The independent side of reggae

By Howard Campbell Observer senior writer

Friday, March 08, 2013

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BEFORE major labels came knocking at the doors of dancehall artistes in the 1990s, independent companies known as 'indies' helped promote Jamaican music overseas.

Island Records and Trojan Records, operating out of London, got the ball rolling in the 1960s. They stepped up promotion a decade later with Island having remarkable success with Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Third World.

In the 1980s, American independents like RAS Records, VP Records, Alligator Records, Heartbeat Records, Nighthawk Records and Shanachie Records embraced roots acts like Culture, Israel Vibration, Mutabaruka, Augustus Pablo and the Wailing Souls, releasing new music and reissuing their extensive catalogue.

Over in the United Kingdom, Greensleeves Records introduced dancehall music to that country through licensing deals with Jamaican producers including Henry 'Junjo' Lawes.

Randall Grass, head of Shanachie, said indies had a different focus than the bigger labels.

"It was Independent labels who broke down the barriers for reggae

music in the (United) States and Europe. Island Records was an independent in the seventies and they truly blazed the trail, not just with The Wailers (and later Bob Marley and The Wailers) but a wide array of releases from artistes such as Justin Hinds.

Virgin Records next stepped forward with a strong commitment to reggae with everyone from U Roy to Culture to The Twinkle Brothers and The Mighty Diamonds," Grass told Splash.

When Island's involvement with Jamaican declined in the 1990s, the majors courted dancehall's elite which included Shabba Ranks, Beres Hammond, Mad Cobra, Patra and Shaggy.

VP Records stood out during this period, playing a similar role as Greensleeves 10 years earlier, by breaking dancehall music in the United States.

Grass said indies had a significant advantage over the majors in one area.

"These labels did not have the promotional dollars of majors but they were usually run by people with a real appreciation and understanding of the music and the artistes as well as, in many cases, Jamaican culture," he explained. "The majors only dipped their toes in from time to time and never with an ongoing commitment to the music."

Many of the indie labels that supported reggae in the 1980s and 1990s are no longer around. Those which exist, like Shanachie, maintain ties with older acts like Third World. It also reissues albums from Augustus Pablo and Culture.

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