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Sevens Still Clash

Culture
Chanting Down Babylon: The vocal trio Culture sings a roots-and-culture style of hardcore reggae.

Culture's Joseph Hill delivers reggae the old-fashioned way

By Nicky Baxter

REGGAE GREAT Joseph Hill is either A) a natty dread deeper than W.E.B. Du Bois or B) nuttier than a gang of mad professors. This revelation came out during the course of a recent phone conversation with the lead man for Culture. The way I got it figured, Hill's probably a genius whose herb intake has made his "reasonings" a little fuzzy around the edges.

Hill is best known as the man who penned Two Sevens Clash, one of reggae's--indeed, popular music's--signal creations. Subsequent releases such as Cumbolo and International Herb, both of which hit the racks in the late 1970s, indicated Culture was no fluke. Nuff Crisis (1988), followed by Three Sides to My Story (1991), made it plain that Hill and Culture were about perseverance, not passing fancy. One of the finest of Jamaica's "second wave" harmony groups--along with Burning Spear and Black Uhuru--Culture has rarely faltered in waving high the hardcore Rasta's red, gold, black and green flag.

Although Hill and company have incorporated token elements of new technology into their fundamentalist skankin', the trio has remained unswervingly "dreadicated" to its roots and culture bedrock. The enigmatic Hill is, in turn, Culture's indomitable foundation. Bluntly put, Culture is a group in name only; Hill's will has been the vocal group's way.

Before Culture existed, Hill was a solo act. Recorded at the legendary Studio One close to 25 years ago, "Behold the Land" was just another dust magnet in the vault until the singer/songwriter hooked up with a pair of harmony-makers--Albert Walker and Kenneth Paley--in 1976 to form Culture, and the single suddenly became a hot-ticket item.

Hill's best songs are a compelling fusion of Bob Marley's homespun, acerbic homilies delivered with the messianic fervor of Burning Spear. When queried about his songwriting formula, Hill is, to put it mildly, oblique. On the phone from a reggae club in Colorado Springs, Colo., Hill declares that he is but a mere conduit through which flows the Word: "I can clearly and safely say that neither you nor me have any control over [the source of inspiration]. I am just a vessel for a super power."

Hill may prefer metaphysics over materialism, but there is little doubt that Two Sevens Clash was his reaction to what was going on around him--in this case, the gangsta-cum-political chaos engulfing Jamaica in the 1970s. One day, so the story goes, Hill had a vision of 1977 as a year of judgment--when two sevens clash, when past injustices against the "down-pressed" would be avenged. The Rasta elders still recall vividly the day "sevens" reportedly clashed. On July 7, 1977, an eerie quiet cloaked Kingston; ghetto-dwellers refused to go out into the glaring, evil sun; businesses closed shop. It was a white, white day in JA.

Concerning the song, album and its divinations, Hill has little to say; what he does reveal is frustratingly cryptic. "Marcus [Garvey] dead," Hill begins, his phat Jamaican accent thick with portent. "And people start to realize his importance beginning in 1977. The [Jamaican] government, dem felt coward about my statement. Coward because the generations throughout time--inside and outside time--have suffered."

THE DEVOUT Rastafarian's current album, One Stone (RAS), is an implacably roots-oriented link in the Culture chain that began with Two Sevens Clash. Accompanied by the instrumental group Dub Mystic, Hill and his vocal backers chant down Babylon like Jah's chosen avengers. Written, arranged and produced by Hill, One Stone roils with deep "reasonings"; at the same time, the music is undeniably danceable.

Thematically, Hill addresses himself to long-standing issues. As the title suggests, "Addis Ababa" pays homage to Ethiopia, civilization's cradle; on "Slice of Mount Zion," Hill beseeches the "Lord of Lords" to reserve room for the Rastaman on high. Both compositions sport nifty horn arrangements, at once commenting on and underscoring the vocals.

Discussing the title track, Hill is characteristically quixotic: " 'One Stone' represent what you do, when you do it and how you do it." Hill's insistence on coming at you from left field notwithstanding, "One Stone" is as crystal clear a sound statement as you'll find anywhere. Despite all his permutations, Hill is saying it loud: "This is how we do it."


Culture plays with Dub Nation and Brain Monkees on Thursday (May 16) at 9pm at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. Tickets are $9 adv. (408/324-EDGE)

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From the May 16-22, 1996 issue of Metro

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