LUCIANO CDS REVIEWED
Visions (Charm/Jet Star/Sting Ray, 2003)
Tell it From the Heart (Minor7 Flat5/Al.Ta.Fa.An, 2003)
Ultimate Collection (Hip-O Records, 2003)
Serve Jah (VP Records, 2003)
Sizzla & Luciano, Jah Warrior (Penitentiary Records, 2003/2004)
Luciano & Bushman, Toe 2 Toe Vol. 4 (Charm-Jet Star, 2003); Five Disciples (Jet Star, 2003); 4 Rebels, Vol. 2 (RAS, 2003); Duets (Jet Star, 2002); The Best of Luciano (Xterminator/VP, 2002); The Best of Luciano Vol. 2 (Xterminator 2002); A New Day (VP, 2001); Great Controversy (Jet Star, 2001); Reggae Max (Jet Star, 1997, 2000); Luciano Live (VP, 2000); Sweep Over My Soul (VP, 1999); Messenger (Island, 1996); Where There is Life (Island, 1995); One Way Ticket (VP Records, 1994); Moving Up (RAS, 1993); Shake It Up Tonight (Big Ship, 1993)
Luciano is one productive brother: over a one-year period ending December 2003, he released nine or ten albums. Not even Gregory Isaacs in his heyday could compete with that! Four of these, “Visions,” “Tell It From the Heart,” “Ultimate Collection,” and “Jah Warrior,” hit the streets in late 2003. It has been ten years now since Luciano burst onto the modern cultural reggae scene like a supernova, taking the mantle of the “Messenger” of the Rasta Renaissance. The time seems ripe for a retrospective of Luciano’s career.
It is hard to resist the temptation to divide Luciano’s work into Fatis and post-Fatis phases. That would be Philip “Fatis” Burrell of Xterminator Records, who “seemed to have the mid-1990s locked up like Penthouse did in the late 1980s,” as Chuck Foster has observed. Luciano’s 1995 Fatis-produced set for Island Records, “Where There is Life,” is “a landmark in modern roots music,” as Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton write. I would include it in my Top 10 reggae albums of all time. Two other Fatis productions, “One Way Ticket” from 1994, and “Sweep Over My Soul,” released in 1999, are also classics of reggae music whose spirit transcends the genre, and whose songs will surely stand the test of time.
Luciano’s boom shots from that era, songs like “It’s Me Again Jah,” “Good God,” and “Time is the Master,” can still raise goose bumps today. Re-listening to his 1990s music, I am reminded of how many of us Luciano carried to higher heights for a time. He arrived as a form of redemption, after dancehall had rolled around in the gutter for a few years. Luciano combined the best of positive Rasta consciousness with some absolutely deadly riddims by the Sly Dunbar and other Xterminator musicians (often the Firehouse Crew) that fused a dub sensibility with R&B influences. Before artists like Luciano and Garnett Silk, Rasta artists had for the most part seemed rather unhip, in a dancehall context. Luciano led the way among the artists in the Rasta Renaissance that made culture hip again. For awhile there, after slackness had beaten culture silly for years, culture seemed to be rising to take its stance at center stage.
In retrospect, it is clear to me that many of us expected too much of Luciano. I have great love for the man born Jepther McClymont (born in 1964), as an artist, and sometimes even as a spiritual teacher. But the second wave that Luciano caught was not the same tidal wave that carried Bob Marley to such dizzying heights. And although Luciano is one of the most inspiring singers that Jamaica has produced, his songwriting, over the long-haul, has proven to be more limited than his voice. Luciano could sing the telephone directory and make you feel uplifted, I imagine, but when his lyrics are put to paper, divorced from his voice, they usually don’t carry the same vibe.
After Luci left Fatis in 1998, there was a dramatic drop in the quality of the songs he released. In Jamaican fashion, he bounced from studio to studio, and producer to producer, releasing a slew of mediocre singles. During this period, I remember going into Waterloo records in Austin, Texas several times with my Idren DJ-RJ, and having to wade through a dozen Luciano singles before we found one that was really worth buying.
