From Kingston to Brooklyn

Sir Coxsone Turns On the Power

Here, one finds early confluence of the spiritual and the more earthy and desperate elements that spawned reggae. Early Rasta musician Count Ossie would cross west from East Kingston to hang out with the burra, and his incorporation of the burra drum was a defining moment in the development of Jamaican music. Don Drummond, the great but troubled trombonist who led the Skatalites, refined Ossie's vision with mournfulness, loneliness, and loss, mirroring the dislocation of an entire people.

Alvin "Seeco" Patterson, later a percussionist for the Wailers, recommended that Bob, Peter, and Bunny (who then called themselves the Juveniles) audition for Coxsone in 1964. Coxsone turned them over to Joe Higgs to firm up the group's rough, sloppy harmonies. Higgs and Roland Alphonso, Coxsone says, taught the young group "how many beats to a bar, how to count the bars, so that you would know when to come in after the introduction."

"Peter was extremely witty, which is one aspect of his life that has been completely overlooked," Herbie Miller remembers. "He had a lot of strong opinions, on everything in life. . . . But he was really pretty easy to get along with.

"Bob presented a more complex personality. He was, in a way, shy, but he was bold in another way. He wasn't as outgoing as, say, Peter was, but in a situation where he knew everybody, he was fun. But he was, I would say, a little less approachable. He was a bit more ready to sum up anyone who approached him, though he was quite inquisitive and wanted to know things."

Bunny, Miller says, was "more suspicious of his surroundings and the people in it. More careful in everything he did. And he survived."

Under Coxsone's tutelage, the Wailers recorded some of their most memorable compositions, including "Simmer Down," "One Love," and "Put It On," reflecting a political acumen previously rare in Jamaican music. Horace Andy, one of reggae's great singers and now a vocalist with British trip-hop collective Massive Attack, began recording for Coxsone a little later, as did Freddie McGregor, whose 1978 Bobby Bobylonalbum is a landmark of conscious reggae.


Marijuana, in many ways a very spiritual and communal drug in Jamaican culture, was replaced by cocaine and crack. The music that Sir Coxsone had championed was being pushed aside.


Political killings and gang warfare es-calated in Jamaica throughout the 1970s, and the Jamaican political parties became more intransigent and extreme in their opposition to one another. In contrast to the elected officials, it was gunmen like Bucky Marshall and Marley acquaintance Claudie Massop who functioned as spokesmen between the ghetto poor and the "big mon dem" leaders. Jamaican Labor Party leader Edward Seaga, in particular, was rumored to be an enthusiastic patron of gangs that would, over the years, branch out into large-scale cocaine smuggling rings, known as posses.

Almost on cue, out of Coxsone's Studio One came a Willie Williams song called "Armagiddeon Time," describing the urban battles in terms of an end-of-time struggle.

"The story behind the song was that we had this great musical track that we released as 'Real Rock,' " Coxsone remembers. "But the track was so strong that I realized putting some lyrics to it would be a good idea. . . . We got in the studio and we came up with the Armagiddeon idea. After we finished with it that evening, I realized that we had something strong. No looking back. . . . It was right for the time to be comin' biblical."

In 1978, a People's National Party-affiliated attempted purge of 14 Jamaican Labor Party gang members on a beach outside of Kingston resulted in the death of five. Sensing the approach of anarchy, the gunmen themselves, not their patrons, called a truce. A host of Coxsone alumni played the One Love Peace concert, at which Bob Marley actually got Prime Minister Michael Manley of the PNP and opposition leader Edward Seaga of the JLP to clasp hands above his head onstage. Peter Tosh, dressed all in black, delivered a relentless, mesmerizing set in which he often departed from the music to excoriate the two leaders seated only a few feet before him for their contribution to his country's misery.

The implications were clear. Manley had lost the ability to control and unify the militant and moderate wings of his party. The area around Coxsone's studio in the capital became a war zone as Jamaica was crushed under the weight of its foreign debt. And a sinister element was being introduced: cocaine. The drug was pervasive in the ghettos during the 10-month campaign leading up to the elections of 1980, and many think its presence contributed to the paroxysm of violence then. 800 people died.

"The election was like a civil war, man, it was a war," affirms Herbie Miller. A war that ended—much to the newly elected Reagan administration's pleasure—with Seaga's defeat of Manley and the installation of a right-wing regime in Jamaica. "Nineteen eighty," Sir Coxsone pauses. "That's when I knew I had to leave."

So he relocated his operations to Brooklyn. In his absence, dancehall, the style once described by Flo O'Connor of the Jamaican Council of Human Rights as "IMF music," came to rule the airwaves with tales of guns, "dons" (gang leaders), and "punany." "With the current music," Coxsone weighs in, "these producers, when you look at them you see that they are reducers, not producers. The dancehall music of today lacks creativity, that musical arrangement and the lyrics. . . . Well, poor lyrics, nothing constructive."

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