dinsdag 3 februari 2015

Drumming Style

Music is a medium which communicates messages on a deeper level mere words cannot reach. For that reason it is not so strange that you actually develop a bond with musicians. In this case I mean all musicians, not just vocalists or singers. A mental bond with singers is even more understandable, of course. You hear the person’s voice, he tells stories and about his/her thoughts and feelings, and if you’re interested enough you somehow get involved with that person. You must be interested in people – other than yourself - for that (not so common a trait as one might think), and you must be touched by the music. That music: chords and rhythm, singing etcetera, places the spoken words in a, you might say, more mystical, magical context.


The heart beat of that music is often the drum. I will focus now specifically on reggae music. Contrary to what some (mostly outsiders) state, the most important musical instrument in reggae is not the bass guitar. In the first place, it is not just one instrument that is important. Moreover, the drum is at least as important. Like in other genres, also (or even especially) in reggae the drum is the heart beat of the music. That applies to most Black music. Robert Farris Thompson, a scholar writing on African and Afro-American culture, pointed out that music and dance are not seen as separate in African culture, unlike in European culture. Body movement is implied in African or African-influenced music, in which the drum plays a crucial role. This in turn relates to the long and strong percussive tradition in Africa. The same Farris Thompson also called African culture for that reason a “percussive” culture.

Since reggae has gone international, it by definition spread outside its original cultural context of Jamaica. This brought interesting issues to the fore. Cultures - European ones for instance – began to relate to reggae (and preceding genres) from their cultural upbringing and background wherein music is separated from dance. That while reggae (and preceding genres) developed “in the dancehalls” in Jamaica. Also the relatively slower Roots Reggae had an inherent groovy, skanking quality, inseparable from it. Some English and other Europeans adapted a bit by dancing more to the music, some even paid attention to the beat and timing. Other reggae fans could enjoy reggae enough just sitting down and without really dancing.


Still, the heart beat of the drum is essential. I started playing more percussion in recent years, and I soon learned that listening well to the drum pattern is crucial to make percussion additions to a song, especially in reggae. I got that insight soon, because I started dancing more to reggae before that, learning more and more to dance well on (and around) the drum beat. Such a good rhythmic sense is required if you want to be really valuable as a percussionist, which maybe is self-evident.

I recall, by the way, that some albums I practiced my dancing on in an early stage (I was about 15 years old) were the albums Natty Rebel by U-Roy and Colombia Colly by Jah Lion. Both groovy and utterly danceable. Both also deejay-albums on well-produced and groovy Rootsy riddims. I kept that dancing focus throughout my listening to reggae, and as I meanwhile was accustomed to dancing on and around the beat (which – like interest in other people – is also something that is less common than I thought), the drums remained an important focus in my reggae experience. On the other hand I have also heard about people who got interested in the bass guitar because of reggae, so every person goes his own route.

So I come back to the felt mental bond with musicians: the drummers thus became important for me. I got respect and admiration for Sly Dunbar as an important and influential reggae drummer, heard from other drummers as well, Carlton Barret (of the Wailers) being one of the more famous, and also playing on some non-Bob Marley albums I enjoyed (Burning Spear’s Hail H.I.M. for instance) and danced to. Other names… Santa Davis, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace (I know some groovy songs he drummed on!), and some less well-known though adequate, and among the more well-known also Lincoln Valentine “Style” Scott. Scott became part of the band the Roots Radics.


The latter, Style Scott, unfortunately died not long ago, in late 2014, probably as the result of a murder. He was 58 years old. That is very sad and tragic. As a session drummer he played – often as part of the Roots Radics – on many, many reggae albums, especially since the later 1970s. Many albums that I liked and that are among my favourites – and thus important in my life – had Style Scott as drummer. Most notably, in my opinion, the Wailing Souls’ Fire House Rock album from 1980. This was early in Scott’s career. Aside from drumming for many Jamaican artists and groups (Israel Vibration, Bunny Wailer, Don Carlos, Dennis Brown, and many others), Style Scott later became known for his connection with British producer Adrian Sherwood, of On-U Sound. For the Singers & Players albums Style Scott was important as musician, and he was also crucial in dub-focussed groups like the Dub Syndicate or Creation Rebel.

