What’s in a name? An entirely new sound, vibe, identity, and history-in-the-making says Sheldon “Shepie” Shepherd, lead vocalist of Kingston, Jamaica’s No-Maddz. The band, which now includes Shepherd, Everaldo “Evie” Creary, Christopher “Birdeye” Gordon, O’Neil “O’Nie” Peart and Christopher “Krispercs Upner” Downer, just released their debut full-length studio album titled Sly & Robbie presents No-Maddz. The buzz surrounding No-Maddz was palpable when I was in Jamaica this past December, much of it provided by the album’s first single “Shotta.” The heavy banger about gun violence is as relevant today as it was when it was first penned two decades ago by dub poet Keith Shepherd, father of Shepie Shepherd. The single ripped through the island like the dreaded chikungunya, leaving all in its wake with an incurable fever and necks sore from the heavy head-bobbing. The group followed with another tune from Presents titled “Romance,” a rocking lovers tune with a rollicking beat and commercial appeal.
Initially formed thirteen years ago while the boys were stage actors under the tutelage of drama coach Peter Maestro Hyslop at Kingston College, the group considered several names before settling on No-Maddz. Let’s see…there was such as the Fantastic Four. Oh and there was the Fabulous Four. “No-Maddz” describes a road travelled far and wide within the mental space of the four bredren in search of a name and identity. Plus, as graduates of Kingston College, the group felt it was their intellect and not their anger that was the source of their inspiration (“they no mad, they intelligent!”).
Sly & Robbie presents No-Maddz is a project borne out of discussions that were initiated at One Pop studio more than a year ago between the group and Grammy Award-winning production duo Sly & Robbie. The group was at a crossroads, having self-produced much of their material in the ten years since forming, they needed songs with a wider appeal. The career-changing advice came from someone who knows a thing or two about a thing or two – Island Records founder Chris Blackwell who turned Marley’s brand of foundation reggae into the roots, rock, reggae sound that made him the Third World’s first global music icon. It was Blackwell who cared enough about the group to give them the tough but honest truth: “You need songs and a producer.”
In No-Maddz, Grammy Award-winning producer Sly Dunbar found a core group of multi-talented performing artists in need of the very thing he and bassist Robbie Shakespeare have specialized in for more than thirty years: brilliantly produced and impossibly heavy reggae riddim tracks with an irresistible crossover appeal. But he also saw something altogether new with No-Maddz – their live performances are unique theatrical experiences which showcase the group’s many talents as performance artists. It is a three-dimensional show which uses singing, playing, and acting to tell stories through song. The group uses every tool at their disposal to bring a level to enhance the experience of the audience. In this way, they are very reminiscent of a young Steel Pulse who would dress up in Ku Klux Klan regalia during portions of their shows in order to make the experience more impactful for the audience.
Sly & Robbie presents No-Maddz is an album built around Sly and Robbie’s unmistakable drum and bass. Although the riddims have a definite reggae groove they are versatile enough for No-Maddz to explore several different sounds within the space of the twelve tracks included on the album. “Romance” is a tune with a lovers vibe but a heavy dancehall groove that features very impressive vocals from Shepherd and stalwart backing vocals from his bredren. “Shotta” is all business with its gritty intro (“Mista bad-to-da-bone! I say you gonna eat rock stone”). I love this track with its gully sound, street bwoy vocals and heavy patois. And the riddim? Whoa, Sly and Robbie come hard on the riddim!
The best tune on the album is “Better Must Come,” a very funky track brimming with unbridled hope and optimism. It is Shepherd’s vocal performance that really impresses on the track. He stays right in the pocket without forcing the vocals and rides track out like a champion. What a chune! The group goes RnB on “Sun Come Up” with its whispering vocals and an unforgettable hook. “Life of the Party” is a wild tune that comes together over a classic ska riddim spiced with horns and goodness. No-Maddz go back in time fifty years to a jumping Friday night dance as they volley verses and fill the space with conversation and laughter. This tune is a good time on wax from start to finish. They round out the album trading verses over Sly’s brutal percussion on “Order My Steps.”
Sly & Robbie Presents No-Maddz is a tightly wound album that certainly has a much wider appeal than a straight reggae album. Each song has a separate and distinct sound which allows the band to showcase its versatility. The album is a stunning rebuke of the “reggae-music-all-sounds-the-same crowd” (of which my wife is a proud member). Sly & Robbie presents No-Maddz doesn’t sound like an album at all but a collection of twelve experiments in sound. But most of all, the album works not because the songs “sound like this” or “remind me of that” but because it is a damn good time from start to finish.