American R'n'B transmitted by radio to the little island nation of Jamaica mixed with African rythms and evolved into a whole string of musical genres from the 1950s onwards. Mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae and finally, dancehall which jumped back across the western Atlantic to become a major influence on early east coast Hip-Hop in the USA.
Accompanying a seemingly endless list of artists and their releases where all sorts of different album cover designs. Ranging from sublime to sordid, from hilarious to dead serious, there's a lot to pick from.
This post takes a look at 42 album covers from 1965 up until 2008, covering all the genres mentioned above except mento. Most of the artists and bands are Jamaican, though a few are of European and African origin.
The Maytals – The sensational Maytals (1965)
It's 1965 and the term reggae hasn't even been invented. Ska (pronounced "skyah"), a predecessor of reggae, rules the scene in Jamaica. Ska, the main genre in this album, sounds a lot like an uptempo, and somewhat "light" version of reggae, at least it did in '65. Legend has it that during the hot summer of 1966, people where too hot to dance to ska, so someone played the records at a slower pace, and thus, Rocksteady was born, the immediate predecessor to reggae.
The Maytals are among the old greats of ska, rocksteady and reggae, with loads of hits, often fronted by the groups legendary founder, Toots Hibbert. I like the utter innocence of this cover. The Maytals are all dressed up and nice, ready to help grandmothers across the street.
Desmond Dekker and the Aces – Action! (1967)
Really good photos used for reggae album covers seem to be about as rare as good reggae music videos. Here's a solid live photo of the late Desmond Dekker at the mike, live on stage. Sharp, well lit and with a good sense of action, it's just what's required. The wild typography of the album title may be overstating the point a bit though.
Joe's All-Stars – Brixton Cat (1969)
Jamaica has a large diaspora, with one of the largest and oldest ones being centered on London, particularly in the Brixton area. Back in the 60s and 70s, the London diaspora was one of the most important sources of ska and reggae outside of Jamaica, and I assume this is an example of that.
I have no idea who Joe's All-Stars are, what kind of music they do, or who this Brixton Cat is. Whatever the case, it's a cool cover. In photography in general, having the main subject (in this case the Brixton Cat) facing away from the camera is rarely advised, but it seems to have it's merit here, but I can't put a finger on why. I also like the typeface, and the way it's wrapped around the Cat's thighs.
John Holt – Still in Chains (1972)
I'm assuming this cover is a play on Jamaica's history as a British slave colony, but to me, the gravity of that subject seem to escape this cover design. Mr. Holt's facial expression is just too theatrical, and the reddish-pink background does nothing to improve on that. Not to the detriment of John Holt as an artist though, he's a personal favourite of mine with a lot of good material out.
Jackie Mittoo – Reggae magic (1972]
Fair enough, Jackie might enjoy groping plums in markets, but why is that relevant for an LP cover? Notice how intensely he does it, this is no random squeezing, he's really taking a stretch to reach them...
Jimmy Cliff – Struggling man (1973, front and back)
While the level of detail can be a bit much on the eye, it's part of the charm of this rather stark looking cover that fits well with the album title. An unusually thoroughly executed idea, this cover oozes of struggle, with a somewhat grim looking Jimmy Cliff as the focal point.
Max Romeo & The Upsetters – War ina Babylon (1976)
With this album, we're well into what's considered to be the golden age of reggae, and with an album that is acknowledged as one of the classics of the genre. The cover is all grief, deep and desperate, but this being a reggae album, the music won't make you feel like the woman on the cover (unless you hate reggae with a passion of course).
The word Babylon as used in patwa (English-Jamaican creole language) is rooted in the ancient Babylonian kingdom which subjugated the Jewish people in 585 BCE. It's used to refer to such specific institutions as the Jamaican Constabulary Force or government, or in a more general sense to describe oppressors or oppressive systems.
Jacob Miller & Ray I – Natty Christmas (1978)
With the nickname Killer Miller, Jacob Miller was memorably referred to as "the funny fat man" in the extras on the DVD of release of "Rockers", an excellent reggae movie where he played himself. The Killer Miller nickname stemmed quite simply from his killer live appearances, a great voice accompanied with energetic performances. Check out his performance in said movie for an idea of what I'm talking about.
Unfortunately for the reggae genre, he only lived to be 27, killed in a car accident. He nevertheless had time to record some classic tracks, like "Tenement Yard", "Baby I love you so" and "Healing of the Nation". The healing of the nation he sings about in that song is of course that green herb you see Miller holding, ganja (marijuana), which according to Rastafari belief is a sacred plant, and smoking it is a sacrament. Inner Circle, the band which Miller fronted, is most famous in the mainstream for their "Bad boy", used as a theme song in the TV-show "Cops". With regards to the cover, I think it speaks for itself. Funny stuff.
