January 2000 I was in a panic. Echoes hadn't appeared in
any of the usual newsagents for weeks and none of them knew what
had happened to it, but they suspected that it had gone bust.
I had to face the prospect of Wednesdays without the ritual of
reading every word of the reggae section and checking the adverts
to see which new tunes would be in the record stores by the weekend.
I didnıt know was that Echoes was actually in the process of changing
from a weekly newspaper to a monthly magazine. Respected
reggae contributor John Masouri explains, "That switch to a monthly magazine was long overdue.
Distributors don't like handling newspapers; retail outlets have
limited facilities and Echoes was always getting lost under a
pile of Farmer's Weekly or the Irish Post. The newspaper
format had got outdated and more importantly, advertisers (who
are the life blood of any publication like Echoes) wanted to see
their ads reproduced in glossy colour rather than grimy black
So time was taken out for design changes before the re-launch,
but loyal readers like me were still in the dark. Dub Vendor
regularly advertised in the paper, so I asked them if they knew
what had happened to Echoes the next time I was in the shop.
"Everyone's asking that" I was told"...you know,
people love that paper". Tell me about it! I
thought; but where does this devotion come from, why do reggae
fans love Echoes so much?
Masouri insists that, as the current reggae contributor, he can't
take all the credit and that we shouldn't believe that writers
like him came from nowhere.
"It was Echoes writers like Pete Johnson, John Futrell,
Cyril Saunders, David Rodigan, Dominic Kenny, Ann Amone, Penny
Reel, John Williams, Steve Barrow, Simon Buckland and also Chris
Lane and Carl Gayle who preceded them who helped build the foundations
of today's reggae literature. By the time I began writing
for them in 1990 Echoes was already the best-known paper in Jamaica and
something of a bible among the UK
industry, which just goes to show how good a job they did."
Echoes, as the paper was originally titled, started in 1976. To
illustrate his point he talks about the reggae scene prior to
importance of those early Echoes reggae journalists was simple.
Imagine a world without the internet, pirate radio, and specialist
reggae stations, without any reggae books on the shelves or music
in the high street shops. There were no cheap tourist flights
album sleeves were the only source of information. We rarely
saw photos of our favourite artists either, so when these pioneers
started writing intelligent, informative features on the music
and combining them with decent photographs, they opened doors
to a world previously shrouded in mystery."
don't remember too many of the other writers he mentions.
John was already well established as the main reggae man when
I first started reading the paper and this article could easily
have been a tribute to him alone. After all, his own credentials,
a bit of name dropping and a few anecdotes highlighting his own
importance would probably have been enough to convince people
that Echoes was worth a read. But he didn't want to talk
about himself and was honest enough to admit that it wasn't just
editorial content that accorded the paper its 'bible' status.
"Until a few years ago, Echoes printed the weekly reggae
charts most people in the business (including Jamaica) referred
to when trying to estimate sales/popularity. No one ever
claimed it was wholly accurate, but there was a need for a consensus
chart untainted by label/distributor bias. When I joined
there were only a tiny handful of reggae fanzines in this country,
no websites and precious little mainstream coverage. The
Voice and the Caribbean Times were the only papers to regularly
feature the music, leaving Echoes as the main platform for press
coverage in the UK.
It was this, coupled with the charts, that gifted Echoes its relevance
at the time. But there were high standards to meet, with
readers having become accustomed to in depth reporting."
informative and in depth features were one reason why I read the
paper and continue to buy the magazine. I also rely on Echoes
to explain the latest developments. Editor Chris Wells says that
it's "a magazine that not only knows what itıs talking about,
but which can explain its point of view in a literate and entertaining
way." This is an aspect of the coverage that John is right
to be proud of. "We've always covered current trends as best we can, which means
embracing them with knowledge AND enthusiasm. It's an essential
part of our remit in fact. I believe there is a real danger
of people thinking that reggae died with Bob Marley, and Island
Records myth building exercises had a lot to do with fostering
that impression. As a result of this, the eighties generation
of artists and producers never got their proper dues in my opinion,
since the mainstream media was far too busy searching for the
next Bob Marley to notice the new Cocoa Tea, Frankie Paul, Tiger
etc. This is why Iıve always placed the emphasis on current
music, rather than dwelling too much on the past. At the
same time there would be no reggae industry without the veterans
and I'm delighted that labels like Blood & Fire and Pressure
Sounds are making so much good music available again. Their
presentation is excellent, and on a par with how classic soul,
jazz, rock and blues is marketed in the high street stores.
