Sleng Teng: A beginner’s guide to Prince Jammy, the man who ushered in reggae’s digital age

Lloyd ‘Jammy’ James caused a music revolution in Jamaica.

When he unleashed Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’ onto an unsuspecting public in 1985, production values changed overnight as Jamaican music was thrust headlong into the ‘digital’ age of computerisation. Literally hundreds of versions of the song were eventually issued, and most producers ditched live musicians for sequenced beats in the original single’s immediate aftermath. But Jammy’s long career involves so much more than just the ‘Sleng Teng’ landmark.

Indeed, he was one of the leading producers of roots reggae during the late 1970s, and he was a major figure in the development of dub. His involvement in the Jamaican music scene dates back to the ska years, when he first formed his own sound system. He also made some music of note in Canada before cutting his best-known work in Jamaica, and despite having long reached pensionable age, the man is still an active force in the music of the present day. He’s a level-headed, modest and likeable person too. All of which makes him a truly exceptional figure.

Lloyd James was born in Montego Bay in 1947, but moved to Kingston at an early age and settled in Waterhouse, an expansive inner-city district where some new housing developments had recently been built in an effort to ease the chronic overcrowding of western Kingston. In Waterhouse, the young Jammy found himself growing up on the same street as Osbourne Ruddock, the electronics technician and sound system operator better known as King Tubby, who acted as a mentor to him. Soon Jammy was building amplifiers, playing records and becoming immersed in sound system culture, so much so that he started a small set of his own, during ska’s heyday, in 1962 or ’63. He expanded the set a few years later, when rock steady was the rage, so that it could be featured at local parties held during the Christmas season and on other public holidays.

Then, just as the new reggae sound took Jamaica by storm, in 1969, Jammy’s future wife Iris moved to Toronto; he followed her there on holiday, but wound up staying in Canada for around seven years. In Toronto, after furthering his education in electronics, he worked as an engineer on some of the earliest material to surface from Jerry Brown’s Summer Records (including some Johnny Osbourne tracks), and produced Nana McLean’s reggae cover version of Sandy Posey’s country rock hit, ‘Single Girl’. But Jammy became much more of a major player in reggae upon returning to Jamaica in 1976, when he became King Tubby’s right-hand man. He swiftly became the primary mixing engineer at King Tubby’s studio, and became a producer in his own right, working with upcoming Waterhouse-based artists such as Black Uhuru, Junior Reid, the Travellers, Lacksley Castell and the Fantails, as well as more established pros like Horace Andy and Augustus Pablo. He was also responsible for some of the greatest dub albums issued during the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as In Lion Dub Style, Kamikaze Dub, Big Showdown, Fatman Dub Contest and Dub Landing (the last three being ‘confrontation’-styled albums, which pitted his skills against Scientist and Crucial Bunny).

As the 1980s progressed, Jammy became a vanguard of the new dancehall movement and after breaking away from Tubby to form his own tiny studio at nearby St Lucia Road, ‘Sleng Teng’ made Jammy into a dominant force whose rise was completely unstoppable. This precipitated his re-crowning as King Jammy, and it is certainly the case that Tubby stayed in Jammy’s shadow during the mid-to-late 1980s, though the two remained close friends. The incredible string of hits that Jammy enjoyed in the digital dancehall format, assisted by engineer Bobby ‘Digital’ Dixon and musicians such as Steelie and Clevie, brought a whole new legion of artists into the limelight, such as Admiral Bailey, Sanchez, Pinchers and Admiral Tibet, and he continued cutting upfront work with seasoned veterans such as Junior Delgado, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs.

