Inspire, Dream, Explore
Coming up with a top 5 for the Essential 50 list was difficult. Sometimes my top 5 changes with the seasons or when I discover a new favorite musician. Stevie Wonder will always be a top pick of mine. His music takes my mind on a ride down a peaceful, country road. India Arie grounds me and ignites inspiration in my soul. Her voice is smooth, refreshing and motivational. The sounds of Radiohead challenge me to be inquisitive and to allow my creative side to dream. Stevie Nicks empowers me to follow my passions with purpose. Father Sky reminds me of home and takes me back to mother nature.
Righteous, Ground-breaking, Happiness
I have taken on the daunting task of creating a crash course in Caribbean music with only 50 artist slots open. I thought ‘easy peasy’ til I began to peruse my personal catalog of Caribbean music of at least a thousand songs from as early as the 1940s divided amongst ten different genres in five different languages. Yes, FIVE. Maybe six if you count ‘Jamaican Patois’ – which is actually broken English with a very strong Jamaican accent. Our music can give you a glimpse into the rich history of the Caribbean as it is a narrative of our life in the islands. Our hit lists of today and yesterday are normally chock-full of socially-conscious music detailing our struggles with poverty, violence, government corruption, identity and the like. But we also sing about love, desire, partying, dancing and drinking. We are experts at the last three that’s why the world loves to come hang out with us in the islands! It’s important that the 88Nine audience know our music extends far beyond Bob Marley. There are so many great artists that make Caribbean music and if you want to do more than just skim our culture, you should know some of these musicians. My top spots were occupied by more current, prominent Caribbean musical genres outside of Francophone nations. School is now in session!
Spot 1) As the group responsible for bringing today’s ‘reggae’ – the most well-known Caribbean genre to the global forefront after ‘Calypso’, Bob Marley and the Wailers will always be number one. Notice I mentioned GROUP earlier. While Bob has been carved out as an icon after his death, the entire band was extremely talented and produced some of the most legendary music ever exported from the Caribbean. Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Marsha Griffiths, Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, and Junior Marvin were all prominent members of this one group. They all take up spots 1, 2, 3, 4, and 18 on my Essential list. Peter Tosh, along with Bob, were the first outspoken proponents of Rastafarianism and marijuana for both recreational use and as an aide in transcendence. They were also openly critical of the Jamaican government’s corruption. This was a very risky and dangerous thing to do as their actions could result in imprisonment or death which often happened to Rastafarians back then. Bob Marley and the Wailers were indeed targeted in home invasions and received numerous death threats. Bob and his family survived a home invasion but Peter Tosh, unfortunately, did not.
Spot 5) Jimmy Cliff was a fairly successful reggae artist in Jamaica as far as success can be defined on an island. Then an opportunity came for him to write music for the first film made in Jamaica by Jamaicans about Jamaicans. After a conversation with the director Perry Henzell, Jimmy was offered the lead. It took years for the film to get completed and even more time for audiences outside of Jamaica to appreciate this ground-breaking film that showed the gritty side of their favorite vacation island. But once they did, global stardom soon followed for Jimmy Cliff. The soundtrack of the film featured Jimmy Cliff prominently echoing the film’s various themes through catchy lyrics and progressive reggae and rocksteady tracks. The soundtrack also had music from other popular artists of the day including Toots & the Maytals and Desmond Dekker in spots 7 and 8 on my list, respectively.
Spot 6) Third World is the longest running live reggae band but that is not why they are so high on the list. They came together during the golden era of reggae music in Jamaica in the early 1970s. They were the first to fuse together pop, rock, funk and soul with reggae when it was popular to merely cover American R&B with a ska or rocksteady beat dropped in the background. The lead singer, Bunny Rugs (d. 2014), had a rich voice that would melt your soul which was uncommon for Jamaican artists at the time. They have had chart-topping hits across three decades. Their iconic debut album “96 Degrees in the Shade” featured the #1 single “1865” about a failed slave rebellion. They have released over twenty albums since promoting ‘peace, love and unity’ long before P.L.U.R. became the acronym of ravers. They even received a medal from the United Nations for their efforts. Did I mention they worked with Stevie Wonder? Oh, and the lead guitarist is a TRAINED CELLIST. Yup that, too. Their debut album alone is worthy of their position as #6 on the Essential list.
