Island Records can rightfully be heralded as the label that brought Bob Marley and The Harder They Come to international fame, with the Chris Blackwell-led shop later signing such acts as U2, Amy Winehouse, the Killers and many more chart-toppers.
But it’s an easy argument to make that Trojan Records, founded in 1968 by Lee Gopthal and Blackwell, is the true trailblazer that brought Jamaican music to the rest of the world, spreading not only the unique upstroke rhythms but also a culture that appeals to potheads and punks alike. Without Trojan, you don’t get the Clash, dub, Oi! skinheads against racism, second-wave ska bands like the Specials and third-wavers in America.
Here, we break down the essential songs, artists and albums on the label, in order for you to build out your Trojan collection along with the Vinyl Me, Please Essentials pick this month, the Silvertones’ Silver Bullets.
After putting out The Wailing Wailers on the Studio One label in 1965, the group — Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh — went from a more doo-wop ska-focused sound to reggae with the help of Lee “Scratch” Perry, and got more international attention thanks to Trojan’s imports to the U.K. 1970’s Soul Rebels and the following year’s Soul Revolution show a raw band finding its footing mostly in romance and some political arenas, with early versions of songs that would be re-recorded and polished up for later albums, like “400 Years” and “Kaya.”
If you’re a Beatles fan, you’ve heard “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and can recall the opening lyric: “Desmond has a barrow in the marketplace.” Well, that’s a tribute to Mr. Dekker himself, who’d just played around the U.K. in the late ’60s as Paul McCartney and the lads were working on The White Album. His 1967 single “007 (Shanty Town)” is a pioneering rude boy rocksteady track, and the first song on his ’69 Trojan album This Is Desmond Dekker. Think of it as the start of Jamaican gangsta rap, dealing with young men who aspire to be criminals, live in the ghettos, hate authority, and need a swift ass-kicking to get them on the right path. He moved to England in ’68, helping bring the culture across the Atlantic.
Now better known because of frontman Toots Hibbert, the Maytals gave the genre a name with “Do the Reggay,” allegedly the first track to use the term that came to define the genre. Given the scattered nature of record production in that era, multiple labels released several Maytals LPs, but Trojan’s 1973 Monkey Man record contains the hits “Pressure Drop” and “Monkey Man,” among many other soulful, dance floor-ready rocksteady tracks. In 1999, Trojan released their Live in London album, and Hibbert’s back to performing live, at 75, after a lengthy hiatus due to getting hit in the head with a bottle at a festival in 2013.
Lee “Scratch” Perry’s crew is probably the most responsible for making Spaghetti Westerns a part of Jamaican music. As the legend goes, the band would spend hours in theaters watching these exports from America, styling themselves as the gunslinger Django. That led to 1969’s Return of Django album, the first in the producer/bandleader’s career. It hews more toward the traditional sounds of the genres before Perry went into the experimentally awesome dub of albums like Super Ape, but there are a few bits of interspersed dialogue that make some of the otherwise pleasant sounds unnerving as hell.
One of sweetest men in reggae, Cliff’s earliest recordings were released by Trojan and Island as Hard Road, produced by Blackwell and Leslie Kong, the Chinese-Jamaican producer who also oversaw the earlier records by the Maytals and Bob Marley. Originally a self-titled LP, it was re-released as Wonderful World, Beautiful People in the U.S. in ’69, with “Many Rivers to Cross” showing up later in The Harder They Come, starring Cliff as a notorious gangster on the island. (Fun fact: He says he wrote the song in about 15 minutes, walking to the studio in New York City.)
Before she became one of the I Threes, the trio of women who backed Bob Marley alongside Jody Mowatt and Bob’s wife Rita, singer Marcia Griffiths and Bob Andy performed together, releasing two Trojan-backed albums, 1970’s Young, Gifted and Black and, a year later,
Pied Piper. The albums are a departure from the genre in that while they use traditional reggae and ska rhythms, they also employ a lot of dramatic strings a la Dusty in Memphis and beats that prefaced disco. The albums are a sign of things to come, as Griffiths’ reworked version of Bunny Wailer’s “Electric Boogie” is now best known as the soundtrack to the Electric Slide. You’ve probably heard it a couple times. If not, we’ll teach you, teach you, teach you. (Sorry.)
After spending some years working as session players for Coxsone Dodd and Lee Perry, vocalist Dave Barker and keyboardist Ansel Collins formed their own group to release two Trojan albums, 1971’s Double Barrel and 1976’s In The Ghetto. With a reverb-heavy sound and alternatingly braggadocious and smooth chatting by Dave over Ansel, the single “Double Barrel” topped charts in the U.K.and got up to 22 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It’s the epitome of the Jamaican toasting culture, where the MC improvs over instrumentals in a party setting. It’s a more fun version of the horn-blasting style that you’d hear in a club these days.
A founding member of the Skatalites, tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook was never really the star but the rock. He led his own band The Supersonics, while consistently performing and recording as a sideman for top Jamaican artists for decades. His Coltrane-inspired, playful approach to the sax made him stand out among the many talented horn players in the scene, and sadly it wasn’t until after his death in 1998 that Trojan released the compilation Down On Bond Street.
The singer’s “Carry Go Bring Come" was a huge hit, among many, for Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle records. The connection to Trojan comes from Reid’s pioneering DJing career — “Duke Reid - The Trojan King of Sounds” was the name painted on his truck, named after the brand of British trucks he used to transport his sound system to various parties. The duo worked on a number of local Jamaican hits such as “Rub Up Push Up” and “Save a Bread.”
Susan Cadogan’s story is another odd, curious moment in the spread of Jamaican music. She recorded with Lee Perry, most notably a cover of Millie Jackson’s “Hurts So Good.” But the releases never moved the needle in Jamaica, so Perry got them licensed in Britain. That single went to the top 5, and TV programs were booking her for performances. Her later singles, released by various labels, weren’t met with the same success, so Perry sold his entire cache of Cadogan’s songs to Trojan, which then put out the Hurts So Good compilation in 1976. Her career has had its ups and downs since — she briefly quit the industry to return to work in a library — but she’s put out new music over the past few years and plays the occasional festival in the U.S. and U.K.