With the Notting Hill Carnival just around the corner, we’re rewinding a decade to bring you David Katz’s timeless and authoritative collection of the 20 best reggae 7″s ever made.
First published in FACT in 2003, esteemed reggae fan, writer and all-round fountain of knowledge David Katz celebrates the enduring legacy of reggae’s favourite format, the 7″ single.
Words: David Katz
The Jamaican music industry is now roughly 50 years old [read: 60 years old] and the seven-inch single is still its main focus. Most contemporary artists activate their careers with 45s and it is that format, more than vinyl albums and certainly more than CDs, that give them continued momentum in a notoriously fickle marketplace. As Jamaica now presses more 45s than anywhere else in the world, understanding the seven-inch is mandatory to comprehending reggae’s complex progression.
In the early 1950’s, Jamaican entrepreneurs began issuing 78s; the style was the indigenous folk form called mento, and such releases were aimed at visiting tourists or shipped abroad to compete with calypso. A cultural revolution arrived when downtown Kingston sound system operators began pressing 45s of local talent adapting American rhythm and blues. Many early labels drew from the imagery of their American counterparts, but as ska rose to the fore as a thoroughly home-grown form, the label artwork gradually became more individual.
Meanwhile, Jamaican expatriates started issuing 45s on small UK independents, typically featuring graphics-free logos. Though the quality of foreign pressing was typically better, some were actually mastered from Jamaican 45s and many were totally unauthorized.
Back home, African imagery appeared on some labels in the rock steady era; it became more commonplace once reggae emerged in the late ‘60s, when businesslike reggae labels were also established in New York and Toronto. Unfortunately, the quality of Jamaican vinyl was affected by the oil crisis of the 1970s, resulting in a general decline; the few seven-inch singles cut at 33rpm mid-decade suffered from poor fidelity, while the subsequent ten and twelve-inch extended singles lost popularity in the early 1980s. A rugged, durable look then appeared on singles as dancehall began to assert itself; then, once digital music took over, many Jamaican label logos became more streamlined and less artistic, though some continued to thrive on cartoon imagery and obscure jokes. These days, most label artwork is fairly straightforward and the vinyl in question varies in quality, but whatever form it takes, the seven-inch single is definitely still the centre of the reggae world.
These days original vintage reggae vinyl can cost a real packet, with a copy of the ultra-scarce “Selassie Is The Chapel” by Bob Marley recently changing hands for a couple of grand. Gone are the days when reggae seven-inch was a dime a dozen at the Notting Hill Record and Tape Exchange bargain basement, but sometimes jumble sales and car boot fairs can still turn up the odd delight (such as the copy of a highly prized “Lambs Bread Collie” by Light of Saba that I bought for 50 cents on the street of a US city a few years back). The sad truth is that record delaers from the UK, US, Canada, Japan and Switzerland have plundered the most obvious sources in Jamaica, with even ex-jukebox stock now being scarce, but those in the know will regularly scour international mail-order lists. Unfortunately, All Tone Records, formerly run by Alton Ellis’ son, has just been impounded by the ugly capitalists that want to ruin Brixton Market by making it ‘Brixton Village’, but if you’re only just starting out as a reggae collector, a good place to find original seven-inch is Reggae Revive on Chamberlayne Road in Kensal Green; for general reissues and further information, try Dub Vendor in Battersea and on Ladbroke Grove.
(Note: Reggae Revive is now gone and Brixton Market has been irredeemably transformed into Brixton Village. While Dub Vendor no longer has stores in Battersea or Ladbroke Grove, it does now operate out of BM Music in Soho and runs a mail order service from its website. For reggae in the Notting Hill area, try People’s Sound.)