The Agit Reader

Trojan Records

July 15th, 2015  |  by Stephen Slaybaugh

Trojan Records Rude Boy RumbleAfter an initial false start the year before, Trojan Records was launched in 1968 as a partnership with Island Records, Chris Blackwell’s powerhouse label importing Jamaican music to England. (Trojan boss Lee Gopthal and Blackwell had previously worked together doing mail order sales.) Trojan served as a sister label to Island, releasing singles supplied by its namesake Duke “Trojan” Reid, as well as Lee Perry, Byron Lee, and other producers. Such records proved popular with the working class skinheads of the late ’60s, and the label had its first hit in the summer of ’69 with Tony Tribe’s “Red Red Wine.” Two years later, Trojan scored its first UK number one with Dave and Ansel Collins’ “Double Barrel.”

Equally popular were the competitively priced compilations that Trojan produced. As tastes changed and reggae continued to morph, those comps proved to be the label’s bread and butter, especially during the Two Tone ska revival of the late ’70s and early ’80s. When the label was sold in 1975 and again in 1985, the focus was placed on channeling Trojan’s formidable back catalog into additional compilations. When Trojan was sold once more 15 years later, those compilations found new life on CD.

In the intervening years, Trojan was once again obtained by new owners, BMG, and is being relaunched in the U.S. with a series of—what else—compilations. The first of these, Rude Boy Rumble, was released on Record Store Day in April. Named after the Jamaican subculture whose fashions were adapted by the mods and skins of the era, the record was compiled by record store owner and Sound System label head Tom “Papa” Ray and suitably highlights tracks from Trojan’s hey day. Naturally, it includes “Double Barrel,” as well as classics like The Slickers’ “Johnny Too Bad” and Alton Ellis’ “Cry Tough,” as well as arguably one of the greatest cuts ever laid to wax, “007 (Shanty Town)” by Desmond Dekker & The Aces. It’s a solid survey of Trojan’s catalog that even contains some surprises like the funk-reggae hybrid of The Chosen Few’s cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Thing.”

Trojan Records Rock Steady Volume 1Where Trojan has always excelled, though, is in delving into Jamaican music’s genres and sub-genres, and the five volumes it released earlier this summer as the first phase of its relaunch serve as introductions to not only the label, but the styles of music in which it has long specialized. And with each comp labeled “Volume 1,” one can only assume that Trojan will delve deeper with subsequent releases. It’s also worth noting that these are vinyl-only, no doubt marking the first time many of these cuts have been pressed to the format in years.

The most natural places for Trojan—and listeners—to start are the volumes devoted to ska and rock steady. Compiled (as the others are) by writer Laurence Cane-Honeysett, these records are devoted to two styles that came to prominence in the ’60s and which Trojan has long documented via its releases. The style favored early in the decade, ska’s frantic tempos were eventually slowed down in the mid-60s and rock steady was born. As such, the two are closely related, and there is some overlap, with Desmond Dekker & The Aces and Alton Ellis & The Flames appearing on both records. Both volumes are top notch, with the dozen songs on each representing the best of the genres. The ska collection is highlighted by The Skatalites’ “(Music Is My) Occupation” and The Zodiacs’ “Renegade,” while the rock steady comp, perhaps my favorite of all five, has “007 (Shantytown),” which as I might have mentioned previously is as good as it gets, as well as, ironically, The Ethiopians” “Train to Skaville” and The Paragons’ “The Tide Is High,” which most will recognize for Blondie’s hit cover.

“Reggae” seems like a pretty broad term, but by the late ’60s, the genre was diverging in multiple directions and one can hear that diversity on the volume labeled as such. The omnipresent Desmond Dekker leads things off with his ska-tinged “Israelites,” while Dennis Brown’s “Money in My Pocket,” though focused on similar economic concerns, features a more mid-tempo riddim and laidback approach. It is here more than anywhere else that one hears the past, present, and future of Jamaican music, with the era sounding particularly amazing on Althea & Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking.”

Trojan Records Reggae Volume 1In the ’70s, two seemingly dissimilar offshoots of reggae emerged. Roots focused on organic sounds as well as Rastafarianism, while dub was a future-forward style created in and by the studio, with the producer’s role every bit as important as the featured musicians. However, the fact that Lee “Scratch” Perry appears on both records should tell you that even here there is some common ground. Indeed, the cut that leads off the roots record, “Two Sevens Clash” by Culture, is led by a modern keyboard melody while dealing in religious mysticism. But elsewhere such proselytizing is matched with a stripped-down sound that gives such zealousness real punch. A prime example is “None Shall Escape the Judgement” by Johnny Clarke (who also appears on the dub record), whose riddim is delivered primarily on high-hat and bass.

It’s telling that the dub volume has the least number of tracks of any of these records. Here the form is slowed and stretched, with the distance between musical elements bridged by swathes of bass. No doubt aided by sinsemilla (as Linval Thompson readily admits on “Jamaican Collie”), it’s remarkable how far these pioneers pushed the limits using the most rudimentary of tools. These are grooves as deep as the earth itself and truly come off like sonic explorations into the heart of sound itself.

While, none of these records can claim to be much more than a cursory overview, each album is notable for being without filler. Indeed, these are records that demand to be heard front to back, as there’s not a bum cut in the bunch. Let’s hope that they are just the start of much more music to come from Trojan, as well as the beginning of a long-lasting resurgence for the label.

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