Then there were some human limitations of Luciano that came into view, and left some people disappointed. At times Luciano took the role of spiritual teacher too seriously. People expected that of him, and he played the role to the hilt. (His name means “bearer of light,” he declared). But the more he talked, the more the Jamaican limits of his worldview became apparent, especially regarding gender. All that traveling and spiritual consciousness hadn’t much changed the way he thought about women, it seemed. He fired his back-up singers in Europe because they wouldn’t wear dresses three inches below their knees. This could be my fundamentalist father, I remember thinking, who once demanded that my older sister as a cheerleader in West Texas, lower her skirt below her knees.
During the height of the fire burn controversy, some of Luci’s comments about the excesses about burning lyrics (and actions) were wise. But when Luciano talked about battymen (homosexuals), his attitude really wasn’t different from any other Jamaican. He was just a bit more indirect. “All the people who are talking about faggots and making battyman music, it’s like they are bigging up battyman,” Luciano told Laura Gardner.
The fundamentalism came through in the music, too. The earlier, broad references to God or Jah as inclusive spiritual forces now became repetitive praises to Selassie. The One Blood vibe of much Luciano’s earlier music became more racialized. I know that in part this is a matter of Luci singing to his core audience. But the increasing centrality of themes of black victimization or black unity in his work, while a part and parcel of predominant concerns in Jamaica, made Luciano sound more insular.
As a performer, Luciano has always been top-rate. If the quality of his songs slipped, his stage presence did not. Through constant touring, Luci continued to inspire and mobilize his international fans. Travel also introduced him to new producers, who brought fresh ideas into his work. Two albums released in 2001, “Great Controversy” [Jetstar] and “A New Day” [VP], constituted a “comeback” of sorts.
“Great Controversy” is in my view Luciano’s best post-Fatis album. I think this owes a lot to the fact that it was recorded in England with the “Cave Crew,” produce by Danny Ray with Mafia and Fluxy. This album has the high production value typical of much of UK reggae. It also marked a return to political themes that had been missing, for the most part, while Luciano repeated variations of the same praise songs and preacherly admonitions over and over. “Great Controversy” is full of compelling riddims with insightful lyrics, such as the title track, “Road Block,” “Free the World,” and my personal favorite, “Bandits.”
Ironically, Luciano himself described “Great Controversy” as a secondary project to the album of Jamaican productions released by VP, “A New Day.” There were a number of first-rate singles on this set, such as “Traveler,” on the “Darker Shade of Black” riddim. (Check Sizzla’s hit on this riddim, “Explain to Almighty,” or originator Jackie Mittoo’s version on the 2003 Blood and Fire compilation, “Champion in the Arena.”) Other high points are a stirring remake of Marvin Gaye’s “God is My Friend,” the anti-violence groove “Tell Me Why,” and a lovely excursion on Marley’s “Thank You Lord” riddim called “Journey.”
Luciano’s next full album of new material, “Serve Jah,” was released by VP Records in January, 2003. The Black Scorpio production is quality, but lyrically, the album demonstrated that Luciano was repeating himself. Most of the songs recycle well-worn clichés, sometimes to the point of self-parody. The title track has Luci in a “Forever Loving Jah” mode, testifying about bringing his Bible as his shield, and music as his rod. “Win or Lose” has Luci choosing the father’s road, and hoping to “wear his crown.” “Injustice,” “Born Free,” and “Long Story” continue an Afrocentric mode that has become ever more prevalent in Mr. McClymont’s work. The former recycles Bob Marley recycling Marcus Garvey: “Stand up and fight/Africans must unite…400 million strong could never go wrong.” The refrain of “Born Free” is “black woman and child must be free/that’s the way it’s got to be.” You can tell that the artist put a lot of thought into those lines. And “Long Story” repeats a theme that was already tired several thousand repetitions ago: “they took us away from our father’s land…”
Some artists who take up the Bible as a shield use scripture in a highly literary way. But whereas the earlier Luciano wove in limited scriptural references more creatively, the later Luciano often sounds like any other fundamentalist. On “Mankind” he asks, “Why should we live like this, fulfilling the Devil’s wish?” The sentiment is shared, but one man’s Devil is another man’s savior. “Gideon Bus” is a pretty good song, but how many times will Jamaican artists quote Bob Marley quoting the Bible? Here we get lines lifted directly from Bob, something just about everyone does, with diminishing returns: “Samson slew the Philistines with a donkey jaw bone.” David slew Goliath with a sling and a stone. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo were “thrown in the fire but them never get burned.” Elijah called down fire from heaven. Enough already. I would tune out any other religious artist who rehashed the same scriptures over and over, and I wonder why I should make an exception for a Rasta.