Style Scott was influenced by, among others, Sly Dunbar, whom he saw and heard drumming when he hung around music studios in Jamaica in the later 1970s. In fact, it was Prince Fari who spotted the talent of Style Scott and requested him as drummer, also for tours. Scott followed in Dunbar’s footsteps to a degree, you might say, though he also received other influences. Yet, he had an own touch, and also there were musical changes within Jamaica at the time that he became more active as a drummer. Among other things, Scott's own style was considered relatively "tight/regular" and "metronomic".

There was a development toward Early Dancehall in Jamaica since around 1978, from the slower, “mystical” Roots Reggae era that went before. That transition was not always so clear. I read somewhere that the Wailing Souls Firehouse Rock from 1980 had some Dancehall influences. Maybe the writer of this was mistaken, but I found it to be a Roots Reggae album with a Roots Reggae vibe. Israel Vibration’s album Why You So Craven? - from around the same period - was also said to show such influences, though I could discern these only in some songs. The beautiful song ‘On Jah Solid Rock’ on that Israel Vibration album, for instance, is a classical (and classic in the other sense) Roots Reggae song. As time progresses and technology changes this tends to result in different sounding recordings (regarding “clarity” for instance), but that is not what separates Roots from Dancehall, essentially.

Perhaps at the time I first listened to albums I did not realize it yet, but Style Scott was the drummer (he would – with the Roots Radics – steadily combine with e.g. Israel Vibration also on tour) on Firehouse Rock, and several other albums I enjoyed, thus shaping my musical experience. Especially on albums which I consider Late Roots or Early dancehall, such as Just A Passing Glance (1984) by Don Carlos, and other great 1980s albums, like Culture In Culture (1986), or the Itals’ Cool and Dread (1984). That is how deep such a bond goes. I consider for instance the song ‘Just A Passing Glance’ by Don Carlos a genuine 1980s reggae classic, and Style Scott drummed on it.

Though it perhaps was not my favourite type of reggae, overall, I also enjoyed several (British-based) On-U Sound albums (of Singers & Players for instance). In my mind I thought that to be a “British reggae sound”, while Style Scott – who kept living in Jamaica even when working then regularly in Britain – actually was the main drummer.

I think the relatively recent and great album African Roots (2005) by Michael Rose is a good example of Style Scott’s talent as drummer. Here you can hear variation and creativity besides tightness and/or regularity.


I appreciated however consciously and subconsciously the “tightness” of the drum by Style Scott on those and other albums, though there were other, more subtle aspects to Scott’s style. In recent descriptions of his drumming style he was compared to Sly Dunbar, who was known as overall more innovative and experimental, while words like “precision” and “tight” were more used for Style Scott’s style. Like each drummer, though, he had his own style and innovations he brought to reggae songs. They might only be more subtle or gradual, so a bit harder to notice. Besides this, the importance of “tightness” of the drum and timing must not be underestimated as part of the reggae feel. Just experimenting and meandering is not enough when a groove must be set, unless you are trying to make very free jazz.

You might say – and I experience it as such – that Style Scott made an art out of the tight, regular precision of the drumming, required for the mostly Rockers-type of reggae riddims, that had come to the fore when he started.. Rockers riddims became more common since the late 1970s, following on a period of “One Drop riddim” dominance. Rockers riddims have a bass drum on beat One and Three (or Two and Four if you count: One-AND-Two-AND-Three-AND-Four) and a snare drum at Three (or Two), whereas earlier One Drop-riddims did not have that bass drum on the One (or two). Gregory Isaacs’ well-known song ‘Night Nurse’ (with a typical Rockers riddim) was also played by Style Scott, and was a common Rockers sound of the 1980s in reggae.

