Jah Thomas was an important figure on the Jamaican music scene during both the roots era of the '70s and the subsequent dancehall decade of the '80s. Besides releasing several DJ sides of his own in the latter half of the '70s, Thomas also came into his own as one of the island's top producers for both singers and DJs. Many of these sides found their way to the dub studios of King Tubby, who transformed a wealth of Thomas' rhythms into a some of the best dub tracks to emerge from Jamaica.
Born Nkrumah Thomas in Kingston in 1955, Jah Thomas was named after Kwame Nkrumah, the celebrated African nationalist who secured Ghana's (originally the Gold Coast) independence from the British at the beginning of the 1960s. Although not much is known of Thomas' early years, his first foray into the highly competitive Kingston music scene came in the mid-'70s. Thomas' story begins with the legendary Channel One studio, where the aspiring DJ first cut tracks as one of a crew of young chatters in the mold of innovators like U-Roy, Big Youth, and Dillinger. Open for business in 1973, Channel One was set up by the brothers Ernest and Joseph "Joe Joe" Hookim on Maxfield Avenue in Kingston. While also contracting out studio time to one of the day's most important and prolific producers, Bunny "Striker" Lee, the Hookim brothers established their own line of record production, using the Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare-driven Revolutionaries as their house band (also working for Lee, the group featured such studio luminaries as keyboard player Ansel Collins, guitarist "Dougie" Bryan, tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook, and trombonist Vin Gordon, among others). Besides cutting sides by such singers as Gregory Isaacs, John Holt, and Leroy Smart, as well as vocal groups like the Wailing Souls and the Mighty Diamonds, Channel One boasted a DJ roster that not only included Thomas, but other burgeoning young toasters like Trinity, Clint Eastwood, Ranking Trevor, Doctor Alimantado, and the relatively seasoned Dillinger, as well. Working off his Channel One success, Thomas followed his fellow chatters in cutting sides for Joe Gibbs and Errol Thompson at their 16-track studio on Retirement Crescent (the studio tandem -- also known as the Mighty Two -- were at the height of their success at this time, recording such DJ smashes as Trinity's "Three Piece Suit and Thing" and Prince Far I's "Under Heavy Manners").
Thomas' first big Jamaican hit was "Midnight Rock," which was cut by producer GG Ranglin in 1976. Thomas would later use the song's title as the name of his own Midnight Rock imprint. Over the next two years, more hits followed, including "Cricket Lovely Cricket," one of many DJ versions of the time using Slim Smith's "My Conversation" rhythm (it proved to be one of the most successful of the many Studio One rhythms used during the dancehall era, with other hit versions coming from the DJ Lone Ranger ["Barnabus Collins"] and singer Barrington Levy ["Collie Weed"]). Eventually Thomas inked a deal with the London-based Greensleeves label and released his debut LP in 1978, Stop Yu Loafin', which was cut at Channel One by Joseph Hookim. Following the longstanding trend in the Jamaican music industry, Thomas proceeded to hook up with a variety of local labels to put out some additional albums, including Dance Hall Style on Daddy Kool and Dance on the Corner for Abraham. As is made clear upon listening to these records, Thomas' gruff vocal style was akin to the singing/toasting style brought to life by the DJ innovator Big Youth in the early '70s.
Joining the ranks of contemporary dancehall knob twiddlers of the late '70s and early '80s like Henry "Junjo" Lawes, Linval Thompson, Gussie Clarke, and Winston Riley, Thomas began making his presence felt as a producer with sessions for both DJs and singers. Thomas worked with some of his DJ peers, including Ranking Toyan and Soul Imperial Hi-Fi star Early B. Of the many singers Thomas produced, the standouts include Michael Palmer, Barrington Levy, Barry Brown, Little John, Johnny Osbourne, and Sugar Minott. The big smashes to come Thomas' way, though, were Tristan Palmer's 1981 hits "Entertainment" and "Joker Smoker" (the later chronicling a hapless spliff roller using all but his own store of herb for the big blunt) and Anthony Johnson's 1982 chart-topper "Gun Shot."
Roots Radics was the main band Thomas used for his productions. This outfit, which specialized in a tight and aggressive form of rhythmic alchemy, would become synonymous with the early dancehall era of the '80s -- their most high-profile sessions were for Thompson and "Junjo" Lawes. The band backed most of Thomas' Midnight Rock sessions, often equaling their especially dread work for Lawes in the process. Along with bassist Errol "Flabba" Holt, who supervised Thomas' Midnight Rock session, the Radics also featured drummer "Style" Scott, guitarist Eric "Bingy Bunny" Lamont, pianist Gladstone Anderson, trumpeter Bobby Ellis, and percussionist Bongo Herman, among several other shifting personnel.
The Radics can be heard to particularly fine effect on Thomas' many dub releases of the time. In addition to his DJ and vocal work, Thomas proved to be a stellar adherent of King Tubby's innovative line in studio wizardry. In fact, Thomas would enlist the dub originator for a few of his best dub outings, including King Tubby's Hidden Treasure on Trojan, Jah Thomas Meets King Tubby in the House of Dub on Majestic Reggae, and Inna Roots of Dub. The standout example of Thomas and Tubby's way with the extreme mix down, though, has to be another of their Trojan albums, Jah Thomas Meets the Roots Radics Dubbing.
Not content to just work with Tubby, Thomas found some of his greatest dub success with onetime Tubby protégé Hopetown "Scientist" Brown. Scientist, as he is commonly known, plied a particularly exciting and effects-riddled dub style and in many ways rivaled his teacher's output. Adding considerably to his own solo discs on Greensleeves -- using many a tasty Lawes and Thompson rhythm -- and various mixing contributions for everyone from Israel Vibration to I-Roy, Brown applied his patented post-apocalyptic sound sculpting to such Thomas dub releases as the rare Roots Splashdown on Body Music and Jah Thomas Meets Scientist in Dub Conference on Majestic Reggae. These last two collections also feature such young mixing talent as Soljie and -- keeping in the lab mode -- Peter Chemist (like Scientist, these studio prodigies cut some of their teeth at Channel One).
Although Thomas did contribute to a smattering of sessions as the '90s came round, including sides by Gregory Isaacs and Shabba, his latter-day profile has been mostly very low-key. Fortunately there's been enough in the way of reissues and compilations to keep fans satisfied. For listeners in the market for various artists compilations, there's the Midnight Rock Collection: Dance Hall Connection on Culture Press and Midnight Rock Presents Reggae Veterans, the both of which boast quality sides by Anthony Johnson, Early B, Sugar Minott, Tristan Palmer, Barry Brown, and Thomas at his toasting best. Palmer's best work with Thomas is featured on the Majestic Reggae title Tristan Palmer Meets Jah Thomas in Disco Style Entertainment, which mixes in vocal cuts by Palmer with some version sides by Thomas.
Like many of Jamaica's most important and talented musical men and women, Jah Thomas will probably not become as well-known and celebrated as, say, Lee Perry, Tubby, or Duke Reid, but his place in reggae's cannon can't be denied. Joining such other relatively obscure producers as Lawes and Errol "Don" Mais, Thomas will certainly be remembered as one of the handful of producers who helped steer reggae out of it's first roots period into the modern dancehall era of the '80s and early '90s, the effects of which are still in evidence as reggae moves into the new millennium. ~ Stephen Cook