In the annals of Jamaican musical history, rocksteady is often touted as the formative step between the jump-up dance crazy of ska and the eventually dominating riddims of early roots reggae, which remains the foundation of seemingly half of all pop and dance music made today. Rocksteady -- ska's slower, more grooving cousin that erupted from Kingston studios around 1966 -- is beloved by music historians and writers for its short lifespan and long-lasting impact, but that's about it: Sometimes it seems like people would rather talk about rocksteady than listen to or release it. And that's a crime -- one that Pressure Sounds, the U.K. reissue label spawned by dub terrorists On-U Records, doesn't want to be accused of.
With Red Bumb Ball, Pressure Sounds moves to correct one of the injustices done to rocksteady by releasing 22 tracks, including many rare and previously-unreleased-on-CD tracks, recorded from 1966-1968 under the auspices of Derrick Morgan, the self-proclaimed "ruler of Orange Street." Morgan is best known outside Jamaica as a ska hit-maker ("Fat Man," "Housewife's Choice") and as "Mr. Skinhead Reggae" -- his "Moon Hop" virtually defined that style meant to pander to the reggae-hungry British youth cult. ("Moon Hop" was kept from full U.K.-chart-topping potential only by its more commercial rip-off, Symarip's "Skinhead Moonstomp.") But in Kingston, 1966, it was rocksteady that dominated Morgan's own Hop label: records featured on Red Bumb Ball such as The Black Brothers' "Lonely World," The Viceroys' "Let Him Go," and Morgan's own bizarrely titled "I Wish I Was an Apple" and soulful "Bad Luck On Me."
With the backing primarily of Lynn Taitt and the Jets (the liner notes credit guitarist Taitt as having invented rocksteady -- a dubious claim, for sure), Hop's releases are marked by tight rhythm playing and tasteful, smooth horns, less prevalent than in ska's big-band-ish years. (Skatalites saxophonist Roland Alphonso's cut of "Whiter Shade of Pale," covered as "Hop Special," is particularly breathy and luscious.) The singing, for instance Morgan's own vocals on cuts like "Tears on My Pillow," is typically Jamaican: rough-and-tough, yet soulfully beautiful. Regardless of the truth behind his "invention" of the style, Taitt is the standout instrumentalist: His plucked-guitar copying of the bass line, the muted and plucked tremelo of his solos, his repeated syncopations of the rhythm -- these became not just Taitt's trademark, but the universal standard of rocksteady and reggae guitar.
Red Bumb Ball stands out not just as a compilation of an underrepresented producer in an underrepresented genre, but as a '60s-Jamaican-music comp devoid of filler -- every track here could still pack any open-minded dance floor. In some ways, it's exciting how much under-released rocksteady is out there: In the revival that might be on its way, there'll be tons of "new" discs to drop from the classic era.