The challenge facing contemporary artists and producers is to
create music that people want to hear in ten, twenty, thirty years
time and judging by the talent thatıs around today, I'm convinced
this will be the case."
This is a typically positive response from him, but some people
would argue that reggae's golden years are behind it. After
all the UK industry seems to be at an all time low and even Echoes
features less reggae than it used to. But John Masouriıs having
none of it.
should point out that when the paper started, soul and reggae
were the two most popular forms of black music and space devoted
to each reflected this, but space then had to be made for hip
hop, techno, jungle, drum & bass, soft jazz, breakbeat...You
get the picture. That Echoes has always stood by reggae
- even during unfashionable times - is to be applauded I think.
The truth is that as music lovers, everyone at the magazine respects
reggae's status as one of the worldıs most popular and influential
black music forms and feel that today's music is every bit as
deserving of attention as its predecessors. We're writers
on a mission, what can I say? Oh, and reggae continues to
bring in enough advertising to justify its inclusion. The
question of British reggae is a thorny one as our UK scene
hasnıt produced an international star since Maxi Priest and all
that happened nearly twenty years ago. The talentıs always
been here, but young MCs, musicians and DJs understandably want
to feel that theyıre in with a chance of success and British reggae
acts havenıt been able to provide that. Weıve lost almost
an entire generation, which is why we need a UK Elephant Man or
Sizzla and pretty damn quick! There are encouraging signs
though. Suncycle and Ajang could break through with a mainstream
hit at any time, as could Jazwad."
suggested that the problem is that black youth here are more influenced
by British and American culture than Caribbean and
that reggae might go the way of cricket and get
forgotten. But nothing is going to
curb his enthusiasm.
get one thing straight. I write about dancehall because
it's the most exciting music on the planet and lots of other people
agree with me, including young black kids who consider traditional
reggae old hat. Itıs natural they should feel that way.
Every generation does the same, but if they pick up Echoes to
read about Elephant Man and then get to musing about how great
Bunny Lee was whilst idling through the other pages then it might
help change their opinion. Likewise a fan of traditional
reggae might become interested in Bounty Killer or at least feel
more favourably about him after reading about the struggles he"s
faced, or his generosity when it comes to funding community projects
in Jamaica. Black British youth are probably more influenced
by American culture than Caribbean. Then
again, Caribbean youth
are also heavily influenced by American culture which is why they
naturally turn to hip hop and r&b for inspiration. This
is how the melting pot works, and it's strengthening the bond
between people from all over, irrespective of race. The
future's bright for dancehall if it can continue tapping into
the hip hop, pop and r&b markets, but we can't forget the
roots acts, because some of them are among the most relevant lyricists
of their generation and voice one whole heap of truth and rights
amidst all the religious material. These types of artists
sell albums on the back of tours mostly. We need to see
more of them on programmes like Later With Jools Holland, or booked
to appear at Glastonbury and
the like. Burning Spear and Lee Perry can do it, but whereıs
Bushman, Sizzla or Capleton?"
the subject of roots artists and religion, I wondered how he felt
about the fact that reggae journalists, unlike other music writers,
spend so much time reporting on Rastafarian artists.
"Since there's good and bad in everything, including the
Rasta community, thereıs never been any need to formulate any
policy either for or against them. Their beliefs are respected,
broadcast without change and presented in a positive light for
the most part. Every one of our reggae journalists, some
of whom were Rasta themselves, have followed this course.
No other weekly or monthly publication has devoted anywhere near
the amount of coverage to Rastafarian views as Echoes and we're
all proud of such a track record. Rasta forms the backbone
of Jamaican music, including the dancehall section. You
canıt judge a book by its cover and the distinctions begin to
blur, then drop away, the closer you get to the actual people
is what I'm saying."
You've probably read rock or pop reviews where the writer is
so busy trying to be funny or clever that they forget to tell
you what the music sounds like. You've definitely heard
radio DJs who talk all over the records. John Masouri always
puts the music first. His own profile, personality or opinions
are never allowed to obscure the artist or producers work.
Talking about roots & culture and Rastafari could so easily
be an invitation to adopt an academic tone in order to impress. But despite sounding more than capable, he always resists the
temptation. The literary skills he has are reserved for painting
a vivid picture and arming the reader with the information they
need to understand a subject.
