Linval Thompson: Can't Stop Natty Dread Again

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the name Linval Thompson and the Thompson

Sounds moniker had serious currency in the world of Jamaican reggae. In addition to his

reputation as a vocalist on over a dozen albums, Thompson was the producer of over 40

albums and hundreds of singles by artists including Dennis Brown, Freddie McGregor,

Barrington Levy, Eek-A-Mouse, Gregory Isaacs, The Wailing Souls, Triston Palma,

Cornell Campbell, Johnny Osbourne, The Viceroys, and Sugar Minott. An

examination of his work makes the case that Thompson's contribution to reggae was

essential during the music's golden era.

Linval Thompson and Sugar Minott can be credited as the first reggae singers to exercise

significant control as producers of their own work. Previously, the perilous route to

becoming a reggae producer in Jamaica was only traversed by shrewd businessmen,

soundsystem operators, and a handful of soundsystem deejays.

Journalist Steve Milne of Full Watts described Linval Thompson as "an artist lauded by

knowledgeable reggae-philes and practically unknown by the rest . . . As a singer

[Thompson] is not as well known as some of the artists who attained worldwide success

with his help, like Freddie McGregor, Eek-A-Mouse, and [the engineer] Scientist."

Thompson's relatively low profile is due to two factors. At the height of his singing

career, Thompson spent his time producing instead of touring, thus missing an essential

avenue to name recognition. Moreover, while many of his colleagues inked high-profile

deals with major labels, only one of Thompson's albums, the Sly & Robbie backed

Starlight, managed to find major label distribution (through Mango/Island in 1988).

However, Thompson did have a thriving business through established independent labels

and his own imprints, thus those who knew about his music became loyal fans. His

productions were very popular in London and his catalog can be found primarily on U.K.

indy labels Trojan, Greensleeves, and Burning Sounds. He also pressed his productions

on the Strong Like Samson and Thompson Sounds labels in Jamaica. In the US,

Brooklyn-based Clocktower Records released much of his work.

Linval Thompson is seldom heard complaining about his lack of notoriety after so many

years in the business. He told Jamaican journalist Claude Mills in 1998, "I can't bawl like

some other men do. I tried from pretty early to know the business, and I've done well. I

made some investments out of it, a house, land. The trick was that I produced a lot of the

hit songs that I made, and I produced other artists as well."

Thompson began writing original songs from an early age, and his first opportunity to

record came when he was a teenager in Queens, New York, living with his mother. He recorded

"No Other Woman ." Thompson also recorded a few tracks

in the US for producer E.W. Martin before returning to live in Kingston. In Jamaica,

Thompson voiced tunes at the newly established Black Ark studio for producer Phil

Pratt, in addition to his martialartsploitation masterpiece, "Kung Fu Man," recorded for

the Black Ark's eccentric mastermind, Lee "Scratch" Perry. Thompson also recorded

briefly for the legendary Augustus Pablo and his Rockers label and for Stamma Hobson.

The main move in Thompson's career came through his association with singer Johnny

Clarke, Jamaica's most prolific domestic hit-maker of the day and stable star of the great

producer Bunny "Striker" Lee. Sparring with Clarke and hanging out at King Tubby's

studio eventually led to an opportunity to voice for Striker, and "Don't Cut Off Your

Dreadlocks" proved to be a monumental first effort. That track and others recorded in

1975 were collected as Don't Cut Off Your Dreadlocks and released in England the

following year on the Third World label. The album (also known as Cool Down on

Clocktower Records) features essential rockers and flying cymbal rhythms by the Soul

Syndicate band and endures as one of the essential roots classics of the 1970s. It was the

height of the era of militant, Pan-Africanist lyrics and Rastafarian consciousness.

As a vocalist, Thompson didn't carry the accessible qualities needed to crossover to

mainstream American audiences, but he had the essential rawness, unpredictable timing,

and spontaneous lyrical style that defined credibility in Jamaican dancehalls. Linval

Thompson was the quintessential roots reggae vocalist.

Wasting no time to control his own destiny in the recording business and encouraged by

Bunny Lee, Thompson recorded and produced "Train To Zion" with deejay U Brown in

1976. Then came "Jah Jah Guiding Star" in 1977. The latter was produced with his young

friend Henry "Junjo" Lawes. The duo also shared credit on the Thompson Sounds debut

release, "I Love Marijuana." The latter song became the title track of the essential 1978

album released by Trojan Records in London. Aided by the hand of

organist/arranger/producer Ossie Hibbert, I Love Marijuana featured heavyweight

Channel 1 studio rhythms supplied by Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace (of Rockers fame)

on drums, and Aston "Familyman" Barrett of The Wailers on bass. The success of I

Love Marijuana put Thompson in a position to produce more and more sessions, which

he did with ferocity from 1979 to 1983. His third solo album, the brilliant Six Babylon,

foreshadowed the change in style that was on the horizon for reggae while still embracing

the militancy and Pan-Africanism of the rockers era.

Several of Thompson's best productions were of relatively unknown artists. He recorded

Mystic Eyes' excellent album Mysterious in 1979 and essential deejay albums by Big Joe

(African Princess) and Trinity (Rock In The Ghetto). These early productions were

backed by The Revolutionaries (Sly & Robbie) and represent the best of the late rockers

era in Jamaica.

