With a vocal displeasure of a huge portion of the dancehall catalog, folks have overtime approached me with what they perceive as highpoints in the genre. For the most part, everything’s been at least passable. But on occasion, there’re a few efforts that wash over me whic actually make some sort of impact.
Welton Irie did.
Oddly enough, Lamb’s Bread International, has been in rotation since the dawning of the new millennium. But with Sylford Walker presiding over the majority of the work on the disc, it was easy to forget Irie’s contributions – a huge oversight on my part. But really, Irie’s career began before dancehall was solidified into a set of accepted stances, approaches and cadences.
First recording with Coxsone Dodd and desiring to be billed simply as Welton, the producer figured his deejay sounded irie and tacked that adjective onto the end of his name. It was apparently the first time that particular piece of slang was used on a reggae album - purportedly.
That album with Dodd served to put the island on notice that Irie had arrived. His biggest hit, though, wouldn’t be for a few years. What’s interesting, though, is the fact that since deejays weren’t huge in the recording industry, seeing as they worked better in party settings, Irie and his brethren didn’t think too much about making records or making a living from it. Apparently, Trinity was one of the few deejays who early on was able to pull in some loot from records.
Working sound systems and touring for a few more years allowed Irie to perfect his style. And while he might not be the most unique sounding guy on the mic, his 1982 album Army Life, helmed by Clive Jarrett and the Lone Ranger, offered up lyrics different than most of the other performers working in the dancehall genre.
Given the pervasive violence that washed over JA during reggae music’s life, it wouldn’t have been surprising if an album with a title like Army Life concerned itself mostly with violent imagery, grandstanding and whatever else might be associated with gangs of roving posses in Kingston, Tivoli Gardens and elsewhere. Irie, though, chose to go a different route.
It’s reductive to examine an album based solely on a single track. But “Army Life” is a rare thing in JA music during the time it was recorded. Apart from the fact that musically, the song doesn’t sound all digitized, instead moving towards the most sparse backing possible, its topic is pretty interesting.
There’s definitely talk about gun play, but the deejay here figures that he’s not cut out for that type of life and laments an association with the military. Most likely, other tracks found elsewhere touch on the subject, but perhaps none so thoughtfully. The rest of Irie’s album is pretty much on point as well. So while there’s still a great deal of stuff to take issue with in dancehall, Welton Irie has nothing to do with that. It’s a shame that he’s given up toasting. He does apparently select on a JA radio station, so that’s a plus.