Man Ah Warrior by Tapper Zukie (Mer)

I’M PRETTY comfortable in record shops. Too comfortable, some might say.

Either way, I’ve spent too much time and money on both sides of the counter in new and secondhand record shops to worry about what some spod in a Radiohead tee thinks of my taste in music.

Not, I hasten to add, that the knowledgeable, dedicated and more often than not friendly and approachable musical-curation professionals in the shops I frequent are spods. And they’d also be unlikely to wear Radiohead T-shirts, probably. I hope.

Yes, they might be a bit eccentric at times but remember that they have to work with the public, week in, week out. They are a very agreeable bunch of people by and large, considering.

Take a bow, all you ruthless rinsers of my wallet at King Bee, Vinyl Exchange, Piccadilly Records, Vinyl Revival, Eastern Bloc, Jumbo, Relics, Phonica, Sister Ray and Reckless – and any number of breadhead charity shop wankers the length and breadth of Britain.

You are more persuasive, convincing and clinically efficient than any dirty drug dealer I’ve ever met. No doubt I’ll be seeing you again soon.

It was all very different in the early Eighties. As a particularly unfashionable schoolkid in 1980 or 1981, no doubt wearing a very un-ironic lumberjack jacket and national health glasses combo, walking into Parade on Roberts Street in Scunthorpe town centre seemed like a genuinely intimidating experience – although in reality the High Street was actually much more dangerous.

Comically, I remember going through the sparsely populated racks with a sense of increasing desperation as I tried to find something, anything, that I’d heard of, that I had some kind of connection with, of which I might have even have a vague, uninformed opinion – presumably, just in case the guy behind the counter decided to give me a quiz before he’d let me buy anything.

Simply leaving the shop without a record was, it seems, as out of the question then as it is now.

I came to learn that the people behind the counter at Parade were in fact every bit as affable as their present-day compatriots in Manchester. And they would’ve have been equally as happy to talk to me about obscurist crap all day, as long as I bought something at some point, probably.

Feeling like too much of a clod-hopping country bumpkin with a shit haircut to simply ask the bloke behind the counter if they had anything that sounded like PiL but without John Lydon (which would’ve sparked an interesting conversation if nothing else), I inadvertently ended up with something much better.

The cover of Man Ah Warrior certainly stood out. I’d seen my uncle’s copy of the album, and gleaned that it was reggae, if not much else. But the stark, monochrome head-and-shoulders front cover shot depicted a man with a shaved head, rather than the dreads that I assumed were mandatory among Jamaican musicians and producers.

And while reggae’s musical vibe was often pretty tripped out and psychedelic, the covers of the reggae records I bought were often very literal and straightforward representations of the artists concerned. Man Ah Warrior’s cover was some crazy abstract shit.

I mean, what the fuck was it all about? Was the guy on the front even Tapper Zukie? The mystical mumbo jumbo by esteemed reggae critic Penny Reel on the back cover offered no clues, and in fact muddied the waters still further.

zukie

I’d like to say that, listening to it later back at home in a bedroom festooned with a weird and unfortunate collage of Star Wars and 2-Tone posters, I had some big musical revelation and proper got on Zukie’s madcap vibe, but in actual fact it went right above my head. I just didn’t get it at all.

I remember thinking the production was all over the place but the music was alright, what you could hear of it. Unfortunately, rather than the smooth lyrical flow of toasters like Big Youth, Dillinger and even, ahem, Ranking Roger that I was used to, this guy was shouting most of the time, mostly about red-nosed reindeer, “simpleton badness” and not eating pork, like he’d got a screw loose or something. I just thought it sounded really basic and shit, but not in a good way.

After a few initial spins, the album languished unplayed and unloved in the nether regions of my record collection. I didn’t even rate it once I heard it through an agreeable haze of dope smoke a few years later. And I used to listen to some right shit.

One day in Leeds, I realised the album wasn’t there anymore, along with most of the punk and reggae records I bought when I was a kid. Yes, that old, familiar tale. But, in this particular case, I wasn’t actually that arsed. The album’s front cover was the best thing about it.

Imagine my surprise when, a few years later, leafing through a lavish and expensive coffee-table book of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, that same cover shot from Man Ah Warrior crops up again.

