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Founded by reggae enthusiasts, Duncan Browne and Bill Nowlin, the label kicked off with a trio of releases by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Big Youth, and Mikey Dread. From these beginnings, Heartbeat has grown into one of the world's premier reggae labels, boasting a catalogue of over 240 titles that embrace all genres and eras of Jamaican popular music, from ska and rock steady to roots reggae, dub, and dancehall. Included in the Heartbeat catalogue are scores of classic albums by all of the greatest names in reggae, from Bob Marley and the Wailers and Culture to Everton Blender and BERES HAMMOND. Heartbeat is one of the few reggae labels that have succeeded in both "vintage" and "contemporary" markets. With its unique combination of old and new Jamaican music, Heartbeat has taken reggae into the 21st century.
Heartbeat prides itself on being the first, and the original reggae reissue label, pioneering the CD reissue of classic Jamaican music long before it was fashionable or profitable. Heartbeat's reissues include thousands of vintage tracks from labels like Treasure Isle and High Note, and from veteran producers such as Lee Perry, Sonia Pottinger, Joe Gibbs, Alvin Ranglin, Lloyd Daley, Clancy Eccles, and Niney the Observer.
One of the cornerstones of the catalog is Studio One, the most legendary and revered label in the history of Jamaican music. Heartbeat has enjoyed an excellent relationship with legendary producer Clement Dodd for over eighteen years. The fruits of this relationship have been more than fifty-five authorized reissues of Studio One recordings, with many more to come.
The success of this wide-ranging reissue program is largely due to the efforts of Heartbeat's A&R Director, Chris Wilson. For Chris, this work is something of a personal mission, and labor of love, given that much of the classic music reissued on Heartbeat provided the soundtrack to his own youth in Jamaica in the 1960s and early '70s. The results of this work have been a series of internationally acclaimed releases. So renowned are these reissues, that people have come to expect certain quality trademarks from Heartbeat. One of the hallmarks of a Heartbeat release is that all recordings are taken from the best sources available, with full permission and cooperation of the producers, and in most cases directly from the original master tapes. This means that the sound quality of Heartbeat releases is always as good as CD technology can offer. Tracks are meticulously re-mastered and compiled, often in direct collaboration with the producers. Another feature of Heartbeat reissues is the mixing of familiar hits with alternate takes, and rare, previously unreleased tracks. Most Heartbeat releases also include detailed, informative liner notes, containing biographical information, quotes from the artists and producers themselves, and historic photos from the times in which the music was made. A Heartbeat release also means careful attention to packaging, design and sleeve art. These hallmarks demonstrate the label's commitment to presenting Jamaican music with the care and respect it deserves.
Heartbeat, however, is much more than just an "oldies" label. In 2003 Heartbeat formed an alliance with top dancehall producers Colin "Bulby" York and Lynford "Fatta" Marshall. Known in reggae circles by their Fat Eyes imprint, over the last ten years both Bulby and Fatta have appeared either as producers or mixing engineers on a good percentage of top-selling dancehall songs or albums, working with artists like Sean Paul, Sizzla Kalonji, Capleton, Buju Banton, Elephant Man, BERES HAMMOND, and Beenie Man. And Heartbeat continues to release new music by reggae veterans like Culture, Gregory Isaacs, and Mykal Rose, as well as newer talent like Everton Blender, Spanner Banner, RICHIE SPICE, and Alpheus.
In all these relationships, Heartbeat makes a concerted effort to work closely with its artists, to listen to their ideas, and give them the full attention they deserve. The result has been a mutual respect between the label and its artists, most evident in the case of Burning Spear, whose long partnership with Heartbeat remains one of the most successful in reggae.
In 2000, Heartbeat was recognized at the "Best Record Label" in Boston Magazine's annual "Best of Boston" issue. The label also won it's first Grammy for Burning Spear's Calling Rastafari album.
If there is any over-arching philosophy, which defines the Heartbeat approach, it is a commitment to treating Jamaican music with the care and respect that it deserves. Unlike major labels who have signed reggae acts only to drop them when expected sales figures were not realized, Heartbeat has always been in it for the "long haul." Those involved in the label share a common love and knowledge of Jamaican music, and a conviction that reggae should be taken as seriously as any other musical genre, be it rock or r&b. As Chris Wilson concludes, "We agree that Jamaican music is as important as any other style, and we try to promote it without any apology. If we have any game plan, it is to put out music we love, by people we love."