By Cato Rand
The Roots Radics Band provided the backdrop for what is referred to as early dancehall music. The rhythm tracks they laid for Barrington Levyʼs ʻBounty Hunter’ album for producer Hyman Wright on his Jah Life Label released in 1979 are widely accepted as the birth of Jamaican dancehall music. Songs on this album include ʻShine eye girlʼ, ʻShaolin Temple’, ʻTrod with Jah Jahʼ and ʻWalk 2000 milesʼ.
Dancehall was a departure from the more internationally flavoured songs of the previous decade. Although themes of social injustice, interpersonal relationships and Rastafari – or ʻculture’ as we then youngsters would deem it – continued, there was increasing incorporation of songs more centered on dancing and sexuality.
In contrast to later dancehall songs, any depiction of violence in early dancehall left no doubt that early exponents were in no way lionizing violence. It was primarily the sound of the music that changed relative to those of previous years. I would argue a more indigenous sound arguably less influenced by external musical forms.
The name Roots Radics was bestowed on the band – they were originally called the Roots Rock band – by singer Gregory Isaacs with whom they would later record reggae classics such as ʻNight Nurseʼ, ʻFront Doorʼ and ʻNumber Oneʼ among others.
Roots Radics had a signature sound – very heavy (primarily two chords) bass line, relatively slow pace and horn section playing throughout the song rather than at conspicuous intervals – which provided much joy for many of us who came of age in the late 1970s and early 80s. The Radics sound also resulted in much space between the notes providing ample room for the singers to operate.
Roots Radics evolved from the Channel One Stars, a session band for the Hoo-Kim Brothers Channel One Studio. The Revolutionairies, led by the drum and bass duo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, were the previous backing band for most Channel One productions; but the Hoo-Kim Brothers soon thought that Sly and Robbie were saving what they considered their better compositions for their own productions. So when the riddim twins formed their own Taxi label in 1978 the Roots Radics band blossomed. The group primarily consisted of Errol ‘Flabba‘ Holt-bass, Eric ʻBingy Bunnyʼ Lamont -rhythm guitar and Lincoln ʻStyleeʼ Scott-drums. To this core were added at various intervals other musicians notably Noel Bailey-lead guitar, Dwight Pinkney-lead guitar, Gladstone Anderson-piano, Winston Wright-organ, Earl ʻChinnaʼ Smith-lead guitar, Carlton ʻSantaʼ Davis-drums, Carl Ayton drums, Wycliffe ʻSteelieʼ Johnson-keyboards, Ansel Collins-keyboards, Bongo Herman-percussion, Uzziah ʻStickyʼ Thompson-percussion, Noel Simms-percussion, Christopher ʻSky Juiceʼ Burt-percussion, David Madden-trumpet, Bobby Ellis-trumpet, Dean Fraser-saxophone, Felix ʻDeadly Headlyʼ Bennett-saxaphone, Val Bennett-trombone and Ronald ʻNamboʼ Robinson-trombone.
Holt and Lamont were previously members of the Morwells that recorded in 1974 a cover of the Melodians hit ʻSwing and Dineʼ. Pinkney was a member of the Sharks and Zap Pow and also penned ʻHow can I Leaveʼ, made popular by Dennis Brown. Ayton was an original member of the Bloodfire Posse. Johnson later joined forces with Cleveland ʻClevie’ Browne, the combination that was responsible for the far majority of songs emanating from Jamaica in the 1990s coming into the new millennium.
So many songs now considered classics of the Jamaican sound were provided by the Radics. The following is by no means an exhaustive list……
Gregory Isaacs – Night Nurse, Substitute, Tune in, Front Door, Number one
Bunny Wailer – Cool Runnings, Rock N Groove, Crucial
Junior Reid – Foreign Mind John Holt – Sweetie Come Brush Me, Queen of the Ghetto, Police in Helicopter
Frankie Paul – Worries in the Dance, Kushumpeng , Fire deh a mus mus tail
Michael Prophet– Gunman
Eddie Fitzroy– Check for you once. The Gun Youthman penitentiary
Johnny Osbourne– Ice cream love, Mr Walker
Freddie McGregor– Big ship
Anthony Johnson – Gun shot
Yellowman – Iʼm getting married, Dem mad over me
Linval Thompson – Look how me sexy, Baby father
Ranking Toyan – Spar wid me
Barrington Levy – Black roses, Dances are changing, Prison oval rock, Murderer, Unda me sensi
Coco Tea– Rocking dolly Eek a Mouse – Wah do dem, Ganja smuggling
Michigan and Smiley -Diseases
Sugar Minott – No vacancy
Don Carlos – Iʼ m not getting crazy over you baby
Jah Thomas – Shoulder move
Tristan Palmer – Entertainment
Little John– Bubbling stylee
Dennis Brown – If this world were mine, Coming home tonight
Wailing Soul – Firehouse rock
Some of these rhythms were actually updated Studio One songs: For example Frankie Paulʼs ʻKushempengʼ is a reworking of ʻDarker shade of Black’ which was itself a sampling of the Beatles ʻNorwegian woodʼ and Osbournes ʻIce cream loveʼ was taken from Burning Spear’s ʻHe prayedʼ. But the way these tracks were played by the Roots Radics gave freshness to the sound that rendered them almost original.
ʻNight nurseʼ with its ultra smooth bass line is by far one of the most popular lovers rock songs and deserves its place among the pantheon of Reggae anthems. The bass line on Michael Prophetʼs ʻGunman’ is just about the deepest of sounds one can get from a 4 string bass guitar – any deeper and you would probably have to go digging underground to find it. Junior Reidʼs ʻForeign mind’ is certainly one of the more sophisticated sounds from the early dancehall era.
Many of these songs that the Radics played on are not just among the best of the dancehall genre but also rank among the best of Jamaican music.
So prodigious was the output of the Radics that at times in the early 1980ʼs almost all the songs on the local Top 20 music charts were backed by the band. The influence of the Radics began to wane in mid 80ʼs s with the onset of computer generated ‘riddims’ and the resultant lack of need of session musicians.
The band in its present incarnation continues to tour with Israel Vibration recently returning from dates in South America and should be heading off to Europe in early August.
Sad to say a number of Radics musicians have passed on including Steelie, Bingie Bunny, Winston Wright and Carl Ayton.
I recently spoke with ‘Flabba’ Holt and ‘Stylee’ Scott in preparation for this blog and apart from the palpable joy they exuded in conversing with a ʻChristmas Eve-giddyʼ fan who thinks they are among our countryʼs greatest sons, I sensed an angst at they not gaining the recognition and plaudits they so richly deserve, for the impact they have had on the sounds emanating from our shores. But then probably its par for the course as so many of the stalwarts of Jamaican music have gone unrecognized. Probably the greatest compliment I can pay this group of musicians is that after listening to hours of some Roots Radics there is no need to ʻdrawʼ for any mood altering substance.
It’s a pity we do not have a Reggae Hall of Fame as certainly they should be one of the early inductees -with them being at the forefront in the generation of the new sound of dancehall. With our Festival celebrations seemingly in desperate need of a raison dʼetre maybe we can initiate some new awards recognizing the stalwarts of our music – not just singers but the players of instruments, producers, engineers, etc – to be bestowed on the honorees during early August each year. I hope that chroniclers of our music history will deem it fit to produce books, documentaries, etc, recording for posterity the contribution of the Roots Radics Band.