Jamaican music has always been dominated by the dancehall. They were controlled by the soundmen with the biggest, most powerful systems, many of whom became successful producers. They were ruled by selectors with the rarest 45s and their chatty deejays keeping the crowd pumped up. The key to the success of any any Jamaican sound system in the sixties and seventies was having the newest, rarest tracks. That often involved working with labels to get a steady stream of unmarked 45 containing exclusive songs. Soon the Jamaican engineers were experimenting with versioning songs, which began as simple instrumentals, and eventually became the weird and wonderful world of dub. These exclusive versions were a must for any successful sound system.
The deejay was another key to a successful system. Early deejays like King Stitt and Dennis Alcapone would chatter over records, often commenting on the tracks, and keeping the party going. This would be adapted in the Bronx as rapping, with funk and disco 45s replacing reggae.
The instrumental versions gave the deejays plenty of space to do their thing, and the crowd ate it up. Pretty soon deejays were releasing records of their own. The spontaneous nature of deejaying meant that the lyrics could be much more conversational and current than the lyrics to song, and labels got to re-release the same backing track as an entirely new song.
For a hip hop fan looking to explore reggae, dancehall, as deejay music came to be called, is a good place to start. It’s essentially Jamaican rapping, with deejays sing/talking over a riddim, ie bass and drums. As with early hip hop, there is a lot of crate digging going on, with producers unearthing forgotten riddims and giving them new life. Dillinger’s “CB200 + BIonic Dread” is a great introduction to the genre. This 2004 re-issue presents remastered versions of two classic dancehall albums, complete with extensive liner notes.
Dillinger’s “CB200” and “Bionic Dread” were released in January and March of 1977. All the songs were recorded in Studio One, with Sly Dunbar (of Sly and Robbie) and Ossie Hibbert overseeing production. Most of the backing tracks were newly recorded versions of popular Studio One songs, with Dillinger rapping over instrumentals of songs by Gregory Isaacs, Delroy Wilson, and the Mighty Diamonds among others.
The first ten songs are from “CB200” while the second ten are from “Bionic Dread.” The album covers show the development that took place in Dillinger within the three months that they were released. “CB200′ is a folk art painting of an unimpressive motorbike; “Bionic Dread” is a stylized painting of a bionic rasta on a futuristic motorcycle speeding past a country family with all their possessions piled on their Woody. It looks like a Journey or Boston cover from that era, showing how much more successful and sophisticated Dillinger had become. Musically, “Bionic Dread” is similar to “CB200,” although arguably a little less impressive.
Part of the success of “CB200” is the fact that the music sounds amazing. Studio One had just updated their gear, so the sound is crisp and clean, but not tainted by the digital instruments or recording styles that would come into vogue in the 80s. The bass, drums, and horns all shine through, without any of the muddiness that is so prevalent on some deejay albums. The main reason why these albums have remained classics, of course, is Dillinger himself.
Born Lester Bullock, this Kingston native hung around sound systems with deejays like Dennis Alcapone as a kid, trying to make a name for himself. He cut some tracks with Lee Perry that didn’t go anywhere, and released an underrated debut in 1975, “Ready Nattie Dreadie.” “CB200” was his masterpiece, the success of which was largely due to the single “Cokane In My Brain,” a big hit outside of Jamaica. The song was inspired by the drug use of white tourists to the island, and built upon a version of BT Express’s “Do It (Till You’re Satisfied).” Dillinger presents the song as a conversation between two guys named Jim and John. John asks Jim to spell New York, and after Jim spells “N-E-W-Y-O-R-K,” John tells him he’s wrong:
“A knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork
That’s the way we spell New York, Jim – yeah
You see I’m a dynamite
So all you got to do is hold me tight
Because I’m out a sight, you know
‘Cause I’m a dynamite
But everytime I walk in the rain
Man, oh man, I feel a pain, I feel a burning pain
Keep on burning in my bloody brain
I’ve got cocaine running around my brain”
It’s a funny, classic song, and it’s not hard to see why it was such a hit with European and American stoners. For most of the album, however, Dillinger abandons the jokey, funky style of “Cokane” for something dreader and more melodic. The only drug he raps about is collie herb, and he’s more interested in escaping Babylon than laughing at their drug choice. “Plantation Heights” is arguably the best song on the album, and a good indicator of the real Dillinger. Over a version of the Mighty Diamonds’ gorgeous “I Need A Roof,” Dillinger sing/raps about the “ital bud” and marijuana agriculture. American listeners might have a hard time decifering his accent, slang, and cultural references, but lines like “I smoke marijuana” ring through loud and clear.
While Dillinger’s thick patois isn’t the easiest thing for a gringo to decipher, it’s not hard to get the jist of what he’s talking about. “CB200” is an ode to his motor bike, and “Race Day” and “Natty Kick Like Lightening” also explore Dillinger’s love of going fast. “No Chuck It,” with it’s references to motorslaughter and “Davey vs. Goliath” riots references the turbulent times that Jamaica was experiencing in the late 70s.
The nature of dancehall deejaying as a spontaneous act means that not everything Dillingeris saying makes sense or is supposed to. On “The General,” he explains “Natty dread don’t shiver because he don’t eat liver” a few lines before advising listeners, “You’ve got to live the life you love/and love the life you live,” and saying Ethiopians should get out of Babylon. Much of the lyrics are seemingly stream-of-conscious, and a lot of the songs fade out mid-verse. The profound mixes with the inane, social criticisms and religious affirmations are juxtaposed with bragging and talking about riding motorbikes.
The point, though, isn’t WHAT he is saying, it’s HOW he’s saying it. For this reason, Dillinger is one of the best of the 70s deejays, and a good entry point for a novice to the genre. He sing/talks to the melody, riding the riddim, and inserting vocal tics and flourishes every so often. He melds with the track even more perfectly than a singer would, actually becoming part of the rhythm and melody. The barking, aggressive style that deejays took on in the 80s and 90s isn’t apparent here.
The end result is an album that meshes the mellow riddims of reggae with the wordplay and syncopated rhyming of hip hop. In other words, its the best of both worlds. For newbies to reggae and dancehall, it’s an excellent starting point. For fans of the genre, it is a must-own.