Here’s a little SAT analogy flashback: Michael Jordan is to Bob Marley as Scottie Pippin is to whom? A. Ziggy Marley. B. Michael Jackson. C. The guy from UB40. D. Joseph Hill.
Now think about it a minute. Use the process of elimination. Are Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin related by blood? Do they play the same sport? Is one the greatest and the other just great?
If you guessed D. Joseph Hill, then you’re right. Never a breakout superstar like Bob Marley, Hill—founder and driving force behind the band Culture—has become a well-known underground hero of politically charged, critically acclaimed reggae.
Hill began his career as a solo singer and guitarist. At age 14, he was already writing his first songs, but quickly found that the one-man approach wasn’t giving him the rich sound he needed to deliver his music and message. What he needed was more vocal chords to fill out the three-part harmonies. Gathering cousins Albert Walker and Roy “Kenneth” Dayes to assist, Hill formed the African Disciples in 1976 in St. Catherine’s Parish, Jamaica, where he grew up. The trio quickly came to the attention of famed Jamaican producer Joe Gibbs (Dennis Brown, the Heptones), who asked the band to lay down a few tracks in his studio. Hill considered the session a great success, and a curious Gibbs encouraged the band to record more. After a few weeks, “Get Ready to Ride the Lion to Zion,” “Two Sevens Clash,” and “Calling Rasta for I,” were recorded. It looked like the African Disciples were headed for stardom. But Gibbs wouldn’t give the band a contract Hill considered satisfactory, and eventually the three vocalists moved on.
The following year, after generating a buzz on the Jamaican streets, the African Disciples got some help from reggae greats Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Bingy Bunny (it was Bunny who suggested the band change its name to Culture) and Bobby Marquis to record Two Sevens Clash. The album pushed Culture into the reggae spotlight and has become a cult classic. Rolling Stone ranked Two Sevens Clash #25 on the magazine’s list of “Coolest Records of All-Time,” writing: “Joseph Hill’s band of Kingston mystics drop funky-dread Rasta proverbs about God and the devil and the apocalypse…Roots reggae with uplifting gospel vocals and Sly and Robbie rhythm.” The album even inspired Village Voice music critic and pontificator maximus Robert Christgau to write: “At least seven tracks are absolute classics…Bob Marley aside, it’s the best, and I’ve been putting Bob Marley aside since 1977.”
By the time Two Sevens Clash was released, reggae artists like Marley and Jimmy Cliff had taken the music around the world, but Hill would never catch fire like the stars who came before him. Like Burning Spear and Black Uhuru, Culture worked under the radar of the mainstream, putting out decades’ worth of roots-oriented reggae albums for a small but devoted following.
Today, some 26 years after Two Sevens Clash, Hill and company are still making topical, incendiary music. A month and a half ago, the band released World Peace—its 30th album—to kudos heralding it as a return to form, a traditional roots album. As always, Hill’s melodies are simple and intensely catchy. The new album resurrects a couple of songs from Culture’s past—“Dog a Go Nyam Dog” and “Never Get Weary”—but both sound like the fresh, energetic compositions of a band still hungry.
In support of the new album, Culture has set out on a world tour. Famous for performing more than 200 dates a year and playing in spots less frequented (Culture was one of the first reggae bands to play in Jerusalem, and also recently toured South Africa), Hill and bandmates are known for defying their years and delivering vibrant and inspired performances.
Whether you are into reggae right now is unimportant. Like James Brown, George Clinton or Marley, Hill puts on a live performance that wins skeptics over. His personality just emanates those happy, loose Jamaican grooves he’s been perfecting for three decades.