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Vinyl Giveaway: Don Carlos’ “Pass Me The Lazer Beam” LP + Liner Notes

Win a copy of Don Carlos’ “Pass Me The Lazer Beam” LP, courtesy of VP Records. Enter below! Check out the liner notes from Pass Me The Lazer Beam

**Vinyl Giveaway Winner Announced – Lanos from Paris, France. Congratulations, Lanos!!

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As reggae music passes through its sixth decade, it remains a phenomenon that first served as a platform and bullhorn for the small island nation of Jamaica to speak to the world. Today’s reggae is more international and diverse than ever, possibly reflecting a growth in the global unity envisioned by its early architects. In addition to releases out of the US, UK, EU, Japan and Africa, reggae is now being recorded in Thailand and China. And of course, as time has passed, so have many of its originators. There are fewer and fewer artists who have stood the test of time, and fewer still who have passed into the new reggae landscape with as much love and reverence as ever. So it’s another phenomenon entirely – given the massive span of time and geography – that it’s hard to name any living reggae artist who is loved more deeply, more widely, or more universally than Don Carlos.

Born Euvin Spencer, Don Carlos was raised in the Waterhouse neighborhood of Kingston, known among fans as an epicenter for reggae and dancehall talent and culture. Located on the west side of the city, Waterhouse was something of an enclave, in that it was just bit outside some of the more closely-connected neighborhoods of Trench Town, Greenwich Farm, and Tivoli Gardens. Close enough that the neighborhoods are woven together throughout the history of the music, but separate enough for a distinct singing style to form. In fact, the Waterhouse vocal style most commonly credited to Tenor Saw, King Kong, Nitty Gritty and the like would certainly trace to other local predecessors. Don Carlos was singing at age 13, and by the middle 1970s started recording as a solo artist who had already developed a recognizable vocal approach. His first solo cut “Sweeter Than Wine” is a fairly straight reggae cover of the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” but is a remarkable recording in that his singing style was clearly established, an early sign of the Waterhouse identity to come.

Credit: Beth Lesser

Waterhouse would be formative to Don Carlos in more ways than vocal style and intonation. By coincidence or by fate, he grew up just down the street from King Tubby’s famed studio and residence at 18 Dromilly Avenue. The singers, players, and producers who passed through King Tubby’s from the 1970s into the 1980s are a nearly definitive list of who mattered in the music. Another key aspect of Don Carlos’ life in the neighborhood was a clear delineation between the ranks and supporters of the rival Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and People’s National Party (PNP). Most other neighborhoods would move fully with the JLP or the PNP, and area dons would concentrate their support and power in well-defined garrisons. Interestingly, Don Carlos lived along a fault line between the two. If he would leave his house and go up the hill, it was JLP. Or, if he went downhill, it was PNP. That environment informed a man who had to navigate his life physically, socially, and politically on a daily basis, and whose lyrics would eventually connect with people of varying backgrounds throughout the rest of a complex world.

Among the producers who would stream through Waterhouse was the great Edward “Bunny” Lee, Tubby’s top client. Lee had history reaching back into the previous decade, and by the mid-70s he’d risen above his peers. He had no reservation about cutting numerous vocals, instrumentals, and of course dubs to any track in his catalog. For example, he would use Johnny Clarke, Ronnie Davis, Max Romeo and more for The Aggrovators’ flying-cymbals track underlying Clarke’s “Move Out Of Babylon.” In this sense, Bunny Lee was ahead of the curve. Sugar Minott’s early work with Coxson Dodd – specifically the tracks that would comprise the Live Loving album – are often cited as the genesis of modern dancehall, mainly because Minott and Dodd purposefully selected known musical blueprints to invoke and capitalize on familiarity and sentimentality. Whether motivated by art or finance, Lee had been there already.

As the ’70s turned to the ’80s, and The Aggrovators gave way to the Roots Radics and Sly & Robbie, Lee with his accumulation of studio recordings was perfectly positioned to ride the new wave of the dancehall. Don Carlos had built momentum after coming off outstanding productions from Robert Palmer (Negus Roots), the Hoo Kim brothers (Hit bound), and Junjo Lawes (Volcano/Jah Guidance). By 1982-1983, Don Carlos was as hot as could be, and Striker Lee knew it. As was nearly customary at this time, Lee would record vocal sessions at King Tubby’s.

