Discover more from This Week in The 90s
Shaggy's 'Oh Carolina' sparks a Reggae-naissance [February 28, 1993]
Plus: Depeche Mode, k.d. lang and Radiohead
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋
It’s February 28, 1993 again!
📰 Noel’s House Party is cancelled due to an IRA bomb scare, and BBC viewers instead get a repeat of the Christmas special. 📽️ Cinema-goers get to see Denzel Washington’s stunning performance in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. 📺 On TV, Robert Lindsay and John Thaw star in A Year In Provence, which everyone hates.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is still ‘No Limit’ by 2 Unlimited, so today let’s talk about…
This week’s Number 5: ‘Oh Carolina’—Shaggy
Musical trends are often the result of one specific hit. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was a success, and suddenly the charts were filled with grunge. Cher blessed the world with ‘Believe’; next thing, everyone on the radio sounds like an Autotuned robot.
However, some trends seem to appear spontaneously. Why did so many late-80s dance-ey pop songs use that one “aw yeah” vocal sample? We may never know.
Early 1993 brought us one of these spontaneous trends. It’s something that you wouldn’t have noticed until you looked at the Top 10 and saw this:
Reggae music hadn’t been popular for a long time. Now, suddenly, the three biggest chart hits were reggae (or, in Snow’s case, reggae-adjacent).
Coincidence? Maybe. But look at the chart from just two months later:
1993 was The Year of Reggae. But why? Why did pop audiences suddenly go crazy for Caribbean rhythms?
Come bubble 'pon me
To understand this, we need to go back and look at how the Jamaican music scene develop.
Previously in this newsletter, we talked about how Jamaica has had a thriving music scene since the 1950s, and how immigrants introduced this music to Britain, eventually giving us things like the 1992 rave anthem ‘On A Ragga Tip’ by SL2.
One thing we didn’t discuss was how Jamaican people listened to music, which is a vital element of any music history. For example: rock’n’roll happened because people in the US had radios and record players, which created a market for snappy, youth-oriented pop songs.
Radios and record players were a luxury in 1950s Jamaica, especially in low-income communities. These communities still wanted to hear new music, especially the newest rhythm’n’blues tracks, but they had no way of accessing the records.
Fortunately, the records came to them.
Sound systems started out as a kind of mobile disco. They were literally just some guy with a turntable and big speakers, who would set up in the middle of the street. People would gather round, dance, and generally have a good time.
These sound systems became an integral part of local culture, and soon rival systems were clashing with each other to dominate neighbourhoods. To win, you needed the best records, the best vibe; you needed to throw the best party.
Systems started getting creative. One technique was to have an MC who would talk between the records, in the style of American radio DJs. But these MCs began to develop their own vocal style, which was a more rhythmic, lyrical chanting.
Eventually, these vocal ad-libs evolved into the art of “toasting”—which is the technical term for Shaggy’s vocal style on ‘Oh Carolina’.
Sound systems evolved away from playing records and started creating more original beats. By the 70s, this style of music had two key elements: the riddim, which was the beat that got everyone dancing; and the toasting, which gave emerging stars a chance to shine.
Come the 1980s, and people started using technology to create new riddims on the cheap. In 1985, Wayne Smith and King Jammy got a Casio MT-40 keyboard, turned on the Rock preset, slowed down the tempo to 110 bpm, and used it as the riddim for their single ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’.
‘Sleng Teng’ is considered the first big hit of a genre now known as dancehall. Dancehall is an offshoot of reggae, but with some key differences. Mainly, you don’t need a band to make dancehall. You just need a beat and an MC. Just two turntables and microphone.
Even before ‘Sleng Teng’, this was a powerful idea. And it was catching on outside of Jamaica.
Yuh just a rock to di riddim
The coolest place in 1970s New York wasn’t The Factory or Studio 54. It was Sedgwick Avenue in The Bronx, home to DJ Kool Herc’s parties known as Back To School Jams.
Herc is a Jamaican-born DJ who blew American minds by using sound system techniques, including chatting on the mic over records. The kids who attended his jams were also innovators, and they would take turns trying to improvise entirely new dance styles while he played.
