Kingston Vibrations : At Jamaica House, all the musical cousins of reggae--old and new funk, rap, : hip-hop and ragamuffin--get together for a slamming family reunion
It’s Wednesday and the hour is late, but Jamaica House is packed from stem to stern.
A wild and woolly mix of reggae, funk and rap and a dash of disco blast across the dance floor. The lighting is dark and inviting, and a few warm, reddish spots pick out moving forms here and there. Half the floor space is pounded by dancing feet; the other half supports recuperating celebrants lounging in comfortable chairs and quenching Sahara-like thirsts.
No, we’re not in the dark cavern of a Kingston dancehall, but the techno-tribal decor of West L.A.'s Music Machine, where Jamaica House operates every Wednesday, is a fitting enough setting: Stuffed birds, tribal masks, palm fronds and poles masquerading as equatorial trees make for a colorful collision with video monitors, wires and speakers.
Several couples enjoy their own private world. A group of two men and two women essay a snug rub-a-dub that would be lewd if it weren’t for the laughter and camaraderie. A trio of women--one Jamaican, one English, one a New Yorker--weave a tropical square-dance pattern. A woman in a skin-tight fire-engine red outfit grooves in solitary splendor with all body parts in perpetual motion.
Deejay Rob Harris tones the music down and the crowd yells, screams, whistles and cheers as his partner, Aliwod, extends an invitation to “forget your troubles and dance.”
Only one or two bona-fide Jamaicans may actually be present, and the dominant dress style is B-boy, but the ritual of transcendence is definitely rooted in reggae.
Bob Marley, reggae ambassador to the world, is the presence that hovers over Jamaica House, and his exhortation to “lively up yourself ‘cause Jah say so” is the governing philosophy.
In the impoverished country of Jamaica, the sound-system dance offers temporary solace before towers of hand-built speakers and a chanting deejay known as a “toaster.” When a deejay named Kool Herc emigrated in the ‘60s, he transported that sound-system culture to the streets of South Bronx. Homeboys took to his rapping style, but they preferred to ride their own funky R&B; rhythms. That was the beginning of rap.
And when the computer revolution finally reached Jamaica’s recording studios, “dancehall style” or reggae-rap caught up with the production values of its American counterpart. Funk, old and new, is the rhythmic bedrock of hip-hop. So it makes perfect sense for Jamaica House to bring all these musical cousins together for a slamming family reunion.
“Combining all the elements of the music around the reggae packages it up pretty good,” says deejay Harris, the main disc spinner at Jamaica House.
“We go by the crowd’s vibes,” says Aliwod, who spins the reggae at the club. “Yo, man, I think it’s time for some ragamuffin,” he might advise Harris in speech peppered with reggae and hip-hop idioms ( ragamuffin , also known as dancehall, is a fast, computerized style of reggae). “So, boom! I just come in. That’s what the name of the club is, Jamaica House, so you gotta provide that sound.”
“We preach love and unity,” says Howard Lynch, co-partner with David Ferguson in 4-Play Productions, the main promoters of Jamaica House. “That’s real special. Through our preaching on the mike and what we play, we send out a positive vibe. We want a place where everybody can come out, party and enjoy themselves, without having to deal with any static.”
Jamaica House began last April at a smaller Santa Monica club, Kingston 12. In August, it took up temporary quarters at the Fifth Avenue, and finally found its Music Machine home in September. Through it all, the crowd stayed faithful.
“I’m here every Wednesday on the dot, wouldn’t miss it unless I have a big test the next day,” says Moon Booumer, 21, an aspiring film producer who’s studying cinema at Cal State Long Beach.
“This is my workout place,” he adds. “I come here because the people are cool. It’s not the typical club scene where it matters who you are or what you wear or what you drive. Everyone is mellow and appreciates who you are for what you are, and the music is good. There’s actually a variety of people and everybody’s having a good time. I’ve made a lot of friends here; the same people come back every week and it’s like everyone’s one big family.”
“I come to the club to do research,” says Tony P, at 24 one of the youngest free-lance studio mixing engineers in the business. “It’s fun, I can hang out, but I also want to know what’s going on underground, as opposed to what’s on radio.
“As far as I’m concerned, everything happens from the underground. This club is really cutting edge, so coming here is good for producing and being one step ahead. I want to see how the crowd responds to the reggae and hip-hop, and whatever new stuff is played. If it’s gonna funk here, it’s gonna funk everywhere.”
This night, there’s no live performance, but Jamaica House has been known to showcase some of the livelier practitioners of ragamuffin/hip-hop, including Daddy Freddy, Jamalski, Son of Bazerk and Del the Funkee Homosapien.
This evening kicks off sweet and slow with the leisurely lope of ‘70s reggae: Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” gives way to classics by Aswad and Gregory Isaacs. The pace quickens as the crowd builds with more recent dancehall selections by Shabba Ranks, Ninjaman, Pinchers, et al.
“Big and Ready,” the popular new single by the trio of rapper Heavy D., reggae toaster Super Cat and Jamaican singing star Frankie Paul, completes the segue into a bumper crop of cutting-edge rap, which flows half an hour later into the solid-gold funk of Roger Troutman, the master builder behind today’s hottest hip-hop jams.
And so it goes, back and forth, busting across music barriers. A little after 2 a.m. the Sister Sledge classic “We Are Family” leads into Public Enemy’s anthemic “Fight the Power,” and panting dancers are brought up to closing time.
“We’re just breddren trying to make the best happen in the music,” Aliwod says. “That’s our service, like everybody else who has their thing to do, like doctors or lawyers. We just do our best.”
* Jamaica House, Music Machine, 12220 W. Pico Blvd., Wednesdays, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.; $10 without an invitation, $5 with an invitation before 10:30 and $7 with one after 10:30.