear the music and I make a dip, a dip, Slave master comes around and spank I with his whip, the whip, But if I don’t get my desire, Then I’ll set the plantations in fire.”

Mainstream success, however, did not come until the 1982 album Night Nurse. The cheekily suggestive title track reached only number 32 in the UK charts, but it was a huge underground and club hit. But just when Isaacs might have capitalised on his biggest hit, he become caught in drug dealing and consumption, and found himself serving a six-month sentence in a Kingston jail. 

He was said to have both used and dealt crack cocaine. He struggled with addiction to various drugs – most of them far harder than the native ganja, or marijuana – eventually losing most of his teeth and the full range of his once-sweet voice. “Drugs are a debasing weapon,” he once said. “I graduated from the Cocaine High School. It was the greatest college ever, but the most expensive school fee ever paid.”

He returned in 1988 with the digital dance hall-era hit “Rumours”, one result of a fruitful period of collaboration with the producer Gussie Clark, and continued to record up to three albums a year during the last two decades of his life, appearing at festivals such as Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash and the Notting Hill Carnival as a respected if somewhat weakened elder statesman of Jamaican music. Nevertheless, he kept a faithful fan base, both at home in Jamaica and overseas.

“When people hear the name Gregory Isaacs, I want dem to think of ‘Night Nurse’ and ‘Red Rose For Gregory’ and ‘The Cool Ruler’,” he said. “I love it when somebody comes up to me and say, ‘I love your songs’. ‘Night Nurse’ is about a man and a woman. Only love can conquer war and it’s good for people to make love. The Gregory Isaacs feel is universal, trying to uplift who I can uplift. I sing music on a worldwide basis. That is made to be accepted in thy sight.”

The Harder They Come -“Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail in shanty town “

Premiering one year after the release of Shaft and one year before Bob Marley and the Wailers’Catch a Fire dropped, Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) combined blaxploitation fantasies with developing-world realities and in the process, brought reggae music to the world. The first feature-length film from Jamaica—which at the time of THTC‘s release had been an independent country for only 10 years after three centuries of British rule—Henzell’s debut, being shown in a restored 35mm print at the IFC Center, is the definitive postcolonial cult-movie musical. Raw and rough, The Harder They Come mixes vérité footage of Kingston privation (shacks, shanties) and exultation (rapt moviegoers taking in a western, swaying-to-the-spirit church attendees) with a rude-boy bildungsroman.

Henzell, who was born to a plantocratic white family in Jamaica’s north coast in 1936, and his co-writer, Trevor Rhone, a playwright instrumental in shaping the island’s indigenous theater, based the story on an actual cult hero: Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, a prison escapee known as the “Jamaican Dillinger” who was shot dead by the police in 1948. Played by Jimmy Cliff, who had released four albums by the time of his acting debut in THTC, Ivan is introduced as a naif on a bus headed to his mother’s house in Kingston with a mango and news of a death in the family. Although the bumpkin—often addressed as “Country Boy”—is robbed of everything within his first hours in the capital, he still holds out hope he can make it big as a singer. He soon finds work doing odd jobs for a preacher—and acquires a new nickname. Peacocking in apple caps, skintight tees, elaborately patterned rayon shirts, and snug, pinstriped trousers (Cliff’s sartorial style in the film is almost as iconic as its soundtrack, electrifying nuggets made by various artists between 1967 and 1972), Ivan now answers to “Pretty Boy,” and he can’t help but wear down the resistance of the minister’s chaste ward, Elsa (Janet Bartley).

 

Ivan takes off with Elsa and finally persuades the corrupt music tycoon Hilton (Bob Charlton) to give him some time in the recording studio. His single—the film’s infectious, mercenary title track (“So as sure as the sun will shine/I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine”)—becomes a smash, for which Ivan receives only $20. “Who’s makin’ all the money?” he asks after being stiffed once again during his short career as a pot dealer. Gunning down some cops—many involved in the ganja trade—Ivan lams it, his record in constant rotation, and his legend sealed.

There are almost no white faces in THTC, yet the dysfunctional legacy of 300-plus years of colonial rule is present in every frame. “I AM HERE I AM EVERYWHERE” reads the graffiti Ivan has sprayed to torment his pursuers—a tag that endears him to those powerless to fight against endemic corruption. The Harder They Come debuted the same year that Jamaicans had just voted out the conservative Jamaica Labour Party, but civil war between the JLP and the left-leaning People’s National Party would erupt shortly after. Henzell would make only one other film: the tourist-board-friendly No Place Like Home (2006), which premiered in Jamaica the day after his death. That project’s softness reflected the dilution of the music that his first film had been so instrumental in exporting.

Alpha Blondy – “The African Rasta”

Hailing from the Cote d’Ivoire, Alpha Blondy is among the world’s most popular reggae artists. With his 12-piece band Solar System, Blondy offers a reggae beat with a distinctive African cast. Calling himself an African Rasta, Blondy creates Jah-centered anthems promoting morality, love, peace and social consciousness. With a range that moves from sensitivity to rage over injustice, much of Blondy’s music empathizes with the impoverished and those on society’s fringe. Blondy is also a staunch supporter of African unity and to this end, he sings to Muslim audiences in Hebrew and sings in Arabic to Israelis. Some of his best known songs include “Cocody Rock,” “Jerusalem” and “Apartheid Is Nazism.” He was born a member of the Jula tribe in Dimbokoro and named Seydou Kone after his grandfather. His grandmother Cherie Coco raised him. He was always a rebellious child and for this, Coco named him “Blondy,” her unique pronunciation of the word “bandit.” When he started performing professionally, he took on the name Alpha (the first letter in the Greek alphabet) so his name literally translates to “first bandit.” Though he grew up listening to African folkloric music such as yagba and gumbe, his primary musical influences were such Western bands as Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, the Beatles,

Creedence Clearwater Revival, and soul artists like Otis Redding. Later Bob Marley’s music tremendously affected Blondy. Though he wanted to become a musician, his family expected him to become a respectable English teacher. He studied English at Hunter College in New York, and later in the Columbia University American Language Program. Outside of class, he would play music in Central Park and in Harlem clubs where occasionally house bands would let him sing his Bob Marley covers in French, English, and various West African languages. Blondy got his big break from friend, Fulgence Kass, an employee of Ivory Coast Television who helped him land a spot on the Premiere Chance talent show. The young artist was a hit with the audience. Blondy then hooked up with producer G. Benson who recorded his eight-song debut album Jah Love in a single day. His popularity has continued to grow and is a well respected artist both in Africa and in the West.