Back in London in 1974, Black Slate became one of the first wave of British reggae bands. Indeed, Black Slate were the third major British reggae band to be formed. They were following in the footsteps of British reggae pioneers The Cimarons and Matumbi. These three bands were pioneers, leading the way for the next wave of reggae bands. Not only were Black Slate around when British reggae was born, but like The Cimarons and Matumbi, were one of the most successful British reggae groups. Between 1980 and 1982, Black Slate released seven albums. Black Slate’s 1980 debut album was 1979s Black Slate. It featured the hit single Amigo, which lead to Black Slate signing to Ensign Records. Released in 1980, Amigo, Black Slate’s sophomore album, will be rereleased by BBR Records on 25th February 2013. Before I tell you about the music on Black Slate’s album, Amigo, I’ll tell you about their six year journey from formation, to releasing their first album for a major label Amigo.
Ever since the early sixties, reggae had grown in popularity as a musical genre in Britain. The first wave of people who migrated from the Caribbean to Britain, had introduced reggae into Britain. Initially, it had been discovered by the Mods during the sixties. Since then, it had become part of Britain’s musical landscape. However, one thing Britain lacked, was their own reggae groups. That’s where groups like The Cimarons, Matumbi and Black Slate came in.
The Cimarons had been the first major British reggae band. They’d formed in 1969, in north London. While they were a tight, skilled, band, with a charismatic, talented lead singer in Winston Reed, their own songs lacked the depth of Jamaican reggae. Matumbi were formed two years after The Cimarons, in 1971. Bassist Dennis Bovell had founded Matumbi in 1971. Just like The Cimarons, much of their early work was working as a backing band. However, two years later, found themselves opening for Bob Marley and The Wailers. According to some reports, Matumbi managed to upstage the headliners. It seemed The Cimarons and Matumbi had a big future ahead of them. Dennis Bovell certainly did, becoming an important reggae producer. As the seventies progressed, the British reggae scene developed. Then in 1974, Black Slate were formed. Little did anyone realize the significance, but one of British reggae’s pioneering and most successful bands had been born.
Black Slate were founded by a combination of British and Jamaican born musicians. Bassist Elroy Bailey and keyboardist Anthony Brightly were born in Britain, to Jamaican parents, while drummer Desmond Mahoney, guitarist Chris Hanson and vocalist Keith Drummond were born in Jamaica. Rhythm guitarist Cledwyn Rodgers, the other member of Black Slate, hailed from Anguilla. The group were just teenagers when Black Slate formed. They would lead the way for groups like Aswad and Steel Pulse to follow. Like other British reggae groups, including The Cimarons and Matumbi, Black Slate started out backing other artists. Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe and Dennis Brown used Black Slate as their backing band when touring Britain. Much as this allowed Black Slate to hone their sound and become a tight unit, what they really wanted, and needed, was to play and record their own music. Two years after forming, this would happen.
In 1976, two years after they’d formed, the time came for Black Slate to release their first singles. Forming their own record label Slate, Sticks Man was their debut single. It was heartfelt plea for Jamaican youths to change their ways. Clashes between police and Jamaican youths had lead, often unfairly, meant Jamaican youths were gaining a bad reputation in the press and media. Black Slate pleaded with them to change their ways. Having taken London by storm with Sticks Man, Piano Twist was their next single, released later in 1976. Then two years later, 1978 proved to another important year for Black Slate.
Not only did Black Slate embark on their first ever British tour, but formed another record label, TCD. On TCD, Black Slate released the single Mind Your Motion. This was another song with a message. Black Slate’s message was that Britain was heading for a breakdown within society. Later in 1979, Black Slate released their debut album on TCB, Black Slate. It featured the hit single Amigo, which lead to Black Slate signing to Ensign, who’d release their sophomore album Amigo.
Now signed to Ensign, Black Slate’s major label debut was a mixture of their previous singles and new tracks. Of the ten tracks, Amigo, Mind Your Motion, Reggae Music, Freedom Time (Black Star Liner), Losing Game, Romans and Legalize Collie Herb were written by the six members of Black Slate. They also received a credit on Boom Boom, which The Jamaicans had won the 1967 Jamaican Song Festival with. Elroy Bailey and Anthony Brightly cowrote Sticks Man ’80 and Thin Line Between Love and Hate was a cover of The Persuaders single.
Recording of Amigo took place at Gooseberry studios in London. Rather than bring in an outside producer, Black Slate produced and arranged the ten tracks on Amigo. Once Amigo was completed, it was released in October 1980.
On the release of Amigo in October 1980, the album failed to chart in the UK, bit proved successful in New Zealand, reaching number fourteen. The two singles proved more popular. Amigo reached number nine in the UK, number twenty in the Netherlands, number twenty-one in Belgium and number nine in New Zealand, when it was released in September 1980. Boom Boom was released in November 1980, reaching number fifty-one in the UK and number eleven in New Zealand. It seemed that following the release of Black Slate’s sophomore album Amigo, word was spreading of Britain’s reggae pioneers. Why was that? That’s what I’ll tell you, once I’ve told you about the music on Amigo.
Amigo was the single that lead to Black Slate signing to Ensign. Straight away, you realize how tight and talented a band Black Slate were. Demonstrating this, is the way they fuse percussion with pulsating rhythms and Hammond organ. Key to the sound are the rhythm section of bassist Elroy Bailey and drummer Desmond Mahoney. Add to this crystalline guitar. Keith Drummond’s vocal assures and soothes Rastafarian followers fears. They’ll neither be misled nor deserted. Backing vocalists further sooth these fears, as the stop, start nature of the arrangement adds to its effectiveness and potency.