The Chantells – Waiting in the park (1978)
I'd never heard of The Chantelles before finding this cover and I've never heard one of their songs. The only thing I know is that sometime in 1978, they stood waiting in the park, dressed up in their finest sky blue suits, and I gladly admit that I'm envious of them.
Linval Thompson – I love Jah (1979)
One of the finer album covers presented here, in my opinion. It gives me an opportunity to give a brief explanation of the symbolism of the colours red, gold and green seen in rastafari culture, which is also seen in a lot of reggae.
When Ras Tafari Makonnen ascended the Imperial throne of Ethiopia on the 2nd of November 1930, taking the name Haile Selassie I, some people in Jamaica consulted their bibles, as well as the writings and speeches of Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. They eventually concluded that Selassie was none other than God incarnate (or a black Jesus in some interpretations), and thus, the early Rastafari movement was born. They named themselves after Selassies pre-coronation name, Ras (Prince) Tafari, Rastafari.
Ethiopia became the focal point of the back to Africa-movement, a source of inspiration for the downtrodden descendants of African slaves in the Americas, as well as for the new African states emerging in the 2nd half of the 20th century when colonial Africa became independent. The flag of Ethiopia, red, gold and green, became a visible sign of Ethiopia's prominence, founded on an ancient tradition of centralized rule and its status as the only part of Africa never to be colonized by European powers.
The Rastafaris have many names for Selassie, one of which are used on this album cover. "Jah" is a short form of the hebrew word for God, "Yahweh". On the 21st of April 1966, a day celebrated as "Grounation Day" by the Rastafari, Jah visited Jamaica and good times where had by all.
Ranking Dread – Kunta Kinte Roots (1979)
Another reference to the artists African roots, Ranking Dread seems to combine Kunta Kinte (assumed to be of West-African origin) with something that looks to me more like a Zulu costume than something out of West-Africa. I'm not an expert in traditional African costume though, so do correct me if I'm wrong. A rather funny cover, though I can't be sure if it's intended. In any case, I suspect that Ranking Dread never intended this album cover to be a comment on academic issues.
Steel Pulse – Tribute to the martyrs (1979)
No lack of historical references in this Africanist Mount Rushmore, courtesy of british reggae band Steel Pulse. The first face to the left is the intriguing and controversial Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. Within Rastafari, he's nothing less than the prophet, for a statement he's supposed to have made in the 1920's, which went something like "look to the east for the crowning of the king". This was of course fulfilled with Haile Selassie's ascension in 1930.
Garvey founded the UNIA (United Negro Improvement Association), an important organization in the early struggle against racial discrimination in North America. He also founded the Black Star Line, a shipping company eventually intended to provide Afro-Americans with passage back to Africa, though it was bereft with corruption and sabotaged by the FBI, and became little more than a symbol in the end.
Garvey support of segregation makes him a controversial figure today. With the Black Star Line, he wanted to "repatriate" people of African decent to Africa, living separately from the other races of the world. Garvey notoriously travelled to Atlanta and stormed into the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan to discuss common goals with the KKK Imperial Wizard Edward Clarke.
Next in line is Emperor Haile Selassie I, a somewhat less controversial figure, of whom the bare essentials have already been said. I assume the reason he's listed as a martyr is that he's supposed to have been murdered by the leader of the communist Derg militia which deposed him in a coup in 1974. Many Rastafari dispute the idea that Selassie could have died, how can God himself die?
As for the rest of the line-up, I have some idea of who they might be, but since this post looks like it'll be far too long already, I'll leave it up to you to guess who they are, and if you'd like, leave a comment to that effect below.
Massive Dread – This is massive (1980s)
A bit rough around the edges perhaps? Looks quite similar to my first attempts at graphic design as a teenager, using a what can kindly be described as a light-weight photo post-processing application called Microsoft Photodraw. Good fun, but I didn't show it off to anyone.
Tippa Lee and Rappa Robert – Nuh trouble we (1980s)
In the 1960s, the cool kids on the streets where the rudeboys (or "rudies"), dressed up in sharp suits and hats. As the name implies these where supposed to be rude boys – hustlers and petty criminals – or they just liked the style. The 70s where more about being upright and "conscious" than rudeness, but in the 80s, the rudies where back in style, just without the style. As this hilarious cover shows, it was more along the line of your present day blinged up gangster, though Tippa Lee and Rappa Robert do rock some fine hats. They just don't go too well with denim jumpsuits and all the treasures of El Dorado.
