I WORKED the counter of Record Village in sunny Scunthorpe for a while, and as well as hoovering up, making brews and surreptitiously pressuring kids into buying my fanzine, I also ordered indie records from Red Rhino distribution in York. I was only hired in the first place because I was buying all that stuff anyway, as a punter, and geeky enough to fit the bill.
Naturally enough, I blew a hefty chunk of my meagre wage on records. I was a kid in a sweet shop. Daft as a brush. More money than sense – and I never seemed to have any money. But I had a fantastic record collection.
No one else seemed to buy reggae, ever, and I gradually worked my way through the shop’s two racks, filling the gaps in my Bob Marley and Black Uhuru collections, as well as Burning Spear, Mad Professor, Scientist, Misty in Roots, all sorts. The guy who owned the shop (and still does) knew his stuff – even if his favourite band was Jethro Tull.
I’d only recently got into the collie herb (thanks to the Sodom and Gomorrah that was mid-Eighties Darlington) and dub had started to make sense in a way it had never done before. Bless up! Ras Tafari!
I’d heard Jah Shaka in the climactic soundclash scene in Babylon but couldn’t get hold of the mighty dubs he created for his real life soundsystem. It wasn’t until I moved to Leeds and discovered Jumbo Records (also still around) that I heard his stuff properly. I bought Commandments of Dub, Chapter 8: Imperial Dub, which had just come out.
It had a great low-tech red and black sleeve, with a poorly photocopied photo of Emperor Haile Selassie, Conquering Lion of Judah, Ras Tafari himself, “playing his harp”. On the other side it proclaimed: “Give thanks to His Majesty who makes all things possible. Thanks also to the players of instruments, who have played with Jah in their hearts. Glory to God.”
The ignorant often see reggae as slow-moving and moribund stoner music and while a lot of the tunes on Imperial Dub are for the nodding of the head rather than the dancing of the feet, tracks like Guidance, Messenger and His Majesty are built around the kind of enormous, mesmerising basslines that just compel you to step up and make shapes.
The music ebbs and flows. Lost chords from the bowels of old-skool Eighties analogue synths glide over ricocheting rim shots. A ghostly lone guitar picks out the bare bones of a melody. Unstoppable rhythms meet immovable basslines, and you’re lost in a haze of reverb, echo and delay before you even realise what’s going on. It’s proper minimal, join-the-dots stuff, where what isn’t there is every bit as important as what is.
A while after I moved to Leeds, Shaka’s sound played in Chapeltown. Me and Garbageman walked over from Hyde Park and got to the West Indian Centre unfashionably early. It was the only place we knew in Leeds that did draft Red Stripe. We got stuck in.
Shaka doesn’t play up north too often so people had come from all over. It was only when the hall began to fill out that we noticed we were the only white people in the place. Our paranoia wasn’t helped by a few frank are-you-sure-you’re-in-the-right-place-whitey? stares and the odd bad boy barging into us as they walked by, but everyone, including ourselves, soon realised we weren’t going anywhere and relaxed.
Shaka is named after the warrior king of the Zulu and he’s a militant, devout Rasta who believes he’s merely passing through Babylon en route to Zion, but that doesn’t mean to say his gigs are full of fundamentalist Back to Africa zealots looking to give the white devils a hard time. We didn’t really have anything to worry about. Shaka’s philosophy is not remotely divisive; it’s exactly the opposite in fact – it’s about tolerance and inclusivity, about love, unity and positivity. It’d be like someone kicking off at a George Harrison gig.
I was mightily impressed by Shaka himself, this little old geezer (though he was probably in his mid-forties at the time), proper dapper, distinguished and, I dunno, spiritual looking, standing at the side of the stage, almost hidden behind the bass-bins, with just a microphone, a record deck and a tiny mixing desk for company. When a record finished he just flipped it over and played the other side.
You didn’t hear the bass, you felt it. It was like a physical presence, moving you, pushing you along, hugging you like an overly playful bear, but an invisible one, two-storeys high. Combine all that with an FX-laden mid-range blasting in and out and an unpredictable, stop-start top-end, and feed it through an echo chamber the size of a house and you have the recipe for some seriously warped music.
It was the closest thing I’d ever had to a religious experience on the dancefloor – at least before ecstasy reared its ugly head and made semi-religious dancefloor experiences mundane. I’ve no idea what time we staggered out into a grey dawn, blinking and bedraggled, exhausted but elated, and maybe even a little spiritualised.
A couple of years later I moved out of a house I shared with a load of students in Woodhouse, only to find that a load of my reggae albums – and all of my Shaka stuff, including the now legendary and also now stupidly rare and expensive Jah Shaka Presents Dub Masters 1 – had been nicked by this super-snide rich-kid from Clitheroe. I barely had a bean to my name at this point. But at least I didn’t steal other people’s records. Or look like a weasel.
Another copy of Imperial Dub arrived in the post yesterday morning, courtesy of System Records in Hebden Bridge (check out their website at www.netsoundsmusic.com) and it sounded disappointingly weedy on first listening. So I whacked the volume right up, gave the bassline a little room to breathe and suddenly everything slotted into place.
I’ve been playing it pretty much constantly ever since. It sounds as fresh, vital and vibrant now as it did then. Maybe even more so.
There’s no smart-arse pay-off to this one. Shaka is still DJing and producing, “playing Jah music strictly inna King David style”. The album is a repress on his own Jah Shaka Music label: he got paid and continues to get paid, he’s still fighting the good fight. Give thanks and read all about it here.
[This piece first appeared on the Reject Musical Trash website in 2006]