Mind Your Motion is a dub-tinged track, where Black Slate’s hope is equality and justice. While the rhythm section play a crucial part in the track, laying down some pounding rhythms, it’s the horn section that steal the show. Trombonist Nicky Ridguard and Rudy Tynes tenor saxophone are at the heart of track’s success, while Keith’s vocal is heartfelt and sincere. Sadly, it’s questionable whether his hopes have come to fruition, thirty-three years later.
From the get-go, Reggae Music has an uplifting, joyous sound that grabs your attention. You’re swept along with braying horns, a churning rhythm section and Keith’s pleading vocal. Here, Black Slate want to share their love of Reggae Music, They’re spreading the word, preaching to the “unconverted,” Soon they won them over, including the people of Europe, Britain and New Zealand. No wonder they conquered three continents, with such a melodic, joyous and inspiring sound.
Sticks Man ’80 was a reworking of their 1976, debut single. Given the troubled times Britain faced in 1980, this song was just as relevant. It transgresses race, religion, borders and time. Keith’s vocal is filled with frustration and emotion, while Black Slate raise their game. They produce a bold, dramatic and equally emotive backdrop. Thunderous rhythms, angry stabs of horns and deliberate bursts of keyboards provide the backdrop for Keith impassioned, pleas, on a song that’s just as relevant in 2013, as 1980 or 1976.
Freedom Time (Black Star Liner) is a laid-back, melancholy and melodic sounding track. It deals with Marcus Garvey founding the Black Star Line African to help repatriate Africans to their homeland. When Keith sings of: “seven miles of Black Star Liners coming into the harbor,” it’s with a sense of pride and happiness. Similarly, when he sings: “It’s coming to me, sing hip-hip-hop hooray,” its with a sense of joy and hope at a new beginning and a sense of returning home. His vocal is also, melancholy and wistful, at the thought of what became of the Black Star Line. It fell victim to corruption and was infiltrated by the F.B.I. Accompanying Keith, is one of the best performances by the rest of Black Slate, especially the rhythm section, who provide the arrangement’s heartbeat. Of the ten tracks on Amigo, this is easily the best.
Boom Boom sees the tempo increase, as Black Slate reinterpret a track written by The Jamaicans in 1967. Again, it’s the rhythm section who play a starring role, adding pounding, pulsating rhythms, while percussion and punchy harmonies accompany Keith’s vocal on this anthemic track.
While many of Black Slate’s songs have a social message, Losing Game is a song about love lost. Bassist Elroy Bailey and keyboardist Anthony Brightly play leading roles in this track. Anthony adds Hammond organ above the choppy beat, which is driven along by Elroy’s pounding bass and percussion. Harmonies accompany Keith’s vocal, which is tinged with sadness and emotion, as Black Slate demonstrate another side to their music.
Romans is another spacey, dubby track. Here the rhythm and horn section join forces. They’re at the heart of everything that’s good about this slow, moody and pensive track. Bursts of blazing horns compliments a confident, meandering rhythm section. Keith’s vocal is deeper and deliberate as if to reinforce the lyric’s meaning. Harmonies accompany him, his voice persuasive, tender and thoughtful, complimented by, and complimenting the horn and rhythm section.
The only cover version on Amigo, is a cover of The Persuaders’ Thin Line Between Love and Hate. Given this is a minor soul classic, choosing to reinterpret such an iconic track is a big ask. Staying true to the original, an understated combination of broody bass and percussion combines. Crystalline guitars, washes of Hammond organ and stabs of keyboards set the scene for Keith’s vocal. Filled with emotion, he breaths new life and meaning to the track. The result is a track that’s far better than The Pretenders’ version.
Legalize Collie Herb closes Amigo. It’s not as defiant as Peter Tosh’s Legalize It, but Black Slate paean to the benefits of marijuana, sees them firmly in the Legalize It corner. While Keith’s vocal is heartfelt and impassioned, the rest of Black Slate lay down some of their finest reggae riddims, as they literally close Amigo on a high.
Black Slate’s sophomore album Amigo, features a group of tight, talented musicians who’d spent six years honing their craft as musicians and songwriters. This is something many groups fail to do now. These six years were well spent, backing other artists, touring and independently releasing singles and their debut album 1979 Black Slate. By the time Black Slate signed to Ensign, they were ready to make the next step. The next step was signing to a major label, with a successful track record, just like Ensign.
Maybe Ensign wasn’t the label for Black Slate? Possibly, if Black Slate had signed to Island Records, then success would’ve come their way. Regardless of whether Ensign was the correct label for Black Slate, Amigo was an album that was highly relevant in 1980. Given the economic and social problems that blighted Britain in 1980, it’s surprising, is that Amigo wasn’t a bigger commercial success. WIth its socially relevant lyrics, Amigo should have spoken to young people who were becoming disenfranchised and marginalized. Sadly, Amigo wasn’t a commercial success. This must have been disappointing for both Ensign and Black Slate. At least the two singles, Amigo and Boom, Boom gave Black Slate some chart success, across three continents. Following Amigo, was 1981s Sirens In the City, Black Slate’s second and final album for Ensign. Following SIrens In The City, Black Slate released three more albums, Rasta Festival, Ogima and SIx Plus one. That was all that was heard of Black Slate, until Black Slate Meets Soul Syndicate’s Moodie In Dub Volume 1, released in 2002. That is, until now, thirty-three years after Amigo’s release. On 25th February 2013, BBR Records will rerelease Black Slate’s sophomore album Amigo, complete with three bonus tracks. This will allow both a new old generation of music fans to discover the powerful music on Black Slate’s sophomore album Amigo. Standout Tracks: Sticks Man ’80, Freedom Time (Black Star Liner), Boom, Boom and Thin Line Between Love and Hate.