If reggae fans were given a chance to nominate a performer who's best filled the role of the music's elder statesman since the passing of Bob Marley, Culture vocalist Joseph Hill would receive a lot of votes. Since 1972, when he released his first single, "Behold the Land," on Jamaica's vaunted Studio One label, Hill has made music that's passionately conveyed the topical and Rastafarian-based broadsides that have always distinguished reggae.
"Being a Rastafarian is an inborn concept, and in that context, you have to practice what you preach," explains Hill in a soft, wizened voice. "To make mention of what Rastafari is to I, I would say everything internally, mentally and spiritually. There is no intention to change the lyrical content of my music. It is right, and you cannot subsidize the lyrics unless there is something better to educate the world and make it--in at least a small way--God-fearing. Also important is realizing the political application of reggae, both within the politics of Jamaica and the international politics of the world. That's really what I'm after."
Hill grew up in St. Catherine, Jamaica, and quickly fell in love with the region's native music. As a youth, he began singing with the Soul Defenders, a band whose sound served as a precursor to the melodic approach that would later distinguish Culture. Hill laughs as he adds that the act also shared ties with an American musical form: garage rock. "We were just a group of young men who wanted to do something," he says. "The garage was the only place we had to play."
While with the Soul Defenders, Hill was discovered by Coxsone Dodd, the founder of Studio One. Dodd subsequently hired him as a studio singer and, later, as a solo artist. "During my spare time, I never sat myself in the idle seat," he recalls. "I was always working."
In 1976 Hill put together Culture with Roy Dayes, Albert Walker (a studio singer and Hill's cousin) and a fourth vocalist Hill chooses not to name. "It was a quadraphonic group," he reports. "But this other man, he would not show up to handle his duties! So we had to get going as a threesome."
Culture's 1977 debut album, Two Sevens Clash, was immediately recognized as a landmark recording--quite an achievement given that Marley was then at the height of his popularity and tended to overshadow other reggae performers. The disc's attri-butes include fine vocal harmonies and punchy, six-piece horn arrangements that render the tunes eminently listenable. Most startling, though, are Hill's lyrics, which overflow with revolutionary proclamations and prophetic, apocalyptic imagery drawn from Jamaican ghetto life.
The reputation of Two Sevens was further enhanced by its impact in Great Britain; thanks in large part to a John Peel radio special about it, the platter became wildly popular, and its militant stance proved a terrific influence on punk culture. However, the album's stridency was tempered by devoutly Rastafarian material. Hill's pleas for unity and spiritual redemption on tracks like "Get Ready to Ride the Lion to Zion" established Culture as an important purveyor of conscious reggae music.
The success of Two Sevens led to a deal with Virgin Records, which issued several notable Culture offerings: 1978's Harder Than the Rest, 1979's Cumbolo and 1980's International Herb. The following year, Culture disbanded and Hill began pursuing a solo career--but by mid-decade, the vocalist put the group back together again. He did so, he claims, because he felt Culture was the best vehicle with which to deliver the reggae messages that had been largely squelched by Marley's death.
"If it were left to DJs like King Stitchy, U Roy, I Roy and Big Youth--if it were left to people like that--then reggae would be like some parts of the Amazon: unspoiled," he states. "In my opinion, there are only a few meager donkeys which have decided to carry the burden through an endless journey. We start from the bottom of the tomb with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, to veterans like myself and younger ragamuffins like Buju Banton [a dancehaller who recently converted to the Rastafarian way] and Israel Vibration, who never give up."
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As that quote implies, Hill remains a staunch advocate of roots music, though he admits that the focus of his most recent lyrics--particularly on Culture's latest opus, One Stone--is Rastafarianism, not politics. Nonetheless, Hill is not at all bothered by reggae performers who don't share his ideals. "Some of the younger dancehall artists, like Buju Banton, are like these great men of old. They change from Saul to Paul," he says.
"If you're looking for a change in people like that, to me it's like going into a gambling house to see a man who will not leave the gambling table," he elaborates. "And then after a matter of years, you leave him alone, let him be, and then the next time you meet him, you see him going to the church. In that sense, then, the man made up his mind. He only needed a chance to do his prayers. When he gets to setting himself and puts his foot down, then he does exactly what needs to be done."
Hill has always followed this advice--and he's not shy about sharing it with others. "Come to school," he promises, "and I'll teach you the rules."
Culture, with Roots Revolt. 8:30 p.m. Monday, May 6, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $11.55, 447-0095.