Third World is widely recognized as one of the legendary bands of reggae history. When Janine McAdams spoke with the band for Billboard in July of 1992, Michael "Ibo" Cooper, one of the founding members, declared: "Third World is now the longest-existing unit ever in Jamaican music history." While a few other reggae bands approach their mark of longevity, Third World is distinctive by virtue of their crossover skill: a great deal of their success grew from their ability to blend reggae music with other sounds, particularly those coming out of black American culture.
Although most of the band's members over the years have been Kingston, Jamaica-born, their musical roots are unusually diverse. Many reggae bands are spawned from the ambitions of Jamaican teenagers who have taught themselves to play their instruments, but Third World was the brainchild of two young men with classical training. Cooper, the son of a police officer, trained on a variety of keyboard instruments at the Royal School of Music in Kingston until 1969.
Stephen "Cat" Coore, whose father had served as deputy prime minister of Jamaica, first learned to play a range of stringed instruments from his mother, a music teacher with a sterling reputation throughout the Caribbean. His studies led to training at Forster Davis School of Music, where he gained a reputation as a child prodigy for his talent on the cello. By the time they decided to join forces in a reggae band, the young men had studied jazz as well as classical music, and they shared a taste for stateside rock.
Before Cooper and Coore decided to launch their own band, both had experience on the reggae circuit in Kingston, playing separately and together. Cooper formed his first reggae band, the Rhythms, in 1970. He went on to play with other outfits, including the Dynamic Visions and the Alley Cats; he first worked with Coore when the two played with a moderately successful Kingston group known as Inner Circle.
Reggae Vets Joined Forces
By 1973 Coore, Cooper, and Inner Circle vocalist Milton "Prilly" Hamilton decided to strike out on their own; they completed the band with self-taught bassist Richie Daley and Cornel Marshal on drums. Irwin "Carrot" Jarrett provided further percussion, including occasional conga playing; Jarrett also brought the band considerable professional experience on both the musical stage and in television production. These ingredients alone seemed likely to set them apart from the many new bands springing up in Kingston at the time.
The group officially began their career as Third World with a performance at the Jamaican Independence Celebration in the summer of 1973. After playing the Jamaican club circuit for a while, they relocated to England, where mainstream audiences were just beginning to discover the reggae sound. The budding band undertook their first release themselves, without the patronage of a label, offering a single called "Railroad Track" exclusively in England.
The fortuity of Third World's timing landed them a contract with Island Records, a strong label in the process of creating a market for reggae music. Island released Third World's self-titled debut album in 1975. In another timing coup, a positive critical response to the album won the band the opportunity to open for Bob Marley, the most acclaimed reggae musician of the time, on his summer tour of the United Kingdom.
Journey Through Genres
But Third World's potential wasn't quite realized for another three years. Although a second album, 96 Degrees in the Shade, was released in 1977, it was 1978's Journey to Addis that caught the attention of record buyers and established the group's sound. In particular, Journey to Addis offered listeners a chance to hear "Now That We Found Love"he single that demonstrated Third World's ability to blend reggae sound with other musical genres then burgeoning in England and the United States. The single was a crossover hit that grabbed listeners who didn't normally buy reggae albums.
In an article for Melody Maker, Paolo Hewitt described "Now That We Found Love" as "a song that by encompassing reggae, funk and pop bypasses any kind of recognized categorization." Billboard'reported in 1993 that the single made Top Ten charts "worldwide," including the Number Nine spot on Billboard's R&B chart.
Third World completed three more albums with IslandThe Story's Been Told, Prisoner in the Street, and Arise in Harmonyefore deciding to find another label. Maureen Sheridan reported in Down Beat that they felt they would earn more attention if they didn't have to compete with the company's commitment to Marley.
Columbia soon picked up their contract and produced five Third World albums over the next seven years: Rock the World in 1981, You've Got the Power in 1982, All the Way Strong in 1983, Sense of Purpose in 1985, and Hold On to My Love in 1987.The first four releases all had significant success on U.S. and British music chartsHooked on Love," from Rock the World, broke into the British Top Ten as a single release.
Around the same time as their move to Columbia, the band began collaborating with American pop star Stevie Wonder, developing their hybrid sound still further and finding a niche with both white and black American audiences. Specifically, Wonder wrote and recorded "Try Jah Love" with the band, creating another R&B chart hit for them in 1982.
Since reggae was then largely embraced by white audiences in England and America, it took Wonder's support and the band's experimental style to capture the ear of black listeners. This was an important goal for the band; as Clarke told Sheridan, they believe that "reggae is a spiritual force..., a positive force for black people."
Accused of "Selling Out"
Third World's particular aptitude for crossover hits has earned them a somewhat double-edged place in the landscape of reggae music. On the one hand, they are recognized as innovators, willing to take risks that challenge the limitations of the genre; on the other hand, however, their particular ability to combine the distinctive sound of Jamaican music with the commercial polish of English and American pop has prompted some critics to charge them with "selling out."