Yellowman – Nobody move (1980s)
With heaps more style than the guys above, Yellowman is also an infinitely more famous. His name is a play on his skin, which looks yellowish, due to him being an albino. In his own words, he's "Yellow like cheese". In the 80s he was controversial for rude/slack lyrics, which in Yellowman's case meant they where mostly about women.
Scientist – Scientist meets the Space Invaders (1981)
Scientist – Scientist rids the World of the evil curse of the Vampires (1981)
Scientist – Scientist wins the world cup (1982)
Scientist and Jammy – Scientist and Jammy strike back (1983)
These four albums puts us right smack in the world of dub reggae. If you take some ordinary reggae, add a whole lot of bass, echoes and whatever other effects you can think of to make it sound more wacky or psychedelic, you've got dub. As a sound, it embodies all the stereotypes you've got about ganja smokers.
I'm not a big fan of dub. It's slow, trippy and almost always lacking of a solid vocal, and while I'm not opposed to slow paced music in general, the psychedelic pling-plong and echoes, coupled with the lack of coherent vocal performances means I don't care much for it.
That said, for some reason or the other, dub album covers on average seem to be more interesting than those coming out of "regular" reggae. Scientist, the dub producer behind these four albums, can safely be said to have a rather unique concept and style to his covers. He is perhaps best remembered in the mainstream as the host of the radio station K-JAH on Rockstar's original GTA 3 game, which featured the album "Scientist rids the World of the evil curse of the Vampires". Rockstar never paid him for the work.
Ranking Joe – Disco skate (1981)
Apparently, rollerskating was all the rage in 1981, and Ranking Joe and his friends where particularly outrageous. They had their own rollerskate club, and naturally, Joe put out a dedicated rollerskating dancehall LP. A funky thoroughbred of a cover.
The Joe Gibbs family of artists – Reggae Christmas (1982)
From what I've been told, the ganja in Jamaica is supposedly cheaper than the rizzla it's wrapped in, so I suppose it makes sense to use it as a substitute for the more bulky and expensive fir trees. I sincerely doubt that this is in fact a widespread tradition though, it's just as illegal in Jamaica as in most other countries, and it's not exactly the most sturdy of plants if you want it carrying some weight.
The Yellow, The Purple & The Nancy (1982)
Yellowman, Purpleman and Sister Nancy comes together on some sort of a clash album (or battle, to use hip hop terminology). I've never listened to this LP, and don't really know much about it, so instead of my deep and insightful commentary, you'll just have to enjoy the snazzy artwork and Sister Nancy's fresh swimsuit.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Confrontation (1983)
Released posthumously (Marley died in 1981), this album is best known for the hit "Buffalo soldier". I'm not a massive Bob Marley fan, but this cover is excellent, if slightly baroque. It depicts Marley in the role of Saint George, slaying the dragon. With Saint George being the patron saint of Ethiopia, the spiritual homeland of the Rastafari, it's an obvious connection for the world's best known Rastaman.
Lovesensi (unknown year)
I don't know anything about this album. Is the album or artist named Lovesensi? I don't know. In any case, this sex bomb of a cover had to be included at any cost.
Various artists – Loving feeling (unknown year)
Another attempt at a sexy cover, another big question mark. All I know is that it's a sort of compilation album of romantic songs. I suppose someone will complain about this cover not being safe for work. Just in case, I'll make a bold suggestion: if this kind of material is going to cause you trouble at work, you shouldn't be online at all.
Linton Kwesi Johnson – Making history (1983)
When you start listening to reggae, you may feel a bit swamped by the names of all the legendary singers, guitarists and producers that populate the genre, alive or dead. Eventually, you also start noticing the even greater number of artists that released one or two singles, maybe even a hit, then disappeared. The number of names to cope with is just astounding. It's hard to believe that the little island of Jamaica, still the nucleus of reggae and dancehall, with its 2.5 million inhabitants could spawn such a massive amount of different artists. My theory is that every Jamaican at some point in their lives has a career in music.
Linton Kwesi Johnson is one of those names, regarded as the premier exponent of the sub-genre called dub-poetry. He's definitely among the better known artists, but I've never actually listened to any of his stuff, possibly because me and poetry aren't the best of friends. The cover is refreshingly simple and clean with a few complementary colours and good contrast.
My more well versed friend Funky Dread insisted that I make it clear that while LKJ was born in Jamaica and lived there for his first ten years or so, he has lived most of his life in London, and thus, his style is distinctly different from that of contemporary Jamaican dub poets.