Nestled among some strikingly intimate and lushly austere black-and-white close ups of flowers, and equally eye-popping and intimate depictions of S&M, the cover of Man Ah Warrior is, it turns out, absolutely in keeping with the rest of Mapplethorpe’s work.

This immediately makes the album more interesting. Don’t judge me.

Fast forward another couple of decades, and I’m going through the usual pointless Saturday afternoon ritual of flicking through King Bee’s reggae section in search of affordable pre-digital Shaka releases – like a massive tit – when I spot a copy of Man Ah Warrior. Eight quid. Fuck it.

It turns out the Tapper bit of David Sinclair’s stage name comes from a family nickname, while the Zukies were the gang he ran with as a child in west Kingston. Following local soundsystems as youngster, he ended up developing a precocious talent for toasting – singing, chanting, basically rapping over the top of records – and became something of a local celebrity.

Unfortunately, JA’s neighbourhood soundsystem culture was inexorably entwined with the volatile power struggle between Edward Seaga’s Jamaican Labour Party and Michael Manley’s People’s National Party, which, in Kingston, manifested itself in increasing levels of violence between gangs from different parts of the city.

The level of Zukie’s involvement in all this is unclear. One YouTuber, who clearly has an axe to grind, accuses him of being a PNP hitman and enforcer before, having changed his political allegiance, founding the JLP Shower Posse, and even being one of the gunmen who tried to kill Bob Marley.

Whatever the reality, he was involved enough for his mum, his brother and family friend Bunny Lee to cook up a plan for the 17-year-old Zukie to get the fuck out of Dodge. He left the island for the UK, and while in London recorded a number of tracks with producer Clement Bushay.

The story goes that Zukie only found out that his work had been released as the Man Ah Warrior album when, after returning to Jamaica, becoming Bunny Lee’s bodyguard and releasing more well-received singles, he revisited London a couple of years later and saw it for sale in a record shop.

A holidaying American rock critic named Lenny Kaye, who also happened to be the guitarist in Patti Smith’s backing band, picked up a copy of Man Ah Warrior from some “West London back-alley reggae stall” soon after it was released in 1974 and took it back to the States. It made a big impression on Patti Smith.

Three years later, and the Patti Smith Group were on tour in Europe, in the vanguard of what had come to be known as punk rock. Smith’s angry verses were becoming increasingly more relevant in an age of sickening rock and roll self-indulgence and business-as-usual bullshit. As Zukie remembers it in this excellent United Reggae interview:

I was at home one day round at Militant Barry’s house – because that was my home away from home – when Militant Barry got a phone call. It was Don Letts, who used to run a punk clothes shop down in the West End, and he said he was playing one of my records – I think it was Don’t Get Weary – and this lady came running in the shop and said, ‘I know that voice! Who is that voice?’

“When he said, ‘Tappa Zukie’, she said, ‘Do you know him?’ and he didn’t but he knew somebody who knows me, which was Militant Barry. So, she said, ‘tell him to get a message to him to get himself down to the Hammersmith Odeon in Shepherd’s Bush’”.

By all accounts, on meeting Zukie backstage, Smith – who has said that she used to practice reciting her poems over the top of Man Ah Warrior before working them up into songs – literally fell down at his feet in veneration, genuflecting.

Lenny Kaye’s Mer label re-released Man Ah Warrior in 1977, complete with a new front cover image by Smith’s best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. Confusingly, the cover info says it was recorded in Kingston, but maybe that was just more marketable point of origin than west London. Or maybe I just got it all wrong. You get the impression that a lot of things got lost in translation.

Either way, the Kaye/Smith connection meant the album enjoyed far greater exposure than previously. Thurston Moore said of the album:

“I bought it only because it was on Patti’s label. I’d never known too much reggae music at that point. I listened to Bob Marley and whatever but was never a superfan. But this record made me a superfanatic about reggae – everything about it was awesome.

“The front cover is this Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of a black, bald head and it’s beautiful, and Penny Reel – who used to write for NME and stuff in the 70s, back when the NME was actually a readable newspaper – wrote the liner notes.

“I loved this record because it was so stark – it’s basically just a guitar making a kind of percussive clicking sound. Very simple notation. And this rasta vibration voice just intoning on top of it. Very stark and minimal, really a strange sounding record.

