“It's one of the most impressive reggae catalogues in music,” says Daddy Ad, founder of the Trojan Sound System, before correcting himself. “Actually, it's THE most impressive reggae cataolgue in music.”
He's talking, of course, about Trojan Records, the label for which even the word 'legendary' doesn't seem to do justice.
We live in a world where labels come and go, get swallowed up or edged out of the market on a year-by-year basis. But the British-based stable, originally set up to release the very best reggae music from Jamaica in the UK by Chris Blackwell of Island Records - and whose roster includes Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, Lee Perry, Sugar Minott and many many more - is set to celebrate its 50th birthday. There will a be a massive party at the historic Electric in Brixton, formerly the Fridge, a converted music hall that's played host to everyone from The Smiths, revolutionary gay nights like Love Muscle, and the most cutting edge dubstep and rum and bass DJs.
The Trojan knees up is designed to represent every aspect and generation of the label's rich history. The founding fathers of the sound and those mavericks who used their primitve technology to create dub techniques will be celebrated, of course. But the significant influence of reggae on different musical movements, most notably punk and dance music, will also figure largely.
But before we get to that, let's get back to the beginnings. The label's name, Ad tells us, actually has its origins in both Britain and Jamaica, in one sense at least. Trojan Sound was the name of Duke Reid's sound system, one of the original Jamaican reggae crews, but so named because they used a British Leyland Trojan van that had been manufactured in our own sunny South London suburb Croydon.
The party, of course, wouldn't be complete without someone whose involvement with Trojan goes back to these days. Representing the deepest roots of Trojan's very early days on the Electric bill is one of the label's original recording artists, Dennis Alcapone.
“Dennis is an absolute living legend,” according to Ad, “He's the guy who brought in melody to toasting, the 'sing-jay' style,” Before that, he explains, chatting on the microphone during DJ sets was literally that – advertising the records being played or even promoting beer offers. Alcapone, along with contemporaries such as King Skit and U-Roy, began to mould the role into something more artistic, in the process giving birth to a tradition that would eventually, via the block parties staged by Jamaican neighbourhoods in New York, give birth to what is now the planet's biggest music movement, hip-hop. “I took Dennis to the Q Awards about 20 years back,” says Ad, “and Flea and Anthony Kiedis from Red Hot Chili Peppers were practically scrambling across the tables and chairs to get to him to meet him. That's how important he is.”
After the artist Sweetie - part of the Sisters of Reggae crew - represents ska and rocksteady sounds with an early session; London-based wizard of the mixing desk Mad Professor will be representing dub reggae innovators on the bill. He straddles the British and Jamaican music scenes, with an impressive CV including working with the legendary Lee Perry as well being recruited by Massive Attack to remix the whole of their Protection album.
The tradition of dub mixes, b-sides with the a-side's vocals cut to a minimum and rhythms and basslines boosted, is undoubtedly the blueprint for successive dance music genres from disco, house and techno to drum and bass, dubstep and footwork. Even the very idea of the extended reworking, which gave birth to the 12” single, is just one of the direct results of producers like Lee Perry, Sly & Robbie, Bunny Lee and King Tubby.
Daddy Ad tells us that the Prof's appearance will be no ordinary DJ stint. “It's going to be a very exclusive set,” he says, “he'll be doing some live dubs using original recordings from the multi-track tapes. I've no idea yet which ones he's going to pick but I know they're going to be big foundation records.”
Don Letts was another natural choice for the show, just one of the many names invited to compile a box set of their favourites from the Trojan catalogues in the past. He's perhaps best known these days as 6Music presenter and documentary maker, but his role in the early days of punk rock is a crucial one. As well as filming much of the genre's early days, he was a resident DJ at original punk venue The Roxy and helped to ensure that reggae was a central element in the punk melting pot.
It's hard to imagine how bands like The Slits, The Clash and The Ruts would have sounded without Letts' input, and indeed after the break up of The Clash he went on to form Big Audio Dynamite with their guitarist Mick Jones. There's also an argument that his job as Bob Marley's weed dealer when Marley lived in London was also pretty important to the development of music. “There's a photo of the two of them together,” Ad reports, “and you'd be surprised how petite Bob looks when he's stood next to Don.”
His slot on the night is billed as a '6 Music Trojan set' but Ad reckons that just means he's been give license to “go a bit deeper” and take a wider look at the label's catalogue and the music its inspired. Also taking a similarly wider view of the Trojan legacy on the night is Benny Page, the drum and bass producer whose work includes releases on Hospital and Shy FX's Renegade Soundboy stable.
All in all, it's a gathering of talent that truly sums up Trojan's legacy, as well as an influence on music in general that's almost unparalleled and continues to have an effect 50 years on.
At least part of the credit for that ongoing influence must go to Daddy Ad. Ad conceived the idea of a modern day Trojan Sound System around the turn of the millennium, to take reggae and the music it inspires into new areas and audiences. ”We wanted to get away from that stereotype of doing reggae on a Sunday afternoon with a jerk chicken barbecue,” he says. “We wanted to do it at peak time, Friday or Saturday nights. Since then we've done Fabric's room one, festivals, loads of different things.”
He's also masterminded the series of Trojan box sets, introducing the label's music to fresh ears through 'ambassadors' who curate their own selections. Among the unexpected choices who've put together collections of their Trojan favourites are relatively unexpected names like Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Super Furry Animals and the New York illbient giant DJ Spooky.
No Trojan party would be complete without an appearance from the sound system themselves, and Daddy Ad will be joined on the night by vocalists Supa 4 Creation, Chucky Banton and Jah Buck. In the unique surroundings of the Electric, a night of “pure vibes and pure love” surely awaits.
50 Years of Trojan takes place at London Brixton Electric on 27 May.
Words: Ben Willmott