It must have been about 1983…The Reggae Appreciation Society was having an event at Essex University and Daddy D chanted on the mic ‘Gregory free, Gregory free and we feelin irie’. Gregory Isaacs was the soundtrack of our youth. He was the lover and the sufferer – The Cool Ruler and bitter sweet revealer of the injustices of Babylon. ‘I was given as a sacrifice’ he once declared as a rhetorical insight ‘ To build a blacks man’s hell and a white man’s paradise’. His status even back then was mythical.
However he battled the hard drug demons. It’s a commonly held belief that when crack, coke and guns penetrated Jamaica in the 1980’s many reggae stars, who still carried on shining, were nevertheless deeply affected. Up until around 2008 Gregory Isaacs was captured by those fiends and that had been obvious for some time. Don’t get me wrong he was still a number 1 entertainer, traveling the world with music from Rio to London and back several times a year. But that voice, that magical tone, those mystical intonations had not been the same in many people’s opinions since the early 1990’s.
This year has been so dread and painful for foundation reggae artists, Yabby U, Sugar Minott and now Gregory have all died. And we feel it as lovers of this music because the roots people are all dying away, all leaving outta Babylon.
Something that has always vexed me about so many of these crucial artists is their relative lack of reward and recognition from the industry. Not the reggae networks that exist the world over, where they are ranked and respected with dignity but the major labels, mass media and general music publics who possibly only know one tune per artist. With Dennis its ‘Money In My Pocket’, Sugar ‘Good Thing Going’ and Gregory ‘Nightnurse’. All these songs were huge first and foremost as reggae songs which became more ‘mainstream’ – for want of a much better and respectful term – as their popularity increased. They deserved so much more but a combination of reasons prevented this.
First, major labels didn’t and still don’t understand reggae artists. Now I know many people will look round at contemporary success stories like Shaggy, Sean Paul, Collie Budz and say what it is he on about. But back then labels in my humble opinion did not understand the simple idea that every reggae artist had a different voice, was a different person. There was for instance an effort by Island records in the early 1980’s to mould Mr Isaacs as the ‘New Bob Marley’ as the ‘New King of Reggae’. But the accolade did not work, it was not accurate and more than anything it must have put so much pressure on Gregory himself. Similar efforts were also made later on by other major labels with Yellowman and Shabba, which also failed.
Second, too many reggae artists back then did not have the right approach to the industry production and management wise. Gregory’s finest major releases were the 3 albums released via Virgin’s Front Line imprint. All classic releases in their own right. There was also a plethora of releases that just flooded the market, many of which were mediocre. Perhaps artists’ themselves thinking they can do everything is a handicap. We burn out physically. It’s admirable that Gregory set up his own label and record shop with Errol Dunkley. The African Museum catalogue is some of his best material but just imagine the pressure of trying to do everything. Write, produce, promote, perform, and distribute, the whole lot! And we haven’t even mentioned management. It puts a strain on life, on artistic output and amongst all that it’s easier to get sucked in by the demons of the industry and all its excessive and damaging habits.
So I would have loved Gregory to have lived to a grand old 90 plus age. And throughout all that time he would have carried on crooning and chanting down Babylon with his tunes. Then at some point a significant independent label with major distribution outlets would have done a ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ on him. It would have been so nice for us who were weaned on his songs, who lived side by side with his stories and struggles, to have witnessed this golden revival.
But some things just don’t work out and despite beating the demons Gregory passed away on the morning of 25th October 2010. It will go down in history as a very sad day for many of us. I know its many people’s birthday, anniversary and other real causes for celebration but it’s also the day cancer took Gregory Isaacs from this life.
Art is ever living and everlasting and those artists who made an impact on culture will always live on. It is one of the main joys of creation, knowing that the music we all make will be here long after we all leave this life. I can just see Gregory now, with his spars Sugar and Dennis, in mellow moods, singing acapella in harmony in the heavens.
‘Sad to Know That You’re Leaving’…Rip Cool Ruler…