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This suddenly feels like forever ago
In the past week or so, we’ve had a sort of ridiculous number of completely unrelated music-world deaths: Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles, Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman, Dave Clark Five member Mike Smith, Juvenile’s four-year-old daughter Jelani Deleston. Among them are two behind-the-scenes figures who helped bring into the world an insane amount of great music. Reggae producer Joe Gibbs and R&B songwriter/producer Steve “Static Major” Garrett probably both deserve their own playlists, but this is a busy week, so I’m going to use this space to dip a toe into the huge discographies that both of them left behind.
Joe Gibbs, 1943-2008
1. Ron Shirley: “Hold Them” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Joe Gibbs started out in the music business when he decided to start selling ska 45s in his Kingston TV repair shop. Pretty soon, he set up a recording studio in the back of the shop and hired Lee Perry as a producer and engineer. In 1967, when Gibbs started producing himself, ska was starting to slow down and develop into rocksteady. When he started producing, he also began his first label, Amalgamated. The people who like to argue about that type of thing sometimes call “Hold Them,” the first single Gibbs produced, the first rocksteady song. It’s a pretty great little song, a warm and easy glide of a dance track, but it’s also a pretty innocuous beginning for what would turn out to be an incredible career.
2. Lee “Scratch” Perry: “(I Am) the Upsetter” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Perry left Amalgamated about a year into its existence. For a while, Perry and Gibbs had a pretty acrimonious relationship, actually releasing dis songs about each other. But in 1969, Perry released his signature track, and Gibbs produced it. Things move fast in reggae.
3. Dennis Brown: “Money in My Pocket’ Preview/Buy from iTunes
By 1972, Gibbs was putting out music at an insane clip. During that year, he started a long-running collaborative relationship with Dennis Brown, a smooth young crooner who eventually became a titan. “Money in My Pocket,” the first track Gibbs and Brown recorded together, is a completely gorgeous little jam that went on to become one of the biggest hits either would ever record.
4. Culture: “Two Sevens Clash” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Also in 1972, Gibbs teamed up with engineer Errol Thompson, and their new production unit became known as the Mighty Two. According to the Allmusic bio I’m pillaging to write this thing, the Mighty Two produced more than a hundred number-one records during the 70s, which doesn’t even seem possible. Their house band, the Professionals, included Sly and Robbie as well as a bunch of other hugely influential musicians. They also produced Two Sevens Clash, an album about Marcus Garvey’s prediction that the world would end on July 7, 1977. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a happier, prettier song about apocalypse; I wonder if Culture was bummed when it didn’t happen.
5. Althea & Donna: “Uptown Top Ranking” Preview/Buy from iTunes
This absurdly simple and catchy 1977 track from two teenage singers who never scored another hit was a Gibbs production, and it remains one of my favorite reggae singles ever. Three years later, Gibbs would release J.C. Lodge’s cover of country legend Charley Pride’s “Someone Loves You Honey” and then spend years tied up in court when Pride’s estate sued him. The lawsuit definitively ended Gibbs’s great run and forced him to drop out of the music business for a while, though he’d eventually recover and start producing again. The Thursday before last, Gibbs died of a heart attack. He was 65.
Steve “Static Major” Garrett, 19674-2008
1. Ginuwine: “Pony” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Though he started his career as a singer, Steve Garrett probably made his greatest impact as a songwriter and as one of Timbaland’s earliest frequent collaborators. “Pony” was Timbaland’s first hit, and it remains one of the most out-there singles he produced. Static wrote it along with Timbaland and Ginuwine; at the time, all three of them were underlings for Jodeci. Static wrote the lyrics for “Pony,” which meant it was his job to give Tim’s burping-dragon track the sort of resonance that it would need to sound like something made by humans. Wisely, Static gave it lyrics about fucking. This thing was all over the radio during the summer of 1996, and I can vividly remember how weirded out I’d get every time I heard it.
2. Playa: “Cheers 2 U” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Playa, the R&B trio that Static led, was the part of that initial wave of Tim-affiliated artists, along with Ginuwine and Missy Elliott and Aaliyah and, um, Magoo. Even though they released an album on Def Jam, Playa was probably the least successful part of that wave. But “Cheers 2 U” is a great little relic of a hugely exciting time for R&B; the trio’s lush vocal smoothness meshes beautifully with Tim’s jittery stop-start track.
3. Aaliyah: “More Than a Woman” Preview/Buy from iTunes
This spot should really go to “Are You That Somebody?,” Aaliyah’s world-conquering 1998 single, which Static cowrote, but there’s damn near no Aaliyah for sale on iTunes. But Static also cowrote most of the tracks on Aaliyah’s self-titled 2001 album, quite possibly my favorite R&B album of the decade thus far. (He also made a smart and slippery guest-appearance on that album’s “Loose Rap.”) Aaliyah died in a plane crash a couple of months after the album came out, and I remember being especially crushed by that one. She’d come a tremendous way since the start of her career, and it’s tough to imagine what she might’ve done if she’d had a bit longer. Sadly, it’s now possible to say the same about Static.
4. Truth Hurts: “Addictive [feat. Rakim]” Preview/Buy from iTunes
Around the same time he tapered off his work with Timbaland, Static teamed up with DJ Quik to write one of the all-time great fake Tim tracks. Quik threw off-kilter drums over a wailing Bollywood sample. Static’s lyrics, as Truth Hurts delivers them, are some truly intense and specific and evocative sex-talk. And the Rakim cameo is about the most worthwhile thing that guy has done since his first Eric B-free album. Everyone involved was working at maximum capacity on this thing.
5. David Banner: “Crank It Up [feat. Static]” Preview/Buy from iTunes
This wasn’t much of a hit in 2003, but it sounds pretty amazing this afternoon, Static’s chilly, calm voice darting in and out of the rumbling electro track and Banner’s demented bark. Over the past couple of years, Static had kept a lower profile, but he was still around. He’d done a whole lot of work on the Pretty Ricky album that went to number one last year. He also appeared on “Lollipop,” the forthcoming Lil Wayne single, and he finished Suppertime, a solo album set to see release later in the year. He died in a Louisville hospital last Monday, possibly of a brain aneurysm. He was 32.