I admit, I’m one of those people who thinks most things sounds great when given a reggae vibe. I basically feel like anything in dub sounds better and Lee “Scratch” Perry should produce all genres of music. I also cosigned both Easy Star All-Star’s Dub Side of the Moon, and their Radiodread as brilliant albums which pushed reggae to a different place. Unfortunately, Easy Star All-Stars couldn’t overturn the notion that some music is just simply off limits. Some music like, Michael Jackson.
When I first heard that they were attempting to do Easy Star’s Thrillah–reggae remixes of MJ’s jams–I was super excited, knowing the risk, yet believing that they could pull it off. Well, they weren’t even close. From the very first track, a reggae-fied version of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” I was discouraged. It isn’t terrible but it just isn’t Mike. That of course, is to be expected, but ironically the disappointment is because the song hews too close to the original to really carve out enough of their own reggae sound to draw a clear distinction. Instead it sounds like a talent show rendition doesn’t make it to the second round; about a 6.5 to be exact. Next up is “Baby Be Mine,” which suffers from the exact same ailment. I wanted to like it so bad, because the groove is pretty awesome, and The Green’s voice is actually pretty pleasant–and would be awesome if this was an original song–but because I have no choice but to hold it up against Michael Jackson, it pales. The worst example is, of course, arguably, the most important song — “Billie Jean.” It’s just flat out bad. Not bad meaning good. Just bad.
In trying to figure out why Easy Star All-Stars fell short, I realized that perhaps it’s because Michael Jackson was a soul singer. He wasn’t experimental Pink Floyd or flat-timbred, abstract Thom Yorke. Instead he had true vocal chops and tonal virtuosity, and in order to do him justice, you can’t just dub his music and add a guitar chuck. Perhaps that’s why the best songs on Thrillah, are the ones with the best singers. “The Girl is Mine,” has Mojo Morgan, and one of the best reggae singers ever, David Hinds. “Human Nature” is sung by Cas Haley, who has a fantastic voice and offers possibly the best performance on the project. In close second comes Christopher Martin, who does an incredible job on “The Lady in My Life.” Maybe even too good of a job. Much like the first few songs his rendition lacks nuance but his talent show rendition comes in at more like a 9.0. It might as well have been Michael singing it, but because so much of the album missed the mark, that’s nothing to complain about.
So now I have to admit that though I was one of those people who believed everything sounded better as a reggae song, maybe it’s true that some music is untouchable, and perfect as is. Stevie Wonder, definitely. Marvin Gaye. And from what I heard on Easy Star’s Thrillah, definitely Michael Jackson. Sometime we just have to leave well enough alone. And Michael Jackson is better than well enough.
- Jason Reynolds