Spot 7) I just saw Toots & the Maytals at Coachella. COA. CHEL. LA. In a daytime slot. In 109F degree heat. I was surprised my damn self that they accepted a gig I consider below their worthiness but I get it. They’re trying to reach ‘di yutes’. Toots & the Maytals have been rocking audiences around the world since my parents were teens and doing it well with their repertoire of ska and rocksteady. In the 60s they literally gave the new genre of Jamaican music featuring heavy bass and a screwed ska beat its name — ‘reggay’. Toots was the first Jamaican lead singer to sing with ‘soul’ like Ray Charles and Otis Redding whom he admired during the time when most Jamaican singers were imitating American and UK pop artists. They have worked with Yellowman, the Wailers, the Skatalites and more. That song “Bam Bam” that Sister Nancy (# 41) gets so many accolades for? That has been sampled over 80 times by various artists including Jay-Z? Toots & the Maytals wrote and performed it first along with a slew of other worldwide hits including “Pressure Drop” and “54-46 (That’s My Number).”
Spot 8) Desmond Dekker auditioned for the biggest producers on the island at the time, Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, but the trained welder failed to impress them. Two years later he had a local hit with producer Leslie Kong. Thank goodness he persevered. What followed was a string of hits, the first being “007 (Shanty Town),” the first Jamaican song to crack the UK charts. Then a year later he was the first Jamaican to break the American music charts with “Israelites” a socially-conscious song about the poor of Jamaica (see how this socially-conscious thing keeps popping up with each artist?). He was THE voice of ska which took the UK by storm in the ’60s the way Run DMC and Rap did in the ’80s. Desmond Dekker was even name-checked in a song by a few of his fans, the Beatles.
I hope I’ve tickled your curiosity to explore more than just the surface of Caribbean music and our complex history that birthed it. Enjoy!
Spirited, Poetic, Soulful
My earliest memories on this planet is a tapestry of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s music. Card party sounds crept under my bedroom door, introducing my brother Kaion and I to the artists who would provide the soundtrack of our lives. Sam Cooke, Michael Jackson, Johnny Taylor and Chaka Khan are some of my earliest musical influences. After moving from Philadelphia to dirt road Georgia, I was exposed to an even wider range of artists and their contributions to sound. My top 5 essential musicians are Sam Cooke, The Roots, Outkast, Nas and Fred Hammond.
Sam Cooke’s sound and I were introduced by my Uncle Bill on road trips from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Road trip rules gave whomever was driving control of the radio. When my mother had the wheel, she would search the radio dials for the local stations for regional music and news. I liked her strategy. Hit or miss at time, but my brother and I were introduced to all the sounds of the eastern seaboard. Country music on the southern stations and Go-Go music in the DC area. Uncle Bill’s approach was less experimental. By that time in his life, he was clear about his musical palate. As his assistant DJ, I was tasked with fetching the next tape from his brown leather tape case. Three rows of legendary soul singers. Bobby Blue Bland, Johnny Taylor, and Aretha Franklin, some of the artists he would need to stay in his zone. I remember the night I passed him “Sam Cooke’s greatest hits.” Time stopped. It felt like everyone on the planet was asleep. Everyone, but Uncle Bill and I, listening to the soothing sounds of Sam Cooke. I hadn’t lived enough life to fully grasp the content, but his voice spoke to my young soul in very specific ways. That night Sam Cooke Cha Cha’d his way into my life, forever.