The result is the 1983 super-classic Pass Me The Lazer Beam. It registers clearly as one of the peaks of the ‘early dancehall era,’ with one of the greatest voices in the history of reggae riding some of the most definitive rhythms, made even greater by the mix from engineer Sylvan Morris.

The A-side leads with the album’s title track, cut to the classic “It’s Raining” rhythm (adapted from Treasure Isle’s rocksteady heyday). On this mix, engineer Sylvan Morris makes a special point of introducing a live-dancehall feel by dropping the bass and drums out (and then back in) almost immediately, twice early in the tune, just the way an operator would do in the dance. Carlos sets the pace early, with a pointed plea for peace. Morris pulls the rhythm again at the top of “Just Groove With Me” which uses the “Solomon” rhythm (another rocksteady adaptation, this time from Derrick Harriott). His lyrics are cooler here, like his flow – his nearly-late delivery in each bar capitalizes on the syncopation. “Spread Out” is a slow and heavy trod, absolutely fit to its time.

The last two pieces on the A-side are certified bombs. Built on the evergreen “Drifter” rhythm (adapted from Dennis Walks’ original for Harry Mudie), “Jonny Big Mouth” is a message from Waterhouse to all the neighborhoods around the world. The final track on the first side is unquestionably a demonstration of courage. It’s almost impossible for anyone who was not in Kingston to understand the very real, continual violent death, which is repeatedly described as a daily occurrence. “Back Way With You Mix Up” is possibly the most roots-leaning cut on the album, a very public pushback against the prevailing tribalism, which could literally have triggered a violent response. To say it took guts to record this song would be an understatement.

The B-side returns immediately to classic dancehall form as “Ababa John I” utilizes an energized “Real Rock” to deliver one of the more Rasta-oriented pieces on the album. Next is “Praise Jah” where Carlos finds an uplifting melody to revisit the Rasta theme, and along with the horns it’s perhaps the sweetest tune in the set. “Booming Ball” revives the great “Vanity” (“Just A Guy” from Studio One) and contrasts a spare cut of a romantic rhythm with the roots sound of hand drumming. The niceness continues with “My Baby Just Love I Man” which laces love lyrics to a heavy studio track. And finally, the album closes with “My Brethren Party” which combines midtempo dancehall bounce, hand drumming, and brass.

The canon of reggae and Rasta music is sometimes heavy under its own weight. Roots reggae expresses depth through a mournful persistence. Don Carlos deals with that artfully. There’s something particularly different and something special about him. His lyrics, his conversation and his personality shine through with an enlightenment that is rare in this music and our world. He has persevered through a maze of challenges that cut many lives short, and he’s done it with a commitment to goodness, which is present in these lyrics. Asked in an interview about parsing credit for some early studio work, he chose not to trouble the way chips have fallen, and instead expressed thankfulness for what he has received in his life. “Mi no have no bad heart for no man – mi glad fi every man. Mi jus feel good when mi see a man survive … because guess what? Mi a Don Carlos still.”

You can stream Don Carlos’ “Pass Me The Lazer Beam” LP here!

You can purchase Don Carlos’ “Pass Me The Lazer Beam” LP here!

–Nick Solid Rock & DJ Boomshot, Virgo Hi-Power, October 2023

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**Vinyl Giveaway Winner Announced – Lanos from Paris, France. Congratulations, Lanos!!

ENTER TO WIN

Contest ends Friday May 3rd @ 11:59 pm PT. One email entered = one entry.

Winner will be notified via email from [email protected]. VP Records will ship to addresses across the globe. Winner may be responsible for import duties in your country if applicable.

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Born and raised in the Gateway to the West, it was a cross-country road trip to Cali Roots 2018 with two of his buddies where Braden first discovered his love for reggae and the music industry. After completing the Entertainment Management program at Missouri State University, he began interning at Rootfire in 2021 and now assists with playlists, giveaways, editorial and more.

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