Various Artists: Gee Wizz Riddim Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
2021’s stellar line-up of innovative, quality riddims continues to grow at a pace. This time, a label has lined up a mammoth roster of top-calibre artists to contribute across a brand-new Roots offering. And the effort has entirely paid off.
Gee Wizz Riddim, released via Rastahood Productions, sees the label also known as Robinhood Productions, take the listener on an expansive and rich journey. Across an impressive 14 interpretations, the riddim delivers something fresh and new. The musicians working across Gee Wizz Riddim are stellar: drums from Rimbim, the bass from Talliss, Cliff on keys and Marley Steven Wright on guitars.
The mastering from Mastering Guy is slick and sympathetic to the construction of each track: classically resonant in its finish, with the feel of a live performance. And the riddim itself is a thing of beauty. It almost feels wrong to call it a ‘riddim’. Because the sheer level of intricacy across the instrumentation defies the usual conventions.
What stands out first is the chord progressions. Gee Wizz riddim avoids traditional Roots arrangements – leaning towards something far more Soul in construction. Based in the G minor scale, it works from that root down to the 7th, then the 6th and back to the root at the end of the sequence (unusual in itself as it creates a feeling of anticipation). But Gee Wizz Riddim then moves into an E flat major key briefly on the bridge – switching between this and the G minor before returning to its main sequence proper. It’s a fascinating arrangement for a Roots track – and is the force which allows so many interpretations to be put across it due to the melodic opportunities it presents.
Much of the arrangement uses Roots musical devices. Cliff’s keys run an embellished bubble rhythm: striking those recognisable, offbeat chords but with some attractive syncopation at the end of the bars. But he breaks this up during the bridges – opting for dotted rhythms and some pleasing improv. Meanwhile, Talliss’s bass does the subtlest of drop-beat rhythms – briefly pausing for breath directly on the fourth beat of each bar. Otherwise, it runs a winding, fairly pacey line which melodically veers between leading the chord progressions via the root of each while also doing its own melody (as opposed to broken chords). Talliss’s style avoids being overly picked, opting for a more legato (smooth) approach.
Rimbim’s drums are more complex than a standard one drop affair. The kick sounds like it actually hits the one, then the two and the four after that. The snare also focuses on the upbeats, while the hi-hats alternate between straight double time and dotted rhythms. But Rimbim brings in additional dotted note rim clicks on the snare; some flourishes on the tom-toms and cymbals and even some fairly pacey buzz rolls too. It’s an impressive performance – breaking out from the more reserved Roots fayre to add real depth to Gee Wizz Riddim. Then, the additional instrumentation complements all this perfectly.
Horns are regal but sparsely used – interjecting with a staccato, forthright countermelody across the chorus at appropriate points, with a particularly gorgeous sax line. An electric organ with the vibrato turned up compliments the keys, juxtaposing their offbeat rhythm with a funky, dotted note arrangement. A second electric organ, more dampened and with no vibrato, then runs a delicate melodic line just out of earshot. Top quality vocals are provided on some of the tracks by Little Clarkie and Valerie Vybz. Then, Wright’s guitars finish this musical smorgasbord. At times they run a delicate skank; much like the second electric organ line just out of earshot. But their main function is to effectively provide a second vocal line – gliding across the middle and upper end of their register using quite improvised melodic arrangements. Wright’s technique appears to be playing nearer the bridge with the treble on the amp slightly up. This, coupled with his use of bending, creates the guitar’s whining, almost vocal sound. They are the glue that cements Gee Wizz Riddim’s quite superb arrangement together – and overall, the whole thing is extremely impressive.
It’s the sheer detail involved in the riddim which allows such a vast number of interpretations. Because the genius of Gee Wizz Riddim is that here, less is not actually more.
Up-and-coming artist Denzi Wint opens proceedings with Your Conscience. She has a highly attractive voice which works more in an alto range and timbre than soprano – being very rich and rounded (although she does feel equally at home in her higher register). She performs decent melodic runs and riffs around her register; fitting in well with Gee Wizz Riddim’s obvious Soul influence. But Wint also has a real talent for interpretation; here making good use of dynamic light and shade and note clipping/extension. Lyrically, she has constructed a compelling narrative about how we all have to “fight and survive” ensuring that our morality directs us on life’s path. Very pleasing – and it bodes well for Wint’s future endeavours.
From the new to the seasoned, UK-based stalwart Kareem Shabazz delivers Oh My Friends. Much like Wint, he too hones in on the riddims Soul sensibilities – of particular note are his glissandos across the same syllable and morphing of vowel sounds. Shabazz is vocally gritty and pointed, going from a growl to roar in the space of a few notes. He’s made excellent use of the chorus, constructing a memorable melodic line and delivers pleasing work on the verses. Shabazz has given us a lyrical sermon, calling on us to collectively put ourselves ‘in another man’s shoes’; try to heal rifts but ultimately compelling us to work collectively together for the greater good. Strong work.