Sister Candy & Purple Man – Laserbeam (1983)
Almost too trippy to not be a dub album. It reminds me of a purple potato variety I once made mashed potatoes out of, Congo Blue it was called. It was an all right potato, really, nothing more.
Early B – Wheely Wheely (1985)
I included this album cover solely to give you all the joy of observing Early B's urine stained track pants.
Uglyman – Ugly lover (1985)
You've already met Yellowman and Purple Man, soon you can say hello to Ninjaman, but in the meanwhile, here's Uglyman! Sure, Uglyman may not be the most handsome of the bunch, but this seems like a bit of a gimmick to me. Dress an ordinary guy (with bad teeth) up in kids' clothes, and it's going to look silly no matter what!
Yellowman – Walking jewellery store (1985)
Well, it's the middle of the 80s, so what do you expect? The clothes are ugly, the style is lacking and the colours are all yuck. Kudos to Yellowman for a bit of self-depreciating humour though.
Mikey General & Andrew Paul – Sound bwoy burial (1986)
This hilarious cover gives me an excuse to write about an essential part of Jamaican music culture, the sound system. Back in the 1950s and 60s, music playback equipment was priced way out of reach for many Jamaicans, particularly in the ghetto, and so, listening to records at home wasn't much of an option for many people. Entrepreneurial people who could afford it got themselves a truck, loaded it up with speakers, amps, generators and the necessary playback equipment. They then drove their truck to some suitable location and set up mobile night clubs, usually outdoors, and played the latest records, charging a small sum for entrance as well as selling food and drinks.
As new sound systems (or "sounds") appeared, the competition stiffened, and it was no longer enough to play the same records that all the other sounds had access to, so some sounds enlisted artists to record their own exclusives to be able to win the crowds. A lot of big names in reggae and dancehall started out singing or "toasting" (roughly the same as rapping) with one of the many sound systems. The early Hip-Hop scene in New York in the 70s was directly inspired by this sound system culture, as many of the pioneers where in fact immigrants from Jamaica and elsewhere in the West Indies.
Due to the competitive nature of the sound systems, beating the other sounds in sound clashes was essential, not only in an artistic sense, but also commercially. The crew of rivalling sounds are called soundboys (or soundbwoys), so when Mikey and Andrew, surrounded by some big, homemade speaker cabinets, are laying a soundboy to rest, you can be sure that they've got what it takes.
Super Cat – Boops (1986)
If "War ina Babylon" and "I love Jah" are typical of the 70s in Jamaican music, I guess this is fairly typical of the 80s. Money and women is what counts, slackness is the style and it's all a far cry from the hippie-like tendencies of the 70s.
King Jammy - Duck Dance riddim (1988)
The riddim phenomenon is a peculiar feature of dancehall. A riddim (patwa for rythm) is in essence the same as a "beat" in Hip Hop, or an instrumental version of a song. In western music, putting your own voice and lyrics on top of another artists melody is usually considered bad form and could easily land you a lawsuit. In Jamaican music, a producer will make a riddim and have a bunch of artists record their lyrics on the same riddim. A one-riddim compilation album will typically be released, containing the various versions as well as the original riddim without any lyrics.
This silly cover is taken from the compilation album for the Duck Dance riddim. It doesn't sound as silly as its cover suggest. If you'd like to check out some outrageously stupid riddims, I can recommend Benny Hill-riddim and Square dance-riddim, they're f**ked up.
Returning to Duck Dance, it was released in 1988 by legendary producer King Jammy. When it comes to dancehall and riddims, Jammy is particularly prominent since he was the producer who created the groundbreaking Sleng teng-riddim in 1985 together with singer Wayne Smith. Smith singing "Under me sleng teng" on that riddim was a massive hit and is regarded as the beginning of electronic dancehall.
Ninjaman – Hollow point bad boy (1994)
Along with the sex and money of 80s slackness came glorification of guns, big automatic ones. Slackness in dancehall has lived on into the present and doesn't seem set to disappear anytime soon, but it now has to share the scene with a resurgent scene of cultural, conscious reggae and dancehall, partly thanks to the artist on the next album.
Sizzla – Praise ye Jah (1997)
(Apologies for crummy image quality)
With the emergence of artists like Sizzla, Capleton, Buju Banton and Anthony B around the middle of the 90s, the supremacy of the badman, shotta and slackness was coming to an end, and reggae was moving back to the themes of the "golden age of reggae" in the 70s, but not quite.
First of all, the influence of electronic dancehall on reggae is clear, as well as the riddim phenomenon, which has become a much more central element in reggae than it used to be. Second, if you compare reggae from the 70s to what artists like Sizzla are making, the themes may be the same, spirituality, poverty, corruption, and so on, but todays reggae artists on average seem more militant than the "hippies" of the 70s. One particularly controversial difference is that todays reggae artists tendency to sing openly about their distinctly negative view on homosexuality, which as far as I know didn't happen to any significant degree in the 70s.
