Rasta La Vista, Baby

Kingston's Culture keeps onna chantin' down Babylon.

If Joseph Hill could challenge George W. Bush to a sound clash -- a popular reggae competition in which opposing selectors and mike-chatters match wits in boasting, toasting and hyping up a crowd from opposite sound systems -- the 55-year-old reggae legend would take the high road. As Culture's fiery mouthpiece and one of roots and harmony's remaining elder statesmen since the passing of Bob Marley, Hill favors subtlety over insults -- even when it comes to the trigger-happy Texan, who coined such linguistic gibberish as "subliminable" and "strategery."

"There must be a lot of t'inking going on in his head," Hill says of America's current commander-in-chief. "That's hard to know what he t'ink, you know? But I would ask him how he was last night -- how did he sleep?

"I respect the world leader," he continues. "I don't trust him, but I respect him. I have trust in the power of God, and I respect man."

A little Culture never hurt anybody: Albert Walker (left), 
Joseph Hill and Talford Nelson.
A little Culture never hurt anybody: Albert Walker (left), Joseph Hill and Talford Nelson.

Such diplomacy speaks volumes for the internationally renowned militant, who has been inspiring the world's poor to rise up against greed, corruption and oppression since the age of fourteen. The son of a farmer who grew "everyt'ing that you can eat" in the red-dirt hills of St. Catherine's Parish, Jamaica, Hill knows chronic poverty firsthand. He's seen his share of violence, injustice and jail time. And he's used his Jah-given talent to popularize conscious roots reggae worldwide for close to three decades.

"I am not a follower," Hill insists. "I was a born leader. I was born a trendsetter. I always find my own way out."

Speaking from his office in Kingston, the charismatic vocalist discusses everything from technology ("Dealing with digital sound is like trying to talk to a dead man") to his own estimable ranking in the roots hierarchy ("Burning Spear was the more popular one because he got to go first").

Traditional to the end, Hill is like reggae's tireless pack mule, shouldering the burden of righteousness on a mystical journey to Zion.

"I had almost considered retiring for a while," Hill says. "But then somet'ing told me that I should go on. I'm ready to go again, because I'm not an old car; I'm still running like the wind!"

Though Culture's thirtieth release, World Peace(Rounder/Heartbeat), sounds as if it could have been recorded 25 years ago -- back when the groove-oriented harmony trio first established its tried-and-true formula -- the album feels as comfortable as an old pair of bedroom slippers.

Culture's current touring band, Forces of Justice, might hail from Washington, D.C., but "there's no difference in the brothers," Hill insists, when it comes to bringing World's Kingston-centric studio chemistry to life. A career milestone that features a full horn section from the Firehouse crew and various members from Shaggy's band, the thirteen-song cycle covers topical issues like war ("Gun Put Down"), perseverance ("Never Get Weary") and spirituality ("Walk in Jah Light") with distinct warmth and familiarity. Yet the album's overall theme seems to be self-reliance, an ongoing concern that Hill addresses by way of the Rasta-laced proverb.

"It is better to be a big man in a small house, than to be a little roach in a big house," he states matter-of-factly. "For instance, let me ask you somet'ing: If you get a job, a small job where you get respect, not a lot of money, and you get a big job where you get no respect and a lot of money, which would you take?"

Being a struggling freelance writer who commands neither respect nor riches, I opt for the former (though playing devil's advocate to the world's hardest-working Rastafarian feels tempting).

"Okay," Hill says. "That's what I mean: Each man respect the other. See, you don't have to have a lot to be happy. And you don't have to put out a lot to be respectable or to be respected. With mutual understanding and the perseverance of your mind, you just reach there without ever have planned to."

As spontaneous as he is contemplative, Hill boasts a long and industrious career. He worked as a percussionist with the Soul Defenders in the early '70s at Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's legendary Studio One on Maxwell Avenue -- reggae's equivalent to rock and roll's Sun Studios in Memphis. Hill, one of the rock-steady era's premier session musicians (among a list of luminaries that includes Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Bingy Bunny, Blacka Morewell, Bobby Marquis, Ansel Collins and Cedric Brooks, among others), soon parlayed his studio experience into a harmony trio called the African Disciples, with cousins Albert Walker and Roy Sylvester. After vocalist Kenneth Dayes replaced Sylvester in 1976, the Disciples evolved into Culture.

"We were looking for a name to stay, which we thought would have stayed," Hill says. "African Disciples would have stayed, but at the same time we earned the name Culture from the people. Because when we did our audition, the production manager asked the rest of the fellas who was there -- there has always been a little crowd at the studio in those times, a little gathering, you know, with young, upcoming artists and workers and everybody put into one bag -- and they gave us the name Culture. I t'ink more than all, the people's decision, to me, is more highly respected and acceptable."

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