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Dr. Israel's Urban Remedy

By Norman Weinstein

JANUARY 25, 1999:  Imagine a Rastafarian -- a Brooklyn Rastafarian -- listening to Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" for the first time. It's midnight in the city. He's hearing Gaye's pleas to ghetto residents during the years of Babylonian horror in Vietnam. The Rasta reflects how times haven't changed for his people at century's end. He hears gunshots outside his window. He has two choices: make music of his own, or go mad from the implications of the violence that surrounds him.

These might not have been the actual circumstances that inspired Inna City Pressure (Mutant Sound System), but that's my sense of the scene that emerges on the most adventurous and cohesive reggae album of the late '90s. Inna City Pressure is the work of a Brooklyn Rastafarian who goes by the name of Dr. Israel (a/k/a Douglas Bennett), and it's one man's testimony -- Israel, who handles all the vocals and programming, is joined by just a handful of guest players -- concerning the plague of American urban violence and its effects on the spirit.

It's not often that reggae spawns concept albums, or shows a willingness to adapt to funk or techno rhythms. Mostly, reggae artists aim to stay true to the music's roots. But some rules are made to be broken. Inna City Pressure does just that by infusing roots reggae with jungle beats, dub production, funk and hip-hop grooves, and punk attitude. The result is no mere stylistic smorgasbord -- it's the most fully developed reggae concept album since Bunny Wailer's now decades-old Blackheart Man, and it reflects a level of originality and power that's rare in any genre.

The story begins with the a cappella number "Inna City." In a sweet tenor reminiscent of Dennis Brown, Israel intones, "I will not lay down, Lord, I will not behave/I was born as a king and then bred as a slave." From there he segues into "Pressure," a powerhouse mix of dub/jungle rhythms punctuated by ska-flavored horns that bring to mind the bluebeat soul of a vintage Skatalites single, with lyrics that explain the difference between herb supplied by gangsta men and herb supplied by Rastas. Next up is "The Doctor vs. the Wizard," a punky reggae jam that sounds like a Peter Tosh outtake reinterpreted by the Bad Brains.

These songs reveal the crackling psychological and spiritual energies beneath the cool façade of a Rastafarian as he confronts daily urban horrors. The opening anthem of defiant pride gives way to a reasoned program for living a healthy and ethical lifestyle in the face of violence. Israel is by turns rebellious, playful, and resigned.

The disc's real centerpiece is a cover of Willie Williams's apocalyptic salvo "Armagideon Time," a tune once covered by the Clash. Compare Israel's version to the Williams original and you'll hear how he turns Williams's heartbreakingly plaintive account of starving children into a more wrathful and rhythmically aggressive assault. Israel makes palpable the difference between the degree of desperation felt among Jamaica's underclass in the '70s and that experienced by New York's in the '90s.

Elsewhere he admonishes rude boys to quit their evil ways ("Coppers -- Brooklyn Version"), protests against government corruption ("Survivors"), and delivers a haunting eulogy to senselessly murdered ghetto youth ("Life in the Ghetto"). And there's the peculiar and oddly satisfying pensive tone Dr. Israel assumes on the album's final number, "Time." "And I will take my time when it comes to this town if I'm not gunned down," he sings with disarming calm. It's a strange way to end an album marked by so much furious protest. Yet it's a stance at the heart of Rastafarianism, a thoughtful, considered waiting for the apocalyptic day when materialist civilization sinks under the weight of its own pollution. It's this sensibility that separates Israel from earlier experimenters with punked-up reggae, from bands like the Bad Brains and the Clash.

This bedrock of calm comes through in the music, too. The dense electro-dub static of "Survivors," for example, is interrupted at one point with a calming respite, a brief allusion to that most pastoral and new-agey of reggae masters, Augustus Pablo. Moments like this one reveal Dr. Israel's purpose: he's on a mission to take reggae into the 21st century, to bring together the apocalyptic urgency of techno and the laid-back vibe of classic reggae, to deliver a hopeful message from that heart of the Caribbean nation called "Brooklyn."


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