He then glides into the background as the music takes centre
switching to a monthly format Echoes sales have been steadily
rising and whilst I've been forced to sacrifice my Wednesday ritual,
I have to admit that the success of the new style is obvious.
Just try reading this monthıs Echoes in your work canteen. It won't be long before you hear "let's
have a look" and "let me read that when you've finished". That didnıt happen with the old tabloid style
paper. Echoes has always featured good photographs and the well
designed, glossy, colour pages finally do them justice. John would like to see the reggae business demonstrate
the same willingness to adapt to market conditions.
"Sales of 7"singles have plummeted, which is why I
yearn for the return of 12"s and to see a lot more CD singles.
Reggae must be losing out on sales by persisting with this outdated
format, because with regard to audience size, I've never known
it to be as popular as it is now. Itıs played everywhere
in some form or another and by all age groups which strengthens
its staying power. Dancehall is easily the most popular
form of reggae, but sells mostly on compilations, which I find
worrying since fewer artist albums means that it is now mainly
about selling tracks, as opposed to establishing careers.
The exceptions are those lucky enough to get mainstream exposure
and I think we can expect a regular procession of these from now
on, which is heartening. Dancehall's alliance with US r&b
and hip hop is an important
development too. We've heard Will Smith rapping on a dancehall
tune already, so itıs happening big time now. It's MTV whoıve
made the difference, together with some talented video directors,
which further underlines my point about reggae music having to
adapt where necessary in order to maximise its global appeal(and
feed a lot of hungry youths from the ghetto)." There appears
to be an increasing polarisation taking place in reggae music
between dancehall and roots. As a magazine that attempts
to cover all aspects of black music, I wanted to know how he saw
Echoes competing in an increasingly specialised media world.
What was his opinion of specialist roots reggae only websites,
for example? ³Iıve nothing against roots sites, in fact quite
the opposite. Yet there are a lot of reggae fans, especially
on the roots and dub side, who fight against Jamaican and mainstream
reggae music for various reasons and Iıve never understood that.
Reggae'ıs all one music whether itıs roots, dancehall, lovers
rock, ska, slackness, nyahbingi or dub. The best of it though,
in my opinion, has the sound of Jamaica in it, irrespective of
its origin. You can't measure that, but you sure can feel
it and we all have to be guided by our own tastes at the end of
the day." If you visited this website especially to read
the Twilight Circus interview or something similar, there are
going to be points where your taste and his seriously part company.
Some of the music you like is not going to have enough of 'the
sound of Jamaica' for him. His 'melting pot' can only accommodate
so much and whilst mixing it up with hip hop or r&b
is OK by him, techno or ambient is not. When he talks
about mainstream reggaeı it's important because when it comes
to reggae, John Masouri is part of the mainstream. I'm a
big fan of his writing but I don't agree with everything he says.
I mean Will Smith and Shaggy together didnıt do anything for me.
There'ıs certainly nothing wrong with hearing a different opinion
if it's beautifully argued; and in Echoes reggae section it always
is. John Masouri represents the mainstream as a journalist
in the same way as David Rodigan does as a broadcaster. The most populist aspects of the scene will always predominate,
but their impeccable taste within that ensures that the quality
the way that reggae exists on the farthest margins of the music
business it hardly seems worthwhile trying to locate its mainstream
anyway. John explained how independent magazines like Echoes
have to struggle for survival amidst competition from multinational
media groups like EMAP and how distribution is always something
of a problem since the big publications squeeze them off the racks
at every opportunity. The specialist niche market also presents
covering many different genres, albeit on a regular basis, Echoes
canıt compete with dedicated publications or websites and so its
relevance to fans of each particular genre has undoubtedly diminished
in this respect. We canıt match their depth of coverage
and so you look at other areas where you may still prove effective.
For instance, Echoes is read by people at major labels and there
are more than a few artists whoıve been signed thanks to something
an A&R manıs read in Echoes. It's at the back of my
mind whenever I write about any new talent, even if I canıt point
out any reggae examples! More importantly though, it's about
sharing the love. If I can help turn people on to some good
music, bring some highly talented individuals to their attention
and hopefully place a few positive thoughts into their heads then
I'll happily settle for that, rather than fretting about some
imaginary relevance. 'Music is a mission, not a competition'
as Capleton would say."
If you find yourself at the end of this
article because youıve read it from start to finish, then I have
a mission for you should you choose to accept it. Go to
a good newsagent, find Echoes and buy it. Good luck.
appeared on the Reggae News website, September 2003