Aside from back-to-Africa themes and rather run-of-the-mill praise songs, another recurring obsession of the later Luciano is Armageddon songs. Now of course this is a genre of its own in Jamaican music, which dates to Willie Williams’ classic rendition of “Armageddon Time” on the immortal Real Rock riddim. Rasta culture has always been attracted to apocalyptic themes. Bob Marley said one of his favorite books was The Late Great Planet Earth. But when you read about Hal Lindsey’s right-wing politics, which includes the desire for massive bloodshed in the Middle East (at Megiddo) as a necessary prerequisite to “end times,” and you hear conscious artists like Luciano persistently invoking Armageddon, it ought to make you at least say “hmmmm.” It just link up, as Bob once said. The aforementioned Biblical imagery on “Gideon Bus” is put in service of yet another last days scenario, which to an outsider might sound like the destruction of the West called for by many militant Muslims. And yet… Luciano’s Armageddon tunes are among the best of his later work, perhaps because the very real crises of the early 21st century bring an urgency to his singing on these themes, that is not so evident in the praise songs or odes to African unity/black suffering.
My favorite song on “Serve Jah” is “No Where to Hide,” helped along by a rolling groove and the piercing stabs of a horn section:
“No one can hid from this judgement, in this Holy Armagideon
Mankind must pay for the wrongs they’ve done upon this Creation…
Every man will be paid according to the works he’s done
[there will be] bloodshed in the streets…wicked man must get defeat.”
And when you look with open eyes at the wicked works of current American leaders, and you look at humankind’s destruction of Creation, then it is hard to avoid agreeing with Luciano’s conclusion, or even hoping for his predicted outcome.
Luciano pursues similar themes on two albums released in Fall 2003. “Visions” was produced by the McLeod brothers and recorded at Stingray Studios. “Tell it From the Heart” is produced by Brotherman and AL.TA.FA.AN. The two albums have quite different sounds. “Visions” has the crispness and uptempo grooves one expects from the UK and musicians like Michael Spence, Paul Yebuah, and Daltone Browne. “Tell It From the Heart,” a Jamaican production, has a rootsier, and at times downhome flavor, with plenty of friends and guest artists dropping by Syl Gordon’s 321 Studios, Tuff Gong, and Brotherman’s Hill in Gran Canaria, Spain.
“Visions” leads off with “Gideon War.” Luciano continues his last days ruminations and Biblical metaphors: “Put on the breastplate of righteousness, gird thy loins with the truth.” And what are the warriors preparing to defend in battle? “The force of evil…rising against Jah and his throne.” Those of us who are opposed to the very notion of thrones and royalty may be left in the cold, but you can’t argue with the Sly and Robbie groove. Another cut, “What You Gonna Do?” is another not particularly original final days riff, although Luci sings it with conviction: “What you gonna do when the right time comes/You shall run to the hills, but the hills shall hide/You shall run to the rock, but the rock shall glide.”
The title track is a lovely assertion of hope: “I’ve got everything I want, ‘cause I’ve got that love inside.” “It’s Not Easy” is top-tier inspirational Luciano—life is hard enough, “but we make it so much harder…Let’s all unite.” “De Ole Ah Wee,” “Divide and Rule,” and “Serious Time” also explore the need for unity in the face of a time of crisis. “Brother David” is a nice addition to Luciano’s works, another Biblical story, but this one is a cut above the norm, because Luci personalized his aspiration to live like God’s favorite Israelite, David.