“I’d play it all the time over and over and it led me into investigating Jamaican reggae culture and how it went into ideas of otherworldliness, which I really liked. Man Ah Warrior was really important to me.”

Joe Strummer was also a fan:

“The poor blacks and the poor whites are in the same boat .. They don’t want us in their culture but we just happen to dig Tapper Zukie and Big Youth, Dillinger and Aswad and Delroy Washington.

“We dig them and we ain’t scared of going into heavy black record shops and getting their gear. We even go to heavy black gigs where we’re the only white people there…”

Embarrassing.

“If Patti Smith hadn’t championed it and Mapplethorpe hadn’t done the cover for the ’77 re-release, it’d simply be a good Tapper LP,” says my internet friend Wrongtom. “I just think it’s testament to how loads of punks didn’t look much further than the approved reggae LPs at the time. Standard.

“I fucking hate punks sometimes.”

Same.

Ultimately, I am as superficial as fuck. I am worse than Strummer in fact. And while it’s true to say that I probably wouldn’t have bothered buying Man Ah Warrior again if my interest hadn’t been – ahem – pricked by the Mapplethorpe connection, the fact is that the album has really got under my skin this time around. Maybe my tastes have matured a bit since the early 80s.

Listening to it again, the album maintains an old fashioned, creaky, resolutely analogue vibe throughout. The level of production sheen varies from track to track, considerably. The album’s musical bare bones come from the ubiquitous riddims of Jamaican music – where multipurpose backing tracks are used by anyone and everyone as the basis of their own versions of the original – accompanied by Zukie chanting, singing and plain shouting over the top.

I’m not entirely sure how far the concept of intellectual property flew in Jamaica in the 1970s.

The title track takes the bassline and trademark guitar chk chk chk from Papa Was a Rolling Stone and turns it into a lazily hypnotic, slow-burn reggae funk jam, with just drum, bass, guitar and Zukie, riding the rhythm as he tells us he “play it so good, like I really should, that’s why they call me Doctor Make You Feel Good”.

I Ra Lion is mostly just bare drum and bass, with Tapper’s singsong vocal invading the wide-open spaces of the deconstructed groove:

“Love is so true and love is so pure, love is something you must endure,” he sings, with all the cock-sure wisdom of 17-year-old lads the world over, making good use of the holy trinity of JA rhyme – Zion, Iron and Lion, and various combinations thereof.

It sounds like he’s making it up on the spot, but it still sounds great.

I King Zukie revolves around a very likeable interplay between the original soulful vocal and Zukie’s rhythmic, resolutely untutored toasting, with our man’s vocal simply dancing in and out of the original, accompanied by a rocking mid-tempo backing track. He sounds naive and raw and authentic, and at times reflective and maybe even plaintive, but there’s clearly also a streak of wildness in him a mile wide.

Simpleton Badness harnesses a quietly intense organ bubble groove to what appears to be a plea for peace and love and understanding in place of the senseless tribal violence of JA politics. Bizarrely, It sounds very much like there’s a theremin in there at times, although I guess it could just be tapes being run backwards. Either way, it’s as random as fuck and sounds absolutely bananas.

The story goes that Clement Bushay got the “highly unusual” reverb sound on Zukie’s vocal by getting the teen toaster to sing into huge slices of sheet steel. Clearly, Bushay is/was a heavy metal visionary.

Even the album’s seeming throwaway novelty track, Archie the Rednose Reindeer (based, apparently, on a Lee Perry dub of the Wailers’ Keep on Moving rhythm, itself a cover of the Curtis Mayfield / Impressions track) is a charming little tune with a killer guitar solo midway through.

Similarly, Viego reappropriates La Bamba by Richie Valens to produce a groovy mid-tempo chugger. I am aware this sounds a bit shit but it is actually ace.

Zukie Fashionware is, apparently, some kind of play on words around the nursery rhyme and the revolting JA fish pate Solomon a Gundie, and features some particularly piercing yelps that have had to be severely compressed to fit into the audio range. There’s also a big trombone thing going on and a locked groove that just doesn’t stop. Zukie sounds exuberantly, irrepressibly and utterly assured and unselfconscious – and a bit mental, to be honest. It’s good.

