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Keep Dope Alive: Why the Hip Hop Nation Is Getting High on “The Chronic”

Blunt Posse: Why the Hip Hop Nation Is Getting High on “The Chronic”
June 22, 1993

Something has happened. The spliff, the holy weed of devout Jamaican Rastas, has mesmerized a generation of Black Ameri­can wannabe “rude bwoys” who are now talking about naturalness, even going back to God when they “take a likkle whiff ’pon di sinsemilla.” No more “suckin’ on the glass dick” — Crack “slangin’,” ya duds, is wick-wicky-wickable wack.

The hip hop nation is getting high on “the Chronic.” I see them everywhere, with their bald heads and edge-of-the-ass baggies, slitting the sides of cheap Phillies Blunt cigars­ — gutting and stuffing the cavity with sticky California skunk grass, Indica, Afghan, even Africa’s exotic Durban Poison weed.

“Blunts have made it fashionable to smoke pot again,” says Ilchuk, 32, a cross­bred Latino and first generation B-boy who grew up on da Loisaida. “Just about no­body in hip hop circles smokes crack or cocaine anymore. In the last two years, I’ve seen ganja make a big difference in terms of less kids smoking crack, angel dust, and all the other dangerous drugs.” Since he over­came a serious crack addiction six years ago, pot has been his only high. “The spiri­tual side of ganja was definitely brought to me by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. I learned the hard way that not all drugs are spiritual.”

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Used to be that Black American kids would see me (a Trinidadian) on the streets, check out my dreadlocks, laugh, and say, “Hey Rastaman, teach me to build a spliff?” Now they’re puffing on their own macho blunts, blowing smoke rings through Flavor Flav gold teeth.

I am surprised, though I shouldn’t be. After all, what did homies do in the mid ’70s, after Kool Herc and other Jamaican DJs in the South Bronx taught them the art of toasting, rhyming over a rhythm track? Brothers took it, reinterpreted it, and rein­vented it to a beat, rhythm, and style of their own bigger-than-life reality. They cre­ated hip hop, a music that is loud, impos­ing, impossible to ignore.

Though they borrowed the technique of the Jamaican DJs, few of the rappers and little of their audience took up the spiritual­ity. But by the early ’80s B-boys began heeding the message of marijuana carried in reggae music. In September 1980, Mar­ley initiated the bond at Madison Square Garden, headlining with the Commodores and Kurtis Blow, then the big hip hop star. It was Marley’s last New York perfor­mance, and he stole the show — introducing his music and his ganja to inner-city Black America.

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There began a vigorous intermarriage of the ghetto musics of Kingston and the South Bronx, a phenomenon best epito­mized by Shinehead, Yellowman, and now Shabba Ranks and Mad Cobra. In 1985, Run DMC’s “Together Forever” declared: “Cool chief rocker/don’t drink no vodka/I keep a bag of cheeba in my locker.” Now rap groups like Cypress Hill are in the news for sporting hemp clothing as part of their call for the legalization of marijuana.

It’s easy to forget that Pot Prohibition and its black market, has lasted 50 years — much longer than the other Prohibition­ — and that previously the forbidden plant had been a normal cash crop, with many uses. “Ganja is from the earth, it’s natural, God made it. I can’t question it the way I question all these other man-made highs,” says Ilchuk. Reggae turned B-boys on to the natural high. Now they’ve pumped up the volume and taken it to another level — ­blunts, the Chronic.

But what else is to be expected of the B-­boy, ambitious, restless, eager to be recog­nized, screaming, “I am! I am!”?

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He licks and rolls a bigger, more formidable-looking bazooka than anything Marley, Tosh, or any rude bwoy ever devised. Ras­tamen have always built their joints like ice cream cones: Women stay in the other room while their lions gather to pass spliffs or cutchie pipes, and reason.

Now see the B-boys building their blunts, bigger and longer, and brown too, like a big Black dick. That’s macho, that’s rebellious, that says fuck you in a big way.

Watching them pass blunts around to each other, enjoying the same potent, male bonding Rastas share when they drum round a fire at a Nyabinghi ritual, I’m hav­ing flashbacks. I’m sitting with Bob Marley on a bed in his Essex House suite. He grins, passes me the fat end of a big spliff, and says, “Di herb mek I see with a clear inner eye.” I remember Peter Tosh, after his ar­rest for smoking a spliff on a Kingston-Kennedy flight, standing in a Queens court­room, bellowing, “I am the Prime Minister of Marijuana, brought here by Jimmy Car­ter to legalize the herb!”

“The turn to blunts was definitely influ­enced by rasta and reggae,” says Hershey, a 24-year-old nonsmoking B-boy from a Trinidadian family, who’s an A&R man for Freeze Records. “If it’s keeping kids away from harder drugs, it’s definitely a positive thing.” The next record his company will put out? A tune called “Who’s at the Door, the Buddha Man,” by Sham and the Profes­sor.

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I’m standing in front of Jah Life’s record shop on bustling Utica Avenue, in East Flatbush. Jah is a big Rastaman, his dread­locks stuffed into a big round wool cap like a soccer ball concealed on top of his head. He’s a venerated reggae producer with a 20-year track record of developing artists like Sister Carol, Barrington Levi, and Mikey Jarrell. I look him in the eye and throw him the hard ball: Do you agree that rasta and reggae music are responsible for the popu­lar resurgence of marijuana as the drug of choice for urban America?

