Although not particularly well known outside reggae circles, singer, producer, and songwriter Linval Thompson doesn't need to be.
He has done much to shape its direction since the mid-'70s and his music has broken down many boundaries to constantly confound the music's subgenre categorizations. Thompson has collaborated with many Jamaican music greats, initially as a singer for ace producers such as Augustus Pablo ("Natty Dread a Pressure Them") and Lee Perry ("Kung Fu Man"). With the release of Blood and Fire's Ride on Dreadlocks compilation and the reissues of his catalog material, his reputation as one of the finest reggae singers from the roots renaissance was cemented. His roots anthems, including "Cool Down Your Temper," and "Don’t Cut Off Your Dreadlocks," are revered by reggae devotees. Thompson is a triple threat: as a singer and writer he is regarded as a seminal figure in the creation, spread, and influence of dancehall reggae, but he is also a prominent, pioneering producer whose credits include working with Dennis Brown, the Wailing Souls, Eek-A-Mouse, Freddie McGregor, the Viceroys, and many others. In addition, Thompson is also an entrepreneur who has released many of his own vocal and dub albums independently.
He was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1954 and as a young teen, moved to the U.S. to be with his mother in Queens. He wrote his first songs while still in high school. He studied engineering, but music was his obsession. He began his singing career with producer Bunny Rugs (later a vocalist with Third World). Their first recording, "There Is No Other Woman in This World," was a moderate local success. In 1974 he cut some sides for the New York-based Mart's label (that belonged to Everett Martin) including "Weeping and Wailing" and "Jah Jah Deh," but he returned to Jamaica later in the year, where he recorded for Keith Hudson's associate Keith "Stamma" Hobson.
"Mama Say" wasn't a big hit, but its follow-up, "Westbound Plane" -- a mutated cover version of Brown's "Westbound Train" -- began to garner attention for the young singer as he developed his own unique vocal style. Returning to Kingston, Thompson began working at Perry's legendary Black Ark studios under producer Phil Pratt and subsequently contributing to the Upsetter classic "Kung Fu Man." Though early connections like this, and a brief stint with Augustus Pablo's Rockers imprint, were invaluable, Thompson's greatest success came when he established himself as a producer. Following his 1975 Bunny Lee-engineered debut, Don't Cut Off Your Dreadlocks (released as Cool Down in the U.S.), Thompson and new assistant Henry "Junjo" Lawes produced the singer's I Love Marijuana in 1978. Recorded at the famous Channel 1 studio, Thompson was backed by a rhythm section of Rockers' drummer Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace and the Wailers' bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett. The success of I Love Marijuana attracted many singers in search of Thompson's sound. While the artists he produced throughout the late '70s and early '80s failed to achieve the same degree of commercial success, albums from Mystic Eyes and DJs Big Joe and Trinity still maintained the classic late '70s roots feel.
The beginning of the '80s found reggae music in flux once again with the advent of the DJ-dominated dancehall style. Thompson (along with former employee Lawes) was at the forefront, tracking Roots Radics' rhythms at Channel 1 and sending the results to Scientist for mixing. The collaborations with the former King Tubby producer resulted in dub titles like Scientist Meets the Space Invaders (1981) and Scientist Encounters Pac Man (1982). Thompson constructed his own dubscapes as well, on Negrea Dub, Green Bay Dub, and Outlaw Dub. In 1982, Freddie McGregor scored a hit with the Thompson-engineered "Big Ship (Sailing on the Ocean)" (after which the singer christened his own label). It would be one of Thompson's last major production successes: by the decade's mid-point, his work load began to trail off. The genre had become infatuated with digital technology following the massive success of Wayne Smith's "Under Me Sleng Teng" in 1985. Displeased with the new trend, Thompson preferred to recede from view, developing his Stony Hill property and dabbling in real estate. The singer continued to enter the studio occasionally, reuniting with longtime collaborator Robbie Shakespeare for his 1988 album Starlight. In the decade that followed, classic, out of print Thompson material began seeing the light of day once again through reissues from Majestic Reggae (Jah Jah Dreader Than Dread), Blood and Fire (Ride on Dreadlocks), and Trojan (Channel 1 Rockers), among others. The results were a clearer look at a body of work that, at its best, could rival Thompson contemporaries like Johnny Clarke, Horace Andy, and Cornel Campbell. Thompson continued to make occasional concert appearances and recording dates into the 21st century including a pair of double-disc compilations of his lineage productions entitled Linval Presents Dub Landing, Vols. 1 and Vol. 2 in 2018. ~ Nathan Bush, Rovi