From Kingston to Brooklyn

Sir Coxsone Turns On the Power

Reggae has always been a genre shaped by the daring and innovation of its producers. Men like Jack Ruby, King Tubby, and Henry "Junjo" Lawes all helped shape the inside-out bass-and-hi-hat sound that became Jamaica's musical calling card throughout the world. One of the most enigmatic and complex of these figures was Clement Dodd. Not only responsible for giving the original Wailers (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer) their first real break in music, he had a stable of talent working for him at his downtown Kingston studio that reads now like a hall of fame: Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, the Gladiators, Joseph Hill from the group Culture. Heartbeat Records will release Nice Up the Dance, a stellar compilation of Dodd's work, on March 13. But from the girls and rude "bwais" at Kingston "blues dances" of the late 1960s to aficionados scouring vinyl bins in New York and London today, he remains known by another moniker: Sir Coxsone.

"It was the name of a British cricketeer," he says. "He played the same position I did when I was at All Saints School."

We are sitting in his record shop- cum-recording studio, a small green storefront in the shadow of the elevated J-M-Z subway line, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. "Coxsone's Music City," the awning outside proclaims. Row upon row of vinyl LPs and 45s are stacked in piles behind the shelves and rise majestically from slots in the wall, and the only clues that a legend owns the building are the distinctive one-drop beat flowing from its open door, and the jacket photos of album after album of reggae icons. Men like the great horn player Roland Alphonso, who often sat outside the shop playing dominos and reminiscing about when he played in the greatest of all ska bands, the Skatalites. Alphonso died in 1998, and the shop's owner sorely misses him.

his story is the story of reggae itself.
photo: Mindy Tucker
his story is the story of reggae itself.

Coxsone's dapper goatee has gone salt-and-pepper, and he now moves with a slow, almost grandfatherly deliberation, but his story is, in many ways, the story of reggae itself—and by extension, the musical tableau of a nation.

Under Sir Coxsone's tutelage, the Bob Marley and the Wailers recorded some of their most memorable compositions, reflecting a political acumen previously rare in Jamaican music.

Born to roughly middle-class parents in Kingston in 1932, Coxsone began operating a sound system (a portable outfit of speakers, amplifiers, and turntables) in Jamaica's capital city in his early thirties, after a stint as an agricultural worker in Florida, where he had discovered American r&b. As a canny way of providing himself with local material that none of his competitors (such as cocky, pistol-sporting rival Duke Reid) could access, Coxsone slowly got involved in the recording of local artists. Soon, he had named himself president of not one record label, but five. At least.

"It was much more than five," he shyly corrects a visitor, explaining that the multiple imprints were a ruse to hide the extent of his labels' output, not from competitors, but from radio DJs who grew tired of being bombarded with Coxsone releases. By the time radio stations realized who was behind a track, it was already a hit.

And this was only the beginning—when Jamaica was still basking in post-independence euphoria, before a kid named "Nesta" Marley appeared at Coxsone's studio one day. Herbie Miller, former manager of Peter Tosh and now a lecturer at the New School, speaks rhapsodically about the time when reggae was in its prime. Miller sees the era as a time of new consciousness and great political awareness—a time, though it was still violent, when Jamaicans were learning to love themselves for who they were—not as Africans, not as faux-British colonials, but as a nation with a shared history of pain, slavery, and oppression.

Based loosely upon the teaching of Marcus Garvey, the Rasta faith first appeared in Kingston in the 1940s, preaching a back-to-Africa credo and proclaiming the divinity of Ras Tafari Makonnen, crowned Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia. At the same time that Jamaica was gaining independence from Britain and solidifying into a two-party state, the Rasta movement became a real presence in the ghettos. A curious dynamic developed among the sacred, criminal, and musical elements of these communities that would deeply affect the words, sound, and power coming out of Coxsone's studio. The locksmen (as Rastas were sometimes called, due to their dreadlocked hairstyle) and city clans such as the burra were all moving into one another's space.

"The burra people were not a spiritual people, but they were a drum-playin' people. They came from places like Back 'O Wall and Dungle and the most dreadful slums," Miller explains, referring to the ghetto subculture prominent in the late '50s and early '60s. "They smoked weed and played drums and chanted. . . . Guys who were incarcerated or made a living hustling on the waterfront. Many times there was a burra session to celebrate someone getting released from prison. . . . The Rasta people had a natural affinity for these burra men, but the Rasta are a peace-and-love order; the burra people were a bit more lawless. What really united them was music."

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