Over time, Herc noticed that the dancing got especially crazy during drum solos and percussion-heavy sections. He started mixing his records to focus entirely on these drum breaks, chaining them together to create extended rhythms.
The kids went wild. They started moving in staccato, robotic movements to match the weird, futuristic drumbeats. Breakdancing was born here—and so was a new riddim that would become the backbone of 80s hip-hop.
Jamaican immigrants in UK enjoyed sound systems too, although most of these gatherings were illegal. Impresarios like Duke Vin organised parties in abandoned buildings or remote fields, where audiences danced to Jamaican records until the sun came up—or the cops arrested everyone.
(Fun fact about Duke Vin: he discovered that he was descended from a tribe that had signed a treaty with Britain in 1738. This treaty included a clause saying that the tribe were exempt from UK taxes. Vin successfully sued the Inland Revenue and had all of his income tax repaid to him.)
Essentially, British-Jamaican Dancehall fans were pioneering a version of rave culture at a time when white audiences were still listening to Showaddywaddy. When rave did become a thing in the 1980s, event organisers took inspiration from the old dancehall parties, and used the same techniques to evade the police. The music itself often collided: rave music + dancehall led to brand new genres, like jungle, drum’n’bass and garage.
So, dancehall played a vital part in shaping 90s music, even if most white audiences had never heard ‘Sleng Teng’. It makes perfect sense that reggae could succeed in the charts, especially if you combine it with hip-hop, r’n’b, or house.
Does that answer the original question?
Not quite. I still don’t understand one thing. Why now? Why 1993? Why is this the moment of the Reggae-naissance?
Prowl off, jump an prance
We haven’t yet discussed the biggest reggae song of the early 1990s.
This song was absolutely massive, so well-known that it was parodied in The Simpsons in 1992. Even people who hated reggae would sing along whenever they heard the chorus.
And they heard that chorus every week, during the opening credits of Cops.
Inner Circle recorded ‘Bad Boys’ in 1987—twenty years after they released their first album, and almost a decade after their first UK chart hit, 1979’s ‘Everything Is Great’.
When Cops started to become a global cultural phenomenon, their record label rushed out a new Inner Circle LP called Bad To The Bone. It seems likely that they were hoping to cash in on ‘Bad Boys’, so they were probably quite surprised when ‘Sweat (A La La La Long)’ became an even bigger hit.
My theory is this: an appetite for reggae had been brewing for some time. Partly because of ‘Bad Boys’; partly because of a renewed interest in Bob Marley (who charted with ‘Iron Lion Zion’ in 1992); partly because dancehall pairs really well with dance music and r’n’b.
But mainly because a lot of this music is really cool and fun and catchy.
Record labels had lots of reggae-adjacent acts, but they kept telling themselves, “nobody wants this music, reggae isn’t cool.” When they finally decided to give these acts a chance, mainstream audiences almost bit their hands off.
And so, you get a motley crew of reggae-flavoured hits all at once. Shabba Ranks re-releases “Mr Loverman” yet again? This time it’s a hit. UB40 puts a bit of skank on Elvis? Huge hit. Ace Of Base do their oddball scandi-reggae thing? Thanks, we’ll take a billion copies. Snow does… I don’t understand what was going on with Snow, but ‘Informer’ was also a big hit.
As for Shaggy, it’s easy to see why ‘Oh Carolina’ clicked. Shaggy’s whole persona is cheeky and slightly goofy, like a kind of Carribean Will Smith. His growling vocal style (inspired by the barking drill instructors from Shaggy’s military career) is both a piss-take of and an achingly sincere tribute to the old-school dancehall toasters.
That kind of ironic authenticity is just, like, so 90s.
The track is a pretty faithful cover of a 1958 record by the Folkes Brothers, which is itself a fascinating bit of music history—you can really hear American R’n’B evolving into island reggae.
Most of all, ‘Oh Carolina’ is just a fun record. That is the true spirit of dancehall, which has always been driven by a clear mission: to get everyone out dancing and having a good time.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 9 (↓ from 8): ‘I Feel You’—Depeche Mode
This video was directed by Anton Corbijn, who was rapidly becoming the king of high-brow 90s music videos.
