Sleng Teng is often cited as the riddim that defines reggae’s early digital era. But for me, the Tempo riddim is boss. The first incarnation of this riddim was crafted by King Asher at King Tubby’s Firehouse studio with Anthony Red Rose providing vocals. It was a seminal cut featuring psychedelic synths, cracking snares and use of an idiosyncratic ‘echo chamber’ effect. But my personal favourite cut of the Tempo riddim, is King Jammy’s take on it, ‘Hog Inna Minty’ with one of my all time favourite dancehall sing-jays, Nitty Gritty.
For me, this track really is the definition of cool and deadly. The Firehouse version of Tempo was already pretty minimalist, but the team at Jammys stripped it back even further to the absolute bare bones. A four-note bass line, simple two-chord keyboard skank and a preset drum beat – all produced straight off the classic tool of digital reggae, the Casio MT-40.
Despite the simplicity, the riddim is full of dread and tension and provides the perfect soundscape for the ice-cold vocal delivery of Nitty Gritty, the progenitor of the Waterhouse vocal style which ruled dancehalls in the mid 80s, and who was a major influence for contemporaries including Tenor Saw, King Kong and the aforementioned Red Rose.
His vocal is based around an old Caribbean folk tale and the lyrics ‘Hog inna ya minty’ apparently refer to the dangers of letting pigs get into your garden, because ‘him a root out ya coco’ (coco being some sort of yam like vegetable in Jamaica). I’m sure it has a metaphorical meaning beyond my comprehension, but I’m not phased as I’m happy to listen to this tune all day simply to hear Nitty Gritty’s beautiful vocal intonations.
Following this hit, Nitty Gritty went on to record a slew of digital dancehall killers, but sadly for reggae lovers the story of Nitty Gritty doesn’t have a happy ending. The rise of cheap Casiotone keyboards in Jamaican music during the mid-1980s also coincided with a glut of firearms and cocaine flooding the island and Dancehall music became an increasingly deadly business.
Nitty Gritty moved away from Jamaica in the late 1980s, eventually settling in New York but this didn’t mean he was removed from the dark underbelly of dancehall. Unfortunately he met his maker in 1991 after a gun dispute in the Bronx with rival deejay Super Cat. Legend has it that the two had some sort of financial squabble leading to Nitty Gritty pulling a gun on the Cat, but Gritty’s trigger stuck. Super Cat’s did not. The Cat was officially exonerated by the powers that be in New York’s legal system, so it’s hard to know what really went down. Whatever the case, it was a damn shame for music lovers that dancehall’s tragic fascination with gunplay robbed us of a great artiste.
On a happier note, Nitty Gritty’s music is today enjoying a major revival in Europe and the Waterhouse style he pioneered is finding new fans after being adopted by the likes of Pupajim, Murray Man, Prince Jamo and even Tarrus Riley (based on recent dubplates I’ve heard).