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Throwback Thursday: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat an’ Blood

Sometimes music happens to you in a way that marks you forever. That’s for sure true of the way Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat an’ Blood happened to me. I was just out of college, 1998, living in far Uptown Manhattan at 157th and Riverside with a musician friend of mine from D.C. and his girlfriend. A lot of the scene was still downtown at that point, and after my waiting shift I took the train down to meet up with some friends at a Soho bar that was a tenuous nexus between fashionistas and a certain kind of A&R crowd. If you were east, it was Max Fish, and if you were west it was a new spot every few months.

Anyhow, we ran into a friend at the bar and he had a pocket full of acid and he was the type of guy who would have that stuff and it would be good. He asked if I wanted some and said he had some kind of plan to hang out at Paul Simon’s Central Park West penthouse guitar room with a bunch of cool people and whatever happened would happen. I took this notion back to my table of friends and my roommate said he would do it, cackling like he knew a secret I didn’t, so I went back to the bar and took the tabs in a sly handoff and dropped them on the ground. I couldn’t find them so the guy took out the whole sheet right on the bar and ripped me off two more and I ate one and walked back and delivered the other one.

My roommate still had a dumb grin on his face and said he didn’t want it, he was just kidding and thought I was just kidding. I said I wasn’t kidding and he had to eat it because I ate mine and I wasn’t going it alone, which was a mistake. You’re always going it alone. Anyhow, he said he was drunk when I arrived and was just goofing around but he would do it since he said he would, and I was sort of miffed so I went back and killed time with the acid man at the bar and the girls he was hanging out with until I started to feel it happen, and then I went back to find my friend. He was already in bad shape. Everyone else from our table had left, because they had work the next day, and he was starting to freak out. It wasn’t long before he was totally flipped and instead of going to Paul Simon’s penthouse I was riding the 1/9 train back uptown with my friend turning into a monkey and it felt like a scene from Jacob’s Ladder. It was a long train ride and when we hit the streets in Washington Heights the world had turned nefarious and my friend was a wreck as we strolled past the Dominican ballers suppressing our secret and I had that feeling you get that when I got inside I wouldn’t want to come out again.

We had this great old apartment high up in an old art deco building and there was even a Jamaican doorman named Hilton who still wore a uniform even though the building had gone to pot long ago. When we got home, my friend locked himself in the bathroom and so I was alone on strong acid, stuck way the hell uptown with no scene around and it was looking like a long damn night. I made a cloud of weed smoke to sit in and put Dread Beat an’ Blood on the turntable and I listened to it for close on four hours with my eyes closed only stopping to put the needle back. I think I only managed one side over and over again, tripping balls.

“It was a sound shaking down your spinal column, bad music tearing up your flesh…”

I grew up in Washington D.C. in the ‘80s and something about that time– the abandoned inner cities, the quiet suburbs, the Cold War clarity– ripples through me still. It makes you want to scream. Linton Kwesi Johnson has a sound with all of that sinister and dreamy beauty, all that latent anger, all that feeling of being pinned in place by something invisible. But his dub sound comes by way of Jamaica to the London ghetto. We’re all trapped in Babylon.

If you’ve never listened to LKJ, turn it into a ceremony. You don’t need to take acid, but you need some space and the desire to tap something deep, dark, and green. With all of his heaviness, there is something so strong and right about what he’s saying that it lifts you up as it brings you down.

“…the rhythm just bubbling and backfiring, raging and rising, when suddenly the music cut. Steel blade drink in blood and darkness.”


Youtube Playlist of album (see below)


BBC Radio 4 podcast (from iTunes)

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A former journalist who’s felt the philosophical and musical impact that Bob Marley and Jamaican reggae have made on world culture, Giles is in charge of keeping the conversation moving and helping the people who use Rootfire to keep it on time.

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