Tougher Than Tough

*****Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music (Island, 1993)

Jamaica is a small island in the Caribbean, an extremely poor British colony until 1962 occupied by African ex-slaves. Back in the '50s there were few radios, so most people could only hear music on "sound systems," where a DJ would play records. Although some native Jamaican music, like mento, had been recorded, the most popular music was initially American r&b. But in the late '50s some sound system operators, notably Duke Reid and Clement Dodd, started producing their own records, developing a native Jamaican beat called ska. From those origins came further beats, like rock steady, reggae, and ragga. Dub was invented when sound system DJs started to shout, rap, and/or sing on top of rhythm tracks. From such humble origins emerged one of the most vibrant and influential streams of music in the world today.

Tougher Than Tough recounts the story of Jamaican music from ska up until 1993, when the 4 CD box set was released. It is remarkably broad and comprehensive, drawing songs from all major labels, producers, and performers: 106 songs spanning 35 years, from more than 80 artists, none repeated more than three times (Delroy Wilson and Gregory Isaacs). A sense of the overall arc is provided by the two versions of "Oh Carolina" which bracket the set: the crude 1960 original by the Folkes Brothers with Count Ossie's African-sounding burru drums and Shaggy's 1993 electrified ragga remake.

The box set has an excellent booklet by Steve Barrow, detailing each of the songs. All four discs are chock full of wonders, but the first is exceptional, with bright and chipper songs like Millie's "My Boy Lollipop" and Prince Buster's chugging "Al Capone." The second and third discs move strongly into reggae, with its roots in Rastafarian religion, with strong songs like the Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon" and Culture's "Two Sevens Clash." And the final disc takes on '80s dance hall and ragga. All in all, a superb introduction.