Thursday, December 24, 2009

Jimmy Cliff-Boss of all Bosses

Before Bob Marley became an iconic international superstar, reggae music was synonymous with one man: Jimmy Cliff. Cliff’s remarkable career has spawned decades; he has released twenty-eight studio albums, and was the central figure in one of the most significant events in the entire history of Jamaican music, the release of the movie The Harder They Come. Cliff was one of the first Jamaican artists become an international sensation, and has been one of the most successful, and iconoclastic reggae artists of all time. Although Cliff may have never reached the fame and influence of Bob Marley, he paved the way for Marley and other reggae superstars to spread their music and their message worldwide.

There have only been a handful of films that can truly say they have changed the world, and Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come, can be lumped into this small company. The story was loosely based on the life of Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, the quintessential rude boy whose 1940s escapades captured and thrilled the populace. Henzell took Martin’s story of his reign of terror around Kingston, updated it, set it to an infectious reggae soundtrack, and casted Jimmy Cliff as Ivan, an aspiring musician inextricably involved in both the Jamaica’s music world, as well as its dark underworld. According to authors Roger Steffens and Peter Simon, The Harder They Come, “…was a stark evocation of ghetto levity, documenting the political and social pressures of the drug trade and the mafia-like control of Jamaica’s music business, and would gradually prove to strike a universal chord.” The Harder They Come showcased the small island of Jamaica to the rest of the world, showing its unique culture as well as the music of the people.

The universal impact The Harder They Come had was unparalleled; it truly captured the country of Jamaica, reggae music, roots culture and should have taken Jimmy Cliff’s career to a whole new level. The film exposed the record industry of Jamaica, and showed the business’s internal politics of exploitation, and at the same time revealed the public’s interesting relationship with the record companies of Jamaica. Above all, The Harder They Come offered an intense insight into what ghetto living was really like, and provided insight into the realties of reggae music and its lyrics. Cliff recalled, “The Harder They Come had a great deal to do with the spread of Rasta and the roots music. It was seen all over the world, and more than just play you music it took you right into roots culture and how people lived in Jamaica at the time. It introduced people to the fact there was more to reggae than the happy stuff that had been hits, because it provided the pictures to go with the music…That movie was socio-…economic…political…religious- all the elements of Jamaican society…It told the tale with real depth, put it into context, which was probably a surprise to so many people but it was that that helped them understand it and appreciate reggae music for what it really is.”Henzell captured the gritty street life, and poverty that so many Jamaicans were dealing with at the time, and Jimmy Cliff played the part with such convincing that one could believe he wasn’t even acting, but just living his daily life.

The film was acted, scripted and directed with a blistering acuteness, and the film’s soundtrack took the same approach providing one of the highest selling, and recognizable reggae albums of all time. The soundtrack boasted some of reggae’s most notable names including, Cliff himself, Toots and the Maytals, the Melodian’s, the Slickers and Desmond Dekker. Cliff’s title track, in particular, appeared to sum up the aspirations, and the eventual fate, of every character in the film and, by extension, on the streets, which the film graphically depicted. The soundtrack had such an immense impact on Jamaican music and producers recognized the potential of roots music sales. By 1973, roots music became the most popular form of reggae music, all due to the success of The Harder They Come soundtrack. Until Bob Marley’s retrospective Legend was released in 1984, The Harder They Come Soundtrack was the best-selling reggae album of all time.

The Harder They Come truly opened up the international market for reggae music, and helped Jimmy Cliff become recognizable worldwide. Before the film’s release, roots music made little sense to people outside of Jamaica because they couldn’t put a visual to the lyrics. Now, people could put a face to reggae music; and Jimmy Cliff became iconoclastic. After the release of The Harder They Come, words like ‘sophisticated’ and ‘worldly’ were used to describe Jimmy Cliff and his career. New fans were impressed that he had lived abroad, toured all over the world with great acclaim, recorded with American producers and musicians, wasn’t scared to try different styles of music and was now an international movie star.

I can’t believe I slept on Jimmy Cliff and The Harder They Come for this long. Luckily I was exposed to him earlier this year, and his music, as well as the soundtrack from the film have been in heavy rotation.


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