Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

The "Zinc-Fence Thing": When Will Reggae Album Covers Be Allowed out of the Ghetto?

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

The "Zinc-Fence Thing": When Will Reggae Album Covers Be Allowed out of the Ghetto?

Article excerpt

In this article, I explore some of the representations of Jamaican musicians (and of Jamaica) as they have appeared on album covers since reggae first began to reach an international audience in the early 1970s. Beginning with two ethnographic glimpses from my own fieldwork in Kingston in 1996 and London in 1998, I suggest that the aesthetic priorities of Jamaican producers and music makers do not readily match the expected Western stereotypes. The common image of reggae artists as dreadlocked revolutionaries against a ghetto zinc-fence backdrop appears to be typical more of an outsider's romantic view than the preferred vision of Jamaicans themselves. Attempts at accessing the international market, "cosmopolitan" considerations of style and sexuality, are as common in reggae as elsewhere in popular music but largely have been deemed "inauthentic" by those who would prefer their Jamaican artists to remain if not "noble savages" then at least "pure" and bold revolutionaries ever ready to burn down the Babylon of Western dreams.

In Royal Park, north London, a dismal-looking industrial site, not unlike the archetypal gangster-movie location, holds the office of the Sprint Printing Company. It is a cold November afternoon, but the ever-present Valor gas stove manages to combat the chill, and the mood inside is cheerful. "Banton" has just flown in from Kingston, a compact disc's worth of dance-hall music on a DAT tape in his briefcase. He's hoping to release an album of twelve tracks, manufacturing the discs and sleeves in the United Kingdom, in time to generate some sales before Christmas. For the cover, he has chosen a photo of a young girl dancing, scantily clad in tight-fitting shorts and a matching top, her arms reaching up over her head in a lively pose. It is a professional-looking image, but "Banton" is upset; the hair in the girl's armpits is visible even after the photo has been touched up digitally. Not to worry, he is told, it may not be such a bad thing. Sprint's man smiles. "It's the same with pussy," he offers matter-of-factly, "some like it clean, some like it forest!"

"Banton" is the alias for Carl Nelson, an up-and-coming producer with a handful of releases on his own Top Nail label to his credit. Having worked previously with popular singer Junior Reid, he is now the resident engineer at Stone Love's Kingston studio. He has an excellent track record and a smiling, self-assured appearance to match. Ready to branch out on his own, he has already leased a few songs to Greensleeves, the largest reggae record company in the United Kingdom. With his first album, International Ragga Lovers, on the brink of release, a matter such as cover design is not to be taken lightly. Sprint creates album covers, posters, leaflets, and flyers--mostly but not exclusively related to reggae. Available, too, is a small line of CDs, featuring predominantly 1970s material.

A big room in Sprint's London office holds two printing machines in steel and cast iron; two smaller offices contain computers and filing cabinets. Upstairs, a Gaylads compilation is playing softly. The legendary group's singer, B. B. Seaton, now resident in London, is busy looking at a ledger. Downstairs, Tasha, The Professional Secretary's Handbook on her desk, is engaged in friendly banter on the merits of Red Rat, a popular DJ. A poster advertising his first album is on the wall. Red Rat's light complexion, whence his name, is at issue. "You 'ave fi marry a real black man. Like me!" Banton jests. "De red man dem 'ave a 'arder time, y'know. Dem no know weh dem belong." (1)

Shift to Kingston, Jamaica, upstairs at the home of Orville "Bagga" Case, graphic artist, a former member of the vocal group Home T4 and, as "Studio Case," a recording artist in his own right. Ossie Thomas, an independent producer who cut his teeth working for Sonia Pottinger in the 1970s and started his own label, Black Solidarity, in 1979, has come round to see how the artwork for a new Triston Palma album, tentatively titled Born Naked, is progressing. …

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