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R.I.P. Prince Buster, Jamaican ska pioneer

(Photo: PYMCA/Getty Images)

Pitchfork is reporting that Prince Buster, a pioneer of the Jamaican musical genres known as ska and rocksteady, has died. A major influence on the ska revival of the 1970s, as well as producer and musician in his own right, Buster was 78.

Born Cecil Bustamente Campbell, Buster got his start in the Kingston club scene, before getting involved in the city’s iconic “sound systems”—organized collectives of DJs, engineers, and MCs who loaded up trucks with speakers, generators and turntables, and put together impromptu music parties in the Kingston streets. At first, the sound systems were dependent on playing U.S. R&B and jazz hits, but as time went on—and rock began to dominate the American airwaves—they began producing original music, giving birth to ska and, later, rocksteady, its slower cousin.

Campbell released his first single, “Little Honey”/“Luke Lane Shuffle,” in 1961, the same year he produced “Oh Carolina” for the Folkes Brothers. As Prince Buster, he quickly developed a prolific library of tracks, including “Madness,” “One Step Beyond,” and his first international hit, “Al Capone,” which charted in the U.K. As the 1960s progressed, Buster converted to Islam after a meeting with Muhammad Ali, while his musical tastes shifted with the rest of Jamaica, leading him to release slowed-down rocksteady hits like “Judge Dread.”

In the 1970s, a new generation of British teens flocked to the ska label, with bands like Madness—which took its name from a Prince Buster song—covering music like Campbell’s “One Step Beyond.” Even as the rise of reggae threatened to eclipse ska and rocksteady as “the” Jamaican music form, ska continued its periodic revivals, with Buster’s music—which often skirted the line between the tightly connected genres—getting regularly rediscovered by new generations over the years.

In 2001, Campbell was given an Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government for his contributions to music. Meanwhile, he continued to perform and tour well into the 2000s, making recent appearances at a number of reggae and rhythm festivals. His health declined over the last few years—reportedly suffering a number of strokes—and he died this morning in Miami, where he’d lived for the last several years.


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