Indeed, many examples of songs with drums by Style Scott seem tight, but less “experimental” then many of songs where Sly Dunbar drummed on (Sly pioneered Rockers drumming on the Mighty Diamonds album Right Time from 1976, for example). Yet, it still had crucial variation. That was also said in recent obituaries and descriptions of Style Scott’s place in Jamaican music, a tribute tragically hastened because of his sudden death. The more tight and steady a drumming pattern, the more variations here and there “stand out”. Style Scott applied this logic well and artistically.


I referred to it already, but at his death – and also before – Style Scott’s drumming style was described as being relatively “tight”. In the book ‘Rub-a-Dub Style : the roots of modern dancehall’, by Beth Lesser (2012) a bit more attention was paid to it. In this work it was pointed out that Style Scott, who definitely joined the Roots Radics band in 1981, after working with Prince Fari and others, followed Santa Davis, and had a different style from the jazz-influenced and improvisation-favouring Santa Davis. It is worthy to quote in length from this work by Lesser:

Style Scott didn’t have any of Santa’s little flourishes. He was pretty straight ahead, maintaining a regular, metronomic beat right through. “Style just played slower,” recalls Jimmy Becker, who played with the Radics on several sessions. “He didn’t throw in any of the little nuances that Sly would throw in. And at times, I think it [Style’s way of playing] was a little harder” (Rub a Dub Style, 2012).

What’s interesting about this, I think, is that it is not a matter of better, or even more creative or not. Making music in a band is a group effort wherein each instrument complement the other ones. Style Scott keeps the steady, regular pace, leaving space for, for instance, more creative percussion additions. This is definitely the case with the album Firehouse Rock by the Wailing Souls, which overall has great percussion.

Yet..is there really not more to Style’s style (sorry, this word play joke had to be made once) than the metronomic tightness?


An interesting special issue of the (US) monthly magazine for drummers 'Modern Drummer' was the one of August 2012, which was devoted to “Reggae ska and rocksteady grooves”
This special issue ( a “special collector’s issue”, they called it) also had separate chapters on influential Jamaican drummers, including Style Scott. His importance for and innovations in Dub, with the Dub Syndicate, and also in Britain with On-U Sound, was emphasized, but interestingly there was no mention of “relative tightness”. In fact, it was Sly Dunbar who said in the interview in the same issue that he was one of the first who maintained a “constant pattern throughout one whole song”, that song being the Mighty Diamonds’ ‘Right Time’ (1976). Up to then such a constant pattern was not so common in reggae drumming.

In the interview with both Sly Dunbar and Santa Davis something about these drummers’ innovations in Jamaican music were discussed, albeit somewhat broadly, in a technical sense, including some terminology that (mostly) only drummers really understand. Less so in the page about Style Scott, though his innovations in Dub over time were acknowledged, and also other innovations hinted at.

Some songs were mentioned as typical of Style Scott’s/the Roots Radics’ drumming style, specifically on Gregory Isaacs’ song ‘My Only Lover’ (1981). There is definitely some tightness there.

In his obituary after Scott’s death, reggae expert and writer David Katz does not emphasize (like others) the drummer’s famed “tightness”, but points more specifically to his own style, including how he sought to mirror with his foot drums reggae’s walking bass lines, and was highly creative with “his offbeat rim-shots and vibrant drum rolls”
(http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/oct/30/style-scott). The latter presumably as variations on his very tight, steady patterns, and therefore all the more noticeable. One of the interesting things with rhythmic music: small or infrequent variations have relatively much influence.. I myself notice this when I made my “percussion instrumentals” (to be found on my YouTube-channel).

I think the issue of the journal Modern Drummer I mentioned before, missed a bit the opportunity to compare the respective styles of different Jamaican drummers discussed in the issue (who, besides Sly, Santa and Style, further included Carlton Barret, Willie Stewart of Third World, Steve Nisbett of Steel Pulse, while also the Studio One days with Lloyd Knibb and Winston Grennan were discussed). Specific styles or characteristics of individual drummers were mentioned, but not consistently. Still the issue mentioned several interesting things, such as the influence of Lloyd Knibb, the role of Carlton Barret in developing the One Drop pattern (probably invented before him, though, by Winston Grennan).


