Horace Andy / Dennis Brown / Gregory Isaacs / Sugar Minott

Vocal Superstars at King Jammy's

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One of King Tubby's apprentices, Lloyd James -- aka Prince Jammy and later promoted to King Jammy -- was schooled in the raw rhythm of dub, but after releasing a string of dub version albums, he found another home in the early days of dancehall, running his own touring sound system and producing dancehall albums. By the end of the '80s, he would be the undisputed king of dancehall production with some 170 albums in his catalog, and while hits like Wayne Smith's "Under Me Sleng Teng" helped the genre evolve from reggae-done-digital to the aggressive sound of Vybz Kartel, Beenie Man, and such, Jammy always had a soft spot for the more traditional singers. Vocal Superstars at King Jammy's is an odd and esoteric but welcome 2013 set from the VP label that features the sweet harmonies of Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, and Horace Andy, each singer represented by an album they cut with Jammy at the producer's Waterhouse studio. First of the four is Dennis Brown's 1985 effort The Exit, an album originally released as History and featuring "Material Girl," a smooth ragga hit that has nothing to do with the Madonna song. Released as Dennis' return to "strictly roots," the songs are solid and delivered over Jammy's charmingly minimal ragga production, a style that's maintained on the second included album, Gregory Isaacs' 1987 effort Come Along, featuring the singles "Give Love a Try" and "You Can Have the Bits" aka "Bits & Pieces." Still, the trashy kiss-off "Kinky Lady" is the Isaacs' cut to pick as it recasts the Cool Ruler as the Don of Decency. A bigger surprise comes with album number three, Sugar Minott's Bitter Sweet, an aptly titled and subdued effort from 1979 that is much more organic and might be familiar to Jammy fans from its dub version, the beloved Kamikazi Dub. The drum machines and synths are back for Horace Andy's 1987 effort, Haul and Jack-Up, a loose yet entirely satisfying album that finds the charming singer encountering video game sound effects ("Live and Save Live") and LeVert-styled R&B ("Sweet Reggae Music"), all while maintaining his keen sense of cool. None of the hits included here are considered classic; these albums aren't very well known, and concept-wise, the box set is curio all the way, grabbing four forgotten efforts that don't even play to Jammy's strengths. Still, these are rare LPs that the Jammy cherished a bit more than his blockbusters, so longtime fans and collectors looking for a bigger connection to the producer will certainly find it here.

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