While Thompson brought Henry "Junjo" Lawes into the music business, the two men

became friendly rivals and proceeded to dominate production in the early 80s dancehall

era, with Sugar Minott as the only serious challenger. Characteristically sparse

arrangements defined the sound of dancehall beginning in 1980. For Thompson, the

music was always recorded at Channel 1 with the Roots Radics band providing the

rhythms and the final mixes by Scientist at King Tubby's studio.

Freddie McGregor's massive 1982 hit "Big Ship (Sailing On The Ocean)" was

Thompson's most successful record as a producer, and it even spawned the name for

McGregor's record label. Other lasting Thompson-produced albums include the

Viceroys' Brethren and Sistren (CSA) and We Must Unite (Trojan); The Meditations' No

More Friend (Greensleeves), and Barrington Levy's Poor Man Style (Trojan). Linval

Thompson also put his touch on great albums by Tristan Palma (Joker Lover), Eek-A-

Mouse (Skidip & Mouse and Man), Johnny Osbourne (Nightfall), and the Wailing Souls (Wailing).

Numerous 7-inch, 45 r.p.m. singles on the Thompson Sounds label featured artists with

whom Thompson worked sparingly, but were nonetheless essential in his catalog. These

include singers Horace Andy, Sammy Dread, Rod Taylor, Gregory Isaacs, Barry

Brown, Delroy Wilson, and Freddie McKaye.

Linval Thompson also released a number of excellent dub (instrumental) albums

including Negrea Love Dub (Trojan), Green Bay Dub (Burning Sounds), and Outlaw Dub

(Trojan) ñ all featuring the Revolutionaries with Sly & Robbie. Thompson later released

dub classics Scientist Encounters Pac Man (Greensleeves), Scientist Meets the Space

Invaders (Greensleeves), and Scientist and Jammy Strike Back (Trojan) ñ all featuring the

Roots Radics band.

Though Thompson clearly found greater success producing other artists in the early 80s,

he returned to the vocal booth as time allowed and recorded Love Is the Question

(Burning Sounds), Rocking Vibration (Burning Sounds), If I Follow My Heart (Burning

Sounds), and the enduring Look How Me Sexy (Greensleeves, 1982) and Baby Father

(Greensleeves, 1983). Thompson's music after 1980 was reflective of a general trend

towards carnal themes, eschewing the radicalism of the 70s.

Without a doubt, the shake-up of Jamaican music caused by the crude digital revolution

of Jammy's "Sleng Teng" rhythm in 1985 signaled the end of an era for Linval

Thompson and many of his colleagues. "I don't think the computer is the right thing for

reggae music," Thompson told High Times in 1997. "The live drum and bass give you a

vibes. God give us the power, not the machine that man make up. That's why the roots of

the music been drifting away. We want to feel the live thing, the live drum and bass, live

guitar and that way the singer can sing the vibes." Having little interest in computerized

production, Thompson ducked out of the business and began developing the small piece

of land he purchased with his first album advance.

He found his way back to the studio several times after 1985, twice with the help of

reggae megastar bassist Robbie Shakespeare, who produced Linval on the Ease Up

album as well as Starlight (Mango, 1988). Thompson's most recent album, Rescue Lover,

was co-produced by Colin Samson. Thompson also voiced singles for various producers

in the 90s, including King Jammy.

The Netherlands-based label Majestic Reggae (Munich Records) helped bring Linval

back to the consciousness of reggae lovers through the release of Jah Jah Dreader Than

Dread in 1997, a collection of 17 tracks by various artists from the 70s and 80s.

To this day, Thompson has to move quickly to reissue many of his titles, because black

market reggae labels like Abraham in Canada, Esoldun in France, and Rhino U.K. have

pirated his recordings.

Thompson's essential mid-70s work was anthologized in the summer of 2000 by the

world's premiere reggae reissue label, Blood & Fire. Ride On Dreadlocks compiles

Thompson vocal cuts dating from 1975-1977, most produced by Bunny Lee. Receiving

the Blood & Fire treatment provides a measure of historical validation for Linval

Thompson. As reggae historian and scholar Steve Barrow commented in the liner

notes to the album, "Linval Thompson takes his place alongside Johnny Clarke,

Horace Andy, and Cornell Campbell as one of the crucial pioneers of modern

dancehall music."

Other recent releases include the Easy Star Records set, Can't Stop Us Now: Linval Thompson & Friends.

Linval Thompson and Friends: Rockers From Channel One on Trojan similarly features vocal and deejay cuts from

Thompson's late 70s heydey. Yami Bolo's effort, Healing of All Nations (Roots Foundation),

is a recent Linval Thompson production and features vintage Thompson Sound rhythms from the

late 70s and early 80s.

Linval's welcome return to the eyes and ears of the public has been highlighted by recent

soundsystem shows with King Stur Gav in Jamaica and Italy, and a showstopper at the

Long Beach Old School Jam in California in June of 2000, where he was backed by Soul

Syndicate drummer Santa Davis and his group. Thompson made another big splash with

his performance at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in Angel's Camp, California in June 2001,

where many regarded his 50 minute performance as the best of the festival.

Upon reflection, Linval Thompson has no real regrets about the course his musical career

has taken, as he explained to Claude Mills. "I just give thanks for music, because if it

wasn't for it, I don't know how I'd live. Now, I don't have to sing for my supper, I do it

now because I choose to, and because I love it."

-- Carter Van Pelt, March 2001

Linval Thompson Discography