Monday 17th of February 2014: Wayne Smith has died. On the 18th of May The Guardian dubbed him as “the creator of the first computerized dancehall riddim”, referring to the song ‘Sleng Teng’ and the riddim of the same name. While Wayne Smith was the singer, the riddim itself was produced by Prince Jammy with the help of Tony Asher & Noel Davey. Sleng Teng was such a hit and transformed reggae music in such a way that there is big debate amongst musician / DJ / producers about the birth of the first digital reggae song. Anthony Red Rose claimed that he was the first singer to sing on a computerized reggae beat, on the King Tubby Tempo Riddim released in 1984. There are also songs like Sensi Addict by Horace Ferguson (Prince Jazzbo) released in 1984 or Paul Blake and the Bloodfire Posse’s Get Flat released in 85 that are regularly mentionned as the potential ‘first digital song’.
The debate shouldn’t be about who was the first to start the digital revolution or computerized riddims, but about what is digital and what is a computerized riddim. It is important to think about how the music evolved in parallel with technology. A Casio MT40 is not a computer, not for today’s standards, but it is clearly an electronic instrument and here lies the debate: Is the MT40 analog or digital?. It is hard to answer this and it is most likely a bit of both (in this case the digital waveform going through an analog filter and the drum section is apparently a processor triggering cheap analog circuitry). Pre-programmed drum patterns were obviously available on organs before personal computers existed, and analog synthesizer, drum synthesizers as well as vocoders were already available to make electronic futuristic sounds. Musicians and producers have always used available tools to produce more interesting sounds; from speakers, microphones, amplification and recording technologies.
They have also used these tools to transmit their sounds to their audiences in different ways (for example a sound system instead of a band). Eventually technology reached a point where it became possible for one man to make a whole song. While this process involved tediously layering tracks with tape recorders; computers, sequencers and samplers made this process much easier. But although the MT40 is pretty basic, it can play a drum pattern and a bassline automatically, and just one man can play a melody or chords to make a whole song. Of course today, you can have a whole symphonic orchestra in your computer.
Let’s go back to what we call digital reggae and the first digital reggae song produced on the MT40, a keyboard made in Japan. Sleng Teng is played using the ‘rock’ pre-set on a D major chord, which was programmed to recreate Eddy Cochran’s rock n roll song “Somethin Else”. What makes Sleng Teng a reggae song is of course the slower tempo, the offbeat skank and a good Jamaican deejay (In this case Wayne Smith). So what we call digital reggae was in fact something half digital and half analog that was meant to be rock n roll. Making a reggae song with this instead of using a band or studio musicians was groundbreaking indeed.
But what if digital reggae was not born in Jamaica? What if the first digital songs were not produced by King Tubby and/or his protégé Prince Jammy, but by NYC disco/funk producers?
‘Computer Reggae’ by George Nooks And the Electrons
released on the Serious Gold Label in 1983.
While the title suggests the song was produced with a computer, it was more likely produced with a Roland Rythm Controller TR808 (Computer Controlled) drum machine, in addition to keyboards, hardware synthesizers and equipment that they could afford in NYC in 1983 (and probably out of reach in Jamaica in these days). In 1983, music generated with a personal computer would have had a distinctive 8 bit sound and at that time MIDI technology was still at an infancy stage. Despite attempts to get into contact with the engineers and producers of this song, I can only speculate about the equipment used to produce it.
Computer Reggae is a happy funky digital / analog song quite unique sounding, cheerful and miles away from the roots and rub a dub sounds from the late 70s or early 80s. Lyrics are quite light and simple, and summarise really well the idea behind this song: “Music of the future – futuristic Sound – Intergalactic beat in the cosmic ground – Computerize Reggae Bomb” (All this with robotic vocals going through a Vocoder). At first impression, it may seem that the only reggae thing in this song is in the title: Computer Reggae. Although there is an offbeat type of skank, the beat has more of an early hip hop groove, and the strings sound a bit disco. It was released and produced by Serious Gold, a sublabel of SMI International, pretty much a disco label. Even the vocals, from George Nooks aka Prince Mohammed are far from the classic deejay vocals you can hear on ‘Money in My Pocket’ (Dennis Brown) or ‘Bubbling Love’. But Computer Reggae aesthetic is still quite distinctive from the disco and early hip hop produced in NYC at that time….
Therefore a year after Prince Jammy destroyed the Invaders, It looks like George Nooks & The Electrons were ready to launch a peaceful exploration of the intergalactic sounds. It was only few years later that computers would fascinate King Jammy (who released ‘Computerized Dub’) and Mad Professor and the Robotics (In the UK) who released albums like ‘Man and Machine Dubbing in Harmony’ or ‘My Computer is Acting Strange’.
So now, we are in 2014, Wayne Smith has died as a hero for his ‘Sleng Teng’. There is no debate about the fact that it is an amazing song that really deserved its success. It was ground-breaking sounds at the time. But he and King Jammy may not be the creators of the first computerized or digital song. But of course this would depend on the various definitions of digital, analog, computers and also reggae.
Words by Lego Sounds
- Frederick Dannaway on the rise of technology and machines in reggae
- Lecture from Steely and Clevie
- Sleng Teng outside the reggae world:
- Kingston Signals – Noel Davey & the Casio MT-40: The Sleng Teng
- Anthony Red Rose on Tempo