Rise to the Top
All Abuzz (Mozelle)
There's a powerful argument to be made for the fact that reggae music, Jah music, is buried on Nine Mile in Jamaica. Born to an American father (R&B) and a Jamaican mother (indigenous riddims) in the early Sixties, reggae was a fierce wild child, espousing social and political rebellion while also embracing God and love. Coming of age in the Seventies, it peaked right around the turn of the decade before dying of cancer in 1981. Family kept the name alive through the mid-Eighties, and a decade or so later, familiar names like Ziggy and Bunny do what they can, but let's face it, the bloodline was weak; R&B was already a distilation of just plain blues, and reggae diluted the mixture more. Which has always been the problem. Take these three recent local releases, for instance. The Killer Bees' All Abuzz, by far the most straightforward reggae album of the trio, has its groove in pocket to be sure; after all these years Michael E. Johnson and Malcolm Welbourne -- with the help of a good horn section -- know exactly what they're doing. Unfortunately, groove is not enough. Live, it might be, but on groove-bit (CD) even reggae requires good songwriting -- especially reggae, since the groove is such a simple one. On All Abuzz, only "Cool Down," a nice, clean riff-off of the Wailers' "Simmer Down," and the heavier hip-hop, monster-mash vibe of "Dr. Doom," stand out; one would hope rastas traveling a country road would arrive at a better version of Marty Robbins' classic "El Paso." The rest is just groove -- with a little too much keyboards. Keyboards and programming are definitely the name of the game on Raggamassive's Rise to the Top, which distinguishes itself immediately as reggae's glam cousin, dancehall. As far as that heinous family off-shoot goes, Raggamassive do it well, though it's curious to note that the two best songs on the Rise, "Sum'ting Wicked" and "Get off Ma' Vibe" are plain ol' hip-hopping. And dub, they do dub well. Very well (there should be a dub set to Rise). Again, though, there's a dearth of songs. Writing-wise, Tribal Nation probably have it over the other two local groups, scoring early on Our Things with the smooth R&B stylin' of "Back in the Days," the rasta good cheer of "Club Manager," and the strong General Publicisms of "Pistol Man." After that, however, things dissolve quickly into rather bland R&B. And isn't that what reggae is without strong songwriting? Just a groove -- and one that's even less interesting than the blues? Of course. Dig up a songwriter with true rebel soul and the love to conquer all. I think I know where one's buried.
(All) (2.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez