Field Trips with Spliffington: Cutty Ranks Meets the Gambian Cassette Vendors

May 15, 2012

Words by Herbert Spliffington, Illustration by Victor Kerlow—

In the latest installment of his storytelling-n-illustrations column Field Trips with Spliffington, Herbert Spliffington tells the story (with an assist from his Field Trip World colleague, Victor Kerlow) of how he discovered the music of Cutty Ranks while crossing into the Gambia from Senegal in the ’90s. Isn’t that how we all first heard “Limb by Limb”? With Cutty having just returned from hiatus with new music last week, what better time to pay tribute to this most uniquely vicious dancehall bad bwoy?

Dancehall was everywhere in the ’90s, even in West Africa. If you had the right antennae you could catch the occasional rap and dancehall videos on MCM Afrique and on the US Military’s AFRTS channel (which played Snow’s “Informer” a lot.) Being interested in music, I started noticing a sample popping up all over the place: “Six million ways to die, choose one.” Jungle producers were also chopping up the same sample.

I was too young to have heard when Cutty Ranks first dropped his monster hit ‘Who Seh Mi Dun (Wake De Man)’ in 1992. The bootleg cassette tape vendors in Dakar’s Sandaga market didn’t have much dancehall (although plenty of hip-hop, soukous and Dire Straits), and only my friends from the UK even knew what jungle was. Luckily for me, on a trip to the south of Senegal, I passed through the Gambia. While waiting for the ferry to take me across the river, I saw the usual array of people selling cassette tapes but, unlike Dakar, they had lots of dancehall. Being a former colonial outpost of Enlgand in which English was widely spoken, the Gambia was much more up to date with dancehall and reggae. I purchased a sketchy copy of Ragga Ragga Ragga 6 and another tape (see below) with a voice I recognized from the hip-hop and jungle cassettes: Cutty Ranks. When I heard that voice on the original riddim, I had to hear more.

The Bam Bam riddim was already a bonafide smash thanks to Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote,” but Cutty’s voicing of the riddim was much rougher, talking about rocket launchers, electric chairs and the like. One of the first songs where the riddim switches up mid-song, this tune remains a must-play to this day for most club DJs in their ‘reggae segment.’ In fact, that record was also Cutty’s reminder to the industry that he was still a top deejay.

Already a dancehall staple for a decade when he found his ’90s success, Cutty was a regular on nearly every big sound system in Jamaica throughout the ’80s: Gemini Metromedia, Killamanjaro, Stereo Mars. His use of Ranks as a surname apparently predates Shabba Ranks by a few years in fact…

Send fi di hacksaw/Take out dem tongue: Even with my limited understanding of patois back then I could clearly make out Cutty saying things that seemed extreme, even in the blood ‘n’ guts age of ’90s hardcore hip-hop. His past as a butcher—hence “Cutty”—gave his lyrical threats an eerie credibility (also naming a next song “Chop Chop Chop” doesn’t hurt.) “Limb by Limb” would also take on a life outside of dancehall, thanks to his association with the UK label Fashion Records. Quite a few of his early 90s tunes got the jungle treatment, and a remix of “Limb by Limb” even made it onto a BBC show as being representative of jungle music at the time. Like other 80s sound system veterans such Supercat, Shabba Ranks and Ninjaman, Cutty Ranks was making an international impact with undiluted dancehall rude boy credibility and a sound that many genres, including hip-hop, have been chasing ever since.