Text: Jeremy Freeman, Artwork: Irie Design

The Billie Jean riddim first came to attention with the release of Shinehead’s 1984 cover of Michael Jackson’s smash hit “Billie Jean” on New York’s African Love label. Interestingly, the flip side of the original 12” was another cover (of UK R&B singer Junior’s “Mama Used To Say”) and both sides employed different mixes of the same riddim. The riddim was sparse: a reverb-drenched drum machine licking a simple 4/4 pattern with a heavy snare accent on the three; offbeat triplet fills and some keyboard stabs; however, the bassline shuffled like an organ playing eighth notes to create a somewhat jarring and unexpected effect – the riddim sounded “Jamaican,” but the slap of the snares had a layer of hip-hop grit.

If ever there was a riddim built for an artist – Billie Jean was built for Shinehead. Born in England and raised in the Bronx, the eccentric and multi-talented artist got his start performing live with Tony Screw’s Downbeat the Ruler sound system. He astonished crowds of recent Jamaican émigrés as he went back and forth from fast-chat DJ work to crooning pop ballads (The Beatles’ “Michelle” was a favorite) to rapping hip-hop style to even displaying a mastery of whistling. The Billie Jean riddim catered to all Shinehead’s skills as he filled the minimalism of the riddim with whistled intros (“Billie Jean” had Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” while “Mama Used To Say” borrowed the sung intro to Tenor Saw’s “Who’s Gonna Help Me (Praise Jahovia)”), pitch-perfect imitations of MJ’s yelps and a sweet, but untrained, voice that spoke of a yearning appreciation for pop greatness.

The effect was the utter transformation of two massive US radio hits into something that was uniquely Shinehead, and in that, uniquely New York Jamaican. Anchored by the success of the Billie Jean cover, Shinehead released the LP Rough & Rugged (with another MJ cover, “Lady in My Life” also over the Billie Jean riddim with a whistled intro that touched Fiddler On The Roof’s “If I Were a Rich Man!”) in 1986. The album blew up in New York and crossed over to mainstream audiences all across America, the UK, and Jamaica. The huge success led Shinehead to sign a deal with Elektra Records, becoming the first New York-based reggae artist to sign to a major label.

So, how did such a perfect riddim find such a perfect artist to ride it?  Well, that story goes all the way back to Jamaica and Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One. In 1968, Coxsone released an LP entitled Rock Steady Coxsone Style that was intended primarily for the UK market. The record was meant as a warning shot to his arch-nemesis Duke Reid who taken Dodd’s crown as rocksteady took over from ska. One of the tracks on the LP was obscure vocalist Bump Oakley’s “Get a Lick,” which introduced the bass/organ shuffle later utilized by Billie Jean.

The song, never pressed as a single, was forgotten by nearly everyone; however, one of Jamaica’s greatest and most unique producers, Lee “Scratch” Perry, filed the tune away in his cavernous brain. Sometime in the 1970s, amidst thick ganja smoke and weirded out paranoid vibes, he got to playing around with a primitive drum machine that may have been brought to Black Ark by the Barrett brothers. The result was a dangerous little instrumental nicknamed “Chim Cherie.” Perry never released the tune, but certain select soundmen were able to cajole Perry into cutting the tune as an acetate dub plate.

By the 80s, a handful of tunes were released that borrowed the bassline – most notably Carlton Livingston’s “Itch It Up Operator” in 1980 and later Half Pint’s “One in a Million” for Jammys. However, “Chim Cherie” did not transform into Billie Jean until it got into the hands of the man who had personally painted Perry’s Black Ark Studio, the legendary Jah Wise of Tippa Tone Hi Fi. I asked Jah Wise about the riddim last week via messenger. As he recalled: “Chim Cherie a play long time in dance hall. Only a few sounds did have it. I have the original 2 track in my possession right now. Tony Screw (of Downbeat the Ruler) came to Jamaica (back then) and him and me went to Jammys and cut Half Pint on special. Downbeat is the first sound that cut a special (on Chim Cherie).”

When Downbeat returned to the Bronx and played the Half Pint special, it caught the ears of Shinehead and his African Love producer. Jah Wise remembered: “Me and Danny Dread travelled to the Bronx and brought the dub plate to African Love.” From there the riddim was re-worked and Shinehead introduced the world to the Billie Jean riddim with his three iconic tunes: “Billie Jean,” “Lady In My Life,” and “Mama Used to Say.”

So, if every riddim has story, Billie Jean’s is the tale of a great confluence – a place where Lee Perry met Michael Jackson; where the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (whose short stories were the basis of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”) met the great film composer, Sergio Leone; where rocksteady met hip-hop; and where the great waves of Jamaican immigration rolled across the UK and the US, absorbing and reinterpreting a new culture and, finally, with the voice of the inimitable Shinehead, making it their own.  

