Volume 76, Number 48 | April 25 - May1, 2007

Villager photo by Miriam Fogelson

Malcolm Allen with Ruth, his 1-year-old daughter, outside Jammyland, at 60 E. Third St.

Jammyland is jammed with classic reggae nuggets

By Barry Paddock

“To a lot of people, reggae is Bob Marley, and why go any further?” lamented Malcolm Allen, the salesperson at the unique East Village reggae shop Jammyland. “I learn new stuff every day listening to Jamaican music.”

Allen — lean, square-jawed, and with a few streaks of gray in his ponytail — estimates he spends half his paycheck each week buying records at the store. He keeps up the habit even though he can listen less and less at his Brooklyn home, not wanting to risk awakening his infant first child, who occasionally accompanies him behind the counter at Jammyland.

When Allen, now 41, was a teenager growing up in Ocean City, Md., a reggae song came on the radio one day and stopped him in his tracks. He had never listened to Jamaican music before and had no idea who the artist was. He became obsessed with finding the song and so started buying reggae music, beginning with Bob Marley’s classic album “Catch a Fire.” He eventually found the song he had heard on the radio — it was Peter Tosh’s recording of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” During his search he fell in love with the genre to such a fanatical degree that his high school buddies made fun of him. He still shakes his head in wonder while saying, “It’s amazing how much music comes from such a small island.”

While attending the University of Maryland in the ’90s, Allen found work with Washington, D.C.-based RAS Records, the first strictly reggae record label in America, run by producer Doctor Dread.

“I showed up in a suit with a resumé,” Allen laughed. He started in the distribution warehouse, and eventually ended up overseeing the label’s wholesale operation. He prepared many shipments for Jammyland, the store opened by owner Ira Heaps at 60 E. Third St. in 1993.

Allen spent eight years with RAS, until the label began being hit with huge returns on shipped records, leading Dread to sell RAS’s distribution arm to a bigger distributor. Allen, after trying his hand at an office job but missing music terribly, moved to New York six years ago to work for Heaps as Jammyland’s behind-the-counter salesperson. This left Heaps free to oversee the store’s reissues and other projects. Heaps, who is hulking, heavily bearded and has long and unkempt brownish-blond hair, frequently tours as a bassist with punk-reggae artist Ari-Up, who found fame with the Slits in the ’70s, and with New York-based reggae artist King Django. Heaps is also a member of the Jammyland All-Stars, a local collective of reggae musicians who sometimes back visiting Jamaican stars.

“There used to be a lot of musicians working here,” Allen recalled, “and the joke among customers was, ‘Yeah, Jammyland is great, but you never know if they’ll be open.’ Well, I open the store and I’m here.”

Inside Jammyland’s long and narrow space, the walls are purple and the ceiling black. A giant wooden speaker sits on top of a Frigidaire, and music issues from it always. Shipping boxes of unopened product deliveries are stacked to the ceiling. There are racks lining the walls to the left and right of albums, 45s and CD’s to flip through, with rare items, box sets and DVD’s behind glass. Reggae T-shirts, fanzines and posters are displayed for sale. Toward the back, the store morphs into Heaps’s office: a desk and computer.

“Brooklyn is full of Jamaican shops,” Allen said, “but they are all about the newest stuff.” Jammyland’s specialty is obscure branches of classic sounds of the ’60s and ’70s.

The shop sells roughly as much vinyl as CD’s.

“Seven-inch singles have always been the lifeblood of Jamaican music,” Allen said. That is changing. For the first time ever, production of vinyl records went down in Jamaica in 2006, according to Allen. In New York, he said, D.J.’s are finding it harder to get paid for their work, which makes them less able to afford records. More and more are turning to Internet downloads rather than lugging around heavy crates of vinyl. While classic reggae, recorded on analog equipment, sounds best on vinyl, that’s arguably not true for newer Jamaican music, some of which is recorded entirely digitally.

The store’s own reissues of hard-to-find music remain a big draw. Jammyland recently manufactured a vinyl record and CD of early music by the late Laurel Aiken, who was born in Cuba but in the late ’50s became one of Jamaica’s first music stars and is known as the “Godfather of Ska.” And the store has released six 7-inch singles and one dub album from Manzie Swaby’s Ja-Man label, which Allen described as “very obscure ’70s roots music.” He added with some glee, “It was pressed then and never pressed again until now. We’re helping him get the respect and recognition he deserves.”

