30 years of Sleng Teng - King Jammy recalls impact of digital breakthrough
As producer and sound system operator, Lloyd 'King Jammy' James dug into his memories at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus, on Thursday, April 2. He eventually - and inevitably - came to the Sleng Teng riddim.
He spoke as part of a series organised by the UWI's Department of Literatures in English, whose Professor Carolyn Cooper did hosting duties.
Credited as the country's first computerised beat and a turning point in the production of Jamaican popular music, after speaking about the creation of the Sleng Teng, James added almost casually, "that was 30 years ago".
The title of the all-Sleng Teng riddim album, 1985 Master Hits, Sleng Teng Extravaganza, confirms the anniversary.
The title track, done by Wayne Smith (who died on February 17, 2014), became so intertwined with the singer, that he became known as Wayne 'Sleng Teng' Smith. He had been associated with James before the beat was made, as the producer said that he recorded artistes like Smith and John Wayne before making a return trip to England in 1979 to shop his music.
It was in the following decade that Smith, along with keyboard player Noel Davey, approached James with what was developed into the landmark beat. "Wayne Smith and Noel Davey came to me and say Jammy, we have a riddim a play on the Casio (MT-40 keyboard) and it sound wicked."
James listened with his
producer's ear. "They start to play the riddim. I say it no have no melody. Is just a fast drum beat ... . I slow the tempo down ... . I say play the piano part," Jammy said. With the adjustments made, James told them, "we going into the studio to record this now."
That was dome on a four-track machine and, he said, "surprisingly it is the riddim that is playing now, Sleng Teng." And the volume of the beat, which had been played in the background at points in James' talk, was turned up.
James pointed out the volume of songs done on the Sleng Teng, saying that it has the record for the most versions, over 250 songs. Not all of them were produced by James on his King Jammy's label, but many of the ones he did are collected on the Sleng Teng Extravaganza album of 1985 and the Sleng Teng Extravaganza 95 album. The former includes Pumpkin Belly (Tenor Saw), Under Me Sleng Teng (Wayne Smith), Jam In The Streets (Sugar Minott) and Call The Police (John Wayne).
Included in the later set are Lodge (Bounty Killer), Overboard (Ninja Ford) and Skin to Skin Connection (Jigsy King).
And Jammy is confident that after three decades, the Sleng Teng still has some legs. "About three weeks ago a lady from New York said she wants to do something on the Sleng Teng. I am sure this song is going to bring back this riddim again for a period of time," James said.
He noted that the production duo of keyboard player Wycliffe 'Steelie' Johnson (now deceased) and drummer Cleveland 'Clevie' Browne, who were pivotal at Jammy's studio in the 1980s, were also doing something like the computerised beat. "They came and said we want to come into this. We a do this long time, but we never have no outlet," James said.
Editor's note: In February and early March, in celebrating Reggae Month 2015, The Sunday Gleaner ran previously published interviews with Wayne Smith and Noel Davey about the creation of the Sleng Teng.