A pity that the influence of percussion traditions in Jamaica – such as Nyabinghi, Pocomania, Burru Burru, and Kumina – on trap drummers was hardly mentioned; other sources point at this. Even the One Drop logic, with the snare drum dropping after two heart beats (characteristic of the Nyabinghi hand drumming) developed in reggae – some say – in response to Nyabinghi patterns. I also read elsewhere that the tightly tuned and “hard” snare drum sound in Jamaica came about due to influence from the Cuban “timbales” instrument. I find that percussion-trap drum connection interesting, pointing also at genre-crossing. The Modern Drummer issue did not say much about it, but did reveal, however, that the drummers Sly Dunbar and Santa Davis were also influenced by polyrhythmic African music.

Besides this, several of the mentioned drummers (including Style Scott) occasionally played and play percussion as well, a transition that does not sound so strange. Scott also produced and/or composed sometimes (especially Dub Syndicate and some other Dub albums), and on occasion played bass, or did (background) vocals. His main activity was of course drumming.


One of the first albums I got into after a few Bob Marley & the Wailers albums (with Carlton Barret drumming, of course), was On The Rocks (1983) by the Wailing Souls. I mentioned this in an earlier blog post. Style Scott (as part of the Roots Radics) drummed on that album. So also in my personal trajectory within reggae and as reggae lover, Style Scott was somehow important. I did not separately focus on the drum too much then, of course, since such music is a combination of sound/instruments. A team effort, if you will. Yet, as I mentioned, the drum is the heart beat of reggae music, thus was crucial in the overall experience.

Online sources, such as Allmusic.com, point out that the 1983 album On the Rocks was produced by the Wailing Souls themselves, while their earlier albums Firehouse Rock and Inchpinchers were produced by Henry “Junjo” Lawes. Lawes tended to emphasize the drum (by Style Scott) more in the mix. I liked especially Firehouse Rock a lot, so to good effect, in my opinion. On the Rocks, on the other hand, had the trap drum a bit less emphasized, but had prominent percussion.

The Allmusic website, by the way, has a useful overview of the work and contributions of Style Scott as drummer and otherwise. See: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/style-scott-mn0001597272/credits.

I retained much attention to the drum as well. In hindsight, Style Scott’s metronomic tightness, and relatively hard hits on the snare drum (depending on the mix) influenced how I experienced several albums I enjoyed. Especially those from the 1980s. I liked Sly Dunbar and other more varying and experimental” drummers as well, but as part of the team effort Style Scott was influential.

A good example of a different drum feel can be found by comparing two Hugh Mundell albums: Africa Must Be Free by 1983 (1978), produced by Augustus Pablo, and the later one, Mundell (1982). On the latter Style Scott and the Roots Radics played, on the former Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace. There is an audible difference in the drum feel of both albums. The album Mundell has the characteristic tight Style Scott drumming, a bit more modern and “harder” sounding than the earlier, more “airy” (but strong) Africa Must Be Free By 1983 album. Anyway: I enjoyed both albums and both “feels”.

One must realize the times in which Style Scott began drumming on Jamaican records: the late 1970s and then through the 1980s and the 1990s, until digital drumming became more and more common (and actual drummers less in demand) in Jamaican music. (He nonetheless kept drumming for international reggae acts). The influence of dancehall was there then, as were other modern influences on reggae. A personal drumming style is thus shaped by the personality of a drummer, his personal creative contribution, but of course also by the broader musical and cultural context. This is perhaps self-evident, but nonetheless interesting..

In this recent interview (2014) Style Scott tells in his own words about his drumming career:


(Perhaps it is superfluous to mention, but all songs inserted in this post have Style Scott as drummer.)