Statuesque and dapper in a Nehru-style suit and a turban of long, well-kept dreadlocks, Jamaican reggae legend Michael Rose commands respect wherever he travels. But the degree to which fellow performers and audiences hold him in awe has more to do with his reputation in the reggae music business than with his imposing appearance.
In the early 1980s, Rose's stint as a young singer-songwriter for the seminal reggae trio Black Uhuru brought him worldwide attention. Audiences quickly became enamored of his distinctive vocal talents, which involved a creative scat style--Rose combined a melodic tenor with an unusual (unearthly, even) wailing that seemed closer to North African or Middle Eastern origins than to his Jamaican roots.
However, Rose is quick to point out that his strongest early influences included Stevie Wonder and reggae singer Dennis Brown. He stresses that his unique singing style simply comes from within. Ultimately, his style proved so powerful and endearing that he came to be considered--along with Burning Spear, David Hinds of Steel Pulse, Bunny Wailer, and Joseph Hill of Culture--one of the elite group of Rastafarian singers who are the living legends of reggae music.
After Black Uhuru garnered the first-ever Grammy reggae award in 1985 for Anthem (Island Records, 1984), Rose grew weary of the demands and the infighting of the music industry and left the band to pursue his own life as a farmer, father and husband in the hills of Jamaica. Although he released a string of singles and recordings intended for the Jamaican reggae market in the early 1990s, he did not return to international prominence until his eponymous debut solo release on Heartbeat Records in 1995. He then continued to record for other Jamaica-based labels, but his sweetest-sounding releases followed on Heartbeat: Be Yourself (1996) and Big Sound Frontline (1996). While his solo albums have grown to reflect a more modern, dancehall sensibility, Rose's vocal style and strong cultural and political messages remain intact. (Look for a new release, recorded live on Heartbeat, from Rose this year.)
Last year, Heartbeat surprised reggae and dancehall audiences by simultaneously releasing Dance Wicked and its dub version, Dub Wicked. The reason for the double release was evident the moment listeners had a chance to catch the scorching sound: The Wicked albums show Rose off at his best; the rhythms are sharp and seductive, and the vocals are cool and classy. Dub Wicked follows beautifully in the tradition of classic reggae dub; vocals are faded in and out, echoed and stretched out, and instrument tracks are alternately highlighted, tweaked and dropped out for a smooth, spine-tingling effect. Much of the credit for the polished production can be attributed to the dynamic British mixing duo Mafia and Fluxy, who, with Rose, have created a sound that combines rockers, dancehall, steppers, ska and roots reggae tastes--all the while paying tribute to soul and rap influences, with samples from such tracks as Eric B and Rakim's "Paid in Full. …