Dub Syndicate: ‘Hard Food’ Album Review

Echo Beach
Echo Beach

Dub Syndicate’s new album Hard Food (Echo Beach) is a tribute to the talent and vision of late founder and drummer Lincoln Valentine “Style” Scott, who was brutally murdered in his Manchester, JA home on October 9, 2014.  However, it is also a hard, heavy yet highly-skankable salute to Jamaica – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

For most reggae fans, 2014 will be remembered as a year of profound loss. It was a year in which we bid farewell to Hopeton Lewis (singer), Jimmy Ruffin (singer), Darryl “ET” Thompson (guitarist), John Wayne (dancehall vocalist), Wayne Smith (singer), and Philip Smart (engineer/producer). We also witnessed several of reggae’s most influential artists and musicians pass from this realm. The loss of  percussionist Uziah ‘Sticky’ Thompson, Third World lead vocalist Bunny Rugs, and singer/songwriter John Holt will be felt for many years as these three individuals influenced, shaped, and transformed the “big music from the likkle island.” While the reggae community certainly felt the sting of each of these deaths, none of them were as were as unexpected and shocking as the brutal murder of legendary Roots Radics drummer Lincoln Valentine “Style” Scott on October 9, 2014.

Style’s brutal slaying in his Manchester home shook the international reggae community to its core, and left one of Jamaica’s most transformational and influential studio session bands with only one man standing. That man, bassist Errol “Flabba” Holt, founded the Roots Radics along with Scott and guitarist Eric “Bingy Bunny” Lamont in 1978. Over the next decade, the Radics turned reggae on its head by introducing a sound that was both heavy and agile, futuristic yet foundational. Between 1978 and 1986, the Radics played on almost every reggae album of note, eventually settling in as the backing band for Israel Vibration for more than twenty years. 

Dub Syndicate emerged in 1980 as a collaborative effort which paired the brilliant UK-based dub reggae producer and mixologist Adrian Sherwood with Radics drummer “Style” Scott. This dub-duo emerged from the mixing sessions that spawned the now-classic Prince Far-I dub experience Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter III. Dub Syndicate forged a new era in dub with a sound that was highly experimental, tightly wound, precisely played and polished off with a trademark Sherwood mix. It was a proving ground for Scott, who had built a career composing and recording heavyweight early dancehall era reggae riddims for Jamaican producers who wanted only the distinctive sound that the Roots Radics created and championed at Channel One Studios in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

Hard Food opens with “Sound Collisions,” a classic rolling dub riddim that sets the pace for what will be a long, hard ride through the ruff & tumble streets of Jamaica. But first we travel through the hills with Lee “Scratch” Perry and Sangie Davis on “Jah Wise.” With help from Adrian Sherwood’s echoed-out mix, Dalton Brownie’s outstanding guitar work ascends over Style’s steady riddim. Sherwood leans heavily on the guitars throughout the track, providing just enough effect to allow it to fly free and far without getting lost. The listener is treated to the toasting of 2014 Grammy Award Nominee Lee “Scratch” Perry. The track also features spoken word by Sangie Davis, longtime associate of Bob Marley who penned Marley’s 1979 single “Wake Up and Live.” His recitation of Psalm 87 gives the track a ceremonial feel: His foundation is in the Holy mountains, The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob, Glorious things are spoken of thee, O City of God. Selah…” The recitation is a tribute to the legendary Bob Marley who often recited the passage immediately before his shows. 

Perhaps the world’s most famous Rasta elder, Bunny Wailer, reprises The Wailers classic “Rock Sweet Rock” from Studio One. It is a stunning vocal performance from the elder statesman and one of the strongest tracks on the album. Bunny’s vocal work on “Bless My Soul” is a reminder to all that the “Blackheart Man” is a survivor. The track reunites Wailer with “Style” Scott and “Flabba” Holt, who magically melded early dancehall and Rockers reggae to create the brilliant sound of 1981’s Rock and Groove LP, Bunny’s most solid and accessible work since his 1976’s Blackheart Man (and my favorite Bunny Wailer album). 

Another highlight of the album is U-Roy’s “Dub Is All I Got,” which calls upon John Holt’s “Police In Helicopter” riddim, another boss instrumental crafted by the Radics. Sherwood’s mix of one of reggae’s heaviest and most enduring riddims gives it a whole new energy, and U-Roy rides it like no other. Make sure to check the bonus CD included with the LP for an extended dub mix of this tune. 

My favorite cut on the album also appears on the bonus CD. The aptly-titled “Gypsy Magic” is vintage head-bobbing Dub Syndicate on the experimental tip – a rollicking drum ‘n bass riddim fueled by an infective cello loop that is reminiscent of vintage Pete Rock. Stay tuned as this gem will be appearing on serious dub mixes everywhere in 2015.

Hard Food is much more than the latest Dub Syndicate studio album. It is a bittersweet farewell journey – one last ride – with one of the greatest musicians reggae has ever known. It is an album that features inspired performances by guitarist Dalton Brownie, Computer Paul and Obeah (keys), and masterful melodica work from Dubiterian.  Like Uziah “Sticky” Thompson, John Holt, and Bunny Rugs, Scott’s contributions to reggae and his influence over the evolution of the music are incalculable. And while we mourn their loss, we are strengthened by the knowledge that their music lives in the hearts of young aspiring musicians everywhere who were inspired by these late, great singers and players to pick up the drumsticks, tap the funde, or step up to the mic.

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