Nitty Gritty (Glen Augustus Holness) was born in 1957 in Jamaica and intially trained as an electrician before entering the music business in 1973. In the 1980s he recorded a number of tracks for several producers like Sugar Minott and George Phang and worked with the Zodiac sound system. In 1985 he joined King Jammys’ team and made an impact in the emerging dancehall era with tracks like “Hog in a Minty”, “Run Down the World” and “Gimme Some of Your Something”. An album was released on the Geensleeves label in 1986 (Turbo Charged) and in the same year he shared an album with the deejay King Kong, who was also a Jammys artist (Musical Confrontation, Jammys, 1986). Nitty Gritty also recorded “Good Morning Teacher” and “Draw Me Mark” for Jammys. In 1987 General Penitentiary was released and in 1989 Jah in the Family came out on Blacker Dread’s label. Nitty Gritty had moved to London and then to New York, and had made an impact internationally, but in June 1991, he was shot dead in Brooklyn..
Nitty Gritty made an important contribution to the development of dancehall music in the 1980s and he is primarily known as a dancehall or as a sound-system artist, as is shown by the popularity of his hits “False Alarm” (on the “Ring the Alarm” riddim), “Draw Me Mark” and “Sweet Reggae Music”. His vocal style consisted of a kind of high-pitched or nasal wail which lent itself quite well to the new rhythmic patterns developed in the early 1980s by producers like Jammys or George Phang.. Nitty Gritty was in his element when he worked in the dancehall format, as is shown by his hit “False Alarm”, which is basically a sound-system tune based on Tenor Saw’s “Ring the Alarm” : “Call the city morgue, another sound dead and buried”. His hits “Letting Off Steam” and “Draw Me Mark” follow the same pattern.
Nitty Gritty’s approach was quite inventive and he often recycled traditional songs or old reggae and pop hits. For instance, his first hit for Jammys was a version of a very old Caribbean folk song entitled “Hog ina Minty” which had been recorded as “Hog ina Cocoa” in the ska era by Stranger and Patsy (available on the CD Hog ina Cocoa, Lagoon, 1993). The lyrics, about a pig rooting up a field planted with the coco vine, could be interpreted as sexual double entendre :”Hog in a me minty, come root up me coco”. On his 1986 Tubo Charged LP, he recorded a reggae version of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” on the driving and tough “Java” riddim (named after Augustus Pablo’s first hit), and the result was very convincing. Nitty Gritty’s imaginative and inventive approach also appeared on his “Sweet Dreams” single recorded for the producer Whitfield Henry. On that mid-1980s single Nitty Gritty spliced together his version of Eurythmics’ 1983 hit “Sweet Dreams” and his interpretation of the Stylistics’ 1972 hit “Betcha By Golly Wow”, a song also covered by Erroll Dunkley and Horace Andy.
In 1985 the producer George Phang released a clash album which paired Nitty Gritty with his friend Tenor Saw. One of the tracks on this album, “She’s a Delilah”, cleverly recycled an old rock steady hit by Derrick Harriott entitled “Solomon”. On the original song, Harriott sang :”Solomon was the wisest man..”. On his own version, Nitty Gritty claimed that he was “wiser than Solomon” and that he knew how to deal with women. On his 1986 track “Brown Girl in a Ring”, Nitty Gritty reworked a number of nursery rhymes like “Humpty Dumpty” and “Jack and Jill”, and combined with the traditional Caribbean folk song “Brown Girl in the Ring”.
But there was another side to Nitty Gritty’s art, as is evidenced by his 1987 LP General Penitentiary, which was characterised by a different approach, a “rootsier” one. Indeed the whole LP was far removed from the dancehall sound, and on “Tell Me What A Gwaan”, Nitty Gritty was not singing about killing another sound boy or defeating another sound system, but about the social and economic situation in Jamaica in the 1980s : “Tell me what a gwaan grandma, tell me what a gwaan grandpa , tell me about the living ain’t easy ; tell me about the living ain’t nice ; down in the ghetto, we feel it most of all, and to you they start to bawl. Mama and Papa they don’t have nothing to do, and the youths dem a go astray. Life ain’t easy and the sufferers dem got no choice”. On this track, Nitty Gritty’s delivery and quavery voice blends perfectly with the dark and brooding musical accompaniment, with its heavy bass line and insistent horns. In “General Penitentiary”, Nitty Gritty sang about the plight of the inmates in Kingston’s “GP” (general penitentiary) : “Ina the GP, it ain’t nice ; too many innocent child ; you can stop a bird from messing your hair, but you can’t stop it from flying away”. Nitty Gritty’ s roots and raw side also appeared on a mid-1980s single produced by Derrick Howard for his own Progressive label. The song is entitled “Got to Make It” and ,over a hypnotic riddim, Nitty Gritty wails about his determination to succeed and to conquer the odds which are stacked against him. The combination of Nitty Gritty’s powerful delivery and the hard, driving rhythms recorded at Channel One work very well on this track. In 1989 the album Jah in the Family, produced by Blacker Dread, was further evidence that Nitty Gritty could equally appeal to roots reggae fans, and the tracks “Jah in the Family” and “Lightning” give us an idea of what this talented singer might have achieved if he had not been murdered at the age of 34.
Larkin, Colin. The Guinnes Who’s Who of Reggae (London: Guinness Publishing, 1994).