Music: Inner Circle
Sep 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson
REGGAE VETS OFFER THEIR "STATE OF DA WORLD"
There are worse fates than being heavily associated with a single song. In the case of long-running reggae band Inner Circle, they will forever be linked in the public mind with the catchy song “Bad Boys,” which became the theme song for the reality series Cops beginning in 1989. But that only scratches the surface of this group.
In fact, some of the members of Inner Circle have been playing together since they were teenagers in Jamaica, backing up rising star Bob Marley at one point and then establishing themselves as one of the most popular acts on the island during the late '70s when they were led by the great Rastafarian singer Jacob Miller. Miller's death in a car accident in 1980 derailed the band for a while, and founding members Roger Lewis and Ian Lewis (guitar and bass, respectively) and longtime keyboardist Touter Harvey relocated to Miami, where they opened Circle House Studios.
They re-formed in earnest in the mid-'80s with a new singer, Calton Coffie, and adapted a slightly more commercial sound that incorporated more from R&B and pop elements (actually, part of their roots) than their grittier previous sound. “Bad Boys” originally came out in 1987, but it was when Cops really took off in the early '90s and became an unexpected worldwide phenomenon that Inner Circle hit its peak. The song topped the charts in Sweden, of all places, did well throughout Europe and reached the Top 10 in the U.S. in 1993; other lesser hits followed in the late '90s. Since then, there have been a couple of other singers, but through it all, the Lewises and Harvey have kept Inner Circle strong while their Circle House compound has grown to encompass three SSL rooms and the band's own separate Digidesign ICON-equipped studio/rehearsal space, and has become world-renowned in the process.
The group's new album, State of Da World, is their first studio effort in a while, and it nicely showcases the current lineup of the group — the Lewises, Harvey, drummer Lancelot Hall (a 20-year Inner Circle vet) and singer/guitarist Junior Jazz (a 10-year member) — augmented by an impressive array of guests plucked from different strains of reggae, including Damian Marley and Stephen Marley, Mutubaruka, Morgan Heritage, Steel Pulse's David Hinds and the eclectic duo Slightly Stoopid. The album spans a wide range of styles, from glossy, electronic keyboard-dominated pop reggae (even using in-vogue electronically pitched vocals here and there) to tougher and deeper more “traditional” sounds, and even a couple of creamy R&B-inflected ballads. As one might expect from the album title, there is a social consciousness coursing through many of the songs: Inner Circle, like so many reggae bands, envisions a world where there is freedom from oppression and justice prevails; where love reigns supreme — and ganja is legal. There are two songs dealing with that theme on the album, including a re-make of their own “Mary Mary” (with Slightly Stoopid). I'm just a few minutes into a conversation with Roger Lewis when he brings that topic up.
“They puttin' all these people in jail — for what, mon? For smokin' God's good herb? It not right,” he says in his thick Jamaican patois from the group's headquarters at Circle House Studios. “Weed should be decriminalized and put right alongside alcohol, because we firmly believe that if you can drink alcohol, weed supposed to be legal, too. So we sing about that, too.”
Roger Lewis bristles somewhat at a question about the group's commercial inclinations — clearly, he's heard this line of questioning before: “Some people say we're too happy for them. They call us a ‘glad-pop’ band. They love bands like Burning Spear because they hard-core spiritual. But people don't understand the versatility of us. Listen closely to this album, mon. There's a lot there beneath the surface. When we made this, we said, ‘Let's give them truly what's in our hearts, our wealth of experience, some social commentary.’”
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