From Kingston to Brooklyn

Sir Coxsone Turns On the Power

Marijuana, in many ways a very spiritual and communal drug in Jamaican culture, was replaced by cocaine and crack. Dreadlocks were shorn and replaced by jheri curls. People replaced African-inspired attire with American-style clothing. The music that Coxsone had championed was being pushed aside.

"Lost in the midst of the cargo gold, the jheri curls, and the crack pipe, was any real remembrance of conscious reggae," journalist Laurie Gunst, author of the posse history Born Fi' Dead, says. "And obviously Bob's death had an enormous amount to do with that. You've got that whole matrix after 1980: Marley's death, the rise of dancehall, the horror of the 1980 election. . . . The loss of memory, as it were, because all you have to do is kill that many people in a generation and look what you've got."

Also lost to violence were some of reggae's brightest lights: Peter Tosh, King Tubby, Garnett Silk, Tenor Saw, Nitty Gritty, Pan Head, Dirtsman. "Tubby's death was left unanswered," Coxsone says. "Coming around to Peter Tosh, it was just a pity. Because of politics, people got more vicious. When you heard of a murder or violence in the old days, it was the talk of the town for two or three years until something else happened. But now, every week something occurs that's worse than what came before. I just hope that it will come back to normal, because it's no good for nobody and a lot of innocent people are losing their lives."

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

But personally, at least, he seems somewhat satisfied: "I would say I have no regrets. I'm happy for everything over the years. You have a lot of jealous people in the business who try to put me down, but God knows, I've been very helpful to artists and musicians. And I'm still here for them, you know? And I'm really thankful for the artists and musicians I've worked with over the years. In the meantime, I just praise God and try to do the best I can."

Coxsone estimates that 60 percent of the tracks he's recorded are still unreleased, and he is now releasing and repackaging material through Heartbeat Records. He is also still putting out releases on his own Studio One label, including an excellent disc by veteran Jamaican singer Glen Washington emoting new lyrics over vintage Studio One rhythms. In the meantime he maintains his Brooklyn record store and recording studio, making the occasional trip back to Jamaica. Of the original pioneers, he is one of the few who remain.

Thoughts turn to the curious half-smile you see on some old photos of him, when he was just another young reggae producer. One thinks of the singular tricks he was able to pull off by his role in the music's history, at once omnipresent and invisible. Perhaps, finally, being an elusive figure was Coxsone's way of never being defined as a target. Of maintaining and, finally, surviving.

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