alton_ellis.jpgA true legend of Jamaican music passed away last week. Alton Ellis, Mr. Soul of Jamaica, the King of Rocksteady, is gone after an extended bout with cancer that had been in remission for a while, allowing him to return to the stage as late as last year. I never got the opportunity to hear him perform live, but sure have appreciated his records for the last few years since I got into ska and rocksteady for real.

What an amazing singer. He doesn’t have the rudeboy charm combined with occasional, dreamy vulnerability of a Desmond Dekker, but he makes up for this with sheer confidence in his delicate, unadorned voice, bordering on the nonchalant, hitting the occasional note off key for emotional resonance, and he conveys pain and heartbreak much more intensely. Few singers sound as earnest as him, and in this he touches upon the power of soul.

Paradoxically for one so opposed to the slackness that begang making its rounds in Jamaican music around the time he started out — and has never since abated — he informed generations of artists in that key, primarily by way of his almost genre-defining “Mad Mad” riddim, which of course was also what first introduced me to his music, by the proxy of Boogie Down Productions.

“‘P Is Free” (1987), on which equally legendary MC KRS-One provided one of the early definitions of hip hop’s own brand of slackness, gangsta rap, remains one of the iconic tracks of early hardcore, painting a picture of a seedy, violent New York reality where sex comes at the modest price of a crack rock. With the hook appropriated by “Body No Ready” by Winston Hussey, who had also recorded over the riddim, BDP gave it new life and it has since been one of the foundational beats of the genre. It was perhaps most memorably used by Black Star on their anthemic empowerment tune “Definition” (1998).

But I digress, go dig some Ellis, perhaps from You and Me on a Jamboree, who also has an obit up. There’s a bunch of material on YouTube too.

How can a man be tough, tougher than the world?