On the downside, “Israel God” recycles Daniel in the lion’s den, along with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo yet one more time over a pedestrian riddim. A remix of “God & King” is not an improvement over the original. And “Until” leans far too heavily on Bob, biting off directly large chunks of the “War” lyric. On balance, I have to agree with a reviewer who observed that, here as with “Serve Jah,” “the problem is that we’ve heard all of this before from the Messenger.”
One should also make mention of Luciano’s welcome return (in small quantities) to lovers tunes, which were an important part of his repertoire around 1992-93. (See the set recorded for Freddie McGregor’s Big Ship Records, “Shake It Up Tonight”). The entry here is “Come Into My World,” on which Luci proclaims “love songs are back again.” The best of his love songs in the new century is probably “Empress Love” from “Great Controversy.” “True Love” from “Serve Jah” has Luci appraising love with lines from Proverbs, recycled from the early song “Nature Boy”: “worth more than gold, diamonds and pearls.”
Although the music on “Tell it From the Heart” is a bit more uneven than “Visions,” I think that on balance it is a stronger album, if not up to the level of “Great Controversy.” “Ends of Never” will appeal to fans of “Forever Loving Jah” type praise songs. “Another Moses” is a serviceable rockers about modern-day Biblical-issue liberators. It seems revealing that Luciano puts himself in the lineage of Moses, Joshua, Robert Nesta Marley, and Marcus Mosias Garvey, even pronouncing “messenger” like “messiah,” the latest emissary who will “take us across the river” and “free I’n’I forever.”
Several tunes here have improved with repeated listenings. “Got to Strive,” a nyabinghi style tale of struggling against all odds, has an anthemic feel. “I Grow Up” is similar thematically to “Got to Strive” another of Luciano’s against-all-odds tunes, the greatest of which are of course “It’s Me Again Jah” and “Lord Give Me Strength.” And what gives Luciano, or any of us, the strength necessary to keep pushing that rock back up the hill every day? Faith, and love, of course. If Luciano cannot always rise to the same heights, his persistent message of uplift in the face of resistance and downpression has been remarkably consistent over the years.
“You Can Have the World” sounds like a potential boom shot. Nothing new here, lyrically—Luciano is in the world, but not of the world. But the chorus is memorable, and the background vocals by what I believe are Brian and Tony Gold are just right! Finally, the title track is a musical departure for Luciano. This is straight R&B, the sort of thing that Michael Franti does (with more drive). But coming from a roots reggae artist, it sounds original. The backing vocals by Pam Hall and Audrey Motaung are sweet.
The latest album I’ve heard from Luci is actually a combination with Sizzla, released in December 2003 on Penitentiary. There was a time when Luci and Sizzla could sound good back to back, or side to side, as on duets like “Jah Blessings,” “In This Time,” and “Jah Line.” But the alternating tracks here, Sizzla’s screeching alternating with Luciano’s sweetness, is jarring to my ears. “It’s Luciano who runs things” here, as Teacher and Mr. T. (Apologies to Sizzla’s fans). “Talk Wid Jah” is a keeper, with a rollicking groove by Love Promotions guaranteed to put a smile on your face. “False Prophet” rides D. Chamber’s Juggling riddim, previously employed by Barry Brown on “Not So Lucky.” This has Luci chastising the badman mentality once more: “Cool it off, the madness and the slackness/will you cool it off.” “No Problem”, produced by Owen Rowe, also has a nice uptempo riddim and a typical forebearance-in-the-face-of-hardship lyric. The rather messianic “I Am the Man” has been previously released. I’ve burned the eight Luciano tracks on one CD, and am impressed with the production throughout. Check the beats on the D. Chambers-produced “False Prophet.” But despite being able to catch some good vibes, as usual with most recent Luciano, there is little new here lyrically—plenty to nod my head to, but little to chew on.