The incomparable King Mas never fails to impressive – and he certainly doesn’t with his interpretation, Heal the Nation. His voice needs little introduction as it’s one of the most recognisable and attractive in modern Roots-derived music. Here, he focuses particularly on his full vocal range: beginning in his piercing falsetto before settling into his tenor range. Musically, he has focused slightly more on Gee Wizz Riddim’s Roots basis – utilising a lot of dotted notation and stripping the bridge back to singjay-like melodic basics, working just around a few notes until the end of the sequence where he flourishes-out. The chorus is infectious – but it’s the verse where Mas really comes into his own, effortlessly creating complex melodies with particular attention to light and shade in note length. Lyrically, Mas has delivered a veritable Song of Praise for Rastafari – espousing its positive facets juxtaposed with Babylon’s nefarious nature – and what also stands out are the references to climate change; not always addressed within Roots music. Top-class from Mas, as always.
Veteran artist Little Clarkie shows he’s lost none of his power over his thirty-plus year career, with Don’t Worry About A Ting. Interestingly, he gives the most Soul-influenced performance to this point across the Gee Wizz Riddim. His voice has a natural Soul timbre: slightly gruff but also very rounded in terms of embouchure. He does some gorgeous flips up into his falsetto; opts for longer note sequences across his performance and displays an impressive tenor vocal range, dipping way down into a baritone at points. But it’s his improv which is pure Soul, letting his backing vocals take the lead on the chorus’s as he winds around the chord progressions. Lyrically, a Song of Praise to Jah is given with clear passion – and overall, Clarkie shows why his career has spanned so many years.
Another veteran, Luciano, delivered one of 2020’s strongest Roots albums with The Answer. Here, he delivers an equally strong interpretation for the riddim’s title track. Like Mas, he focuses more on dotted notation, working around the higher end of his vocal register. He is undoubtedly pitch-perfect, providing interesting melodies across the verses and a memorable chorus. There’s some fascinating spoken word (presumably from Luciano) on the bridges, nice falsetto work and his husky and mellow voice lends itself to the riddim well. He has also given us a rousing evaluation of Africa and its people, proclaiming their strengths against the backdrop of Babylon’s persistent attacks. Stirring works.
The legendary Mikey General brings yet more seasoned professionalism to the Gee Wizz Riddim with Iron Sharpeneth Iron. His vocal style is different again to his predecessors. Focusing more on a horizontal embouchure, his piercing voice is glazed with a wonderfully controlled vibrato, which he utilises from the mid-point of notes onward. His delivery is particularly urgent, focusing more on shorter notes and pointedly allowing us to hear his intakes of breath at points. While Roots has influenced the use of dotted notation, General also brings in some brilliant Soul vocal runs which are melodically complex and rhythmically pacey – but delivered perfectly (check out the ones after the third chorus). His lyrics are affecting, as he discusses our need to maintain faith in a higher power as we navigate this life’s peaks and troughs. Absolutely brilliant all round.
Milton Blake has worked with both Luciano and General in the past – and it shows across his interpretation Cut and Clear. He exhibits a Soul-led approach to his vocal style, doing impressive 13-note jumps repeatedly throughout the track with ease along with some nice runs and riffs. He has a gloriously lazy vibrato, which he utilises to good effect. And Blake’s timbre is rich and rounded, crystal clear with perfect enunciation. He also gives the first fully improvised verse of Gee Wizz Riddim, showing his performance skills in all their glory. Like the other artists, he has delivered a memorable chorus too. Blake has provided an interesting narrative in the lyrics, too – personifying them somewhat but ultimately sending a warning message to Babylon and its proponents that those of us with faith are stronger than them. Highly rousing and compelling; it would be good to see more from this talented artist.
Nadia Lindsay is another artist the world needs to see more of, given her strong interpretation across Jah Love, Jah Love; little wonder she previously worked with Sly and Robbie and Clive Hunt. Her voice has almost a balladeer quality to it – veering from the softly-textured lower range timbre to a more full-throttle, Gospel-like delivery; sometimes doing this in the space of just a few notes. She has a decent range across essentially a soprano register. She possesses a nice vibrato: rapid and fluttery in presentation. Her performance is musically very clean, too – hitting every note and paying precise attention to enunciation. But Lindsay also delivers several spoken word sections, as well – which breaks up the essentially Soul-Pop performance decently. Lyrically, Lindsay has also created something of powerful beauty: a protest cry for equality for women across the world, with timely poignancy as she calls for “love not pride”. More of her, please.
