**** VARIOUS ARTISTS
"The Roots of Rap"
Don't expect to find the dynamic production touches of Dr. Dre on this 70-minute survey of blues-related recordings from the 1920s and 1930s. But you will find enough humor, commentary and rhyme in most of these 23 tracks to justify the album's title and concept.
Things start off nicely with Blind Willie Johnson, whose gruff, growly "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down" conveys urgency and passion comparable to those of the most substantial figures in contemporary rap from Chuck D. and Ice Cube to the late Tupac Shakur.
Born in 1902 in Marlin, Texas, Johnson was a singer and guitarist who combined elements of gospel and country blues in some hugely influential recordings. In "Tear," he asserts such a strong vocal authority that the track not only serves as an excellent opener for the album, but should convince many listeners to search out one of Johnson's own collections on Yazoo.
Other highlights on "Roots" range from Frankie "Half-Pint" Jaxon's lively, fun-packed "Jive Man Blues" to Kansas City Kitty & Georgia Tom's "How Can You Have the Blues"--especially noteworthy because Georgia Tom was really Thomas A. Dorsey, who went on to become a legendary gospel composer.
The biggest surprise on the album is country music star Jimmie Davis' "She's a Hum Dum Dinger," which may have more sexual undercurrents than you'd expect from a man who later would serve as governor of Louisiana. Among other featured artists: Blind Willie McTell, the Dixieland Jug Blowers, Pine Top Smith and Memphis Minnie.
Even if this music is a long way from the gut-level assault of N.W.A., there is a vitality in this storytelling tradition that makes the music a joy on its own terms. If you can't find "Roots" in stores, it can be ordered from Yazoo, (800) 497-1043.
* 1/2 Various artists, "Rock 'n' Reggae," Rebound/PolyGram. There's a history lesson here, too, but it's quite different from the one provided by "The Roots of Rap." Instead of classic reggae cuts that influenced pop-rock in the '70s and '80s, "Rock 'n' Reggae" gives us a dozen reggae-influenced works by pop and rock artists. The material ranges from Eric Clapton's treatment of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" to, more typically, versions of such reggae hits as Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross" by the likes of Joe Cocker, Joe Jackson, the Pat Travers Band and Rita Coolidge.
While many of the renditions are listenable, the original versions generally offer far more character--and that's what you'll want if you are in the mood for reggae.
** The Alligators, "Pre-X Zoom," Garage. The lesson here is that you can have a lot of fun with rockabilly music, but you can make it a lot more compelling if you add contemporary sensibilities--which is what guitarist Billy Zoom did with X after his stint with the Alligators. That doesn't mean this music isn't fun. Whether remaking such hits as "Boppin' the Blues" or serving up enticing originals, Zoom and his mates captured the spirit of classic rockabilly. Public Access superstar Art Fein did the liner notes.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).