Saturday, February 22, 2014

How Wayne Smith and a Casio Keyboard Changed The Sound Of Reggae Forever

Wayne Smith, the reggae vocalist whose 1985 single "Under Mi Sleng Teng" reshaped Jamaican music by popularizing digital production of reggae, died in Kingston earlier this week at the age of 48.

Smith lived next door to producer Lloyd "Prince Jammy" James in Kingston, and began to record with him when he was 14 years old. The partnership yielded two albums' worth of material over the next few years, but none of it delivered a breakthrough. Then, in late 1984, Smith crossed paths with Noel Davey, a local youth who had managed to get hold of a simple Casiotone MT40 keyboard. Playing with its "rock'n'roll" preset – a mutation of Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else" – the pair created a rudimentary rhythm track. Smith, building on the lyrics in Barrington Levy's recent hit Under Mi Sensi, recorded lyrics professing his love for skinny marijuana cigarettes (Sleng Teng's) and his disapproval of the harder drug cocaine. Smith and Davey presented the idea to Jammy, who was initially unimpressed.

Here is the sound Smith and Davey presented to Prince Jammy on actual 1980's era Casiotone MT40 keyboard:

According to an interview with Prince Jammy from The Guardian:

"The initial stage of this rhythm was like a buck-up," Jammy says. "They brought a small Casio keyboard to me and started to play around, but it sounded crazy. It was too fast, no rhythm section, just drum and bass going at 100 miles per hour. So I said: 'I like the sound, but it's not the right tempo for reggae music.' I slowed it down to dancing mode, then we overdubbed some piano and percussion, and that was the beginning of Sleng Teng. I knew it was going to be successful because of the sound of the rhythm, but I didn't know that it would be so much of a big hit.  A few days later Jammy unleashed the song at a clash against the rival Black Scorpio soundsystem. "We couldn't stop playing it," Jammy says. "People were loving it more and more, so I say: 'We've got to get some more artists on this riddim.' Then we started recording Johnny Osbourne, Tenor Saw, Sugar Minott and the rest of the artists, and that changed the whole music scene in the 80s. That was the riddim that computerised the reggae business, and up until today, people are using computers to build reggae music."

"Under Mi Sleng Teng" revolutionized reggae, but also changed the way the music was recorded forever. The demand for digital production took popularity away from traditional instrumentation in the music, and many of Jamaica's session musicians were put out of work.


Anonymous said...

Great story man. Sad to hear about Wayne Smith passing, he made his mark.

Chris Da Maddog said...

This rhythm is still at use today, heavily in more contemporary reggae circles.

NYC regular Uzimon (a parody act with some surprisingly fresh chops, and an impressive list of heavy hitters in his backing band from Jammyland Allstars, Easy Star Allstars, The Pietasters and Westbound Train, amongst others)uses it in his song Steven Segal 2.0