Then, enter Orakle to switch Gee Wizz Riddim up completely with Nah Give Them. It stands in contrast to what’s come before it, not least because of his rough and ready, abrasive delivery – purposefully so, of course. He starts as he means to go on: the dB raised; his style unrelenting. Orakle’s vocal line and the backings have been heavily layered including MTR on his; again, more so than on previous interpretations – creating a frantic, almost unsettling vibe which is perfect. The use of an additional breaks in the riddim (the first time this has happened) works extremely well – fitting with Orakle’s almost Dancehall performance. But it’s ultimately his lyrics which are the driver for the overall tone Nah Give Them – as Orakle furiously breaks down the state of the world under Babylon – from poverty, to the building of walls via the tricks the system pulls on us. And of course, his overriding mantra is that we must resist. It’s strong, unnerving but totally enthralling.
Ras-I-Jah takes Gee Wizz Riddim back to something more Roots-Soul with Take Me Home. He’s created a fascinating interpretation: on the chorus making his vocal the main ‘call’ line; responding himself in a singjay. His singing voice is rich and rounded, using vertical embouchure heavily and sitting in an upper baritone range. But as always, Ras-I-Jah turns his hand equally well to his singjay – which is then fully utilised across the verses. He uses dotted notation predominantly throughout this, taking a basic rhythmic pattern and then embellishing it as the verses progress. And his lyrics are somewhat poignant and moving, as he discusses the navigation of life on this earth under the noxious Babylon – and how, sadly, there are times when many of us cannot wait to be raised to higher plains – ‘taken home to Zion’.
The esteemed Vivian Jones brings his unique style to Majestic One – taking Gee Wizz Riddim back to a more Roots vibe. Here, at times he focuses on an almost Nyabinghi chanting delivery: poised, purposeful and not too pacey. He stretches out note lengths; adjusts rhythmic patterns to clash slightly with the music to bring a more improvised style in and reserves the melodic flourishes for the ends of verses and the chorus. Jones’s technique of maintaining a persistent, middling dB and rounded timbre serve to enhance the traditional feel. Lyrically, Majestic One is what it says: a Song of Praise to Jah, demonstrating the importance he has in all our lives. Humbling and delicate works.
UK-based musical icon Selah Collins brings his own ‘majestic’ voice to Time We Use To Have; the only love song of the Gee Wizz Riddim. Collins provides a brilliantly cleverly contrast throughout the track – because his verses employ markedly staccato, clipped notes across a slightly delicate deliver. Then, the bridge becomes slightly more smoothed-out, before Collins takes fuller flight on the chorus with his multi-layered backing vocals and improvised main line. But then at the end, those staccato notes return. It’s an excellent use of a musical theme; what’s also excellent is his use of melody, too – creating an attractive array of motifs that he uses throughout. His lyrics, sorrowful and remorseful about the love of his life he’s lost, are strong – and overall, Collins has given a smart and intuitive track.
From the UK to Canada, and Tony Anthony brings us the pointedly titled Slave Driver. He is another artist who has honed in on the Soul inflections across Gee Wizz Riddim. Runs and riffs a-plenty, Anthony uses a large vocal range to showcase his resonant and powerful voice; his upper register being particularly impressive with a crystal-clear quality. There’s something of the Gospel about the chorus, as he runs up his register before clipping the climactic note into an abrupt stop, with the briefest of fluttering vibrato applied across it. Anthony has lyrically given a superb breakdown of how, despite proclamations to the otherwise, we are all effectively slaves of Babylon’s system – and his impassioned cry for emancipation and justice hits hard.
Gee Wizz Riddim concludes with Ras Oneilly and Jah Jah Love. His performance is quivering but delicate – operating around soft yet raised dB and a vocal range that builds across the track to an exuberant crescendo on the end of each verse. Oneilly makes some brilliant use of blue notes within Jah Jah Love, the only artist on the riddim to purposefully do this, once more picking up on Gee Wizz’s Soul. Of note is that he’s also made the third chorus into an effective musical break, with the sparsest of involvement from himself. This is a natural move and feels completely at home. Once more, a Song of Praise this is – and given the overt messages of faith contained across the whole record, it’s a fitting and engaging conclusion.
If you need to take a breath or lie down after listening to Gee Wizz Riddim, it’s understandable. Because Rastahood Productions have created perhaps the most sweeping and detailed riddim of the year so far. Utterly comprehensive musically, it’s quite remarkable how much attention to detail there is. The artists all deliver in droves, and overall Gee Wizz Riddim really is quite superb. One of the stand-out contributions of 2021 – and so much more than just a riddim.
Listen to Mr Topple’s radio show here: The Topple UnPauzed Show
Gee Wizz Riddim review by Mr Topple (14th May 2021).