‘Babylon’: The Influences

‘Babylon’: The Influences

In the early, cold months of 1979, the same year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, Franco Rosso and I were out shooting Babylon, a film that tells the story of a South London sound system called Ital Lion.

We were inspired by the mighty sound systems that played London dance halls, blues and shebeens wherever Jamaican communities had laid down roots. And we were inspired, too, by the uncompromising power of the music itself as it pumped out of the woofers, sub-woofers and tweeters of those magnificent sound systems — not forgetting the “toasters” or MCs like Big Youth and U-Roy who rapped Jamaica-style over the tunes, hurling barbed insults at other MCs or commenting wryly on current affairs when Tupac was still in diapers.

Franco and I were lucky. We experienced what was probably the most exciting and inventive decade in the history of reggae music, a decade that gave us, of course, Bob Marley and the Wailers but also Culture, Burning Spear, Max Romeo and the Congos.

The impact of that Golden Age of Reggae and its wild creativity on the music of today is immeasurable. Drum and bass, dub-step, trance, electronica, acid jazz, hip-hop all owe a huge debt to this era of uninhibited experimentation at the rough and ready mixing desks of Channel One, Studio One, Joe Gibbs and Black Ark, the legendary Kingston studios of the 1970s.

Chief genius among these experimenters was producer Lee Scratch Perry, a.k.a. The Upsetter, still making music today in his eighties. Almost recklessly, the Upsetter threw close vocal harmony, horn sections, jazz, animal sounds, gunfire and police sirens at a drum and bass groove that sounded like it was recorded in the blazing heat of a blacksmith’s forge. The result was such classics as “Chase the Devil” and “Roast Fish and Cornbread.”

Typical of many of the record producers, The Upsetter was a former “sound man,” a key member of the fabled Sir Coxsone sound system, testament to the continual creative crossover between what the sound systems and their MCs were doing in the dancehalls and what the producers were creating at their mixing desks.

But listen to many of these tunes — “Rebel Music,” “Slavery Days,” “Fisherman” or “War in a Babylon” — and they are infused with powerful political purpose and clear-eyed black consciousness. Yet while righteous, rebellious and spiritual, this music always returns to the dance hall, meant to move your hips, too, as you skank to the thumping bass from a mighty speaker. Yes, we were about to enter the mirthless Thatcher years, but no one put it better than Marley. Forget your sorrows and dance. Forget your troubles and dance. Forget your sickness and dance. Forget your weakness and dance.

(Photo credit: Martin Stellman)

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