You should attend this weekend’s Irie Jamboree in Queens for three very simple reasons: It will start on time, run smoothly, and deliver all of the artists advertised. I’m not being facetious here: Plenty of reggae shows, let alone all-day outdoor ones featuring more than two dozen acts, can’t boast any of the above. This seven-year-old annual institution owes its reputation as the most buzzed-about domestic reggae event of the year—and an instant fixture on the West Indian Day Parade–dominated Labor Day–weekend circuit—in part to stellar organizational qualities.
There are, of course, more vibesy selling points—the lineup, namely: a charily selected mélange of hot new acts and oldies-but-goodies, all of whom are well aware that half-assed performances will not fly at this show. This year’s concert—staged, for the first time, on the campus of York College—portions these acts into three segments representing the history of Jamaican music: a vintage reggae and rockers set, a contemporary roots-reggae set, and a dancehall set.
It’s true that what is most glaring about this year’s lineup is who’s not on it—a misfortune that the promoters, for the most part, can’t be blamed for. Reggae-soul singer Jah Cure (who rose to fame while incarcerated in Kingston on rape charges, recording music from his cell) has not been granted a U.S. visa since being freed two years ago. Also on the “visa-denied” list, and thus also not taking the stage, is the most scandalously popular act in Jamaica right now: dancehall motormouth Vybz Kartel, having lately released a slew of songs with choruses about, say, taking one girl’s virginity and “breeding” another—tunes so reprehensibly slack that you feel guilty about loving them.
Finally, Kartel’s arch rival, the “gangster-for-life” Mavado, is not on the bill, though he is (for the time being, at least) in possession of a visa. Adept at talking girls and guns with an intonation more melancholy than the blues, Mavado won’t be clashing with his nemesis this Labor Day.
Perhaps it’s a deliberate omission—Irie’s lineup eschews controversy in favor of homage. Which brings us to our first headliner: Sean Paul. Or, rather, Sean Paul’s dancers; they’re the ones you’ll really be watching while he’s onstage. That’s because, as reggae fans know, Paul is not the most, well, vivacious of performers. But he is wicked in the studio, as his new album Imperial Blaze proves yet again (and he will, indeed, show up, his PR folks say, despite backing out of a free Brooklyn show at Wingate Field last week on doctor’s orders). So even if he can’t do the latest dances, he can deftly deliver tunes like his latest single, “So Fine,” which adheres to the winning Sean Paul formula: Pared-down dancehall beats plus rapid-speed, monotone delivery equals poster-child status.
A great performance is likely to come from dancehall sing-jay Mr. Vegas, living proof that dancehall believes in reincarnation. Vegas all but had a fork sticking out of him several years ago, before a string of tunes, most with an alluringly old-school flavor, resuscitated his career, which is a good thing because he can work the stage brilliantly, his glistening six-pack on display. His latest sing-along hits, “Up Deh” and “I Am Blessed,” suggest that he’s on a gospel kick. This means shirtless wining of the waist and praising of the Lord will not be mutually exclusive.
Among those rounding up the crowd-drawing dancehall segment are Assassin, an always dependable (sometimes too dependable) DJ; boy-band turned man-band T.O.K., harmonizing tunes off their new album Our World; lone female dancehall act Spice, whose 2008 duet with Kartel, a meticulous roadmap for kinky sex called “Rampin’ Shop,” almost single-handedly sparked a censorship movement on Jamaican airwaves; and two new artists getting their stripes this year, Laden and Chino.
These last two are not so much full-fledged artists as vehicles for their feted producer, wunderkind Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor—also responsible for, among many hits, Sean Paul’s “So Fine.” The McGregor signature sound (hip-hop-tempo beats laced with a hyper-articulated, singsong flow, never short on AutoTune or other enhancements) is having a cloning effect on its beneficiaries. Chino (who had a stint with Southern hip-hop label Slip-n-Slide Records) and Laden (who got his start on Jamaica’s version of American Idol, a/k/a Digicel Rising Stars) sound a lot like each other, and both sound a lot like sanitized versions of Mavado and Kartel rolled into one (which is, redeemingly, a potential powerhouse of a combination).
Coincidentally, the 19-year-old McGregor ties the new-school dancehall segment and the vintage set together. The producer is the son of rock legend Freddie McGregor, also on the bill—the father will doubtless deliver a flawless set of classic tunes that are very, very different from the ones that his son is making. Much of the old-school segment will be a chance for those of a certain generation to lament this fact, luxuriating in nostalgia and imagining that all music was better back in the day. Coxson Dodd’s legendary Studio One label, which produced hits by everyone from Bob Marley to almost all of the artists on this part of the lineup, will be well represented: Ken Boothe will croon sweetly and impeccably, Pinchers will chat about giving her “the agony,” and pioneering artist/producer Sugar Minott will perform new tracks off his New Day album (yep, he’s still making albums).
Between the old and the new is contemporary roots, made from both—the spiritual content of classic roots cloaked in the bold brashness of dancehall. Case in point: Queen Ifrica, a highly anticipated act on the roots segment, which also features Guyanese artist Natural Black, singer Etana (a kind of Jamaican Jill Scott), and Tarrus Riley, the stellar singer-songwriter whose operatic vocals and enchantingly writerly lyrics make his new album Contagious one of the best reggae releases in years.
Ifrica is a woman in a male-dominated industry, yes, but, more notably, she hit it big without presenting herself as one of the two extreme personas that reggae typically reserves for women: desexualized empress or oversexed diva. In fact, the Rasta artist, whose sophomore album Montego Bay came out this month, plays with both and limits herself to neither, singing in calculatingly un-sexy tones about what her man has going on “below the waist,” then hailing Jah as a “lioness on the rise.” Every Irie Jamboree has a show-stealer, and this year—among the dozens of artists, big-name and small-, on the bill—I put my money on a lioness. All hail the Queen.
The Irie Jamboree takes place September 6 at York College in Queens