Into the 1990s, Jammy’s son John John became involved in the music, followed later by brothers Jam 2 and Baby G. Ward 21 and other resident musicians shifted the studio’s sound into new directions, palpably influenced by hardcore gangsta rap. Bounty Killer cut some of his best work at the studio in this era, and it remained a busy place into the new millennium, though Jammy had more of a backseat role for a time. Then, mid-way up the noughties, Jammy began cutting new work with the likes of Sizzla and Michael Rose, sometimes resurrecting old rhythms for new purposes, and he has since remained somewhat active in the production sphere. Seeing Jammy and his son in action at the Kingston Dub Club a few months ago doing live custom mixes of exclusive recordings was a wondrous occasion that made clear he has lost none of his magic where dub mixing is concerned. And recent material cut with Alborosie and a range of contemporary Jamaican artists proves that Jammy is still very much a force to be reckoned with.

What follows are a dozen of the Jammy’s most noteworthy creations, drawn from his extensive catalogue.

Black Uhuru
‘Willow Tree’ (aka Michael Rose ‘Born Free’)
(from Love Crisis, Third World/Jammy’s, 1977)

Black Uhuru is a vocal trio with a complicated genesis. Many are familiar with the classic recordings the group cut with Sly and Robbie for Island Records with Puma Jones, but their debut album Love Crisis was produced by Prince Jammy in 1977, when the group consisted of Michael Rose, Duckie Simpson and Errol Nelson. The whole album is killer but ‘Willow Tree’ is outstanding, Rose’s impassioned commentary on the post-colonial condition nicely framed by unusual instrumentation, including an upfront clavinet line.

The album was later reissued by Greensleeves as Black Sounds Of Freedom, but the mix is different, so try to trace the original if you can. Failing that, the extended 12-inch, re-titled ‘Born Free’ and credited to Rose, makes maximum use of the rhythm, seguing at the end into a fearsome extended dub portion.

Lacksley Castell
‘What A Great Day’
(Sufferer’s Heights, 1979)

A lesser-known singer from Waterhouse, Lacksley Castell drew on the style of Hugh Mundell, Barry Brown and other high tenor singers in the neighbourhood, the ultimate source traceable to Horace Andy. ‘What A Great Day’ speaks of a coming retribution for the Rastafari faithful, delivered over a fantastic Jammy rhythm with a vibrant horn line, a rock-solid bass pattern and plenty of percussive embellishments; the dubwise portion amplifies the musical artistry and emphasizes the driving rhythm, with heavy doses of delay and phasing effects lending an ethereal quality.

Johnny Osbourne
‘Jahova’
(from Folly Ranking, Jammy’s/Positive Sounds, 1980)

After scoring a number of hits fronting the Sensations in the late 1960s, Johnny Osbourne moved to Toronto where he cut select singles for labels such as Summer Sounds and Half Moon, some of which were engineered by Jammy. He was also a member of Ishan People, who worked with David Clayton-Thomas for GRT, but upon his return in Jamaica, Osbourne made a tremendous impact with his classic Truth and Rights album at Studio One. Then Johnny began working with Jammy and the pair’s close friendship is evident in the strength of the music they created together, the 1980 set Folly Ranking being an underrated classic that was always a bit difficult to find. The devotional ‘Jahova’ is one of the album’s outstanding tracks, a joyous depiction of religious faith voiced in perfect time to a thunderous rhythm.

Junior Reid
‘Jailhouse’
(KG Imperial, 1981)

Junior Reid was an upcoming young talent on Sugar Minott’s Youth Promotion sound system during the late 1970s, and by hanging out with fellow singer Hugh Mundell, who released some of his first singles, Reid was introduced to early ally Augustus Pablo. The subsequent link with Jammy was a fortuitous one that eventually led to the popular Boom Shack A Lack album, but their initial pairing yielded the astounding ‘Jailhouse’, which related the everyday nature of police brutality in the area. The extended dub portion, subtitled ‘The Crowning of Prince Jammy,’ showed just how strong and perceptive Jammy was at the mixing console; for an alternate view of the proceedings, check for Jammy’s custom mix, captured by the camera in Howard Johnson’s evocative television documentary series Deep Roots Music.

