Jamaica in the mid-1970s was a country in turmoil – besieged by a collapsing economy, poverty, inflation, and clashing political gangs that turned sections of Kingston into a war zone. 1976 began especially tragically, with more than 160 politically motivated killings tallied by June, leading Prime Minister Michael Manley to declare a state of emergency. Against this backdrop, singer Max Romeo and producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry conceived of a song to capture the heavy national mood. Its cautionary refrain? “It Sipple Out Deh” (i.e. it’s slippery out there, dangerous).
The powerful single – initially released as “Sipple Out Deh” and later remixed and renamed “War Ina Babylon” – transitioned Romeo from former ska and rocksteady-era vocalist notorious for one salacious hit (“Wet Dream”) to the initiator of an urgent wave of roots reggae protest music. It also helped announce the genius work emerging from Perry’s Black Ark Studios. Opened in late 1974 in the Washington Gardens suburb of Kingston, Black Ark was part mad scientist music laboratory, part mystical Rasta communal grounds. Within its famously graffiti festooned walls, Scratch employed state-of-the-art studio gear, a cast of versatile session players called The Upsetters, and the practice of continually bouncing layers of recordings down to a single track in order to add successive recorded layers, yielding an indelibly swampy sonic milieu akin to an ital answer to Phil Spector’s famed Wall of Sound.
Thus Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon – one of the first full-lengths sired from Scratch entirely at Black Ark – is exemplary for both its fiery message and the mesmerizing sound that carries it. “One Step Forward” opens the album with a devastating condemnation of Manley’s People’s National Party – once a symbol of egalitarianism and optimism amongst JA’s sufferah underclass, now of ineffectiveness (“One step forward, two steps backward… tell me, are you a con man, or are you-a-dreadlocks, eh?”). The brilliant “Chase the Devil” is pure Rasta righteousness, and would later become additionally renowned by way of its oft-sampled thundering intro (“Lucifer son of the morning/ I’m gonna chase you out of Eart’!”) and refrain (“I’m gonna send him to outer space to find another race”) by Jay-Z (by way of Kanye) and The Prodigy. And if “Uptown Babies Don’t Cry” and “Stealing in the Name of Jah’” can sound a bit on-the-nose in their critiques of inequality and demagoguery decades divorced from their contexts, “Norman” is still a menacing revelation. A nominally apolitical portrait of a streetwise hustler, it nonetheless perfectly evokes the era’s ruthlessness through Romeo’s haunting delivery and The Upsetters’ wicked steppers groove.
War Ina Babylon would be the first of Perry’s “holy trinity” of Black Ark-produced LPs to be released internationally by Island Records (followed by Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves and The Heptones’ Party Time). In its aftermath, Scratch and Romeo split ways in a dispute that would not see them reunite for decades. Yet Romeo would fondly recall this, their greatest moment of creative collaboration at Black Ark even amidst Jamaica’s turbulence, with a striking epitaph: “It was our best days.”