As a selector I cover a lot of eras and styles of Jamaican-influenced music, but between remixes, refixes, mashups, and modern productions, a digital sound definitely dominates.

Nothing wrong with an original analog production – and there’s also a lot of great dub coming out right now that employs a vintage aesthetic – but in my opinion massive bass and an accelerated BPM rarely worsen a track’s effect on the dance. Perhaps this reflects my age or my techno DJing background or too much time spent on Soundcloud. For my Track of the Week, I’m going back to an original digital production, King Kong’s “He Was A Friend” from 1989.

The dawn of the digital era in reggae – most famously represented by the ever-persistent Sleng Teng riddim from 1985 – marked a massive change in both reggae production and aesthetic. One which has influenced the creation of much of modern music, regardless of genre. At the time, this obviously led to a shift in vocalists within Jamaica, as new singers emerged whose voices were better suited for the purely electronic vibrations. “He Was A Friend,” full of raw emotion, is a prime example of this.

Over a shuffling beat, King Kong gives a poignant and powerful homage to his departed friend – and true legend lost – Tenor Saw. Beginning by briefly humming the melody, King Kong proceeds to memorialize the man and lament his tragic passing.

The essence and enthusiastic creativity of the early digital dance are captured, as heartfelt lamentation meets a celebratory tone: “If he was here, you would hear him sing, ‘How water walk go a pumpkin belly?'” – a reference to Tenor Saw’s own well-known Sleng Teng effort. A verse later, King Kong hints at the darker elements within dancehall at the time: “See those crazy bunch of – bad boys – don’t know what to do, and they always mess with you.” Such duality of darkness and light not only establishes the whole context of the track, but also gives “He Was A Friend” the strength to hold its own in the dance over 20 years later.

The version (or dub, depending on the listing), sans vocals, is even heavier: keys echo, drums reverberate, and sounds swirl hypnotically to create a strong sense of foreboding. Backed on 12″ with another gem worthy of more attention, “Try Not I” (which features an equally heavy dub), this has been recently reissued in vinyl and FLAC/mp3 formats to satisfy all digital dancehall fans.

More info:
He Was A Friend / Try Not I on Boomkat – vinyl
He Was A Friend / Try Not I on Boomkat – mp3

The Groove Thief