In January of 2012, my old friend, DJ Bonics (Taylor Gang, Wired 96.5 Philly), asked me to put together a mix and article chronicling the history of the iconic Sleng Teng Riddim. It was to be my first time generating content for an online audience, and Bonics thought that I was long overdue to start establishing some sort of presence on the internet. It was a little rough (and still is) but I was able to meet his challenge and the post was relatively well-recieved.
The experience of putting together the original Sleng Teng Riddim Rewind left me wanting to generate more content, but the research demands for historical articles and the time that went into recording well-thought-out mixes was daunting, and it made producing these multi-media posts on regular basis very challenging. So, I started Boom Shot City and the BSC mix series as kind of a brainless way to generate spontaneous and creative content. No writing is required and I usually post snippets from mixes I’ve done at live events. This streamlined the process and made it much easier for me to generate an abundance of content that I can post (fairly) regularly.
But I always liked the idea of doing bigger, informative, multi-media posts like Riddim Rewind. I knew that, eventually, I would have to work in content like that, generated at my own pace, for Boom Shot City.
Then last month, Wayne Smith, who is a major player in the Sleng Teng story, passed away at the age of 48. He was instrumental in the creation of the riddim and even it’s subsequent success, voicing one of the most popular singles, “Under Mi Sleng Teng,” on the riddim that got it’s name from Smith. So, inspired by the contributions made by Wayne Smith, I decided it was a good time to kick start Boom Shot City into a higher gear, and that I should repost and reboot my original Sleng Teng Riddim Rewind story and mix with a plan to work more multi-media posts into Boom Shot City in the future.
First lets start with the mix. It may be proper background music for your reading.
Track Listing (2012 Mix):Turbulance- Notorious Sound (Music World Entertainment) Baby Cham- Ghetto Story (RFX) (Music World Entertainment) I-Wayne- Can’t Stop this Fire (Dark Side) Jr. Gong- Jamrock (Hemp Muzik) Taz & Marvelous- High Grade (Jammys) Jr. Kelly- You Look Fine (Jammys) Anthony B- No Fear (Jammys) Ninja Man- Mad Again (Jammys) Ninja Man- Murder Dem (Steely & Cleevie) Tenor Saw- Pumpkin Belly (Jammys) Papa Faith- Maniac (Jammys) Echo Minott- Hand Pon the Key (Jammys) Sugar Minott- Jam in the Streets (Jammys) Johnny Osbourne- Buddy Bye (Jammys) Super Morris- Under Mi Peter Green (Jammys) Wayne Smith- Under Mi Sleng Teng (Jammys) Junior Cat- Bap Bap (Massive B) Burro Banton- Step Up Inna Them Face (Massive B) Khari Kill- Heavy Weed (Massive B) Elephant Man- Shot Will Bark (Massive B) Vybz Kartel- Say She Want (Massive B)
Track Listing (2014 Mix):A-Kas- Chance Will Come (Music House Entertainment) Ryval- Work Man A Work (Music House Entertainment) Status Bling- Ride It (Music House Entertainment) Gyptian- Haters (Music House Entertainment) I-Wayne- Misleaders (Music House Entertainment) Jessie James- Party Criminal (Weedy G Soundforce) Perfect Giddimani- Bloodclaat Place (Weedy G Soundforce) Suga Banton- Sound Killa (Weedy G Soundforce) Gideon ft. Najay- Raggamuffin (Weedy G Soundforce) Teacha Dee- Mash Up Di Club (Weedy G Soundforce) Miss Str8- Bring Me Some Weed (Weedy G Soundforce)
The Most Important Riddim Ever,
Whether You Like it or Not
The first thing that any reggae fan needs to know is that the Jamaican music industry is producer-centric, as opposed to the artist-centric music industry we are used to seeing in America.
In Jamaica, the producer puts together an instrumental track or riddim, hires artists to voice many individual versions over that riddim, and puts up the money to have the music released. Often enough versions are voiced to release full length albums of just one riddim. Sometimes there’s even enough versions for a double album, but usually the riddims are released as a group of singles.
The idea is that a producer has a better chance of getting a hit out of a riddim if he has several versions to shop around. If one version does really well, often the other versions on the riddim see sales gains as a result.
If a riddim becomes massively popular, it is likely that additional versions may be voiced, both official and non-official. It is also common for a popular riddim, especially one with staying power in the dancehall, to be imitated or re-worked by other producers.
One of the (if not the) most versioned and reworked riddims of all time is Jammy’s Sleng Teng Riddim.
Lloyd James, who early in his career was know as Prince Jammy and later promoted himself to King Jammy, got his start in the music industry as an engineer for King Tubby, a legendary roots reggae and dub producer. Jammy earned a reputation for his spaced-out, effect laden mixes throughout the 70s, and he produced some well-received dub, roots, and pre-digital dancehall tunes. But Jammy didn’t reach his legendary status until 1985 when he turned Jamaican music on its head with the riddim that changed it all, Sleng Teng.
I was already very familiar with the Sleng Teng a few years ago when my good friend, Preslav (Pittsburgh Track Authority, Machine Age Studios), pulled out a little white keyboard and blew my mind. He collects vintage audio equipment and is also a huge fan of reggae and dancehall music. He purchased this little keyboard, which I would later learn was one of the first electronic keyboards made for home use, on Ebay and, after poking a few of its buttons, he made it spit the exact Sleng Teng bass line at me.
So, strangely enough, the story of the Sleng Teng begins in Japan, where a programmer inputs a bass line into the Casio MT-40 as the “rock” preset. It is popular opinion that he was attempting to imitate the bass from Eddie Cochran’s 1959 tune, Somethin’ Else. I’m not sure I hear the similarities, but I like the idea that the seed for Jamaican music’s most important riddim could’ve been planted by an American rockabilly artist 25 years before the producers and artists, who probably never heard of him and almost certainly were unaware of any connection, brought that rockabilly seed to dancehall fruition through the miracle of modern technology.
Eddie Cochran- Somethin’ Else
According to dancehall lore, it was Wayne Smith who found the preset while playing with Noel Davey’s Casio. Davey didn’t own the only MT-40 in the world, so many other musicians, wannabes, and children must have had access to the bass line before and at the same time as Smith. But, somehow, he was the only one in the world that saw the potential in it.
He started writing to it as it played from the keyboard, presumably the beginnings of his hit, Under Mi Sleng Teng. But, before he could finish, he lost his place in the machine and could not relocate the bass line. After a long few days of searching the MT-40, Smith found the bass line again, finished his tune, and took it to Jammy. Apparently, Jammy was Smith’s neighbor and the twenty year old artist had worked with Jammy on several previous projects.
I’m not sure why Jammy took Smith and his this toy seriously. A few producers had already put out a handful of computer-generated riddims but none of them stuck. Now Wayne Smith shows up with a tiny keyboard and wants one of Jamaica’s premiere producers to build him a riddim from a preset? Some people may think taking a prefabricated synth line and making it the foundation of your next project would be an amateur move. But, if you consider where music has gone today, starting with the early use of samples and all the way up to where current production techniques including widely available and royalty free “sample packs,” you may begin to see that thinking outside of the box, even in a simpler way, can sometimes start revolutions. I doubt that was where Jammy’s head was when he had engineer Tony Asher begin tracking the Sleng Teng in his studio, but he obviously had an ear for cutting edge music and I think he probably put a lot of faith in Wayne Smith, whose youth gave him a unique perspective on what fresh new sound might become the “next big thing.”
Jammy quickly brought singers Tenor Saw and Johnny Osbourne into the studio to voice their versions. Jammy’s original backing track featured the bass line and even the drums (I believe) from the MT-40 and very few bells and whistles. He added a clap to Wayne Smith’s tune and some synth-organ beds and skanks on the others. He mixed them down with some of the echo effects from his old dub tool box, which really took this new robotic sound into the spacey future. The effects also fattened and filled out the riddim, giving this very simple composition a big sound.
These original versions, Smith’s Under Mi Sleng Teng, Saw’s Pumpkin Belly, and Osbourne’s Buddy Bye, were introduced to the world on Febuary 23, 1985 at the legendary soundclash between Jammy’s sound and Black Scorpio.
The Initial Reaction
Apparently, the crowd at the Waltham Park Road clash went mad when King Jammy’s Super Power let that iconic, computerized bass line fly for the first time. But then the scene took a turn for the worse, as policemen with assault rifles flew the gates and stormed the yard. Babylon mash up di place, ending the clash and spoiling Sleng Teng‘s world premiere.
The next morning, people were in the streets again but they were not chatting about police intimidation tactics or who may have won the clash if it was allowed to go on. The chat in the streets was about the Sleng Teng Riddim, which over night became the talk of the town and the “next big thing.”
Jammy attempted to capitalize on the success of Sleng Teng by releasing additional versions in 1985 on the original backing track (although some had their own unique production tweaks). The riddim was unstoppable. Every artist in Jamaica wanted a version on the Sleng Teng and every producer wanted their own digital riddim to make famous. Jamaican labels began generating computerized riddims at a furious pace.
The Long-Term Musical Impact
Over the years, many producers in many genres have paid musical homage to the Sleng Teng by re-imagining it. Even Jammy himself reworked the riddim in 2005, Sleng Teng‘s twentieth anniversary, and released the new versions on VP Records as an LP, Riddim Driven: Sleng Teng Resurrection. This LP was complimented by Riddim Driven: Sleng Teng Extravaganza (1985 Master Mega Hits), which was released through VP at the same time and included remastered pressings of most (if not all) of the original versions, including Wayne Smith’s “Under Mi Sleng Teng,” Tenor Saw’s “Pumpkin Belly,” and Johnny Osbourne’s “Buddy Bye.” The two releases, one revived and one brand new, were designed to look virtually identical, physically. The illustrated cover art for both depicts very similar parties complete with dancers in identical positions. The difference in these two pieces of album art is really just the fashion that the illustrated dancers and selectors are wearing, likely meant to represent Sleng Teng‘s longevity in the dance.
All in all, Sleng Teng is most likely the most versioned dancehall riddim of all time, boasting somewhere between 400 and 1000 official and non-official versions. The versions outlined in the attached mix and above track listing barely scratch the surface.
The Symbol of Change
With Bob Marley five years gone, and the growing popularity of “slackness” (lyrics about sex and violence) in reggae, it was already pretty obvious by 1985 that the music scene in Jamaica had shifted. Roots reggae was a thing of the past in a lot of ways but, upon Sleng Teng‘s release, there was an obvious nail being pounded into it’s coffin. In fact, Jammy himself decided to shelf a string of live-band riddims that he had stacked up for release so that he could put out newer, computer-generated riddims that could ride the trend he created. So, because of the digital frenzy that Sleng Teng began and the obvious decline of the previous, more organic ways of creating recorded music, Jammy and his most famous riddim have come to symbolize a giant shift in reggae and dancehall music. This shift is still firmly in place today, if not more so, and the few roots reggae zealots that remain often view the Sleng Teng as their John Conner. If only they could go Terminator and return to 1985 and kill the riddim before it reaches its full potential, then they could save the future and everything would be hand drums, tams, and vegan fast food. Just like Bob would’ve wanted it…
Who know’s what Bob would’ve wanted, but I do run into a lot of reggae fans who are stuck in a time machine because of their ideals about what reggae SHOULD be. They don’t want to travel past 1985 because that was the beginning of the end for them. Sadly, while living in the 1970’s, these reggae fans have likely missed out on decades of quality culture (modern roots reggae) and at least two roots revivals that have taken place in Jamaica since 1985, the most recent one happening in 2013. Many of these reincarnations of roots reggae actually embrace the digital sound, using it to recreate roots classics and/or sculpt completely new approaches to the sub-genre.
Here are a few other reasons why reggae fans should embrace the digital revolution:
1) The one drop riddim (the most common kind of rhythm in roots reggae) and culture music thrive in Jamaica. On some occasions these riddims are still built with human musicians. Remnants of roots reggae still survive, and probably always will.
2) Reggae and even dancehall remains some of the most spiritual “pop” music in the world. Conscious lyrics and artists are still quite common on all kinds of riddims, reggae and dancehall, regardless of the production techniques employed.
3) Jamaican music has always embraced technological innovation. Just look at what Lee Perry was doing when he was pioneering the dub revolution some fifteen or so years before Sleng Teng.
4) The digital revolution brought the music to the people. It made the industry accessible to the masses. Some may argue that this has watered down the musical gene pool, and I would agree. But having more music to choose from is a luxury as well as a chore and it is my opinion that the quality of the music coming from the top ranking Jamaican producers today is still of the same caliber as the top ranking Jamaican producers from any time period, before or after 1985.