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It's a long way from the cornfields of Iowa to the hills of Jamaica, but lo-fi hero John Darnielle's "Song for Dennis Brown" divines the legend of the Crown Prince of Reggae with little exaggeration. Taken from his just-released The Sunset Tree album (recorded under his usual moniker, the Mountain Goats), Darnielle's ode exposes the heart and heartbreak behind one of the world's most celebrated reggae musicians.
"On the day that Dennis Brown's habits caught up with him, schoolchildren sang in choirs/And out behind the Chinese restaurants, guys were jumping into dumpsters..."
No points off if you've never heard of Darnielle. A decade of pensive, boombox recordings has made him the introverted darling of voraciously indie-centric collectors. Dennis Emmanuel Brown is a different story, one known to countless admirers around the world but only a reverent few here at home.
"America really is slow when it comes to acknowledging and respecting Jamaican musicians," says Kevin "Ital-K" Smith, whose Sounds of the Caribbean runs on WLRN-FM (91.3) from 1 to 5 a.m. on Friday mornings. "Dennis Brown was one of Jamaica's most prolific songwriters and singers. In England, Dennis Brown is so popular, in certain places you'll see his photograph more than Bob Marley's. Number one, he was Bob Marley's favorite singer -- that came from Bob Marley's own mouth. Number two, Dennis Brown has recorded songs on virtually every Caribbean riddim that's out there. He's got dancehall tracks, he's got lovers tracks, there's dub tracks, roots tracks, R&B, soul, pop, funk. You name it, Dennis Brown has voiced it."
Smith is one of several local DJs involved in this Friday's Sixth Annual Dennis Brown Tribute at Tavern on the Green in Hollywood. The yearly commemoration of Brown's music began in 2000, a year after his death from respiratory failure at age 42. "It's about his life, his legacy, and his philosophy," Smith says of the tribute, "because Dennis was a devout Rastafarian."
Brown's life provides a full-on music history lesson, one brimming with passion, adulation, drugs, and the immortality granted by vinyl recordings.
"I've admired Dennis Brown a lot," says Desmond Patterson, owner of Rainbow Variety Store in Lauderhill and DJ of the Rainbow Disco soundsystem. "In Kingston, where it all started, he was doing music when he was 15, 16, 17 years old, and I was selling records. In 1964, '65, I used to go to school on Spanish Town Road. And in the afternoon, I'd go downtown to Orange Street, the music street. Even Bob Marley had a record store there."
The walls of Patterson's small, strip-mall shop are lined with records, some hip-hop and R&B but mostly reggae, modern and vintage. His proudest commodity, however, is his boundless collection of 45s. Thousands of the small, seven-inch singles are stacked in piles, aligned in rows on tables, and displayed under glass countertops throughout the overstocked store. He's been collecting them in this space for 20 years.
"Dennis Brown did close to 400 45 singles," he says. "That tells you something. And out of that 400 45s, I can find at least 300 of those that I have myself. The last time we had the tribute, [other DJs] were playing from CDs and from albums. I was the only one playing 45s only."
Patterson is one of the few members of the local reggae community who knew Brown. "I was fortunate enough to get two dubplates [original acetate recordings that are never pressed to vinyl] from him, with 'Rainbow' and 'Desmond' on them, before he died," he says, beaming. "That was something I cherish."
Even those outside his immediate influence know the legend, and everyone's been touched by it somehow.
British-born Tony and Mikey (who go by their first names only) make up the DJ duo London Connection and play WAVS-AM (1170) from 1 to 2 on Thursday mornings. "I remember the first song I heard from him that really made me think, and that was 'Stop Your Fussing and Fighting,'" Mikey says.
"You're going way, way back," Tony laughs. "The first song that I heard that I can remember was at Studio 1. That one might've been "The World Is in Trouble," and that was back in the early '80s."
"When I was growing up, I was more of a soul jazz funkateer," Mikey continues. "I listened to a lot of that stuff, but then I started to change. And Dennis Brown was one of the influences there. His voice is unparalleled in this reggae industry, to this day. What people need to do is buy some of his music and sit down and listen to it."
All of these guys, who have more than 100 years collective experience with Caribbean music, have been deeply affected by Brown -- his golden voice, his conscious lyrics, his tireless devotion to reggae culture. When he died on July 1, 1999, after a 30-year recording career, his body was viciously depleted. Many said his exhaustion stemmed from cocaine abuse, a vice he picked up to maintain his furious recording schedule. More than 10,000 people attended his funeral in Kingston.