There was a great article put out last month that interviewed Okuda Hiroko who was the music technologist responsible for creating the original Casio keyboard preset rhythm pattern that went on to form the basis of Sleng Teng, the most famous and widely versioned digital reggae rhythm of all time that not only changed the face of reggae but also formed a blueprint for much of the bass heavy dance music that followed.
If you can spare a few minutes I would highly recommend reading the article in full as it’s a fascinating and heart-warming read that shows the power of music to connect a young reggae obsessed Casio employee in Tokyo with her musical heroes in Kingston where Wayne Smyth’s ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’ emerged out of King Jammy’s studio in 1985 to revolutionise reggae production and mark the birth of modern dancehall.
If you have a little more time I would also encourage you to watch this interview with Noel Davey who was the Kingston based musician whose accidental discovery (and subsequent loss and then rediscovery) of the rhythm on his new Casio keyboard was the key catalyst in the songs creation. It provides a nice flipside to the Okuda Hiroko interview and shows the beautiful serendipity at work that went on to create an unexpected musical revolution.
It was these interviews that prompted me to have a dig through my record collection and put together a quick list of Sleng Teng interpretations. The resulting list which I’ve compiled below shows the enduring appeal and versatility of this deceptively simple rhythm. As with all lists it is by no means comprehensive (there are apparently over 450 versions of Sleng Teng in circulation) but more a personal collection of some interesting Sleng Teng related things that I happen to own and wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Okuda’s specific contribution to the presets on that Casiotone MT-40 keyboard.
Wayne Smith – 'Under Me Sleng Teng'
This is where it all began. The original (and still the best in my opinion) of all the Sleng Teng vocal cuts. As Noel Davey’s interview shows its creation was a series of lucky coincidences and many producers (Jammy included) weren’t initially convinced it was going to be a success as it was just so different to anything else around at the time. However it's a perfect example of how if you want to create a revolution you need to throw away the rule book. And the rest is history as they say.
Tenasaw – 'Pumpkin Belly'
Tenor Saw’s ‘Pumpkin Belly’ followed hot on the heels of Wayne Smith’s original and is a truly great alternative vocal version of Sleng Teng (probably my favourite after the original). This track however is different to the version he recorded for Jammy and appears (exclusively as far as I’m aware) on the B-side of a 12” released also in 1985 on the UK’s Kings & Lions label. The interesting thing here is the underlying rhythm track which, whilst most definitely Sleng Teng, takes on a very different form to the one that appears on the original, going off on an intriguing new electro tangent which gets weirder and more dubby over the tracks six minute duration. Total one of a kind business.
Chopstix Chopstick Dubplate – 'Buddy Bye Teng'
Back in the dark ages when I used to occasionally inflinct my musical tastes onto the unsuspecting general public via the medium of DJing this was always a bit of a secret weapon. I can’t think of a single occasion when I played it and the whole place didn’t go completely nuts. Its starting point is Johnny Osbourne's massive vocal take on Sleng Teng ‘Buddy Bye’ and at the start it sounds pretty similar to the original which draws people in. However after about a minute comes a breakdown which is followed by the most almighty onslaught of jungle breaks and sub bass. Not a particularly complicated or deep track but definitely highly effective!
Lewi - 'Murder Dem'
It’s maybe no surprise that Sleng Teng lends itself so well to jungle and he’s another killer interpretation from Lewi originally released in 1994 and recently reissued (I have copies for sale in my shop if anyone wants one). The addition of Ninjaman’s vocals gives it some extra dynamism and the whole thing just sits together perfectly. Jump up perfection.
Reducer – 'Sleng Teng Masters'
Reducer were a dub-punk band from 80’s Northampton that have enjoyed somewhat of a revival over recent years as some of their previously unreleased and cassette only releases have begun to appear on vinyl and digital for the first time. Their version of Sleng Teng is a wonderfully chaotic punk-dancehall hybrid that manages to perfectly capture and merge the extrovert swagger of both these previously unaligned genres. For those interested I also have copies of this one in the Dubwise Vinyl shop.
DJ Ape Vs DJ Oa$is – 'Sleng Again'
Staying on a bit of a punk tip this one is from Bristol’s DJ Ape (a.k.a. Vessel) and DJ Oa$is (a.k.a. Ossia) with their brain melting take on Sleng Teng which was released on their wonderfully titled FuckPunk label in 2014. Grimy bass heavy industrial electronics are the order of the day here combined with a distinctly punk DIY aesthetic and a healthy dose dubwise psychedelia. Bristol doing what Bristol does best.
JD Twitch – 'Skeng Teng' (Tapes Remix)
This was the inaugural release on the Bucky Skank label set up by Optimo’s JD Twitch which shares its name with the reggae and dub inspired club night he occasionally puts on. The original version of the track is great with some proper verbal dexterity on show from Killa P on the mic but it’s Tapes remix that really takes it somewhere special for me introducing the Sleng Teng rhythm into his own unique world of trippy digi dub magic. As the Killa P toasts ‘Big tune everyone knows…’
The Bug – 'EGR45-00002 (vs. Sleng Teng)'
This is a slightly surprising concept, especially considering it was effectively commissioned as piece of promotional corporate material (though admittedly for a company that makes keyboards and musical instruments). This intriguing 12” produced by The Bug was released in a limited run via electronics manufacturers Elektron Music Machines own vinyl imprint in 2015 and contains 4 musical variations of Sleng Teng based around the effects of various different narcotics. You can check out the woozy Skag Teng below.
G36 - 'No Escape'
This is an example of a tune that whilst not directly using the Sleng Teng rhythm it is clearly heavily influenced by it and ends up feeling like an even more dub and minimalist version of what is already a very minimalist rhythm. Japan’s G36 take the pummelling opening bars of Sleng Teng and then set them on a loop that develops into full on industrial dub meltdown. Another Sleng Teng curveball.
SL2 - 'Way In My Brain'
It was reading Richard Russell’s excellent book that gave me a renewed appreciation for 90’s rave acts like SL2. It’s actually pretty mad to think what they achieved in taking a niche underground music genre such as breakbeat hardcore from the sweaty raves on the outskirts of London to the top of the pop charts. You’re probably now more likely to hear SL2’s music in the background on prime time TV or at a family wedding than at a rave and the fact that it’s become an accepted part of our national identity is frankly nothing short of amazing given its routes. Anyway, in the process of introducing the nation to the joys of hardcore, SL2 (alongside The Prodigy) also introduced them to the joys of reggae which formed the basis of some of their biggest hits. Most notably Max Romeo’s ‘Chase The Devil’ (used by The Prodigy for ‘Out Of Space’) and ‘Walk and Skank’ by Jah Screechy (which features in SL2’s ‘On A Ragga Tip’). Whilst not quite reaching the same heady chart heights as those two tunes ‘Way In My Brain’ wasn’t far behind and would have undoubtedly been responsible for introducing a significant proportion of the youth of Great Britain to the wonders of Sleng Teng.