While this may be kosher in Jamaica, it causes a lot of problems when these artists go on tours in the US and Europe, where big reggae and dancehall artists frequently cancel tours after outcries from local LGBT organizations. Some, like Sizzla, have tried resolving this by signing contracts stating that they won't perform their homophobic tunes on tour in Europe, but having attended two of Sizzla's concerts in Europe a couple years ago, I can safely say that he isn't giving that contract a lot of thought when he's playing live.
Those two stage performances where about as rubbish as this album cover, which is also his breakthrough album. The album in itself is fairly good though.
Anthony B – Black Star (2005)
While Anthony B's voice can't rival Sizzla's, his stage shows are simply outstanding (as opposed to Sizzla). While Sizzla has made a lot of good single tracks in his short and exceptionally productive career, he also makes huge amounts of rubbish. Anthony B is only slightly less productive, but in contrast with Sizzla, you can at least be sure that there'll be one or two good tracks on each album, which is far from guaranteed with Sizzla.
Present day reggae and dancehall covers aren't much to get excited about. I doubt this particular cover won any prizes, but there's a certain simplicity and authenticity to it that I like. No animated backgrounds or outlandish typefaces, just a relaxed Anthony B, the Black Star and the colours of the Ethiopian flag.
EchoTM – Dub Culture (2006)
The only thing I know about this album is that it's Polish made. The cover design doesn't seem to be inspired by anything Jamaican, not in the slightest, to me, it looks more like some random indie band cover design. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.
Mad Professor & Joe Ariwa feat. U Roy (2007)
Jeez, more of this? Sure, it's a dub album, and dub is supposed to be a bit crazy, but this cover seems like a poor excuse for saving money. This is the worst album cover I've ever seen, in any genre, period.
Tiken Jah Fakoly – L'Africain (2007)
Tiken Jah, hailing from Cote d'Ivoire, is one of the stars of the African reggae scene. I love this album, both the music and the cover. Maybe it's just me, but I immediately fell in love with the concept of this cover. Red, gold, green and a bunch of tribal looking men with guns. While it's obviously a posed photo, there's a slightly grave sincerity here that I love. Had this been a Jamaican dancehall album you could expect some badman bursting capillaries to look bad-ass, but this bunch looks like they just happened to be sitting around with their rifles when a photographer came by.
Manna – Salma i Dub (2008)
Yes, I'll admit it, I do have a certain fetish for the red, gold and green colours of the Ethiopian flag. Here's another dub album of European origin, but its look isn't as removed from the styles of Jamaica as is the case with the EchoTM album above. Manna is a Norwegian reggae band from my home town, Bodø (also the home town of Crestock).
A few years ago, they released their debut album, Salma (meaning Psalms). They then enlisted the help of various Norwegian musicians and producers to create a Dub version of the same album which was then released as a vinyl LP. The artwork you see here, a linocut, was done by Kurt Monsen, and was only available with a limited edition version of the LP.
Perfect – Born dead with life (2008)
While it's a bit macabre, I've come to enjoy this album cover for its sheer amount of detail and references. Haile Selassie I, the Black Panthers, the Lion of Judah, Muhammed Ali, the KKK and Rosa Parks are all represented.
Trojan Box Sets (collage of 9 box set covers)
Trojan Records is a British record label that started out serving the British market for ska, rocksteady and early reggae, based on the catalogue of its Jamaican ally, Island Records. That alliance eventually ended and Trojan had trouble keeping up with the scene and fell into decay. The company was eventually revived and in 1998, they started up their series of Trojan Box Sets. Each box set has a theme and contains 3 Cds, at an attractive price, and almost as important, comes in a very handsome looking box.
I've been fooled by the price and looks of these box sets more than once. The fact is that these sets contain a lot of mediocre material, and while you'll always find something good, it's quite likely that you won't give most of it a second listen. 69 box sets have been issued, so assuming an average price of $24 per set, $1700 will buy you a lot of music (3103 unique tracks) and the potential of putting together a big, funky looking wall collage from the boxes.
Nice sources for more cover material:
- The Roots Archives
- Iamthegorgon's Reggae Album Covers
stream on Flickr
- Barneyrussel23's Reggae Vinyl Covers
stream on Flickr
- Super Duty Though Work
- The Savage Jaw Trojan Box set site
- The Everything Reggae pool
Big thanks to Funky Dread and Selecta Drahpaa for their feedback!