Rasta La Vista, Baby
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."
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."
Culture gained further popularity throughout Jamaica with its 1977 debut single, Two Sevens Clash. Honoring "Back-to-Africa" champion Marcus Garvey -- a human-rights advocate and prophet on par with John the Baptist -- the hit single provided the title for the full-length album that would follow, while referencing the year that Rastafarians thought the world would end. On July 7, 1977, when four sevens actually clashed, one of reggae's most enduring and ominous dread classics ushered in record absenteeism from work and school throughout Jamaica, but little in the way of an outright apocalypse. Like a Rasta dress rehearsal for Y2K, the overly hyped date in question didn't exactly find Hill shaking under his bed.
"We had a public holiday," he says. "A little riot here, a little riot there -- which was not really necessary. I didn't expect nobody to stage up a riot, because the real meaning of Two Sevens Clash is the rich talking to the poor."
For Rastafarians of true faith, however, the end of the world doesn't spell doom so much as what Hill calls a "release into the eternal and heavenly arms of Jah." But is it just a matter of time before the other shoe drops for the rest of us -- say, July 7, 2007?
"I won't go into that, even if I did know," Hill says. "Because, you know, I don't t'ink that is something to mess with. No. I'm getting too dangerous, too serious now. You leave the predictions to those who are exposed to their computerized world and the rest of it. Because I don't know."
For all of its notoriety at the time, Clash definitely caught the attention of U.K. garage punks -- including the late Joe Strummer, who was looking for something to call his band in '77.
"I hardly even know who you are talking about," Hill says when asked if Strummer's respect went both ways. "I wasn't in full acquaintance with him that much. I didn't meet the person himself, really. I heard his music, but no -- I wasn't [a fan]."
With sunny, loose-limbed grooves more to his liking, Hill has always eschewed guitar-dominated rock in favor of breezy "riddims" with three-part vocal harmonies; Culture effectively borrowed as much from Jamaica's ska forefathers as it did from Chicago's legendary soul era.
"Curtis Mayfield was saying something real -- real sensible when all the people were singin' foolishness," Hill insists. "One of the great slave songs, 'This Train,' and songs like 'People Get Ready' and all them songs, you know? They were real meaningful. He t'inks quite deeply."
Rather adept at forging its own message songs, Culture began building an impressive body of work with the help of Studio One's "Mighty Two" production team of Joe Gibbs and Errol Thompson. Hill and company likewise enlisted the skills of Sonia Pottinger, one of Jamaica's few unsung female producers.
"I was most productive with Mrs. Pottinger because of the part that she played in my career," Hill admits. "[Gibbs] was always t'inking about money and 'I have no time to talk to ya.' Like I say right now, I put him in the back, like a journey which has already traveled."
1978's Harder Than the Rest boasted some of the best tunes from the Gibbs/Thompson duo (including the hit single "Stop the Fussing and Fighting"), while Pottinger left her mark on the 1979 classic Cumbolo (both on Front Line). Culture split up from 1981 to 1986, then re-established itself for a lengthy haul, recording album after album of the most progressive and socially conscious songs in the rock-steady tradition. The band never compromised its message with rude and gratuitous dancehall slack, either.
"I don't believe sex should be disposed in that great manner, because you have already seen and known it in the bedroom," Hill says. "So why take it out on the street? Like disrespecting the woman? Every woman is my sister! Every woman could be my mother, no matter what color."
But explaining the meaning behind a seemingly lighthearted song like "Chicken Titty" (a bizarre, soca-laced cut from 2000's Payday), leaves the "partly vegetarian" Hill sounding a bit flummoxed: "I'm talking about the breast!" he insists. "Everybody want the chicken breast, and I can't see it! It's literal! Oh, boy. It means that a woman have breasts -- can give some to a young one. The chicken ain't got none. The chicken have a chest. In other words, they are calling it the wrong name."
Crying fowl when it really counts, Hill "cites up" daily with the Good Book; his meditations with King James and a special medicinal herb that the Hindus once dubbed "ganja" provide the two cornerstones of his Rastafarian faith.
"I think each individual should read Revelation 18 and see what it is saying," Hill says. "Read and you'll see. It's all written there. There is nothing to interpret from it, you know. It is plain, plain, plain, plain and square."
Revelation 18, the Fall of Babylon -- in which the great harlot, sitting atop a scarlet-colored beast with seven heads and ten horns, finally topples -- defies universal interpretation. The passage contains three distinct "dirges" (those of Kings, Merchants and Mariners) and ends with "The Angel's Promise," a stark and lifeless state of affairs where "the sound of harpers and musicians and flute players will not be heard in thee anymore."
"Babylon Falling," from Culture's latest album, however, celebrates salvation and glory as a happy, flute-filled sing-along -- one reminiscent of the children's song "London Bridge Is Falling Down." It's as if the apocalypse were lost in a cheerful haze of sunshine and giggle-smoke.
When asked if he's had any important ganja-induced visions recently, Hill keeps his cards close to the vest. "Fact is, that's a personal issue that should not be alongside reggae," he says. "It's not for the newspapers."
More forthcoming as to why the herb superb still hasn't been legalized, Hill sounds a tad conspiratorial.
"Maybe because somebody's not crying loud enough," he says. "Or maybe because who is to legalize it [is] not in the amount of money which they are to get out of it. But as Paul said, 'To each his own.' Each person is entitled and democratically free to be a deficient."
Smoke up and be somebody!
When asked if he's ever read anything inaccurate about Culture in the music press that he'd like addressed or hopefully corrected, Hill remains ever the proverb-slinger.
"It's never too late to sweep your house," he says.
But which kind of broom works best for that?
"The one that sweeps the dirt truthfully," says Hill with a laugh.
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