I can’t remember exactly how I came across this video, and I had no idea who ManuDigital was before I clicked the link, but boy, am I ever glad I did. I do know that name recognition did play a factor in watching it as I saw Junior Cat’s name in the title of the video and I was a big fan of him growing up. The video opens with a now grizzled not-so-Junior Cat on the mic wearing some shades (we could probably start calling him Senior Cat if Super Cat wasn’t his older brother) and he’s sitting beside a visibly giddy ManuDigital. With nothing but a Frenchman playing a Casio MT-40 keyboard beside him, Junior Cat launches into an epic freestyle (while borrowing some lines from his previous hits) and shows us he’s still got enough skills to run the dancehall. The video is over 11 minutes long and features some lesser known artists as well, but it’s quite entertaining and worth the watch for fans of what I like to call the golden era of dancehall.
As the camera zooms away from Junior Cat in the opening minutes of the video, there are two young children sitting beside him who seem thoroughly unimpressed. I have concluded that this must be because they are either his children and see their dad kick it all the time, or they are completely oblivious to the history of dancehall music (which is forgivable given their age). The rest of you will not get off so easy of course, since giving reggae history lessons is kind of my thing 🙂
You may be wondering how I was able to discern the specific keyboard model that ManuDigital was playing since there is never really a close-up shot in the video. It’s because that particular keyboard is without a doubt the most famous model in the history of reggae music. The Casio MT-40 was launched in 1981 and it’s key feature was that it was affordable. The other secret to its success was held deep within the transistors of its memory modules. The “rock” preset as it was labelled on the MT-40 was the impetus for the grand daddy of all reggae riddims, known as the “Sleng Teng”. On the Casio MT-40, it sounded like this:
With the guiding hand of legendary Jamaican producer King Jammy, the “rock” preset morphed into the first ever digitally produced riddim in reggae history. Wayne Smith voiced the first track “Under Me Sleng Teng” from which the riddim got its name, and the rest, as they say, is history.
This seminal recording changed the landscape of reggae forever by democratizing the production of the music. Artists no longer needed to struggle with the costs of studio time and session musicians. All they needed to demonstrate their musical prowess was a keyboard, a mic and a tape machine. Indeed, by some counts, there are over 300 different songs on the Sleng Teng riddim alone.
While the existence of this “rock” preset and its subsequent use in the first ever digital reggae recording may seem like coincidence, it turns out there is more to this story. The origin of the “rock” preset has for years been shrouded in folklore, with many claiming it was based on Eddie Cochrane’s 1959 rockabilly hit “Somethin’ Else”. While they may sound similar, this is unequivocally false. How can we know for certain? Because Hiroko Okuda, the Casio engineer from Japan who programmed the preset said so. I recently found a brilliant article by James Trew (from Engadget.com) which quotes Okuda as categorically denying it. She said it was based on a British rock song from the 70’s, but refused to reveal the name. There is one final M. Night Shyamalanian twist to this story however that in my mind makes it one of destiny rather than happenstance. Okuda studied Musicology at a college in Tokyo, and was a devoted follower of reggae music. So strong was her affinity for the music, it ended up being the topic of her thesis. Did she unknowingly impart her love of reggae into this preset, only for it to be discovered and flourish on the other side of the world? I’d like to think so.
I’ve posted the link to the full article by James Trew below, and I highly recommend it for all reggae fans, or even fans of musical history in general. It is a great read!