The concept of the compilation Out of Many: 50 Years of Reggae Music is simple. 50 years ago, Jamaica won independence from the British-ruled West Indies Federation. Around that same time, popular music in Jamaica began solidifying into some of the many sounds we now think of as reggae. Out of Many tells those two stories in parallel, with one song selected to represent the sound of each year from 1962 to 2012.
There’s a third story, too: that of VP Records, the label responsible for the compilation itself, and the family behind the label. The “V” and “P” in VP Records are Vincent and Patricia Chin, the Chinese-Jamaican owners of Randy’s Records, a shop that opened in Kingston in 1961. Vincent also opened a recording studio called Studio 17 and produced many early ska and rocksteady songs. The family started VP in 1979 after moving to New York as a way of distributing popular Jamaican music to the United States. It’s now the largest independent reggae label in the world.
It’s only natural that the three stories should twist into one: Randy’s Records, Studio 17 and later VP have been there for nearly every step in reggae’s development, from a hyper-local folk art to international force. The opening song on Out of Many, a celebratory historical narrative called “Independent Jamaica,” was recorded in 1962 in Studio 17 by the Trinidadian singer Lord Creator and produced by Vincent Chin; it was also the first single Chin released. Like so many Jamaican records that would follow, it speaks directly to its audience of specific events they knew personally — in this case, the effort to win independence.
From there, Out of Many follows the developing musical history of the island like a three-hour fireworks show: it moves from ska (“Malcolm X”) to rocksteady (“Take It Easy”) in the 1960s; lovers rock (“Everything I Own”) and roots (the socio-economic warning shot “Fade Away” and the apocalyptic “Two Sevens Clash”) in the ’70s; the tightly-wound electronic riddims that arose in the ’80s (a string of hits including “Under Me Sleng Teng” and “Rumours”) and dancehall (“Who Am I” and “Get Busy”) that has dominated since the ’90s.
All the music here was made to pull you onto the dance floor, but if you slow down and listen with an open mind (and many open browser tabs), it’s also an education in the complex, layered history of a nation, a record label and a family. These songs are distracting, though, in the best way. Good luck staying off the dance floor for long.
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