The History of Reggae with David Katz

The respected Reggae historian and Lee ’Scratch’ Perry biographer David Katz celebrates 20 years of his landmark book ‘Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae’ with a brand new, extended and updated edition on White Rabbit Deep Cuts’ paperback series. We caught up with Katz to discuss all things Reggae, Jamaica and Greensleeves…

VP: ‘Solid Foundation’  celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and is regarded as one of the definitive guides to Reggae music, please tell us more about this new edition on Deep Cuts?

DK:  Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae was first published by Bloomsbury in 2003 as a large-format trade paperback, with an ordinary paperback launched the following year. Those editions of the book ended in the mid-1980s, with the arrival of ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’ heralding a major shift. There was a revised edition published by Jawbone, a small independent, in 2012, which had two new chapters looking at what happened between the dawning of ‘Sleng Teng’ and the early years of the new millennium, but no real changes to the bulk of the text itself. Now, this new revised and expanded edition is being published by White Rabbit, who also published the revised and expanded edition of my book People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in 2021; the revised Solid Foundation is part of a new series called Deep Cuts, which aims to bring classic music books to a new audience, and the new edition’s most noteworthy difference is that is has a new chapter covering the whole reggae revival phenomenon of the past 15+ years, with extensive testimony from artists such as Chronixx, Jah9, Protoje, and Kabaka Pyramid, as well as Micah Shemaiah, Gabre Selassie of the Kingston Dub Club, Koffee, and many more. Additionally, I was able to include new material in the chapters on ska, rock steady, early reggae, roots reggae and the dub/deejay subgenres, with new testimony from King Edwards and Johnny Osbourne, among others. Lee Brackstone, who helms White Rabbit, is a real reggae head who understands the importance of the music and his team run a very tight ship, so we have taken plenty of time to address factual errors in the earlier editions and the editorial team have helped to make the book a smoother and more engaging read. The new edition has plenty of previously unseen photographs and a new cover too and has been laid out with a very readable font. It has certainly grown since its earlier iterations; the 2003 original had 396 pages, while the Deep Cuts edition has 688 pages – plenty of material for all reggae fans to sink their teeth into. There is also a new introduction by Jacqueline Crooks, who wrote the acclaimed novel Fire Rush, set in the sound system underground of the 1970s and 80s.

VP: Jamaican music has undergone many changes since it started and everyone has their particular preference, whether it be Roots, Dub, Rocksteady Ska, Rub-A-Dub, Dancehall and so on. Which era still gets you excited?

DK:  Revisiting the text has been a real joy because it gave me the opportunity to listen to music from reggae’s vast lifespan, from the pre-ska rhythm and blues of the late 1950s and early 60s all the way to the new roots reggae and hardcore dancehall of the present, and there is so much exceptional music that has been made during each of its eras. The ska of the Skatalites, Count Ossie and Prince Buster is still totally enthralling; Duke Reid’s rock steady is simply sublime; the shift from the fast-paced dance music of the reggae made by Bunny Lee and Clancy Eccles to the roots reggae of the Abyssinians and Burning Spear is fascinating; the dub of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, King Tubby, and Augustus Pablo is astounding, and the deejay style that U Roy originated, Dillinger and Trinity refined, and Shabba Ranks took up to deliver to Sean Paul via Admiral Bailey and Charlie Chaplin is amazing. Joseph Hoo-Kim, King Jammy, Gussie Clarke, and Scientist give a lot of insight into the many twists and turns the music faced and what Elephant Man, Tanya Stephens and Don Corleon have to say sheds a lot of light on the evolution of the music; similarly, what Chronnix, Jah9, Kabaka Pyramid and Protoje have to say about their work is really instructive, and that is also true of Bushman, Anthony B, and plenty of others. I love the new roots artists such as Chronnix, Mortimer and Samory I and so many others, but for an old rootsman like me, the music of the Black Ark, King Tubby’s Studio, Studio One, Treasure Isle, Joe Gibbs, Harry J and Channel One will always reign supreme; the music made in those hallowed grounds by Clement ‘Sir Coxson’ Dodd, Duke Reid, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Bunny Lee, Niney the Observer, Augustus Pablo, Joe Gibbs, Sonia Pottinger, Keith Hudson, Glen Brown, Burning Spear and others will always be the pinnacle for me.

