Dread Beat an' Blood

Johnson, Linton Kwesi

album cover

Dread Beat an' Blood

"People know me as a reggae artist," Linton Kwesi Johnson once complained. "They don't know me as a poet. But I began with the word." And with words, the Jamaican-born Johnson, who was raised in England, made a huge contribution to music: He's among the first to deliver his poetry over the beats of Jamaican reggae. He is often hailed as the father of the style he called "dub poetry." This album, his 1978 debut, finds Johnson hammering out dub's essential structure: Rants about race and prejudice, poverty and injustice, wrapped in vivid imagery (lots of bloodshed and martyrdom) and surrounded by warm, open, deceptively serene music.

Dread Beat an' Blood, which like many subsequent LKJ projects, was aided by multi-instrumentalist Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell, uses the sunny atmosphere of reggae as a kind of Trojan horse. Johnson's not blunting any realities, just trying to cultivate sympathetic ears; he recognizes that his message has a better chance of getting through if it is supported by undulating bass lines and echoey rhythms. The lazy atmosphere provides a contrast to Johnson's formidable intellect—he majored in sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and has published several acclaimed volumes of poetry.

But as he talks of being black, struggling economically, and suffering through brutality and violence, Johnson rarely gets up on the soapbox. Instead, he scatters traces of dismay and discouragement between the lines, in smooth, endlessly syncopated phrases. Lots of rappers and spoken-word artists have studied (and imitated) Johnson's intricate cadences; few have packed as much concern and outrage into what sounds, from a distance, like party music.

Genre: World, Jamaica
Released: 1978, Front Line/Caroline
Key Tracks: "Song of Blood," "Five Nights of Bleeding."
Catalog Choice: LKJ in Dub
Next Stop: Mutabaruka: Any Which Way . . . Freedom
After That: The Last Poets: The Last Poets
Book Pages: 402–403

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