Jamaican Gold: DJ Art Baker Talks Reggae
360°Sound caught up with Art Baker, host of the popular Austin-based community radio show Jamaican Gold. Every Sunday from noon to 2 p.m. on 91.7 FM KOOP and online on Radio Free America, Baker takes listeners on a journey through the history of Jamaican music from roughly 1960 to 1980. Baker is in his 21st year of hosting Jamaican Gold, which is divided into four 30-minute segments covering the major Jamaican genres: ska, rocksteady, reggae and dub.
360°: Jamaican Gold is so unique. It’s got to be one of few, if not the only, radio shows of its kind.
Art Baker: Specifically of my format, yes. And I should give full credit where credit is due. I did not actually create the show. There was a guy named Paul Kauppila. He actually created it back in the mid-90s. Back then it was just an hour-long, and he would do 15 minutes of each [genre]. He gets credit for creating the ‘walking the timeline’ aspect of the show, which so far as I know is unique. He had to move out of town for professional considerations and I got a chance to be one of his successors, so I kind of took it over.
This is the Jamaican Gold theme song: “Safari” by Raymond Harper & the Melody Makers
Most people seem to know what reggae is but maybe not original Jamaican ska and rocksteady. What are the characteristics of those genres?
Jamaica is a really fertile music ground. They went through a lot of different variations of things and came up with some really classic independent sounds over a very small period of time. If you go back to the 50s, there’s a lot of the Jamaican version of calypso, which is mento. There’s a lot of jazz going on as well, and some R&B stuff. They listened to some R&B records from the States because it’s not that far of a stretch. Ska became Jamaica’s own little signature sound with a little more emphasis on the offbeat.
The real big world stage debut of it was in 1964 with Millie Small (who just passed away) with “My Boy Lollipop.” That was an example of a Jamaican singer being taken to England by Chris Blackwell [in 1963], who became the founder of Island Records and has been heavily involved in music for a while. He and the guitar player Ernest Ranglin went to London because, instead of a Jamaican pressing, they wanted a little bit of a different feel for it. I think it’s clear Chris Blackwell wanted it as much for his record company as he did for Millie Small. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s where it first really takes off and gets into world consciousness.
And rocksteady emerged in the mid to late 60s?
Yeah. The legend as it’s told, I’m not sure how much of this is actually true at this point, and I certainly wasn’t down there on the island to tell you for sure, but the legend goes that it was a very hot summer. Jamaica was experiencing a heatwave. They were also starting to listen to more R&B out of the States. It’s kind of a combination of the directions that the musicians were going as well. People still wanted to dance, but they did not want to dance as fast and furiously during the heatwave. Rocksteady kind of slows that sound down. You can definitely tell you get more harmonies, especially three-part harmonies, which is the influence of some of the American R&B records shining through. I hope it’s true [laughs]. It sounds like a great story.
You end the show with dub music. I understand that dub was the original remix.
In a lot of ways, yes. They even called them “dub plates” or 12-inch mixes back in the day. That’s another example of Jamaican music kind of being ahead of the curve. With the dub records, a lot of the times the producer would be able to play around with the B-side. You’d have the original vocal cut and kind of wash it down and throw a lot of reverb on it. Honestly, there’s some dub records that the dub version is actually more famous than the original vocal.
How’d you get introduced to Jamaican music?
Honestly, if I look back, being in the early 80s, I didn’t really know what ska music was, but there was a band running around called Madness. I was just at the age where I could be buying cassette tapes and listening to them on a Walkman. I didn’t know that it was a Jamaican influence; I just knew that I liked that.
At the same time, The Specials were working, English Beat as well. I even kind of liked Oingo Boingo at the time, which the first few records of theirs are actually kind of ska. Not really knowing this and then growing up a little more and starting to listen to reggae, starting to realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute, some of this is intertwined, some of it’s kind of related.’ And it just opened up the floodgates. I started listening to a lot of vintage ska, the original Jamaican stuff. I can’t fully explain why I like it; I just know that I do.
For many, their experience with reggae seems to start and end with Bob Marley. Reggae is the only genre I can think of that has just one global star. Why do you think that is?
I don’t play a lot of [Bob Marley] on my show, simply because it’s a pretty fair bet that most anybody who tunes in to my show already owns a fair amount of that stuff. There’s a reason he is the best known. He is a fantastic musician and a ridiculously good songwriter. And a terrific lyricist. An absolute triple threat across the board. It is interesting to me that there are a handful of faces you can put on a T-shirt and go anywhere in the world and someone will recognize them. Marley is definitely in that category.
He had a reach that he was really able to make good use of. The guy was making music since ’62, but he really became the international superstar in the 70s. There’s nothing else quite like it. Anytime anybody asks me, ‘Well, all I know about is Bob Marley. Who else would you direct me to?’ I try to come up with some names, and one of my favorites to say is Dennis Brown. Because he is not only a really good singer but when asked who his favorite singer was, Bob Marley apparently did not hesitate, “Dennis Brown” he’d say. If it’s good enough for the king, it’s probably good enough for you.
What are some essential albums you’d recommend for the reggae novice?
There’s plenty out there, and it doesn’t have to all speak to you. One record I think is outstanding in a lot of ways is Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey. To me, it’s up there in the top five or six of reggae. Solid rhythms, really good vocals. And it also proves to be a really good introduction to dub as well because there is a companion album called Garvey’s Ghost.
Basically, if you listen to Marcus Garvey front to back and Garvey’s Ghost front to back, you get the same songs, just the dub versions remixed. So, for people who don’t quite understand what’s the deal about a whole bunch of sound effects and tripping something in reverb, it kind of provides a textbook example of how you take the original sound and turn it into something different with the dub remix. Another ridiculously strong reggae record is Heart Of The Congos by The Congos, which was produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry. It should likely go on anyone’s list of things to try out.
Which CD compilations would you recommend?
There were some around years ago, I don’t know how readily available they are now, they were called Top Sounds From Top Deck. The label was Top Deck Records. They were a collection, I think seven or eight of them, of vintage ska tracks that don’t necessarily show up on the Studio One label.
They were produced by a guy named Justin Yap. His family was Chinese, and they had emigrated to Jamaica. He was very well known for taking good care of the musicians and making sure they had plenty to eat, drink and smoke while they were playing for him. And he also paid them promptly at the end of the night’s sessions, which not all the other Jamaican producers did [laughs]. They’ve got some really good, exciting tracks out of the Skatalites and some of the vocal singers who would come in. Those are really fun.
If you live in Austin and dig ska and reggae, be sure to turn the dial to 91.7 FM Sundays at noon for the sweet sounds of Jamaican Gold. You can also listen online on the KOOP site or Radio Free America, which has full shows on-demand from the last two weeks.