Half Pint
‘Mr Landlord’
(Jammys 12”/Witty 12”, 1984)

Waterhouse-based singer Lindon Roberts got the moniker Half Pint due to his short stature. Jammy was one of the first producers to record the young singer, and the work they did together was always captivating. Though ‘Pouchie Lou’ and Pint’s original ‘One In A Million’ hit first, ‘Mr Landlord’ was the outstanding track on his debut album releases (titled One In A Million in the UK and Money Man Skank in Jamaica), being a topical tale of sub-standard housing that every tenant can relate to, riding a hot Jammys recut of the Wailers’ ‘Hypocrites’ rhythm. The fact that Bushman would hit on the same rhythm some fifteen years later (see below) is proof of the rhythm’s enduring appeal.

Wayne Smith
‘Under Me Sleng Teng’
(Jammys 7”/Witty 12”/Greensleeves 12”, 1985)

As noted above, ‘Sleng Teng’ unleashed a tidal change in Jamaican music production. Using the rock ‘n’ roll pre-set on a Casio MT-40, the harsh automation of ‘Sleng Teng’ proved irresistible to dancehall fans. The lyrics drew on Barrington Levy’s earlier ‘Under Mi Sensi’ but Wayne Smith’s charged delivery constitutes more of a hook. Other strong Jammy cuts to watch out for include Tenor Saw’s ‘Pumpkin Belly’ and Johnny Osbourne’s dancehall-oriented ‘Buddy Bye.’

Nitty Gritty
‘Hog In A Minty’
(Jammy’s/Greensleeves, 1985)

Bad-boy sing-jay Nitty Gritty uses rude metaphor over the barest of barebones electro rhythms to incredible effect. The song refers to the habits of a randy hog that roots around in the bush; transfer the actions to a bedroom scenario and you’ll get the idea. Ample proof that less is more for Jammy in the immediate aftermath of ‘Sleng Teng.’

King Kong
‘Trouble Again’
(Jammy’s/Greensleeves, 1986)

Once Tenor Saw burst on the scene with a new style of ‘belly’ singing, a kind of wail that was drawn from deep down in the guts, Nitty Gritty and King Kong were swift to emulate it, the rivalry causing each to strive for getting the best out of the style. ‘Trouble Again’ warns of the perilous state of a world facing imminent nuclear annihilation, Kong’s relaxed delivery nicely contrasting with the frenetic digital re-cut of the ‘Death In The Arena’ rhythm.

Admiral Bailey
‘No Way No Better Than Yard’
(Live & Love, 1988)

Big-bellied toaster Admiral Bailey has a long association with Jammy. He initially took a pay cut to work on Jammy’s sound system, but it turned out to be the right move, leading to his earliest hit recordings and a popular pairing with Chakademus. ‘No Way No Better Than Yard’ sings the praises of Jamaica over one of Jammy’s most durable rhythms of the period (put together by Steelie & Clevie); Bailey reminding that even if gunshots are sometimes heard in Jamaica, life is always good on the island, compared to the trouble and strife of ‘foreign’.

Bushman
‘Fire Bun A Weakheart’
(King Jammy’s/Greensleeves, 1999)

Bushman’s debut album was cut for Steelie & Clevie, but business conflicts drove him into Jammy’s camp. The result was the fantastic Total Commitment album, which featured a number of compelling tracks, with ‘Fire Bun A Weakheart’ becoming an outstanding smash hit all over the Caribbean as well as overseas. Bushman’s new lyrics seem perfectly suited to the ‘Mr Landlord’ rhythm, showing that Jammy’s record productions often bear timeless hallmarks.

Black Uhuru & Chronixx
‘I Love King Selassie’
(Jammy’s, 2015)

Chronixx embellishes the Black Uhuru classic to morph the tune into new directions. A fine flow with Chronixx in sing-jay mode placing new emphasis on a much-loved roots reggae anthem, cycling the music into new arenas for the younger generation.