He just sounds fucking bananas at points, but there’s real artistry at play here. The combination of genuinely disorientating music and effects and Zukie’s unhinged teenage bravado is not unlike some kind of JA surrealist manifesto. It has that supercharged, thunderstorm intensity of open-air dances in the sultry Caribbean night, where everything teeters on the edge without ever quite disintegrating.

Black Cinderella has a rocking, low-down groove, complete with melodica and a trumpet refrain that very much reminds me very much of Deliver Me by Yabby U.

Cally Dolly is another slo-mo take on the title track and conjures up images of mobile weed dealers swerving potholes on bikes. It explicitly references the source material (“I’m not a rolling stone y’know, I’m just a warrior…”), and begins with Zukie listing ways of imbibing the sacred herb before seemingly going on to arranging a bulk sale of the cally he grows in the valley.

When Zukie Day Yah is built around the kind of unstoppable keyboard jam that Jerry Dammers would later replicate to spectacular effect. Zukie proclaims, “I’m here to postulate a matter, and to settle a bad behavior through a ballistic affair,” apparently lauding his own power to stop the violence (“When Zukie deh yah, booyaka a stop..’), although, according to Penny Reel, it’s actually about noted ‘bad man’, psychotic maniac and Zukie protégé Ranking ‘Booyaka’ Dread.

The album ends on a suitably bonkers note with some timely culinary advice in the shape of the jauntily soulful vibe of A Message to Pork Eaters:

“Don’t eat pork, it’s not good for you, cos when him come you nah cross the river,” intones Zukie, basically telling us that if you want to cross the river of Babylon – essentially get involved in the rapture and ascending to Zion, all that – you shouldn’t eat eat pork, because God really hates that. Sounds plausible.

It turns out I like the album a lot. And the cover photo remains an almost hypnotically beautiful and enigmatic image.

I tried to find out a bit more about the original photograph and, thanks to the very helpful Joree Adilman of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, learned that it’s entitled Cedric and comes from Mapplethorpe’s X, Y and Z portfolios — which consist of what I’ve seen described as “the sex pictures”, sensual flowers and nude images of African American men, respectively.

Specifically, Cedric comes from the X portfolio – photographs that Mapplethorpe staged in his studio based on his experience with the S&M scene in New York in the 1970s.

Echoing the sparse ‘less is more’ vibe of the album, there are just three elements to the front cover shot – four if you count the background. The way Mapplethorpe plays with the contrast between light and shade makes it difficult to even tell if his subject is black or white. It could be a shot from above, it could be a shot of Cedric bowing his head. It’s difficult to say.

As Mapplethorpe said: “I zero in on the body part that I consider the most perfect part in that particular model.”

Ironically enough, although Mapplethorpe was big news on the art scene while he was alive, it seems he only really entered the general public consciousness in America after his death, when noted philistine, bigot and homophobe US senator Jesse Helms objected to federal funding for a traveling exhibition of his work.

“I don’t even acknowledge that it’s art,” said Helms. “I don’t even acknowledge that the fellow who did it was an artist. I think he was a jerk.”

FYI, Helms was a racist, sexist enabler of fascist regimes all over the world. He decided that Aids was God’s punishment for sodomy, tried to block the establishment of Martin Luther King Day because he was supposedly a communist, and actively legislated to limit women’s access to abortion services.

Helms was, essentially, an absolute wanker and a prototype for the all the fucking pigs with their snouts in the Whitehouse trough at the moment. And exactly like those repulsive, amoral, venal pieces of shit, Jesse Helms disliking you was pretty much a 1000 per cent, surefire indication that somehow, somewhere, some way, you were doing something right.

A small part of me hopes that Helms’ medieval vision of a vengeful, righteous God who consigns evil doers (including, perhaps, pork eaters) to an eternity of torture has come true.

Not in the way Helms planned, obviously, because no sane God could ever spare that evil fucker a fiery future alternately rimming, fellating and getting fucked senseless by none other our dark lord Satan’s star pupil, the depraved, deviant demon-in-chief Robert Mapplethorpe – and all his mates.

Except of course, Robert Mapplethorpe wouldn’t be in hell because anyone who can produce such beautiful art could only ever be on the side of the angels, whatever he gets up to in his spare time.

I’m not so sure we can say the same about Tapper Zukie.

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Filed under expletive undeleted, hip replacement, reggae

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