Maybe the division of Luciano’s work into Fatis and post-Fatis phases is too simplistic. Yet the impression remains that the majority of his work since 1999 has been of a lower quality. The music of the mid-1990s was so memorable that this is not necessarily a serious criticism. Still, I carry a sense that Luciano is or was capable of much more. Is this a realistic expectation?
Several recent compilations help us compare these phases of his career. In July 2003 Hip-O Records released the “Ultimate Collection.” That is an overstatement, but this would be a pretty good starting place for someone with a limited knowledge of Luciano’s career. It starts with “Poor and Simple,” an early single with Xterminator that remains one of my favorite Luciano tunes. In earlier songs like this and “Ragamuffin,” when Luciano was barely a year or two into his career as a singer, one gets a clearer sense of a connection to the struggles of everyday life. This early work still resonates more strongly for me than the later work, when Luciano is more self-consciously being “The Messenger.” The “Ultimate Collection” also contains classics from several other moments, including “It’s Me Again Jah,” “The Messenger,” and “Sweep Over My Soul.” There are also a couple of the better songs that Luciano recorded at the beginning of the 21 st century, “Good World” (in a remix) and “God You See and Know.” And there are previously un-released songs, “Cool and Settle” and “Red Inna Rome.”
Another good starting point for new fans is “The Best of Luciano,” released by Xterminator/VP in November 2002. This set concentrates primarily on late 1990s work like “Final Call” and “Sweep Over My Soul.” But there are also some of the best earlier singles with Fatis, like “Chant Down Babylon.” Bonuses are four excerpts from Luciano Live, and two previously unreleased songs, “Material Girl” and “Rolling Stone.”
Xterminator also released “Best of Luciano Volume 2” in late 2002. This is a rather odd collection, in that 10 of the 23 songs come from “Sweep Over My Soul.” The attraction for serious Luci fans will be the eight previously uncollected singles. Most of them rather minor, “for fanatics only,” such as a duet with Capleton, “Jah Kingdom.” But there are also a few gems, such as “Word, Power, and Sound,” and a duet with Sizzla, “Jah Bless,” which also appears on “Duets.”
“Duets,” released by Jet Star in mid-2002, provides much evidence of the distance that separates Luciano’s work in the 1990s from what he has released after leaving Fatis. This CD tells me that Luciano’s best work has been in a collaborative context—that he works best as part of a team, and as a member of a culture, rather than as an individual prophet or messenger. For those who lived through this era, I don’t need to do more than mention a few of the great duets included here: “Rebel with a Cause” with Josey Wales, “In This Together” with Louie Culture and Terror Fabulous, “In This Time” with Sizzla, “Psalm 24” with Mutabaruka, and two of my favorite songs of all reggae music: “Rough Inna Town” with Cocoa Tea, and “Every Man Has His Way,” with Beres Hammond and Tony Rebel. There are four combinations with Sizzla here! If you missed this phase of Luciano’s career, don’t miss this album.
Some of Luciano’s recent collaborations indicate, again, how much he feeds off interaction with other artists. One example is “Younger Generation,” a combination that Luciano and Mikey General did with Gentleman, a very talented young German artist on his 2002 album, “Journey to Jah.” Luciano is so incredibly prolific that it can feel exhausting trying to keep up with his new work. But there are always treasures scattered here and there. He has done many “combination albums,” sharing space with other artists. The latest are “Five Disciples” (Jet Star, 2003), with the best of the three Luciano tunes being “I Am That Man,” and “4 Rebels, Vol. 2,” (RAS, 2003), including the racial unity tune “This is the Time.” There is also “Toe 2 Toe, Vol. 4” with Bushman from early 2003, with “Serve Jah” and seven other Luciano tunes which I have not yet heard.
