Linton Kwesi Johnson’s introduction to activism and music probably stem from his joining both the Black Panther Movement while at secondary school and then meeting up with his colleagues in Rasta Love, a collective of poets, drummers and kindred spirits. Linton took a degree in sociology at Goldsmiths College in New Cross then took up a library and resources post at the Keskidee Centre in King’s Cross, Britain’s first such arts venue dedicated for the black community. Here he developed his dub poetry style with a staged version of his poem ‘Voices of the Living and the Dead’ being produced by Lindsay Barrett, with music by the reggae group Rasta Love.
Following the success of the 1978 collaboration Dread Beat an’ Blood with Dennis Bovell, The Roots, Vivian Weathers, Jah Bunny et al., LKJ established his dub poetry and found himself feted on the punk, rock and radio scene.
He was then signed up by Island Records and released Forces of Victory in 1979, utilising much the same cast of players and mixers while also adding the flugelhorn of Dick Cuthell (Bob Marley, The Specials), trombonist Rico and guitarist John Kpiaye, the latter being something of a legend and a veteran of British reggae. This disc contains the Linton classics ‘Sonny’s Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)’, ‘It Not Funny’ and ‘Fite Dem Back’. With Bovell and the Dub band starting to capture the flair and groove that could drive Linton forward the poet emerged now as a scintillating star of a brand new cultural viewpoint. This is one of the most important reggae records ever made.
Bass Culture (1980) finds Johnson experimenting further with song structures and subject matter but ‘Inglan is a Bitch’ and ‘Reggae fi Peach’ are as confrontational and claustrophobically hard hitting as anything in his locker. It’s another magnificent dub poetry outing.
LKJ in Dub followed in short order with Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell in his element as tracks from the previous two albums are given the heavy dub treatment, enabling Linton to move out onto the dance floor and now command a live arena. Around this time he starts to embark on full length tours and sells ‘em out, flooring audiences in his verbal wake.
Making History (1983) starts with a stare down of American and Russian foreign policy on ‘Di Eagle an’ di Bear’ and embraces further social insights during ‘Wat About di Workin’ Claas?’ and ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’. With riots fresh in everyone’s minds the stand out piece is the climactic and length ‘New Craas Massahkah’. The album is heavy on everything: words, music and percussion, and synthesiser elements are also introduced via Nick Straker, well known for various things including having been in a band called Stonehenge and the English reggae group Matumbi.
As usual we can offer a wide selection of excellent compilations and anthologies. 1998’s Independent Intavenshan is a fine primer and so much more besides. Sprawling over two generous discs this includes 35 tracks of peerless LKJ and Dennis Bovell poetry and dub with 12” single plates, the long version of ‘Di Eagle an’ di Bear’ and many unreleased mixes. On this occasion you will have every excuse to turn up the bass and open the windows and let it rip for summertime. Rude not to, in fact. This comp is an absolute joy to behold.
For extra snap we also have Reggae Greats: Linton Kweis Johnson, the Island Reggae Greats Collection and Straight to Inglan’s Head – An Introduction to Linton Kwesi Johnson – more dubs to enjoy, more 12’” dance floor magic.
As respected and admired as Linton Kwesi Johnson is for his poetic touch and his ability to bestride a dub plate and a horn lick, also consider the man’s impeccable style and look. He is a London based Afro-Caribbean fixture. Nothing else like him is around. Discover him and illuminate your mind.
If Dread Beat An' Blood brought Johnson and initial flush of notoriety, then Forces of Victory was the record that cemented his growing reputation as a major talent. Bovell and the Dub Band swing hard on this set, especially on the album's opening track "Want Fi Goh Rave." This contains some of Johnson's most memorable songs/poems, such as the heartfelt prison saga "Sonny's Lettah" and the confrontational "Fite Dem Back," which he delivers in his trademark sing-song Jamaican patois. Dramatic and intense to the point of claustrophobia, Forces of Victory is not simply one of the most important reggae records of its time, it's one of the most important reggae records ever recorded.
Words: John Dougan
Probably the least essential of Linton Kwesi Johnson's recordings. It is what it says it is, an album of dub versions of songs from Forces of Victory and Bass Culture. As dub goes it's very good; Bovell acquits himself nicely as mixer and producer. This would be the last LKJ release for four years.
Words: John Dougan
I remember at the time of its release that many reviewers considered Bass Culture a slight disappointment because it didn't reach the highs of Forces of Victory. Granted, following up a record as great as Forces of Victory is no easy task, but all these years later I wonder what were people thinking. Bass Culture is tremendous, another successful collaboration between Johnson and Bovell with songs that are, at times, even more confrontational (e.g., "Inglan is a Bitch") than anything he had previously recorded. I will admit that the Dub Band sounds better on Forces of Victory, but Johnson is hitting his stride at the time of this release and experimenting with song structure and lyrics a little more (i.e., not everything is explicitly political here). Still, I defy anyone to come up with a reason to not own this record. An extra added bonus is John Kpiaye's great guitar playing.
Words: John Dougan
One of Jamaica's most significant reggae albums, originally released in 1978 on Frontline Records. Poet is Linton Kwesi Johnson; the Roots are Vivian Weathers (bass guitar, vocals), Dennis Bovell (guitar, keyboards), Desmond Craig (keyboards), Winston Cumiffe (drums), Lloyd Donaldson (drums), Everald Forest (percussion), John Vamom (guitar), and Lila Weathers (vocals). All but two songs first appeared in Johnson's 1975 poetry book, Dread Beat An' Blood. The poems are political in nature, dealing with Jamaica's racist regime and the way some dealt with the oppression: doping, fighting, and wasting one another in bars, as depicted in "Five Nights of Bleeding (For Leroy Harris)." Johnson does little singing, he simply delivers his poems in cadence to the music. Only on a couple of tunes like "Song of Blood," led by Lila Weathers, does any real singing occur, but Johnson's powerful, inspirational, descriptive words needs little embellishment.
