Thanks to Gabriel Heatwave for reminding us all of the significance of the 23 February. It’s been 25 years since the Sleng Teng was first dropped. I think there is no better way to celebrate this moment than to turn to reggae historian, photographer and all-round terrific writer Beth Lesser. She was there and, I think, her words really do capture the significance of the occasion to the history of Jamaican music. Read below and then go and buy her books. The Jammy’s book is truly fantastic and, also, one of the (for lack of a better word) coolest projects I’ve been ever involved with. And Beth still has so many more stories to tell. I always thought reggae and dancehall great, but I credit Beth with firmly establishing and reinforcing my love of the soundsystem. Now, over to Beth:
The night of the 23rd, people began to gather on the Waltham early. The sounds were warming up with the apprentices while the big artists were arriving. Black Scorpio opened the showdown with the full compliment of Sassafras and Trees and regulars Shukahine, Culture Lee, Wayne Palmer, and Michael Jahsone. Jah Screw, the selector, was armed with dubplates by Frankie Paul (the Scorpio productions) like “The Closer I Get to You,” as well as Earl Sixteen’s “Sweet Soul Rockin,” and “Making Tracks,” Bobby Melody, Little John, and Johnny Osbourne. On Jammy’s side were John Wayne, Echo Minott, General Leon, Screecha Nice, Tullo T, Junior Reid, Tonto Irie, and Pompidou. Tupps was selecting with confidence knowing that he had a bag full of Sleng Teng to thrown down. Every name entertainer was there from U-Roy to Leroy Smart to witness the confrontation.
By nine o’clock the yard was full and more people were coming through the door. Scorpio was getting hot with Johnny Osbourne’s “Reasons” and “Show Me Your Sign.” After an hour, the current went over to Jammy. Wise Tupps opened right away with Sleng Teng and the crowd went wild! People were cheering and throwing their hands in the air, blowing noise-makers and whistles. The bass sound that was coming out of those boxes was like nothing that had ever been heard before. It was absolutely clean—powerful and pounding. It just stopped your heart. And it had all come out of a “music box,” as the unfamiliar electronic keyboards were referred to then. Tupps was putting on Sugar Minott’s “War and Crime” when suddenly the melody was interrupted by the entrance of armed police officers, M16s on their shoulders. For over an hour, the dance had to stop while police ordered everyone to the side as they searched each person, one by one, for weapons. John Wayne was heard to say something unacceptable about the police over the mike and was hauled off (he later returned intact).
Finally, after a luckily fruitless search, the officers retreated (with a few timid patrons) and the clash proceeded, but the verdict was already in—Sleng Teng had won the day. What was it about a chance combination on a tiny Casio keyboard that could mesmerise an entire nation and change forever the course of reggae music? Once this “Computer” rhythm appeared, there was no turning back. Even Jammy had to reluctantly shelve over fifty “human” rhythms he had made with the High Times band and not used yet, because no one wanted to hear them. All they wanted was Sleng Teng—literally. Album after album of pure Sleng Teng versions were released and every single one sold. It was Jammy’s very first number one record in Jamaica (although he had had several abroad). Yes, “the Sleng Teng dominate bad, bad,” as Tupps recalls.