For a more in-depth overview of the work Luciano did in the mid-1990s, his “golden years,” there is no better starting point than the Reggae Max collection, re-released by Jet Star in 2000. “Wicked Haffe Run Way” is a reminder of the serious vibes Luci could generate on top of a deep Xterminator groove. “Time is the Master” is a timeless classic; “Raggamuffin,” as mentioned above, is a perspective from which the latter-day, “holy-man” Luciano is rather distant. There are also some combinations or duets, such as “Bounty Love” with Lady G.
While writing this piece, I re-read Chuck Foster’s 1997 profile of Luciano, “Sending Out a Message.” The freshness of Luciano’s vision, so new to the scene, still leaps off the page. He talks about the “inner prompting” that drove him to become a singer. He acknowledged the “decadence after Bob Marley.” But his vision of regeneration was not just in Jamaican music and culture. “We can see a positive renaissance right throughout humanity.” When he speaks of his spirituality, it is in a more inclusive language than he would develop later. He talks about having a “connection with the infinite one,” and speaks of the almighty not as Selassie, but as “my God and my creator.” Who could not but love a youth that would say: “The whole universe is behind you when you’re doing something for the uplift of humanity.” Amen!
This interview reminds me of the positivity that Bob Marley manifested in his 1975 dialogue with Fikisha Cumbo. It is unrealistic to expect artists to stay on that level. But Luciano is my favorite post-Marley Jamaican singer, and I would like to see him fulfill more of his potential. I remember what Sister Carol told me about the duty of the audience to give artists honest feedback about their work. I suspect that Luciano is too worn down from so much recording and travel, and from meeting the needs of his various (co-)dependents to regenerate in the way the artists need, to produce their best art. (Check “Material Girl,” on the first “Best of,” in which Luci chastises a baby-mom who has asked him for a washer!).
I would like to see Luciano take a break from studios, and take some time to retreat and replenish his body and mind. With the right management, I believe Luciano could record half as much and be twice as creative. I would like to see him read and sing about something besides the Bible, like Marley did during the research that bore fruit in “Survival.” I pray that Luciano will reach out beyond the horizon of Rasta culture. I would encourage him to spend more time with his lyrics, to revise his visions and let them grow over time, until he is ready to produce his own post-Fatis masterpiece. I know that the brother has it in him.
[Thanks to Rooftop Promotions and Jet Star for promotional copies, and maximum respect to DJ-RJ of KAZI in Austin, Texas, for support in ways too numerous to mention.]
Chuck Foster, “Luciano: Sending Out a Message,” The Beat 16:1 (1997).
Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, The Rough Guide to Reggae (2 nd ed.), (London: Rough Guide/Penguin, 2001), 371.
Re: the fire burn controversy, see Luci’s critique of Sizzla in a 1999 interview with Carter Van Pelt: http://incolor.inetnebr.com/cvanpelt/lucianoint.html . His prejudices about homosexuals and what can only be described as sexism regarding women come across in interviews with Laura Gardner on Jahworks. “Reasoning with Luciano and Mikey General—Two Years Later,” April 20, 2001.
Re: firing singers, see Francesca D’Onofrio, “Luciano: The Messenger Speaks,” Reggae Vibes , July 19, 2001. http://www.reggae-vibes.com/concert/luciano/luciano.htm.
“I have a principle as a Rastaman and feel say the Empress to wear her skirt at least three inches below her knee…I made a one speech about her way and the way the sister answered me yuh know it led into a conversation which she got out of hand…”
Profiles with Luciano’s memories of his youth include: “Luciano: A Man and His Religion,” by Bret Lueder, Synthesis (March 1999), http://www.synthesis.net/music/feature.php?fid=205 , and
Alona Wartofsky, “Luciano: The Very Soul of Reggae,” Washington Post , February 5, 1999. http://www.niceup.com/articles/luciano2
Re: literary uses of the Bible in music, see my chapter on Bob Marley’s use of the Bible in his masterpiece “Survival.” “Bob Marley’s Zion: A Transracial ‘Blackman Redemption’,” in On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Megiddo and Hal Lindsey: Gershom Gorenberg, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount (Oxford UP, 2002), 8, 55-58, 121-23.