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Always Think Twice

17 October 2012 | 7:15 am | Samuel Fell

“And R&B music from America is so important to the history of Jamaican music – not just reggae, but way before – so I thought, to get people thinking about that, even subconsciously, we’d do an R&B record.”

Billie Jean is not… a progressive and non-traditional reggae tune. Or is it? Put it in the hands of world-renowned album reinterpreters Easy Star All-Stars, and you know it could go pretty much anywhere. From their version of Dark Side Of The Moon (Dub Side Of The Moon, '03) through cuts off OK Computer (Radiodread, '06) and Sgt. Pepper's (Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band, '09), this collective of top-flight reggae musicians have morphed the aforementioned classics to their dreadlocked whim, the results garnering them fans the world over.

To some though, these concepts are gut-wrenchingly gauche. Yet over the course of the last decade, Easy Star All-Stars have shown it's about a respectful reinterpretation as opposed to a cheesy cover venture, and so their three records to date have become accepted, acclaimed and loved. And now it's Michael Jackson's turn.

Easy Star's Thrillah is the record, a reggae reinterpretation of the highest-selling record of all time, Jackson's 1982's Thriller, the album which launched the performer into the pop music stratosphere. For producer/arranger/guitarist Michael Goldwasser, it was an inspired choice for the band, filling all his strict criteria. 

“Yeah, the first criteria is it's gotta be an album of great songs,” he qualifies. “We want the songs to be diverse, songs that are well written and songs that people are gonna want to hear, regardless of what the arrangement is. It's gotta be translatable to reggae in some sort of meaningful way [too].  And also, we have to do things that people are gonna care about. For this one, we wanted to do something different; our first three records in the series were based on rock albums, so we wanted to change the genre.

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“And R&B music from America is so important to the history of Jamaican music – not just reggae, but way before – so I thought, to get people thinking about that, even subconsciously, we'd do an R&B record.” 

This is Thriller to a tee, a classic modern take on American R&B, a pop album against which to measure all others, and given its danceability, perhaps an easier choice to re-arrange, as opposed to the three that have come before it.

“Yeah, it totally is [more sonically suited], but it gave me a new challenge in that, how do I take a danceable record, and make it danceable in a different way?” Goldwasser smiles. “If I keep the tempos the same and the bass lines the same, it's just making the same record, so I really had to take each song and make it danceable on its own merits, but different from the original, so that was a cool challenge.”

The results see the record opening with Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' as an eight-minute Afrobeat number; The Girl Is Mine, Thriller and The Lady In My Life get the straight up reggae treatment; Beat It gets slowed right down to a rootsy ballad and Billie Jean stretches out and gets reggae-fied, and then some – it's a classic record, re-arranged into something different and real in its own right, just what the All-Stars do.

“You've gotta dive in and just go for it, because if you think about the enormity of it too much then it'll drive you crazy,” Goldwasser laughs.  “And you can't worry about what the purists are gonna say; you should just enjoy music. So this was a big record for me, of all the records we've done, the original of this was the biggest thing for me, Thriller was such a big album, for many people, but I wasn't thinking about that making this album – I had a good relationship with the music.”