Childhood Cassettes looks at the tapes we listened to as young rapscallions. Today, Luke Davis gives us the lowdown on a childhood defined by reggae music before all that hip hop stuff kicked in.
I’ve never shied away from admitting that I jumped into music very late, both as a practitioner and a serious listener. Sure, I had my own cheesy pop cassettes but I was never the type to adorn my bedroom walls with pop star regalia or cry at the news of a band’s break up. Bubbling underneath, however, was a steady stream of reggae music fed to me by my Caribbean parents in the form of cassettes, CDs and occasionally vinyl. My house became a mini Jamaica during the summer when the sun decided to come out (and stay out). The odd barbecue brought with it the happy horns of Beres Hammond and the loving lyricism of as the burgers and sausages sizzled. Car journeys were never boring when the tape player was on. My dad would often record other cassettes and CDs onto blank tapes for the car before we got a CD player so certain trips became associated with certain songs/compilations. I remember one particular trip to Bradford, my hometown, when I went to visit some of my family. The feeling of excitement was electric and the song that will stay with me forever in that moment was Singing Melody’s Let If Flow. It was the song that played as we exited the M62. Unfortunately, the happiness later turned into sadness as I missed my mum who hadn’t joined me and my dad on the trip. I learnt the word “fickle” during that stay.
“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” – Bob Marley
I owe my entire musical life and career to the foundations my parents laid down for me. It wasn’t intentional; I was more of an academic during my younger years until I hit college. But they always filled the house and any journeys with the greatest sounds known to man. Lord knows Britain won’t be getting the tropical climate of Jamaica anytime soon but just for those brief moments when Pluto Shervington sang about his “trial” in Your Honour or the fantastic duet between John Holt and the late Gregory Isaacs on Body Language, I was back “home” in my mind and that’s all that mattered. Hearing my mother speaking in patois and the slapping of slippers on our hard kitchen floor helped the illusion along too. In all honesty, reggae music has been the most acceptable security blanket for me. Reverting back to childhood just isn’t an option when the reality of adult life hits you hard in the face. Countless times I’ve scoured Spotify for some reggae classics (finding those compilation cassettes on Spotify bugged me the HELL out) and felt the soothing tones relax my troubled mind. Bob Marley was right: “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
Despite the fact there are two copies of Bob Marley’s Legend on vinyl in my house (and a cassette version I believe), he wasn’t the most played reggae musician. That’s not to say he was disliked – on the contrary – but he was eclipsed by three reggae crooners. John Holt, Gregory Isaacs and Beres Hammond were the top dogs in our house and my mother never failed to shout out “COOL RULER!” when a Gregory Isaac tape was popped into the hi-fi. For me, they represented the holy trinity of lovers rock. Holt’s slow romanticisms backed by exquisite orchestral accompaniments were the closest thing we got to Motown while The Cool Ruler’s deeper sensual tones and Hammond’s loving wails, harking back to the days of gospel-turned-secular black music of the late 50s/early 60s, completed the reggae triad. They were the masters of their craft and while Isaacs sadly passed away in 2010, Holt and Hammond are still singing their way across the globe to adoring fans. In fact, Hammond’s last album One Love, One Life featured Holt as a songwriter.
“I am leaving out of babylon, leaving out. I am leaving out a Rome. I am leaving out a dis yah land. This place could never be my home. Say we wan’, we wan’ go home…” – Gregory Isaacs
The problem I have with reggae music’s representation within the media is that it’s far too narrow. Artists are pigeonholed, styles watered down to fit preconceived labels, a rich musical history disregarded for the music of a few select musicians. To many, Bob Marley is the both the nucleus and the atom of Jamaica and reggae music. Tourists often scour the gift shops for colourful hats with dreadlocks attached and a Bob Marley CD. But this is all wrong. The island wasn’t invaded and centuries later reggae was created. Mento predates reggae and even ska before it, taken from the music of African slaves with the incorporation of European styles and instruments such as fiddle and dances like the quadrille. A fusion with calypso (a Trinidadian style often confused with mento) made way for ska, rocksteady and finally reggae. Considering how popular the genre is, reggae music is relatively young having started in the late 60s. Unfortunately, radio stations will have you believe everything that isn’t ska is reggae. As long as the backbeat sounds vaguely similar, that’s what it’ll be marketed as and the various nuances from the island are lost. Dub threw a spanner in the works with the pigeonholers as it wasn’t distinct enough to class it as a genre of its own unless King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry were involved. But that was never the case in my house. Different styles of Jamaican music were played, from rocksteady to reggae to lovers rock to the ragga of the 90s. All I knew was they came from Jamaica and some of them were covers. I’m forever grateful for what they’ve given me in life but their love of reggae music has always permeated my skin and continued to flow through my blood. Truth be told, I probably listen to more reggae and all its predecessors and successors than them.
But as for my childhood, those were the good old days. You can stream a selection of my childhood reggae tracks and some extra gems on the Spotify player below.