I was listening – as usual – to FAME’s Retroactive Wednesday earlier this week and they played a number of Ninja Man songs back to back. As much as I enjoyed his deejaying ,I felt sad, and that was not because Desmond Ballentine will be close to 80 years old when he possibly can come out of prison (if he ever does). It was because it hit me again how few strong recordings he has made in his extensive, though troubled, career.
I once heard Shaggy say at, if I recall correctly, a press conference in Montego Bay in 2000 when his Hot Shot album was released, that a concert is just a memory (I am paraphrasing here). That is not a dismissal of the live experience, which is even more important as an immediate revenue stream in an era of lowered record sales, but a frank assessment of how fleeting a performance is. And, with it easier to record and rebroadcast than ever, selling an in-concert recording is simply not what it used to be when Simon and Garfunkel did ‘The Concert in Central Park’ in 1982 and then one half of the duo did ‘Paul Simon’s Concert in Central Park’ in 1991.
No matter how we talk about Ninja Man’s classic pose after walking out on stage, his ‘bad wud’ special on Killamanjaro during that famous clash with Silverhawk in 1987, then the clashes with Supercat, Shabba Ranks, and Kartel at Sting, his famed “hold on!” (“an all bokkle stan up inna de air” as he said in one interview), he will fade from the memories of younger people very, very quickly. And as much as we who saw him perform at different stages of his career can wax warm about Ninja Man’s impeccable timing, quick wit, and costuming, we cannot transfer the impact and excitement to those from another generation who were not there. Audiovisual recordings cannot convey the electricity of the moments and, more importantly, they cannot be exploited as a revenue stream or replace the money he would have made on the road for his family.
Think about it. In a career of over 30 years, interrupted by brushes with the law and strong substances, how many really strong records has Ninja Man made? Woefully few, for that period of time. There is Protection with Courtney Melody (the first Ninja Man recording I heard outside of dancehall tapes), the Percy Sledge remake pair with Tinga Stewart (Take Time to Know Her and Cover Me), Border Clash (which topped Chang and Chen’s list of dancehall songs in ‘Reggae Routes’ and provided provided the theme for Professor Carolyn Cooper’s seminal ‘Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large)’ Murder Dem, and More Reality. All of these were in the late 1980s into very early 1990s.
Earlier this decade there was Dweet with Specialist and, in between that and those late 1980s songs, the popular recordings were sparse. There was the combination with Bounty Killer in which Ninja Man welcomed his “shooting son” and an unforgettable appearance as the pastor in Shaggy’s Church Heathen.
I have not noted all the recordings, but the point is that when an artiste can no longer perform live in a particular location for reasons ranging from fatigue to illness, death, and incarceration, it is the recordings which keep them relevant and generate income, For example, I never saw Dennis Brown close Reggae Sunsplash in the morning sun, though so many persons speak about it. However, his recordings – Milk and Honey, Promised Land, Here I Come, Foundation, and more – are literally music to my ears.
Contrast Ninja Man’s situation with Buju Banton’s, whose Til Shiloh album is on the iTunes charts 22 years after release and whose songs are as popular as ever ahead of his impending release from US prison. Take Kartel’s case, with his slew of post-incarceration releases up to Mhm Hm (and leave the pillow of whether he has been recording from behind bars or not). Popularity is being maintained and revenue generated.
Shaggy was right. A concert is just a memory. He should know. He sold diamond with Hot Shot. And he said something else that has stuck with me. To again paraphrase, he said, look at my album covers, I am always smiling. Music has been good to me.
Is we say good records over prison record.