Rasta al Dente
South Florida is starving for reggae music. Given our proximity to Jamaica, reggae bands should find rich fields of West Indian immigrants within which to flourish. Aside from stumbling upon stacks of old roots records played by Lauderhill patty-shop proprietors or late-night public radio retro Rastafarians, however, we're infected with the same reggae cancer that's steadily draining the life from Jamaican music. Socially conscious lyrics, sunny riddims, bubbling bass bins, easy skankin' -- all have been choked out by the repugnant, virulently gay-bashing mic tactics that pass for Jamaican reggae these days. Surely, there must be somewhere to sit in on an old-school lesson.
"You're crazy, man!" laughs Derrick "Duckie" Simpson, the one founding member of Black Uhuru still in the band today. Speaking from his home in the Jamaican countryside, he lectures, "They don't play that kinda stuff in Jamaica, just the present-day stuff. They don't play Black Uhuru or Peter Tosh or the Wailing Souls down here. It's the same tune played here all week, the same rhythm, the same song. In the late '80s, the disc jockeys in Jamaica began playing the garbage. Jamaica has the best reggae music in the world, but they don't play reggae music down in Jamaica."
It's nothing like the years 1972 to 1974, when influential music poured off the island and immersed the world. The tail end of that ultrafertile period saw the birth of Black Uhuru (the name is from the Swahili word for freedom) originally consisting of a trio of chums -- Ervin "Don Carlos" Spencer, Rudolph "Garth" Dennis, and Simpson -- who were fortunate enough to enlist the services of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, reggae's long-standing nonpareil rhythm section. From that time until the mid-1980s, Black Uhuru's cool and deadly combo of sizzling, rootsy grooves and up-to-the-minute technology kept the reggae world dazzled. But internal problems plagued the band from its onset; Spencer and Dennis abandoned the project more than once, triggering a procession of lead singers that continues to this day.
With Simpson as its only constant, Black Uhuru emerges from semiretirement with a new lineup that includes Sly and Robbie plus a new singer, Andrew Bees. A new album, Dynasty -- its 30th -- is soon to emerge. "It's because Black Uhuru, we ain't even a group no more," explains Simpson. "We are more like a dynasty. I don't even go by the name Duckie anymore. A lot of people still call me Duckie; everything cool, but my new name is Gong," he announces cryptically. "Gong 2000."
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Unfortunately for Simpson, reinvention may not be the best course at this time, since the cachet of the Black Uhuru name and the presence of Sly and Robbie in the engine room is an unbeatable arrangement historically. "Very exciting" is how Simpson recalls the band's 1974 beginnings. "That's back when reggae music was at its peak, you know? The vocal section was very, very strong, and combined with Sly and Robbie, it took off real strong. [Island Records honcho] Chris Blackwell came in and gave it some backing, and we went to our limit."
Soon, however, Dennis and Spencer were out. Simpson teamed with Errol "Jay" Wilson, Sly, Robbie, and singer Michael Rose to release Love Crisis in 1977, which put forth ecstatic mission statements like "I Love King Selassie." By 1980's Sinsemilla, Black Uhuru was a paragon of politics, close harmonies, pumping grooves, and a social awareness as astute and incisive as Marley's. A year later, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner tugged the unit even tighter. With the famous title track and the addition of harmony vocalist Sandra "Puma" Jones, who replaced Wilson, Black Uhuru appeared to have hit upon its most potent lineup to date.
"Ah, it was just like a show-business front," disparages Simpson today. Still, the trio was intimidating, as 1981's Red attests.
"Red was rated in Rolling Stone magazine as number 24 in the top 100," Simpson boasts. "Red was a very good album." Though that disc remains Black Uhuru's unequaled high point, the good times kept coming. Anthem (1983) followed groups like Third World and Steel Pulse into a technological blind alley: an overproduced, pop-oriented, and Americanized product that won the first Grammy for a reggae album. But older fans cried sellout.
"Maybe it was, maybe it was," sighs Simpson. "But sometimes it's just music, yuh know? Sometimes you just cross over a little." Did winning a Grammy even matter? "Nah," he says quickly. "The Grammy is not that important for reggae bands; it's important for the Americans. They gave us our Grammy backstage!"
The album ushered in a new constant for Black Uhuru -- instability. "Anthem, that was when the group break up and everything," says Simpson. "That's when everything fall down. At the peak of our career, Michael Rose left the group and went solo. So all our work, everything, went whoosh. Everything had to start all over again. And it's been that way ever since."
Any hope of reconciling with Rose -- whose solo career has been respectable if spotty -- is impossible, according to Simpson. "I haven't seen Michael Rose in over a decade," he reports. "Michael Rose doesn't live in Jamaica."
After finding new singer Junior Reid -- a less-flighty Rose sound-alike -- Black Uhuru entered another fruitful phase with 1986's Brutal and 1987's Positive, plus accompanying dub versions that took tunes like "Painful" into an ethereal realm. Within two years, visa problems had prohibited Reid from touring, so he was out; Jones succumbed to cancer in January 1990. Undaunted, Simpson re-formed the original trio with Spencer and Dennis and forged on that same year with the reunion album Now. The three stuck it out to scale some old heights with Iron Storm, a cracking 1991 offering, but following 1994's Strongg, the partnership deteriorated once again.
Simpson laughs and laughs when questioned about his activities during the interim, as if it's the dumbest question in the world. "I've been kicking back in Jamaica!" he says, adding that he did have to take his old buddies Spencer and Dennis to court to fight for -- and win -- the right to use the Black Uhuru trademark. "Then those guys run away to America," Simpson adds. "Since the end of court, I don't see them anymore. Everything went bad for a while, from 1994 until last year. But now, I'm ready to work."
With Dynasty riding on the musical and production talents of Sly and Robbie, Black Uhuru is returning to its seminal start. "From the past right into the present, yeah," affirms Simpson. But it's a different world now; Jamaican music is more likely to brag and boast about dick size and faggot-beating over a tired beat than tout positivity, and Simpson doesn't hang onto a utopian vision of one love.
"Reggae music is not all that powerful in the music world," he cautions, cynically aware that neither the street violence he witnesses weekly nor the world violence he reads about will be quelled by a tropical Rasta tonic. "Reggae gets recognized, it gets some respect, but people should not live in a dream world about that."
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