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The Latest Big Merger: Rap and Reggae

November 26, 1989|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

In show business, this year's mega-merger was Time and Warner Communications. But the cutting edge of pop is witnessing a fascinating merger of its own--the fusion of rap and reggae music.

* The big dance hit in the New York clubs is Foxy Brown's "Sorry," a reggae-style rap cover of Tracy Chapman's "Baby Can I Hold You."

* Rapper KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions just produced the latest album by reggae mainstays Sly and Robbie.

* L.A. deejay-turned-producer Matt Robinson, who ran the now-defunct dance club Funky Reggae, has just released a rap-reggae compilation album (through Warner Bros. Records) called "Strictly Hip-Hop Reggae Fusion."

* If you listen to New York black radio giant WBLS-FM, which is now programmed by influential deejay Frankie Crocker, you can hear hip-hop hotshots like Biz Markie in regular rotation with reggae vets like Junior Reid.

* Following the lead of reggae-rapster Shinehead, hip-hop groups like Stetsasonic, Heavy D. and the Boyzz, Boogie Down Productions and Queen Latifah have all performed reggae-style tracks on their latest albums.

"The hip-hop audience is completely rediscovering reggae," explained Monica Lynch, president of Tommy Boy Records, the New York-based rap label that records De La Soul, Stetsasonic and Queen Latifah. "It's happening in Washington, Philadelphia, Miami--anywhere where the reggae community rubs shoulders with the rap crowd. But it's especially big in New York. Brooklyn has a huge Jamaican population who support a flourishing underground record scene. They sort of incubate the songs, which are then picked up by the hip-hop club crowd, which passes the best stuff along to radio.

"It's not just the music, but the style. The rap kids are into a whole Afrocentric fashion thing. You see them wearing dreadlocks, African medallions and the reggae-inspired red, black and green color scheme. Everything is overlapping."

When Matt Robinson was going to NYU in the early 1980s, he saw the stirrings of a similar reggae-rap crossover. "It was a wild thing for hip-hop fans like me to go to these dance-hall reggae clubs in Brooklyn and the Empire Roller Rink," he said. "Everyone there was armed. They had a really scary tradition--they'd shoot off their guns when their favorite people were on the bandstand. It was a way for the bad boys to show their approval."

Intrigued by how closely reggae's socially conscious spirit paralleled rap's political messages, Robinson returned to L.A. eager to spread the word. In 1987, he opened Funky Reggae as a showcase for rap and reggae fusion sounds. It quickly became a dance hot spot and a hip melting pot for both Brat Pack--and Black Pack--celebs (it was the only club where you were just as likely to see Rob Lowe and Sean Penn as Eddie Murphy with Mike Tyson).

Unfortunately, Funky Reggae became too successful, attracting what Robinson called a "ruthless gangsta crowd" that chased out the hard-core music fans. Still, the experiment convinced him reggae and rap were kindred souls. "Reggae was the only music in the '70s and early '80s that had anything to say about black pride," he said. "These young black kids were all looking for music with a message, so reggae and hip-hop were a perfect fit."

When a production deal with MCA Records didn't work out, Robinson hooked up with Warners exec Benny Medina, who'd been a regular at Funky Reggae. They put together the "Hip-Hop Reggae Fusion" album, which features tracks by Lady Levi, Dread Flimstone ("he's a champion white surfer kid from Venice who's been hanging with the Jamaican homeboys"), reggae star Mikey Dread (whose track is produced by KRS-One) and Daddy Matthew (a k a Matt Robinson), who performs "Free Mandela," a rap fantasy about a ganja-laden consciousness-raising session with ex-South African president Pieter Botha.

(KROQ-FM here is already playing Lady Levi's "Jimmy in the Valley," a safe-sex dance anthem--the song's refrain, "bring your jimmy hat," is hip-hop slang for wearing a condom--and New York's WBLS is blasting new reggae and rap hits.)

"I just want to wake up some sleeping ears," said Robinson. "What I saw missing from hip-hop was a melodic structure. It had this great beat, but it was a little stiff. Reggae brings it a soulful rhythm and these incredible bass lines and when you put the two together, you've really got the foundation for something new."

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