Under Heavy Manners

At his One Love concert on April 22, 1978, Bob Marley
appealed for peace and invited the leaders of
the rival political factions to shake hands onstage.
In Jamaica, political violence escalated throughout the late Seventies. Bob Marley himself became a victim on December 3, 1976, a couple of days before Smile Jamaica, a free public concert sponsored by the Cultural Section of the Prime Minister's Office that was scheduled for Kingston's National Heroes Park. Gunman burst into the yard at 56 Hope Road, where the band were rehearsing, firing indiscriminately. Bob's manager, Don Taylor, and friend, Lewis Griffith, were critically injured. Rita Marley underwent surgery to remove a bullet lodged in her scalp and Bob was hit in the arm. He still insisted on playing the gig, arriving on stage five hours late and delivering a 90 minute tour-de-force.

The election held in 1980 proved to be the bloodiest in Jamaican history. There was speculation as to whether Michael Manley, if re-elected, would legitimise the ganja trade to finance his socialist innovations and to repay the country's foreign debts. But Edward Seaga won the election and was able to borrow a further $698 million from the International Monetary Fund, plus $100 million from the USA under the Caribbean Basin Initiative. A condition of the loan was that Jamaica accept US Military assistance in eradicating the ganja fields, using flame-throwers deployed from helicopters.

Jamaican ganja growers were not so easily deterred, however. In common with harassed marijuana farmers throughout the world, the Jamaicans became adept at concealing their crops and adopted new techniques to increase their yield. In remote rural areas, such as Westmoreland, a more potent strain of the herb was developed by means of the 'sensimilla' ('no seeds') technique, whereby the male plants are identified early and removed from the field to prevent them from pollinating the THC-baring females, which consequently produce bigger and more resinous buds with no seeds.

After Bob Marley died of cancer on May 11, 1981, at the funeral, his wife symbolically placed a stalk of sensimilla in the coffin. Rita Marley went on to record the delightful, bubbling One Draw. Cannabis remained a lyrical preoccupation in reggae during the Eighties, but the emphasis was less on the herb's healing properties, more on the profit potential of the ganja business. For instance, in 1984 the sweet-voiced Sugar Minott, recorded Herbsman Hustling, a song in his classic roots style written from the perspective of a small-time dealer: "I know it's my neck I'm risking, but you see that's my daily living." While the humble herbsman is at the sharp end of the business, all levels of society are implicated: "Wrap up a draw for the lawyer," sings Sugar, "Wrap up a draw fe' commissioner..."

Peter Tosh was gunned down in 1987 and went to join Bob in the great supergroup in the sky. With their demise reggae lost much of its radical punch, but if there was any danger of the music getting into a rut in the eighties it was redeemed by technological innovation. The record that's generally credited for launching the digital revolution in Jamaican studios, in 1985, is Sleng Teng by Wayne Smith, produced by King Jammy. The lyric is more concerned with that other hardy perennial, sex, than it is with weed - although it emphatically denounces cocaine - but promotes 'sensi' as the ultimate aphrodisiac.

The Sleng Teng rhythm inspired dozens if not hundreds of versions, including one by Barrington Levy, produced by Jah Screw: Under Me Sensi. The lyric again touched upon the hypocrisy of official attitudes to the ganja business: "Babylon, you na like ganja man/But we bring the foreign currency 'pon the island." The same team also recorded Real Thing, in which Barrington begs, "Gimme the grass, won't you gimme the grass", declaring that cocaine will mess up his brain, "because when you smoke the cocaine, you can get jumpy. When you smoke up the cocaine, you don't what you're thinking about. When you smoke up the cocaine, you're going to ruin your brain..."

In his biography of Bob Marley, Catch A Fire, Timothy White explores the criminialisation of marijuana in Jamaica and the murderous effects of the consequent rise of cocaine and heroin cartels in the 1980s. In the period following the release of his last album, Uprising, Bob watched the Rasta scene in Jamaica deteriorate as a sinister cocaine, freebase and heroin trafficking network spread from Negril into Kingston. After his death, as Jamaica become a stop-over point for cocaine en route from South America to Florida, reggae music became less 'conscious' and more aggressive, as cocaine injected staccato, percussive beats and added new dimensions of lewdness to lyrics which were roundly condemned by righteous Rastas for their "slackness". In short, cocaine mutated reggae into ragga.