The first Reggae Sunsplash in London was a hot ticket on the hottest day of the year. Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace F.C., seemed an unlikely venue for an all-star all day concert but a massive crowd made their way across to suburban South London & the place was rammed. The weather made a grand day out better, those assembled behaved as if they had been there before & we certainly got some fine, fine music for our £10. Dennis Brown…Wham!, Leroy Sibbles off of the Heptones…Bam! & only Prince flipping Buster…Thank You Jah! Top of the bill was Black Uhuru who, in 1984, were the hottest reggae band in the world. They looked & sounded like this…
Black Uhuru were formed in the Waterhouse district of Kingston in the early 1970s. There were personnel changes & a slow start before a first LP in 1977 the year of Bob’s “Exodus”, Culture’s “Two Sevens Clash” & Peter Tosh’s “Equal Rights”. Roots Reggae was bubbling up & breaking out. Virgin’s “The Front Line” compilation (1976) mixed up a rhythmic brew of new & established artists who were soon to be in our record collection. Uhuru’s “Love Crisis”, an early production by Prince Jammy, is a fine debut but the 3 man harmony group was a crowded field. Culture, Burning Spear, Mighty Diamonds & others were ahead of them.
There were more changes before 1979’s “Showcase”. Errol Nelson left the group & was replaced by Puma Jones. Her high harmonies added a difference & distinction from the usual vocal group sound. Uhuru teamed with Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, a nonpareil rhythm section who were developing their own Taxi label & production company. More significantly Michael Rose emerged as a singer/songwriter/performer of rare ability. “Showcase” is a terrific record, I could sing you 6 of the 7 tracks but not as well as Michael Rose. A (drum &) baseline for the development of the music on succeeding LPs, the songs, including “General Penitentiary” (above), are all over 7 minutes, sliding seamlessly into dub as part of the whole rather than an added version.
Sly & Robbie had been touring with former Wailer Peter Tosh, a world-class act. They & the Taxi Gang moved over to become Black Uhuru’s band. With “Sinsemilla” (1980) & “Red” (1981) there was now major label support from Island & a song catalogue of high quality. Dunbar’s syncopation & Shakespeare’s thick bass rumble pushed reggae forward. Rub-a-dub, rockers, second generation reggae ? You takes your choice…it sounded pretty good to me. They looked good too. Michael was a natural frontman, a strong, assertive voice with a touch of a country preacher prowling the stage. Puma was the African Queen, like Lauryn with the Fugees. Mainstay Duckie Simpson, a rootsman skanking at the side, cool & deadly. The early passing of Bob Marley in 1981 left a gap that no Jamaican group could fill but for the next 4 years Black Uhuru were tearing it up internationally. I was present at the 2 concerts these clips are taken from. Man, you’ve gotta love the Y-tube.
The production on each LP became more electronic, Sly’s syn-drum more prominent. The strength of Michael Rose’s songs, an easy. loping rhythm, strictly Rasta roots, love & righteousness expressed directly & simply & as catchy as anything, was a constant. “Red” opened with the double whammy of “Youth of Eglington” & “Sponji Reggae”, music for the head & the hips. “Anthem” (1984) won the first Reggae Grammy, for which edition, there were mixes for the Jamaican, European & American markets, I’m not sure. Paul “Groucho” Smykle’s hi-tech remake re-models are impressively designed for the clubs but y’know, good reggae does not need whistles & bells to get people dancing. “Plastic Smile” is a song from “Showcase” & this 12″ version hits the Black Uhuru bullseye, state of the reggae art at the time, great stuff.
By 1985 Reggae was changing. Prince Jammy captured the hit of the year with Wayne Smith’s “Under Me Sleng Teng”. The new computerised rhythm was everywhere. The Sunsplash of that year starred Gregory Isaacs, enjoying big success with his sweet Lovers Rock. On the bill was Sugar Minott & Ini Kamoze, stars of the emerging Dancehall style. (Kamoze’s debut LP being produced by the prolific Sly & Robbie). Michael Rose bought a coffee farm in the country & left Black Uhuru. He released no music outside Jamaica until 1989. The group continued with Junior Reid, a successful solo artist, as replacement. “Brutal” (1986) has its moments, particularly “Great Train Robbery” produced by mixmaster Arthur Baker. In the following year Puma was diagnosed with breast cancer & was too ill to perform. (Ms Jones unfortunately died in 1990 aged just 36). Founder member Duckie kept the band going but impetus & inspiration had been lost.
Black Uhuru are still around & Michael Rose continues to perform & record. His “Too Blessed To Be Stressed” is a winner. In 2004 there were some reunion gigs. The music they made with Sly & Robbie on record & in concert looked forward while retaining the conscious Rasta spirit of roots reggae. In the early 1980s the group shone brightest of a new generation of reggae artists, intelligent, positive, celebratory, sometimes angry & always memorable. Their music brings good memories of stalks of sinsemilla, house parties when I was a dancing fool & the 3 times that I was part of an audience that they absolutely rocked.