For a white Agnostic who doesn’t smoke pot, I listen to an awful lot of reggae. I came to reggae through my twin loves of punk rock and hip hop, and in the last year or two have spent a lot of time discovering classic 70s reggae, dub, and dancehall. Reggae is a daunting genre to get into because there is so much of it, there’s a million different versions of releases of every album or popular song, and it’s hard to separate the classics from the merely average.
Which is why Madlib’s April installment of his “Medicine Show” series is so essential to anyone looking to dip their toe into the murky waters of reggae. This album collects 79 minutes of rocksteady, reggae, dub, and dancehall, staying away from the obvious hits and sticking instead with deep cuts. If all you know about reggae is Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Shaggy, then “420 Chalice All-Stars” will be an education.
As the title and release date suggests (4/20, ie. international stoner day), the central theme of this release is ganja, collie, bud, weed, pot, marijuana, whatever you want to call it. Pot is associated with reggae almost as much as the Rastafarian faith, and pretty much every reggae album produced since 1970 makes at least some reference to collie or ganja. The album comes with a list of information about California’s medical marijuana laws, and a list of Hollywood and East L.A. pot dispensaries. It’s actually pretty informative: I learned that the safest way to injest pot is to use a smokeless vaporizer, that you can pretty much google a doctor who will prescribe you pot, and that, while you need to give your name and ID to get medical marijuana, your name isn’t stored on a DEA list. The ten tracks all share names of the questions, so when you listen to this on your iPod, the songs come up as “What Are the Negative Risks of Smoking It?” and “How Much Pot Am I Allowed To Have At One Time?”
Despite the weed theme of the album, it is not 79 minutes of different versions of Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” Bob Marley’s “Kayla” or “African Herbsman,” and Horace Andy’s “Collie Weed.” Madlib may be a stoner, but he is a smart stoner, and a musician first. He realizes that weed is only one aspect of reggae, and that there is a lot more to the music than songs about getting high. So while the sweet leaf is definitely represented here, it’s not all about the ganja. Like hip hop, reggae is equal parts protest music and party music, songs by and for the disenfranchised. This collection includes as many lyrics about the sufferahs and fighting Babylon as references to the sacred herb.
The record leans heavily on dub and deejay records, and there are pictures in the liner notes of the sleeves of many great dub albums. Joe Gibbs’ “African Dub,” Lee Perry’s “Return of the Super Ape,” Prince Far I’s “Dub to Africa,” and King Tubby’s “King At the Control” are all shown in their faded glory, and represented in 1-2 minutes bursts on the disc. As with Madlib’s previous mix CD, “Flight to Brazil,” part of the value of this set is the glimpse it gives into Madlib’s huge record collection. The man knows his music, and it’s worth the $15 price tag to get a tour through his crates.
“420 Chalice All-Stars” is more successful than the still worthy “Flight to Brazil” because the music mixes better. Let’s face it: reggae all pretty much sounds similar. It’s all built around the one-drop beat and the thundering bass, which makes mixing the records a much more fluid process. What Madlib demonstrates in this mix is the subtle variations in reggae, even when two deejays tackle the same riddim. The result is an album that flows together well without sounding too repetitive.
I love this album, and anyone with any interest in reggae should check it out. If you hate reggae or think it all sounds the same, “420 Chalice All-Stars” isn’t for you, but if you have the least interest in reggae, dub, or deejay music, you need this. It’s only the freshest, dankest reggae, with no shake, dirtweed, or seeds. Now I just need to find a copy of his previous reggae mix CD, “Blunted in the Bombshelter,” that isn’t fifty bucks.