Whilst waiting for my kids to finish one of their after-school clubs recently I got chatting to one of the other parents and mentioned my interest in music and specifically reggae music. The ensuing conversation went something like this:
"Oh, really? Like UB40 then?"
"Not really; UB40's first 2 LPs were good but then they became very commercial and more of a covers / wedding band than a real reggae act."
"Haha, true - some of them weren't even black!"
"You don't have to be black to make reggae music."
"Oh, isn't reggae all about Rastas and marijuana and stuff?"
"I wouldn't have thought you would like that sort of stuff."
"Well, you know... you... the short hair, skinhead sort of style... er..."
There comes a point in conversations such as this when one has to take a little mental step backwards and decide whether it is worth dispelling some misconceptions and risk it developing into a row, or just walk away. I made an excuse and walked away.
I wondered why it was UB40 that sprung to their mind at the mention of reggae and not Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff for instance. I concluded that it was because they were of a similar age to myself, British, and not particularly interested in music beyond the charts. As their teenage years coincided with the time when UB40 were frequent visitors to the charts and the nation's favourite (TM) Radio One wasn't exactly stuffed to the gills with reggae (or good music in general), I suppose it isn't surprising that UB40 fit the 'reggae' slot in their mind. Presumably reggae / UB40 wasn't really their cup of tea back then and they were never inspired to look further for other examples of reggae music, understandably leaving them with this 'Reggae = UB40' viewpoint. The band most often associated in the mainstream with a musical genre are likely to become the default representatives of that genre. That is the thought that has prompted this blog post today and also filled me with dread.
Let's take the above encounter and fast-forward a generation or two... Given that UB40 are no longer the big name and chart regulars they once were, which band or singer would a young person who is currently in the midst of their most impressionable years find to fill the 'default reggae' slot in their mindset? It has been some time since I paid any attention to what is in the charts but in the name of research I have today glanced at the UK top 40. Much as I expected, I hadn't heard of the vast majority of the acts - partly because I'm old and also because most of them are bloody awful manufactured pap. Neither could any of the current top 40 records could be described as reggae. As I said, I don't follow the charts but my guess is that reggae bands rarely if ever feature these days. Neither does reggae get much mainstream airplay. So, which act will our theoretical impressionable young person associate with the word 'reggae' now.
My fear is that as there isn't much mainstream exposure of real reggae today, if our young person takes the 'all about Rastas and marijuana' viewpoint then the name that will spring to their mind is Snoop Lion, the latest version of the artist formally known as Snoop Dogg. Now Snoop has had something of a conversion it seems. Following a trip to Jamaica last year he has proclaimed himself to be a Rasta, made a documentary film about his conversion and released an album. The album is titled Reincarnated and the cover shows Snoop wreathed in (presumably) ganja smoke above the title emblazoned in red, gold and green. The cover certainly looks like a reggae album might. A perusal of the song titles reveals a number with reggae-esque names: Harder Times, Here Comes The King, Smoke The Weed, etc. Snoop is so confident of his new-found place in the world of reggae that he has even managed to have a gangster-rap-style feud with reggae legend and Rasta Bunny Wailer. As detailed in this Guardian story, the unseemly row erupted when Bunny Wailer had the temerity to question Dogg's dedication to his new faith.
I haven't seen the film about Snoop's conversion, he doesn't strike me as someone I would particularly warm to and find it something of a coincidence that he happened to have a film crew in tow when he had his Road-to-Damascus moment and found his new calling. I have, however, listened to the album. I haven't bought the album though. I usually buy a new reggae album without previewing it because I enjoy the experience of sitting down to listen to a new album in its entirety. With Reincarnation however I had my doubts about the integrity of the music, so I listened to the album on preview and very quickly decided not to buy it. Why didn't I buy it? Because it is crap. I sat for a little while trying to come up with a more eloquent or clever way of saying that but sorry, I failed; it's crap. Even a collaboration with Miley Cyrus can't rescue this dog of an album. Again, I intended when starting this to give a measured and considered opinion of Reinvented but having listened to it three times I have lost the ability to be polite about it or to rein in the sarcasm. I used to pledge that I would never write a review of something I didn't enjoy because I think there is generally too much negativity in the world already, but the glowing reviews of this garbage I read on iTunes made me feel that a counter-point was desirable.
The opening track is called Rebel Way, making me wonder what exactly Snoop is rebelling against. He certainly isn't rebelling against mediocrity. Track by track Snoop rehashes every reggae cliché there is on this album. An example: the track Smoke The Weed contains the line "Weed is life, weed is reality" sung to the tune of Soul II Soul's Back To Life. This could stand as an anti-metaphor for the whole album; there is little life in this work, I didn't detect an ounce of reality and appropriating a seminal piece such as Back To Life just underlines the dishonesty integral to every sorry track. In Boulevard Snoop echoes the Rude Boy tradition of Jamaican music, badly. The closing track is called Harder Times; this called to mind the Pioneers classic Time Hard with their heartfelt cry of "Why Oh Why Oh Lord"! Perhaps I would have found this album more palatable if I had listened to it not knowing the back story, but even if I had I would have said it is more modern R&B than reggae. I find most modern R&B pretty uninspiring too so this album would suit that label nicely. I was tempted to do a track-by-track dissection of the album but was worried that I might run out of negative superlatives.
Cynics might suggest that Snoop is merely re-positioning himself to reignite interest in a flagging career or even that he is just using Rastafari to justify his fondness of the herb. Any artist who reinvents themselves or claims some form of conversion always leaves themselves open to accusations such as this. I'm not a Rasta and my knowledge of the faith doesn't extend much beyond what I hear on reggae records so any opinion I may hold on Snoop's conversion to the faith is irrelevant and necessarily ill-informed. Neither do I use marijuana so I don't feel I can comment on that aspect of Snoop's persona. I do, however, sincerely love reggae music and can say both objectively and subjectively that this album is awful. Let's hope someone else comes along to fill the 'default reggae' slot soon and that Snoop Lion becomes a Dogg again and returns to doing whatever it is he is good at. Sorry Snoopy old chap, you just can't do reggae.