on 2 March 2014
Ranking Dread is a legendary character in reggae circles and not for entirely musical reasons since after his music career ended in about 1983 he became a notorious 'badman' (gangster) implicated in innumerable crimes (including drug smuggling, torture, murder and Lord knows what else) and was labelled by the Daily Mail as "Godfather of the Yardies". He finally got his comeuppance in a Jamaican prison in 1996 coming to a sticky end through suspected poisoning. He clearly became an entirely disreputable human being and certainly wouldn't have been top of your list for someone to go for a drink with (if you wanted to survive the evening!) with but rather annoyingly he also happened to be a superb toaster, arguably the best DJ in the '78-'81 time period despite being based in the UK and not Jamaica. Therefore this album is a classic case of having to separate the character of the person from his art.
This superb reissue by Hot Milk records, a new off-shoot of Cherry Red records, contains Dread's debut "Girl's Fiesta" album from 1978 in absolutely stellar sound (definitely taken from the master tapes). The album is 10-tracks and mostly cultural despite the title and it is ironic hearing Dread preaching peace and love and warning against the perils of cocaine (as opposed to ganja) considering the direction of his later career! That said he was a brilliant toaster with a smooth rhythmic flow (influential on later hip-hop) and rich, characterful timbre - certainly strongly influenced by Dillinger. The rhythms produced by Linval Thompson are diamond hard and often dubbed for extra impact with great 'heavy as lead' basslines courtesy of the legendary Robbie Shakespeare. Stand-out cultural tracks include "Natty On The Rock" over the 'Dreader Than Dread' rhythm, "Marijuana Soul" over Thompson's 'I Love Marijuana', "Poor Man's (Story)" and "Natty Dread Is A Struggler". Lighter concerns are expressed over the title track ("Girl's Fiesta") riding Thompson's 'My Girl', "Sister Lorna" over Linval's "I The Controller" track, and the proto-slackness "Kilburn Road" riding the immortal 'Real Rock' rhythm. All great stuff and a pleasing mix of light and shade so things don't get too monotonously righteous (which in light of subsequent events would be laughable).
The liner notes are by the renowned Reggae authority, David Katz and are excellent though he is clearly ambivalent about how to assess the legacy of Ranking Dread (going as far as trying to explain his actions in a historical context emanating from the vicious blood-letting of Jamaica's JLP/PNP political factions going back as far as the 1930's, I have to say I was not entirely convinced by this argument but it was well made).
Therefore a brilliant reissue; the only problem in that the album is rather short at less than 40-minutes, it is a pity that a few tracks mentioned in the liners such as the brilliant "Bandulu/Hard Time" combination with Cornell Campbell or "General" with Dennis Brown couldn't have been licensed to knock the playing time up to 50-ish minutes. Never mind what is here is still excellent and hopefully Hot Milk might follow up with some more Ranking Dread material from the '79-'80 time period (such as his brilliant "Lot's of Loving" album with Sugar Minott).