VP: You have travelled to Jamaica more times than most, can you tell us about your favourite memory from one of your visits?

DK:  Jamaica is an extraordinary place in many ways and reggae is everywhere. Even though it has some similarities to other islands in the Caribbean, it is truly unique, and it is one of the places on earth where the culture hits you over the head like a mallet. There is a lot to love about the place and with such a rich and complex history and an equally complicated present, it takes time to get to know. And putting this book together has given me plenty of amazing memories. Interviewing Clement Dodd and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry together at Studio One in the presence of King Stitt, the Silvertones, Bagga Walker and other luminaries was one of those moments when I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming; dancing the rub-a-dub in the moonlight outside the Capricorn Inn in Rae Town, south central Kingston, was heavenly – I remember the selector playing Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions 45s for the first hour or so, and after midnight he began playing rare Bob Marley and the Wailers 45s such as ‘Man To Man,’ followed by some prime Dennis Brown from the early 1970s…the more the night went on, the better the music got, the chalice man in the shack adjacent was doing good business, and the atmosphere was simply electric all night. Around the corner from Studio One there was a great ital food place and I remember eating lunch there with Bernard Collins of the Abyssinians, who regaled me with tales of his life; Bunny Lee and Chinna Smith always made me feel welcome in their homes and Max Romeo showed me sides of Jamaica I would never have seen otherwise. Getting the resident ‘bad man’ to take me to the village where the drummer and singer Hugh Malcolm lived was an experience that involved fording a river that was rapidly rising, and when we finally arrived, there was Malcolm, shirtless, with cutlass in hand, with precious little in his empty board shack, but plenty of memories to regale us with. Seeing sessions take place at Joe Gibbs, Harry J, King Jammy’s, GG’s and Leggo Studios was exquisite; pulling the eagle’s claw which was the door handle to Edward Seaga’s office in New Kingston was chilling, as were the kumina rhythms I’ve heard in St Thomas, and I’ve bathed in hidden waters that can be lit with a match on a remote hillside. Any reggae fans owes it to themselves to visit Jamaica; you will have a different understanding of the music when you spend time there.

VP: The Greensleeves catalogue runs deep with a wealth of crucial Reggae music, which release do you think has really stood the test of time?

DK:  Greensleeves has an incredible catalogue with many true classics. Dr Alimantado’s Best Dressed Chicken In Town was a great starting point, and other early album killers include Keith Hudson’s Rasta Communication, Barrington Levy’s Englishman, and the Augustus Pablo compilation Original Rockers, expertly chosen by Chris Lane. Scientist and Prince Jammy’s The Big Showdown was a great kick-off to an excellent dub album series, and I love Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires too. Michale Prophet’s Righteous Are The Conqueror is another winner and the Wailing Souls’ Firehouse Rock holds a special place in my heart; Freddie McGregor’s Big Ship never leaves my record box when I play out as a DJ, nor does the Rockers 12-inch with the Heptones’ ‘Love Won’t Come Easy’ and Jacob Miller’s ‘Keep On Knocking,’ both sides are totally excellent, and there’s the Wailing Souls ‘War’ 12-inch too… not to mention the Meditations’ No More Friend, John Holt’s Police In Helicopter, King Kong’s Trouble Again, Wayne Smith’s Sleng Teng and Jammy’s Computerised Dub, plus Augustus Pablo’s magnificent Blowing With The Wind… too many to mention!

Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae is published by White Rabbit on 4 July. To pre-order the book, go here: