Missions Are Possible

Essential black music magazine Echoes is still representing reggae after twenty seven years

In 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.

What 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  The newspaper format had got outdated and more importantly, advertisers (who are the life blood of any publication like Echoes) wanted to see their ads reproduced in glossy colour rather than grimy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 and white."
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?

John 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 reggae industry, which just goes to show how good a job they did."

Black Echoes, as the paper was originally titled, started in 1976. To illustrate his point he talks about the reggae scene prior to its arrival.
"The 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 to Jamaica and 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."

I 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."

Intelligent, 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.

"I 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."
I 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.
"Let's 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?"

On 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 stage.

Since 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 Œmainstream 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 never drops.

Given 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 a problem.

"By 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.

First appeared on the Reggae News website, September 2003