In the 1970s, disco arrived, futuristic and cyclical. It disrupted, forcing a reimagining of the pop song, whose shape until then had been linear and direct, and whose function had been to transit the listener from one hook to the next, even bigger hook. Instead, disco reimagined the pop song as a wheel that turned and turned, building gradually and subtly. It was a spiritual technology, remaking a pop song into something that, though still anthemic, also made room for the ecstatic.
Disco contained process itself. These were songs with absolutely nowhere else to be, pushing runtimes of six, seven, eight minutes, available to feelings that couldn’t be expressed on a three-minute track. That the songs were meant for the dance floors of New York meant that they could also be, secretly, diaristic and interior. The genre traveled like a current across the diaspora, unlocking the imaginations of people like Jorge Ben, Ebo Taylor and William Onyeabor, who spilled his psychedelic confessionals over his tracks. “I want you to realize,” Onyeabor implored, “the way I feel in me.” “I’m gonna explode,” he cried, and you could contend with the implications of that, or you could just keep dancing.
This process, this unending transit, continued even after the songs’ runtimes expired. In Kingston, many of the same musicians that had reimagined R&B into reggae began the process of reimagining reggae into the music of the future. Jamaican musicians embodied disco’s transformational spirit, for a few years. The period of reggae and disco’s crossover was brief, but emerged from the same alchemy that would later create dancehall, Jamaica’s new pop music. You can hear the diaspora exciting and inspiring each other in real time.
These four records developed in the time after reggae had truly gone global. Just before them, ‘lovers rock,’ from Jamaicans in Britain, had become the first reggae sub-genre born entirely outside of Jamaica and had transformed reggae into more tender. You can hear lovers rock’s values in these songs, as well as you can hear the irreverent spirit of dancehall being born. In the middle of this transformative period in Jamaican music are these chimeric, dazzling records, mostly covers of funk and disco hits that blended classic reggae textures and dub influence with playful synthesizers and drum-machines.
Jennifer Lara “I Am In Love” (1981)
Jennifer Lara‘s cover of Evelyn “Champagne” King‘s “I Am in Love” is weird, slowed-down and syrupy with chirping synths. It’s cinematic with dramatic beats. “I’ve been thinking ’bout you,” Lara calls. The synths answer inquisitively, then, “and there ain’t no doubt about.” She then resigns herself, “I’m in love.” Reggae-disco starts and ends here, with this track’s retro-futurism, its lovers rock-inspired tenderness, its furtive synthesizers that twinkle like stars on some secret night. “I Am In Love” is a baffling anomaly, and it’s perfect.
Risco Connection “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” (1979)
The original “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” by McFadden & Whitehead, became an anthem of Black American empowerment. Here, it’s reduced, pushing the thundering bass line to the foreground. Risco Connection was the reggae-disco outfit put together by prolific Kingstonian producer Joe Isaacs, who even rewrote some of the lyrics from aspirational to insurrectionary: “held down, pushed down, but now we’ve got ourselves together.” Then an ecstatic string section parts the clouds. Check out a cover of Donna Summer’s “My House” from Risco Connection also on their 1979 self-titled LP.
Love Joys “One Draw” (1981)
On this cover of Rita Marley’s classic ode to getting high, you can hear the whimsical sonic tendencies that were starting to inform dancehall deejaying at the time—hear it in the vocal performance and squishy electronic drums. The duo’s only full-length release is titled Lovers Rock Reggae Style, a yard reimagining of the Jamaican-British subgenre full of eight-minute runtimes and dilly-dallying synthesizer passages. Joe Isaacs would later go on to record a version of this with funk/boogie Canadian singer Jay McGee.
Ernest Ranglin “In The Rain” (1983)
This song, a cover of a dub-influenced soul ballad by The Dramatics from reggae guitarist Ernest Ranglin—hear more of his disco experimentations on his solo album Be What You Wanna Be. Ranglin discards most of the song’s lyrics and structure and reduces it to a daydream, his lead guitar playing carrying the melody while in the background, a chorus chants “I wanna go outside in the rain.”
Stephen Encinas “Lypso Illusion” (1979)
From elsewhere in the Caribbean, in Trinidad, you can hear the influence of late-70s disco on this enigmatic, vibed-out calypso-disco track. Stephen Encinas, a Trinidadian producer, used steelpan to emulate a kind of Giorgio Morodor arpeggiator sound (in combination with actual synths), submerging the traditional calypso instrument in delay and reverb, and transforming its sound from celebratory to mystical.