Who owned the Rootsman riddim?

Over the past year, reggae’s most popular artists showcased their talent over Phillip “Winta” James and Overstand Entertainment’s Rootsman riddim.  Reggae’s most popular artists took on the riddim in fine style, giving us some of the strongest reggae singles I’ve heard in some time.  As my friend and Reggaeville owner Julian Schmidt points out, the riddim was actually produced in 2013.  And while the singles were released in 2013 on the Rootsman Riddim – EP, they really took off in January 2014 when Chronixx released his Dread & Terrible EP and Damian Marley dropped his  “Is It Worth It (Gunman World)” single.  In my opinion, Jesse Royal’s “Modern Day Judas” is the best reggae single to be released since Damian Marley’s landmark “Welcome to Jamrock” single (2005).  His flow over the first verse of the track is supernatural.

The strongest performances over the riddim came from Tarrus Riley (“Cold Girl”) whose voice is still heads and shoulders above any other artist in the game;  Jah-9 brought heavy lyrical content on the Rastafari-influenced “Reverence;”  Damian Marley decries the gun with his own unique vocal stylings in “Is It Worth It (Gunman World).”

SOJA’s signature roots reggae sound lost ‘AMID THE NOISE AND HASTE’

Riding high on the success of their 2012 album STRENGTH TO SURVIVE, and selling out stadiums from Monterey to Sao Paolo, SOJA released AMID THE NOISE AND HASTE on August 12, 2014.  And while they are BILLBOARD’S new darling, SOJA fans and reggae purists are left wondering what happened to the reggae band we all knew and loved.

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There are so very few reggae artists who have been able to obtain pop status and make their way from relative obscurity to being heard on the public airwaves. Bob Marley was the first to break down this barrier by recruiting two rock guitarists, Al Anderson in 1974 and Junior Marvin in 1977, in an attempt to reach the elusive rock and roll, record-buying, concert-going music fan. It worked, and the rest is reggae history. Third World gained solid yet brief pop status with the release of COMMITTED in 1992. Then in the late 1990s, Shaggy burst on the scene with “Mr. Boombastic,” “It Wasn’t Me,” and “Angel” on a streak that would culminate in the release of HOT SHOT in 2000, an album which went 6x platinum. Shaggy did the impossible. Sean Paul soon followed.

So with the deck stacked so high why would a multi-talented, authentic roots reggae collective like SOJA change their sound in an attempt to become more “radio friendly”? The answer came last week when their new album AMID THE NOISE AND HASTE charted at #20 Billboard. It is no surprise that such an underwhelming album by such a talented band is selling well to the masses. These are the same masses whose reggae purchasing power routinely places Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” at the #1 spot on Itunes. And while their placement on the Billboard chart is earth-shaking news in reggae circles, it does little to satisfy SOJA fans and reggae purists alike who watched this band come into its own over the past ten years playing a brand of reggae reminiscent of the great roots reggae acts of our time. This was not just a group of wannabe white boys on-stage doing their best Bob Marley impression. No, these kids grew up on a steady diet of Bob Marley, Israel Vibration, Black Uhuru, Gladiators, Meditations, and The Congos. They are a band who spent ten years in the studio with producer and reggae sound engineer extraordinaire Jim Fox, honing their sound into a tight, authentic, yet uniquely styled roots reggae sound. They were groomed by the local elders in the tenets and teachings of Rastafari (not Rastafarianism…Rasta is not an -ism). And they toured, and toured, and toured. It was respected reggae musicologist Dermot Hussey who first brought them into XMRadio to play their music live-on-air. It was also Hussey who introduced the band when they played the DC-circuit, including their 2006 show at the State Theater which was captured on video and released as the GET WISER DVD.

SOJA has become synonymous with a small group of US reggae acts – bands like John Brown’s Body, Groundation, and Rebelution – who play an authentic brand of foundation roots reggae. While these groups have stayed true to their own respective brand of reggae, SOJA made a conscious decision to change their sound by teaming up with Dwayne ‘Supa Dups’ Chin-Quee, who has produced acts like Bruno Mars and Rihanna. This is not just supposition on the part of this author, SOJA’s lead singer Jacob Hemphill talked about the band’s decision to go a different route in a recent interview with Billboard:

“I wanted to be Bob Marley since the first time I saw a picture of him and I still do; what I mean by that is conscious music needs to have a spotlight on it and he did that bigger than anyone who ever lived. I’m not mad that all I hear on the radio are songs about strippers and planes to Ibiza, I just want conscious music to have a place at the table too.”

The problem lies in the fact that SOJA will never get significant radio play. Their sound will never find a home on urban radio, where Shaggy and Sean Paul were able to make their name. On the other hand, SOJA’s sound is still too “reggae” to find airplay on pop radio. It is a fool’s errand to change your sound in an attempt to satisfy the most fickle of fanbases and this band should know better.

So what about the album? People have been asking my opinion of the album so here it goes. AMID THE NOISE AND HASTE finds SOJA with an acute case of “follow fashion monkey” with a slight touch of “Cali Roots.” Having listened to the album several times, I am still searching for the SOJA I’ve been a fan of for more than a decade.

The album starts out strong as Jacob Hemphill showcases his talent as a songwriter with “Tear It Down.” The opening track is brilliantly produced, featuring a subtle horns mix that really adds a great dynamic to the tune. “Your Song,” the first single from the album, is a meandering tune featuring Damian Marley seemingly doing his best to mail it in. “I Believe” (feat. Michael Franti & Nahko) features the band singing and rhyming over a DC go-go-influenced riddim. While DC and Baltimore natives will appreciate the sound, SOJA just doesn’t pull it off and Michael Franti & Nahko just draw the song out like a bad Saturday Night Live skit.  As if that tune wasn’t monotonous enough, SOJA follows with “Easier” (feat. Anuhea & J Boog), a tune on which Hemphill seems to bore himself with his own uninspired vocal.  A latin fusion riddim cannot save “Signature” which features Hemphill struggling with writer’s block (“Let it out if it is true, it will flow out of you, like a river in your mind”). Don’t fret though, there are still nine tracks to go on this uninspired wreck of an album which inexplicably needed nineteen tracks in total.

This is reggae for people who dislike reggae. Perhaps a redux version of the album, featuring eight to ten tracks would have worked much better, but we will never know. The bottom line is that this is not the year 2000 where you have Shaggy atop the charts and a bunch of strugglers on laptops creating soulless and uninspired reggae. No, in 2014 we have Damian Marley rhyming flawless on “Gunman World;” we have Chronixx performing “Alpha and Omega” to stunned crowds from Jamaica to Belgium; we have Jesse Royal assassinating the Rootsman riddim and moving crowds like nobody has in a decade; and we have Midnite quietly dropping the best album of their career.

And while SOJA will surely garner a Grammy nod for AMID THE NOISE AND HASTE, the artists taking their chances along the cutting edge of modern roots reggae will not be slowing down to congratulate them.