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Barry Brown - Rich Man Poor Man

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Artist: Barry Brown

Album: Rich Man Poor Man

Label: Moll-Selekta

Review date: Jan. 21, 2004

Kingston, Jamaica is tougher than any neighborhood in America. If you find yourself in a place that sells travel books, pick up Lonely Planet’s guide to Jamaica and flip to the “Dangers and Annoyances” section. If you’re white, there are parts of town where you’re quite likely to catch the shitty end of a robbery, kidnaping, rape, murder or combo. And if you grow up in Kingston, you cultivate a language and attitude more ominous, humorous and esoteric than US hip hop ever came near. Reggae is a completely different kind of soul. Even in the ’70s, yanks didn’t know shit about malaise.

Most of the music’s mid-century pioneers were scammed blind by producers and labels, but by the time dub took hold in the ’70s, magnates such as King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry had created their own scene, dueling in each other’s backyards at Greenwich Town block parties. Young Barry Brown was an understudy to this scene, running errands and peeping game. Before reggae went digital in the ’80s, Brown’s nasal-but-defiant vocals and unambiguously political lyrics had his contemporaries crowning him the Dylan of the dancehall.

This compilation brings together a regrettably stingy set of the decade’s last few hits. (The liner notes refer to several numbers that didn’t make the cut, which is annoying.) Roots Radics, High Times Players, the ubiquitous Sly & Robbie and a few other name producers back up Brown’s sermons on economic disparity. It’s amazing how clean this stuff sounded before the first shipment of synths arrived in Jamaica. The percussion fills on Rich Man Poor Man merit special attention: The riddims roll along like a patois-heavy description of a car ride through the neighborhood punctuated only with ellipses.

Brown does not have Perry’s sense of humor, but neither is he a self-appointed hippie prophet in the Tosh/Marley tradition. When Brown’s been pointing his finger too long, someone passes up the chalice; as he sticks a fork in Babylon’s underbelly and forecasts mass exodus, some female sneaks up and does him wrong with classic Kingston conniving.

By Emerson Dameron

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