The Lions Give Roots Reggae New Life
[Editor's note: Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. Be sure to also check out the archives.]
Reggae's always made sense in L.A. Our sub-tropical latitude, languid pulse, and phosphorescent ganja mesh seamlessly with its exported rhythms. After all, the genre was spawned during one broiling Kingston, Jamaica, summer, spread to the world via the mesmerism of Bob Marley, and now serves as a dorm-room rite of passage for any stoner with a six-foot bong. In fact, my Occidental College street pharmacist put me up on dub reggae during one disorienting transaction. He now works as a financial consultant.
Reggae's influence on Southern California culture is subtle but salient. Dub Club at the Echoplex is a seminal weekly club night. And during the mid-'90s, Orange County was an epicenter for ska, reggae's upbeat first cousin. Boasting several members from local ska legends Hepcat, the Stones Throw-signed Lions emerged from those scenes, themselves crate-diggers and roots-music worshippers trawling for gems excavated from Jamaican attics.
Since the late '80s, the roots reggae popularized by Bob Marley & the Wailers and Toots & the Maytals no longer reflects the gulliness of Jamaican youth culture. The same goes for dub reggae, the experimental subgenre spawned by the mad science of Lee Perry and Osbourne "King Tubby" Ruddock. For the last 20 years, Jamaica's sound has been ruled by the synthesizer-and-drum machine attack of dancehall and ragga. The result: Unless you want to see rapidly aging icons or Red Stripe-jangled cover bands, you'd be hard-pressed stateside to see anything faithful.
"It was loose at the beginning. We gathered all of our best friends in the scene to jam and record in the roots-dub tradition because nobody is really making music like that right now," says Dan Ubick. Before co-founding The Lions, the organic-music polymath played with Breakestra and helmed the deep-funk outfit Connie Price & the Keystones. "We grew up loving Lee Perry & the Upsetters and eventually gravitated toward that. I amassed an old tape machine and space echoes and old Hammond organs. But mostly, it's about using my ear to hear what's happening on all those old records."
So legitimate is the resuscitation that The Lions regularly back Jamaican legends The Heptones on the road. The latter group's frontman, Leroy Sibbles, even told Ubick that no other outfit reminds him more of the musicians at Studio One, the legendary Kingston reggae Ur. Yes, your weed guru/financial consultant would approve.
The Lions' sophomore effort is less a forward progression than an ideal summer jam that jibes well with recently released dub-inclined emeralds from locals Peaking Lights and Sun Araw -- whose latest effort found him heading to Jamaica to record with reggae gods The Congos.
"Things go in cycles," Ubick says. "People try new things and distance themselves from traditional styles. Sometimes it takes something like The Dap Kings working with Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse to remind people of a sound they love that they haven't heard in a while. All we can do is show the incredible amount of love for the music that has meant so much to us since we were little."
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