Growing up in Philadelphia during the golden era of hip-hop has given me an affinity for lyrical prowess. The Legendary Root Crew’s front man BlackThought is a masterful wordsmith. His bars have held me captive since the first time I heard their “Do you want more” album, as a sophomore in high school. Led by founding member Quest love on the drums, the band’s ability to offer their MC an infinite flow of jazz influenced music to rhyme over makes The Roots one of the best who has ever done it. I have fallen in love many times over with different artists and their contributions to the ecosystem, The Roots/Black Thought still remain as my most essential music act.
After moving from Philadelphia to dirt road Georgia, I was introduced to the sounds of the south. Booty shake music was prevalent, my grandmother listen to gospel on Sunday mornings, we listened to country music classics during weightlifting class, and the Dungeon Family sent Outkast from their basement into my walkman. Their sound popularized southern Hip-Hop, coining the phrase “Dirty South.” Outkast’s Big Boi and Andre 3000 have felt more like blood relatives than a CD in my collection. Their prod to “get-up, get-out, and get something” still motivates me on lazy days.
From his debut album “Illmatic” (1994) to his most recent project “Nasir” (2018), Nas has been one of the most consistent Hip-Hop artists in the industry. The imagery in his songs has given the world a nuanced gaze at hip-hop culture in America’s urban areas. Nas’s ability to use voice and vernacular as instruments grabbed my attention early and has never let go. As I see it, Nas elevated the expectations and efforts for the emcees of his era.
A college compadre, Hodge, introduced me to the Fred Hammond song, “No Weapon”. It was the song he used to will himself through life’s tough patches. Since that time, I too have blasted this song on repeat when I feel my turntables wobbling. Roommate problems, “No Weapons.” Bad break-up, “No Weapons.” First run-in with the law, “No Weapons.” For the last 22 years, this song has been tethered to my mental and emotional wellness. Positioning itself in the ranks of my most essential songs.
Soulful, Iconic, Funky️
When deciding my top 50 Essential artists. It was all about the funk. And not the genre of “Funk” music, but the question of, “Is the music funky? Does it have a solid groove to it? Does it put me in a good mood? Do I have to replay it over and over before I turn it off? That’s what funk means to me and this list is all about that.”
Starting off, I couldn’t think of someone more impactful to me than Prince. I mean, what else really needs to be said other than he’s the best to ever do it. The man could play every instrument known to man. And he made “Adore.” Enough said.
Next is Kendrick Lamar because in this decade, he’s set the tone for hip-hop and music overall. He makes music that young and old music fans can relate to by rapping about important and cultural topics, while also keeping it funky. And he’s already has arguably three classic albums under his belt, so I can’t wait to see where he’s at when he’s done.
I put Stevie Wonder next because the man is a genius. From listening to Stevie growing up as a child, to playing his music almost every time I DJ, he’s a staple in music worldwide. His music has stood the test of time and his creativity is unmatched.
Fourth on my list Amy Winehouse because her music always spoke to my soul. Her voice was so unique and powerful, which drew me in to everything she released. From her solo albums to her features, she was always a bright spot on every song she was on.
And finally, I had to include Tuxedo in my top five, especially since I was the first DJ in Milwaukee to play Tuxedo :). I’ve literally never heard a Tuxedo song I don’t like and their music gets everybody in the room on their feet when it’s played. They take so much from old-school-Zapp-And-Roger style funk, but flip it to make it relevant for today and I love them for that.
Smart, Guiltless, Bright
When it comes to essential listening, I lean towards music that makes me think. I also like musicians who age with me. I’m very lucky to have been exposed to many excellent musicians during pivotal years in life. I often wonder who I would have grown into if my journey through life had been synced with a different soundtrack. It’s always a pleasure to have a long lasting artist favorite who has the ability to change with time, and honestly with the songs put out. I enjoy many artists and songs new and old, but there are a few core artists whom I’ll always default to as my favorites.
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