While the Billie Jean riddim will forever be identified with Shinehead, the riddim’s life did not end there. The following are ten more crucial cuts of Billie Jean:

#1. Jerry Johnson – Saxman Special [Wackie’s, 1985]

One of the first cuts to arrive on Billie Jean came, with no surprises, from the iconic Bronx Bullwackie’s studio. This instrumental cut borrowed Shinehead’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” whistle intro and played it as a Sax line over a murky, dubbed-out bassline. The effect was heavy, raw, and built for the hefty subs of UK roots soundsystems.

#2. Bunny General – Played By This Ya Sound [Fashion, 1991]

By the tail end of the 80s and into the early 90s, a whole bunch of records came out featuring the “Get a Lick” bassline but eschewing the drum patterns of Billie Jean – so much so that the two became distinct riddims. The ‘goat man’ Bunny General had a knack for imitation and he managed to call up the Waterhouse tonality of singers like Tenor Saw and King Kong for this sound evisceration (with some lyrics borrowed from Carlton Livingston) over a UK lick of Billie Jean.

#3. Sluggy Ranks – Jah Is Guiding I [John John Records, 1994]

The next big tune on Billie Jean came out in 1994 on King Jammy’s son’s label John John. Sluggy Ranks was a New York singer who had developed a unique sound apart from his Jamaican contemporaries – his vocals had a singjay’s rhythmic awareness combined with a singular wail and doubled harmonies. He used this style to great effect, owning the Billie Jean riddim with this deeply conscious tune. Following this release Sluggy’s original producer, Jah Life released a jungle remix of the tune, which, sadly to say, was a complete mess.

#4. Shinehead – Reprimand [Elektra, 1994]

By 1994, and onto his fourth LP for Elektra, Shinehead decided to revisit the riddim that made him famous. He did not disappoint.  Borrowing Dave Barker’s intro to “Double Barrel,” Shinehead rolled right into a furious war tune calling out haters, hypocrites, and all those who dared disrespect Mr. Shine.

#5. Lady Saw – Welding Torch [John John Records, 1994]

With the success of “Jah Is Guiding I,” John John rolled out a heap of Billie Jean tunes. The Queen of the Dancehall, Lady Saw grabbed hold of it with this ode to slackness.

#6. Ricky General – Copper and Chrome [John John Records, 1994]

The early 90s marked the renaissance of the gun tune – a moment when songs about the rampant violence in Kingston became lyrical with epic, wild metaphors rolled out as a way to make sense of the desperation of Jamaica’s ghettos. For Copper & Chrome, Ricky General, often pigeonholed as a Ninjaman imitator, crafted serious gun lyrics that rose to the haunting menace of Billie Jean’s sampled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” refrain.

#7.  Terror Fabulous – Old Dog [John John Records, 1994]

While some may remember Terror Fabulous only for his hit, “Action,” the reality is that he was one of the great lyricists of his age. “Old Dog” delves into the gun business with vivid storytelling and serious metaphors that ride the Billie Jean to perfection.

#8. Yami Bolo – Hotsteppin [Digital-B, 1993]

In 1993, the late producer Bobby Digital licked his version of Billie Jean with tunes by Tony Curtis and Cocoa Tea; however, Yami Bolo’s “Hotstepping” was the scorcher – a heartfelt anthem warning of the dangers of living the bad boy lifestyle.

#9. Garnett Silk – Bless Me [Digital-B, 1992]

Of all the Jamaicans singers that passed away, none quite touched me like Garnett Silk. His lyrics and voice broke away from earthly binds and reached a higher spiritual plane. He came in at the height of the gun tune era and was singlehandedly responsible for leading a conscious revival within the confines of the dancehall itself. Almost all of his tunes remain anthems today, but “Bless Me” (oddly released only as an LP cut) resonated like no other – filling the sparse notes of Billie Jean with an ethereal spirituality and promise of hope.

#10. Sizzla – Big and Bold [Digital-B, 1995]

In 1998, the Bobo Dread, Sizzla, was cresting high as the voice of conscious reggae. His wailing vocals and lyrics of sufferation united the hardest rude boys with the dreadest of dreads. “Big and Bold” took an amped up lick of Billie Jean to send forth a message that preached the positives of living a righteous life in the midst of a world that seemingly rewards the most brutal. In the 2000s French label Irie Ites re-released the tune, splicing in Garnett Silk’s “Bless Me” as the chorus. 

[Editor’s Addendum] Like always, here are a few deeper dives on Billie Jean:

– “Wellwellsound Dubplate,” a low-bit digital interpretation by the French producer, with singjay Don Camilo

– “Billie Jean Riddim,” a careening digital take by Max Paz

– “Billie Jean Riddim,” an instrumental interpretation off a Dubsoulvibe compilation, fairly true to the original it seems, though the players on this are not specified