As Jim Bessman wrote in Billboard, Third World has been "criticized by reggae purists for being too commercial." Sheridan noted that "to the downtowner, Third World plays uptown reggae, a variant that has traveled too far from the ghetto to be roots." The harshest criticism, as Hewitt noted in Melody Maker, came from those quarters that discerned a financial motivation behind crossover experiments. "This of course," Hewitt commented, "opens them up to that age-old accusation of being sell-out merchants, people diluting tunes to the shadows of flashing dollar signs."
Third World has taken time over the years to explain where their experimentation fits into their views on music. "Roots reggae is a good foundation," Cooper explained to Sheridan, "but we get impatient with the static form. What we do is add to it and stretch it further." He added: "No one ever says we can't play roots; they just say we don't. If roots is basic rhythm, then you must be able to move on from that to communicate to a wider audience. Music is energy and comes from the ultimate source, and how can you limit that? That would limit the ultimate possibilities of the music."
Clarke presented a similar argument to Melody Maker contributor Alan Jackson, stating, "Third World represents the voice of the people internationally, not just in our own country. It's music of all forms, be it African or Latin, reggae or funk, R&B or whatever." Ben Mapp concurred in a 1992 Vibe article, asserting that "the music is about inclusion little bit of reggae, a little bit of R&B, topped with some ska, and just enough 'message' to add some weight."
Whatever the reasons behind the band's experimentation, even detractors can't deny that Third World has contributed to new developments in reggae. Deeming them "the first band to funk up the reggae beat," Sheridan noted that they were also "the first reggae group to add synthesizer" and pioneers in popularizing "the poetry-read-to-reggae art form known as dub poetry."
The dub sound, which originally seemed to abandon the "roots" sound, eventually came to dominate the reggae scene in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, it was mutating into dancehallhe "reggae-hip-hop" combination that breathed new life into the musical form both in Jamaica and abroad.
The 1985 release Sense of Purpose was identified by Sheridan as "an album that reinforces the group's reputation as innovators." It demonstrated Third World's crossover strength by appearing on a variety of charts, including pop and dance music.
Clarke explained the hybrid strength of the album's title cut to Jackson in the Melody Maker interview: "It's dance music," he conceded, "but the lyric is deep. It could be to a woman or it could be to the world. I love you with a sense of purpose lot of people love as a simple reaction to the way they feel about someone, because there's that spark, but with no sense of purpose. And that's the important thing, whatever you are doing, that it should be with a sense of purpose.... We aimed to make the message danceable. It's as simple as that."
Sense of Purpose also demonstrated the band's willingness to take a risk with the sounds of American rap music. By 1989 they were indulging heavily in hip-hop on Serious Business, their first release for Mercury. As with their earlier experiments with American music, Third World saw this as an opportunity to unite Afro-Caribbean and African American listeners, as Clarke explained to McAdams in Billboard: "We brought a lot of black Americans to the reggae table through our forum, and we wanted to pursue that direction."
Without abandoning the band's spectrum of styles, 1992's Committed featured a stronger dancehall rhythm. The title track spent several weeks on Billboard's R&B charts. Mapp in particular felt that Third World had brought to the album an entirely new musical dimension, arguing that they "seem more at home with the dancehall tracks, which generate all of the album's creative tension and its most compelling songerait."
Such aptitude is remarkable for a band that came to life at least a decade before the inception of dancehallnd demonstrates that Third World's longevity is based on musical vitality. Lisa Cortes, a representative of the Mercury label, explained in Billboard: "They're not 'forefathers' because they continue to evolve and build musical bridges."
Third World, Island, 1975.
96 Degrees in the Shade, Island, 1977.
Journey to Addis (includes "Now That We Found Love"), Island, 1978.
The Story's Been Told, Island, 1979.
Prisoner in the Street, Island, 1979.
Arise in Harmony, Island, 1980.
Rock the World (includes "Hooked on Love"), Columbia, 1981.
You've Got the Power (includes "Try Jan Love"), Columbia, 1982.
All the Way Strong, Columbia, 1983.
Sense of Purpose, Columbia, 1985.
Hold On to My Love, Columbia, 1987.
Serious Business, Mercury, 1989.
Committed, Mercury, 1989.
Reggae Ambassadors: 20th Anniversary Collection, Mercury, 1993.
(Contributors) The Little Mermaid (soundtrack).
The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, edited by Irwin Stambler, St. Martin's, 1989.
Billboard, July 25, 1992; October 2, 1993.
Down Beat, January 1986.
Melody Maker, May 22, 1982; March 23, 1985.
Record, January 1984.
Reggae Report, issue 7, 1991; issue 8, 1992; issue 5, 1993.
Woe, fall 1992.
Village Voice, April 27, 1982.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Mercury Records publicity materials.
Ondine E. Le Blanc
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