Some of the store’s best-selling records feature reggae recorded not in Jamaica but in the Bronx, for an unusual record company called Jackie’s. Lloyd “Bullwackie” Barnes immigrated to the Bronx from Jamaica in 1967 and in the early ’70s built a basement studio in the North Bronx, becoming the first Jamaican to open a recording studio in America.

While Jamaica was modernizing to dancehall music, Barnes was aiming for a more roots dub sound, yet his recording also took on a unique big-city edge. The music is now recognized as a classic sound, and the original records became very expensive on the collectors’ market. Jammyland’s own reissue of beloved Jamaican vocalist Horace Andy’s waxing at Wackie’s, an album called “Dance Hall Style,” is perhaps the store’s single most-purchased item, especially since Andy has found new fame singing with British trip-hop band Massive Attack, themselves influenced by the Wackie sound.

The word “dub” is emblazoned across Jammyland’s storefront window. Dub evolved out of reggae in the ’60s and ’70s, and producers King Tubby and Lee Perry were its greatest innovators and practitioners. “Reggae is about the producer as much as the artist or musicians,” Allen said. On dub versions of songs, the producer reigns, becoming the central artist, stripping away the vocal, raising and lowering levels of the instruments, skillfully adding unique percussion, reverb and echo, making the rhythm, as Allen’s often heard it put by fans, “say what words cannot.”

Perhaps Perry’s crowning achievement is his production work on “The Heart of the Congos,” a 1977 album by Jamaican duo The Congos.

“I’ve said unequivocally for more than a decade,” Allen proclaimed, “that the best album Jamaica has ever produced, one of the greatest albums in any genre, is ‘The Heart of the Congos.’ We play it most every day in the shop.” Allen says his biggest thrill while working at Jammyland was meeting Congo Ashanti Roy, the man behind the deeper of the two voices heard on The Congos’ records. Roy was a constant presence at the store during a stay in New York in 2001, and has visited numerous times since.

“You can walk in and a legend of reggae could be sitting on that stool there,” Allen said. “You may not even know, and he won’t draw any attention to himself.” Coxsone Dodd, the founder of legendary Studio One, Jamaica’s first black-owned studio and arguably its most influential and productive record label ever, was a frequent visitor after Jammyland first opened. Dodd, who passed away in 2004, discovered Bob Marley, who for a time slept in Studio One’s back room. Other important artists who have visited Jammyland include dancehall D.J. Sister Carol, who’s been called reggae’s answer to Queen Latifah; Jah Shaka, the legendary British roots sound system operator and dub producer; Mad Professor, a digital pioneer and dub remixer; and Junior Ried, the dancehall artist and former Black Uhuru lead singer, whose songs have been sampled by hip-hop groups like Wu Tang Clan and The Game.

Despite Jammyland’s unique offerings, its future survival is not assured.

“Business is down and rent is up,” Allen said. “The status quo won’t continue to work. We’ll have to adapt.” He noted that Jammyland has a fledgling eBay store, but still feels an in-person visit is the best way to experience the store. “We’ll play it for you,” he said of the store’s thousands of records and CD’s. “You can pick it up, hold it in your hands, and see if you really like it.”

While they have loyal local customers, tourists visiting town are the store’s lifeblood.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a middle-aged French tourist was the shop’s only customer. With his swept-back dark hair, thick black-rimmed glasses and pale skin, he looked like Clark Kent in a suede trench coat. He politely asked Allen to play record after record, requesting specific tracks (“track four, side two”), listening intently, sometimes for mere seconds, then moving on to the next record. He had the fierce focus of a judge at a wine or orchid competition. He said that he comes to New York to visit his long-distance girlfriend and to collect records. He laughed when asked which is the bigger draw, before demurring, “Two excellent reasons.”

The French visitor carefully snapped shots of the teeming racks while confiding in Allen his fervent belief in Lee Perry over King Tubby as the ultimate master of dub. He went on to declare the fairly obscure Alton Ellis “the greatest singer Jamaica has ever produced” and with that bid Allen adieu, leaving the store momentarily empty of clientele.

“Whether customers are here or not, I’m here.” Allen said. “There’s not too many places in America where you can get this much reggae under one roof.”

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