Words: Andrew Hamilton
On the days I don't think Forces of Victory is LKJ's best album, I think it's Making History. It was as if the four-year break (despite his arduous schedule) re-energized him and Bovell, and the result was this masterpiece of swinging reggae. Johnson's poetry, still delivered in his semi-tuneful sing-song voice, takes on greater musical force on this record, blending in almost seamlessly with the band. Bovell has also taken some chances on this record, namely in the arrangements. There's a lot of busy horn work here, and the rhythms pop and roll more vigorously than ever before, but this doesn't detract from Johnson's intensely lyrical writing, which has rarely sounded more determined. OK, I'll fess up, this is the LKJ album to own if you only intend to buy one. But why you would limit yourself to only one is beyond comprehension.
Words: John Dougan
This single-disc, 13-song compilation is taken from Linton Kwesi Johnson's four 1979-1984 Island albums -- the same body of material, as it happens, that was the foundation of the far more extensive two-CD 1998 collection Independant Intavenshan: The Island Anthology. So the previous compilation is a sounder investment if you're heavily into the man, particularly as it has all but two of the tracks ("Action Line" and "Straight to Madray's Head," both of which are instrumentals) on Straight to Inglan's Head, and includes a good number of more dub-oriented selections. But this shallower scoop still does a decent job of presenting highlights of Johnson's Island catalog to listeners not inclined to spend so much time or money. Some of his most forceful works are here, like "Di Black Petty Booshwah," "Inglan Is a Bitch," "Time Come," "Sonny's Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)," and "Reggae Fi Peach." All of these reflect various sociopolitical features of the Jamaican-English experience, and in "Wat About Di Workin' Claas?," the commentary is more universal, set to perhaps his most accessible backing track, with its toe-tapping jazz-reggae groove. But "Loraine" proves Johnson could wax romantic, as well, almost as a hip Barry White. The musical backings are also admirably varied in their liberal injections of ska and dub, and the largely spoken "New Crass Massahkah" puts Johnson's pure poetry skills to the fore. It's odd, though, that a disc purporting to serve as the intro to a performer known primarily as a poet chooses to lead off with a purely instrumental track, "Action Line."
Words: Richie Unterberger
Between 1979 and 1984, Linton Kwesi Johnson unleashed four seminal albums on the Island label -- Forces of Victory, Bass Culture, LKJ in Dub, and Making History. This compilation draws crucial tracks from all four sets, as well songs off 12" singles. 1979's Forces and 1980's Bass are heavily represented, with their superb companion dubs appearing immediately after the vocal tracks. During these years Johnson's sound evolved, shifting from militant roots through an experimental period and finally toward a jazzier style, and with the set arranged in chronological order, listeners are able to note this musical transformation for themselves. Of course, there was a sizeable shift in sound between Johnson's debut album Dread Beat an' Blood and Forces with the inclusion of brass and fuller musical arrangements. Dread was one of the most militant albums ever to land on British shop shelves. Forces was equally radical, but Johnson's poems were now laced with irony and humor. "Fite dem Back" is so over the top one couldn't help but laugh, yet the words are so anthemic you're forced to shout along with its rousing refrain. "Independant Intavenshan" is as sarcastic as it is scathing. Even the album's masterpiece, "Sonny's Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)," makes use of black humor to drive home its message, with the fight scene taking on a Tarantino-esque quality. There again, "It Noh Funny" isn't, while the ominous "Time Come" again predicts the riots that will sweep the nation in 1981, with Johnson's Cassandra-like warnings going unheeded. Bass continues down a similar thematic roads, but wanders along musical byways as well, from the Western-flavored "Street 66," to the joyous reggae of the aptly titled "Reggae fi Peach," through the almost Two Tone-esque "Di Black Petty Booshwah," and onto the jazzy lushness of "Loraine." That latter number is a perfect parody of a love song, the title track and "Reggae Sounds" are superb expostulations of the power of music, "Street" is a Western gunfight brought to an inner-city flat, "Booshwa" scathingly condemns that class, while "Inglan Is a Bitch" vividly describes the typical working-class hero the bourgeois where stepping on on their way up. "Peach" is an impassioned eulogy to Blair Peach, killed by the police during a protest at Southall Town Hall this same year. Two more tributes are included on this compilation, both from the History set. With "Reggae fi Radni," Johnson attempts to come to grips with the mysterious car bombing that killed the Guyanan author/activist Walter Rodney. "Reggae fi Dada" is a eulogy to the poet's late father, wherein the poet turns his scathing pen on Jamaica. Meanwhile, Johnson's prophesies have come to pass, and he celebrates with "Di Great Insohreckshan," a jubilant look at the Brixton riot. But History's centerpiece is "New Crass Massahkah," the event that helped sparked the riots that swept England that year. Johnson's vivid description of this tragic fire powerfully conjure up this event, and so raw were people's emotions at the time that much of the piece is spoken word, with the band brought in only to create the atmosphere of the party where the fire took place itself. With this stunning piece, the compilation is brought to a close. All of these albums were masterpieces, and to have much of the best of them compiled onto two CDs is a welcome event. Excellent sleeve notes complete this stellar package, and this compilation can not be too highly recommended.
Words: Jo-Ann Greene