A report by Yasmine Peru for Jamaica’s Gleaner.
Four decades of the evolution of the music that has been dubbed ‘the heartbeat of the people’ have been chronicled by VP Records in a box set so exquisite that noted reggae historian and author Roger Steffens tells The Sunday Gleaner that it is “the most extraordinary project in reggae history”.
Down In Jamaica: 40 Years of VP Records was released last October as the official product of the world’s largest reggae label’s 40th anniversary. Curated by DJ, writer, and VP Records director of catalogue development Carter Van Pelt, the multi-format, limited-edition box set contains 94 tracks and features 101 artistes. “The set is ingenious with an imaginative, unique design. It is a lovely thing to behold, and it feels good in your hands,” Steffens, who has seven rooms in his house filled with Bob Marley- and reggae-inspired memorabilia, said.
The set contains four seven-inch singles, four 12-inch singles, and four CDs, the first configuration of its kind for a box set package, along with a 24-page booklet and art cards detailing the hits, the rarities, and the history of the label, VP states in a promo. Among the fascinating things about Down In Jamaica is the fact that it is eligible for entry in three different categories for the Grammy Awards, but Best Reggae Album isn’t one of them since it is not a single album. The box set has been submitted for Best Boxed Set, Best Liner Notes, and Best Historical Compilation.
“This is one of the few times ever in the history of Jamaican music that a box set is competitive on a global scale, and the value of this for the genre can’t be understated,” curator Van Pelt told The Sunday Gleaner. He stressed that there is much more for reggae and dancehall in the Grammy world than just the reggae category. “One of the most important concepts to make clear is that this release is not in competition with any other reggae release up for nomination this year. It’s reggae competing against all other special packaging and historical releases in other categories, so Grammy voters can vote for this and vote for Best Reggae Album separately,” he pointed out. The Grammy first-round voting period opened on September 30 and runs through to October 12.
Van Pelt says he is keen on Category 68, Best Historical Album, which recognises excellence in newly created albums in any genre that features historically significant material with new annotation and new packaging. “From the broader perspective of Jamaican music, there have been very few releases that fit this category over the years. Steve Barrow’s outstanding 1993 collection, Tougher Than Tough, was one such,” he said.
Steffens, the founding chairman for the Grammy reggae category, despite his own enthusiasm, was cautious in making any kind of prediction. “Carter has a broad knowledge of Jamaican history through music, and the song choices from the vast catalogue are superb, but the set is an outsider as a Jamaican music project. However, the vast majority of the [Grammy] voters are not followers of reggae music,” he stated.
The founder of the Roger Steffens’ Reggae Archives recalled that some years ago, the Recording Academy – which presents the Grammys – made an attempt to ditch the reggae category altogether. “We were trying to break the category into roots reggae and dancehall, and we arrived at the meeting, only to be told that they were taking out the category. We had to convince them to keep it,” he said.
Down In Jamaica tells the story in detail through the key records that helped define VP Records. Van Pelt said that when he created this set, he wasn’t thinking about telling the story of the rise of dancehall, but it did. He was more concerned with featuring “enduring and extremely relevant recordings on the one hand while also giving vinyl collectors some obscure and sought-after titles on the other”.
Dancehall artiste Busy Signal, whose One More Night is among the 94 tracks, stated during a forum at the Grammy Museum last winter, “The box set is just awesome…, to see how you put it together – from that time until this time, the present moment – to see how you filled the gap between the generations. I’m honoured to even be a part of this. I see the greats like Yellowman, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Shabba Ranks. Just to be a part of that, I’m so proud.”