(Gargamel/Roc Nation/Island)

My tastes in reggae music are fairly specific: Studio One, proper Jamaican dub and roots from the 1970s and early 1980s (think Junjo, Linval and the Roots Radics at Channel One), with  a soft spot for late 1980s and early 1990s dancehall and ragga. I own some modern reggae, but it’s a style and era I only pay passing attention to.

But I do pay attention to Buju Banton, one of Jamaica’s biggest and most controversial names, and whose popularity and pulling power has not waned despite a lengthy stint in an American jail for cocaine trafficking.

Released from prison in December 2018, Buju released the Steppaz Riddim in February 2020. So I am little late to the party on this release, which came out as a coloured blue and translucent double A-side vinyl 10” for Record Store Day 2020 (whenever that actually was in the on-again/off-again COVID world). I happened to find a copy in New Plymouth’s Vinyl Countdown, much to my surprise, in November.

The Steppaz Riddim was versioned by 11 artists, several of who I hadn’t personally heard of for aforementioned reasons. The Steppaz Riddim borrows heavily from a Studio One cut which I can’t put my finger on. It may be the Heavenless riddim, but I wouldn’t stake a black plastic 7” adapter on it.

Anyway, Buju’s cut on the Steppaz Riddim is a killer. His voice is as gruff, rugged and raw as ever, with lyrical and video content referencing the life of crime and risk many of his young countrymen find themselves in. It’s almost self-reflective, a warning about what happens to those “original bad men dem” from the yard who dabble in gun crime and drugs, car-jackings and whatever else is needed to get by in impoverished black societies like Jamaica, Africa and both the UK and USA.

The bassline, played on a proper system, will shake the floor and the windows, while the wider production values are very strong: crisp and clear treble and mid-range. Do not – I repeat, do not – listen to this on your crappy earbuds or low-budget Sony headphones. You need to hear it on a decent sound.

Trust, the other cut on the 10”, is not quite as impressive, but is interesting and topical given Buju’s recent past. The riddim is sparse and simple, more uptempo than Steppa, but with less going on. Buju appears to rail against cellphones and social media, group chats and voice notes.

A quick look over media reports on Buju’s court case shows his phone was tapped as part of law enforcement investigations – so it seems this cut is a very clear warning, too. As it turns out, the man Buju had been liaising with on the cocaine deal was a police informant – someone he shouldn’t have trusted.

You get the picture.

The 10” is pressed really nicely and is well worth seeking out for those who collect Buju’s output on physical format.  Buju’s had a long time out of the limelight, so this is a strong return for someone millions of reggae fans have missed. And after all, he had a lot of time on his hands to contemplate things.

More info:
Trust / Steppa on Discogs
Buju Banton on Twitter
Controversial case of a music star – ABC

Jeff Neems