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[whitespace] Original Hardcore' album collects the best of sexy raggamuffin DJ Shabba Ranks

By Nicky Baxter

Until recently, ragga superstar Shabba Ranks' popularity rivaled that of Bob Marley, at least in Jamaica, where his rude-boy beginnings struck a chord with many street-hardened youth. Indeed, Ranks is still ragga's most widely known figure and has been since the late 1980s.

But aside from hailing from the same township, Marley and Shabba have little in common, musically or philosophically. Where the late reggae superstar embraced a marijuana-based form of Rastafarian African internationalism proffered to the sticky rhythms of traditional reggae, Ranks delivers gruff, highly rhythmic chatting over synthesized rhythm tracks. More significantly, Ranks is widely perceived--especially in America--as the ninja of nasty sex, the czar of "slackness."

Initially working with King Jammy, one of ragga's premiere record producers, the DJ issued a series of singles that established his image as a foul-mouthed sex fiend. Tunes like "Love Punaany Bad" were brazenly X-rated hymns to humping.

Jammy supplied the gravel-throated raggamuffin toaster with aggressive digitalized dance-hall beats roiling with sexual menace. Perhaps more significantly, the producer paired Shabba with "legitimate" co-vocalists such as Cocoa Tea and Home T.

However, it was Ranks' association with Gussie Clarke, King Jammie's ambitious understudy, that sparked the interest of stateside major labels. Clarke's judicious use of Coco and Home T., along with his more melodically complex grooves, earned Ranks a deal with Epic Records.

Original Hardcore, released on the Clarke-affiliated Gone Clear label, collects some of the chanter's best moments as a duet artist while dispelling some of the "dirty young man" PR.

The album's first 10 tunes showcase Ranks getting down and dirty with a host of sultry female vocalists, most notably J. C. Lodge and Deborah Glasgowe. The second half of the disc finds the DJ trading boasts with such he-men as the aforementioned Home T. and Admiral Tibet. A couple of Shabba solo shots are tossed in for good measure. To his credit, Ranks performs creditably in all three contexts.

Ladies First

A typical Shabba vehicle, "Mr. Loverman," is made considerably more palatable by the presence of Glasgowe, one of Britain's finest "lovers' rock" singers.

Against a sonic backwash alternately mesmerizing and hammer-hard, Ranks and Glasgowe play cat and mouse, with the latter flaunting his "wares," the former gently goading him on with creamy smooth enticements.

The exceptionally gifted J.C. Lodge joins Shabba on three cuts, and it surely wasn't a difficult decision. "Hardcore Loving" is a hot-and-heavy affair, with Lodge supplying most of the heat while her suitor contributes the heavy breathing.

When Lodge moans "I'm gonna do some things to you none of your friends can do," you don't doubt her for a minute. The use of real instruments--shuddering keyboards, dub-ladened guitars and drums--adds to the track's fleshy appeal. With its funky R&B-styled backbeat, "Looking Out for No. 1" looks to the U.S. for its soul power.

Shabba comes about as close as he ever will to carrying a tune, displaying a surprising amount of musicality. Lodge meanwhile plays a tough cookie not about to allow some male maul her without a big payback. As repugnant as this sentiment is (Madonna's "Material Girl" Jamaican style), Lodge's coolly seductive delivery nearly sells us on the idea.

Mano a Mano

As good as Ranks is with the women, he is even better with his homeboys; maybe it's a guy thing. On "No Competition," Shabba spars good-naturedly with Admiral Tibet over Robbie Lyn's booming bottom line. Ranks' rockstone growl is practically indecipherable to non-Caribbeans, but that hardly matters.

It is his relentlessly rhythmic style that demands your attention. By contrast, Tibet is a silver-tongued lover boy; it's brawn vs. slick, and it's anybody's guess who'll reach the finish line first.

On "Pirates Anthem," Shabba is double-teamed by the honeyed tones of vocalists Home T. and Coco T. "Pirates" and the ensuing "Turn It Down" offer proof that Ranks has more than sex on the brain. Both tracks are stinging indictments of Jamaican radio's reportedly conservative policies that force upstarts like Cobra and Beenie Man underground.

The singers dominate, their serpentine, slightly nasal deliveries oozing through the session leader's machine-gun splatter. Not surprisingly, of the boys-only powwows, the threesomes exhibit the most musicality, a trait not usually associated with Shabba Ranks. Despite its macho title, Original Hardcore, particularly its closing tracks, contains more than a lot of hot air.

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