Ranking Joe 

Zion High

By the time roots reggae reached its global peak with Bob Marley in the late '70s and early '80s, the seeds of reggae's second wave, dancehall, had begun to germinate in Jamaica. Predating hip-hop by half a decade, sound systems -- literally a truck-mounted turntable, a microphone, and loudspeakers -- spread music around the island by playing popular rhythms at impromptu weekend dances. The sound systems were presided over by DJs (known as selectors) and MCs (known as DJs) who improvised lyrics over instrumental versions of popular rhythms.

Fiercely individualistic, the DJs developed their own vocal delivery styles, trading lyrical jabs with rival sound systems and favoring the raw messages of the streets to the more pious chants of the Rastafarians. One of the most enduringly unique of these DJs was Ranking Joe, whose 1980 LP Round the World has been reissued as Zion High with some previously unreleased tracks.

Backed by some of Jamaica's best studio and session talent -- the late Dennis Brown, Sly and Robbie, producer King Tubby, and the engineer known as the Scientist -- Joe's versatility behind the mic launches the album of spaced-out reggae rhythms into the stratosphere. His signature style, known as the "Bong Diddly," is like tongue-twister rap on steroids. Words roll off his lips like a bubbling of hookah pipe, and you get the sense that if Joe had to change a flat tire with nothing but his tongue, he could do it and chat up your girlfriend at the same time.

Also included on Zion High as bonus tracks are a rare early cut by Dennis Brown and the stunning "Rent Man" by a young Black Uhuru, followed by Joe's DJ versions. It's an exceptional glimpse of the fluidity and contrast of Jamaican music, and the staggering breadth of talent the island has produced. This almost-forgotten masterpiece is nicely remastered and packaged with an extensive bio of Joe's illustrious career; it's hard to call it anything but essential.

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