More importantly: the woman in the video is Lysette Andrews, better known to middle-aged nerds as Lyssa from cult classic Krull.
Number 12 (New Entry): ‘Puss’—The Jesus Lizard
Touch & Go is a fanzine/record label that championed American underground rock in the dark days before Nirvana, putting out records by the likes of The Jesus Lizard and Butthole Surfers. This single is something of a cash-in, because it’s actually a split single that also features ‘Oh The Guilt’ by Nirvana.
However, there are no bad guys in this story! Everyone seems happy with the project: Touch & Go made lots of money, Nirvana got to put out something a bit rawer than Nevermind, fans got two good tracks for the price of one, and The Jesus Lizard bamboozled Capitol Records into thinking they were a pop band, which earned them a big fat record deal. Everyone is a winner!
Number 16 (↑ from 18): ‘In Your Care’—Tasmin Archer
Almost six months after ‘Sleeping Satellite’, we finally get Tasmin Archer’s follow-up and it is a slow-burn ballad about domestic abuse. It was not a hit.
Great song from a great artist, but a shockingly poor marketing strategy. Tasmin deserved so much better.
Number 28 (New Entry): ‘Constant Craving’—kd lang
In 1998, The Rolling Stones put out their single “Anybody Seen My Baby?”, only to discover that the chorus was an undeniable rip of “Constant Craving”. Jagger and Richards claim they’d never heard lang’s song, but they voluntarily gave her a songwriting credit anyway.
Imagine waking up one day to discover that you’d accidentally written a Rolling Stones song?
Number 38 (↓ from 36): ‘Harvest Moon’—Neil Young
Grunge was good to Neil Young, and it would have been easy for him to hop the bandwagon with a heavy rock album. Instead, he reassembled the team behind his 1972 masterpiece Harvest and created a very gentle and beautiful sequel.
Young will soon engage with grunge: first on Sleep With Angels, his elegy for Kurt Cobain; then by collaborating with Pearl Jam on Mirror Ball. But right now, on ‘Harvest Moon’, he’s just a middle-aged guy singing softly about how much he loves his wife, and it is lovely.
Album of the Week
How fitting that Pablo Honey’s cover features a baby, seeing as this is a collection of Radiohead’s most embarrassing baby pictures.
The band have all but disowned this record over the years, and you can kind of see why. Even if you prefer early Radiohead before they went all Jazz Odyssey, there’s no denying that Pablo Honey feels like a rough back-of-an-envelope sketch for The Bends.
You can hear it on tracks like ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’, which has conspicuously flat production. It’s a fun song, but they sound like just another 90s rock band:
But wait! It’s currently 1993, and we don’t know about The Bends or Amnesiac or Johnny Greenwood’s Oscars! What do we think of this debut record by a promising young band?
I think we’re listening to the crashing guitars and self-loathing lyrics, and we’re wondering if this is Britain’s answer to grunge.
Pablo Honey is not a grunge record—although songs like ‘Ripcord’ and ‘Vegetable’ come dangerously close—but it definitely shares a worldview with Nirvana. When Thom sings “I’m better off dead” on ‘Prove Yourself’, it feels like he’s trying to beat Nevermind in a battle of the depressives.
1993 audiences and 2023 audiences would agree on one thing about Pablo Honey: this is the record with ‘Creep’ on it. The big single dwarfs the rest of the LP, making every other track feel like a B-side.
Although, if you stick around to the very end, something interesting happens. ‘Blow Out’ feels different from the rest of Pablo Honey, thanks to its complex arrangement and unusual time siganture. Here, finally, is the hint of what Radiohead will become.
Perhaps this is all a little harsh on Pablo Honey, which is actually a really great indie rock record. Most bands would be proud of this. Most bands would consider it their creative peak.
But Radiohead aren’t most bands. Even in 1993, I think you could sense that they’ve got a lot more to give, and Pablo Honey is the sound of throats being cleared before the real performance.
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