I could have said “partly responsible,” but I wanted him to hear it the way he is bound to hear it, when pop culture’s cur­rent romance with rude bwoys and spliffs, B-boys and blunts — marijuana, sinsemilla, hemp, cannabis, ganja, kaya, weed, cheeba, Chronic — runs its course, or is extinguished; when the time comes, as it always does, to hang the prophets.

Like me, Life is street-bred, ghetto, a survivor. He senses danger and is on his guard. He recoils and looks away. When again he meets my eye, the atmosphere has changed between us. His is a calm and studied stare.

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I half expect him to say, Who the fuck are you, asking me some shit like that? The CIA? The FBI? Are you trying to stab me in my back, brotherrr?

But instead, he studiously says, “Me no really feel Marley and reggae have so much to do with it, cause nuff youth who never even heard of Bob Marley are now smoking blunts. Me have fi say television, news, and the movies contribute even more than Mar­ley and reggae music.”

Yes, there have been high-volume warn­ings about drugs over the past decade­ — warnings that double as advertisements. Nancy Reagan’s JUST SAY NO!!! The co­caine death of Len Bias. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s proclamations against cigarette smoking. Reverend Calvin Butts painting over cigarette ads. Heavy D, Pub­lic Enemy, and other rappers railing against malt liquors and other mind-altering ghetto intoxicants. B-boys, their minds blown from crack and angel dust, running crazed and naked through the ghetto. Such apoca­lyptic admonitions and examples did help drag B-boys away from cigarettes, malt li­quor, angel dust, freebasing, crack, cocaine, methamphetamines. Was there nothing left but those primitive earth men and their natural high?

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Still, people with dreadlocks want none of the praise and none of the blame. Life hesitates, then admits that he smokes, though much less frequently than he used to.

“All smoking, including ganja, ‘the holy herb,’ can be bad for the body,” the Dread explains. “It is better to boil it and drink it as tea. Don’t keep a blunt on you all the time, draw it and draw it until you lose the feeling, the enjoyment of it. Whatever you do, don’t abuse it.”

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1980-1989: How ’80s Music Bent the Color Line

Pop Plural

In the ’80s, the racial divisions which made necessary a “pop chart” and a “black chart” in Billboard were chal­lenged in increasingly aggressive ways; to the point that the decade’s most provocative innovations — rap, two-tone ska, World Beat, house, and Latin “free­style” — defied placement in either cate­gory. Independent of industry marketing strategy, we are moving towards an era when such categories will be dysfunction­al, if not obsolete.

During 10 years of writing for this and other publications I’ve had the privilege of hearing a hell of a lot of music. The bands who forever changed the way I appreciated vinyl — not CDs — were a di­verse and brilliant bunch. I can testify to Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Egypt ’80 at Pizza­-a-Go-Go, Madness at Tier 3, and Bob Marley and the Wailers at the World Famous Apollo Theater. DJ Afrika Bam­baataa at the Mudd Club, Justin Strauss at the Ritz, Gail King at the Red Parrot, and Larry Levan at Paradise Garage were men and women who helped found and support entire musical movements from a humble hillock of turntables.

If a single band could embody the de­cade, it would be Kid Creole and the Coconuts — the first live ensemble to blend rap, reggae, swing, salsa, and funk into a truly original and danceable for­mat. UK critic Simon Frith credited Kid Creole with inspiring a whole school of British pop, from Wham! to Sade, which boomeranged to America and reshaped styles here once again.

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In 1980, Tom Silverman, Mark Joseph­son, and Joel Webber held the first of their rap- and no wave-centered New Music Seminars. This annual event, ini­tially fueled by profits from “Planet Rock” and other early hip-hop hits, quickly grew beyond its rap origins in industry impact. Although it served to bring races together in celebration of var­ious musical subcultures, as the money poured in, the NMS was accused of turn­ing “richer” and “whiter” into synonyms.

In ’81 multiethnic pop suffered a major setback: the death of Bob Marley. Later that year, England’s Clash challenged the color line by bringing rap, punk, and funk acts together on the disco stage of Bonds International in Times Square. Their white American fans didn’t quite get it. Cursing the opening acts, these kids weren’t ready for the mixed society the Clash were suggesting. This residual bigotry found its clearest expression in the emerging music video industry.

MTV demonstrated in 1981 that music could be seen as well as heard. It launched lucrative careers for dozens of unknown British and Australian acts, but refused to put black or “r&b” acts in rotation for years. Pressure from CBS in ’84 forced the inclusion of Michael Jack­son’s Thriller clips — with 36 million sold, Thriller became the first r&b project to benefit from the selling power of MTV.

But MTV never really warmed to tra­ditional r&b. When the channel finally began to program videos featuring black performers, it was because white listeners requested rap. Meanwhile, alternative outlets like Video Music Box and Black Entertainment Television had arisen to support black product. By 1989 MTV, feeling the competition, was program­ming a half-hour of prime-time black videos per day via Yo! MTV Raps.

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THROUGHOUT THE ’80s music reinvented itself because — and in spite — of techno­logical change. The conversion of many club sound systems from support of live bands to cheaper backing-tape performances (often with the lead vocals also on tape!), reduced audience expectations of live music. Radio stagnated when fol­low-the-leader formats made flipping the dial as common (and dull) an exercise as aerobics.

On the up side, portable cassette sys­tems allowed more progressive consumers to program their own daily soundtracks (“C30-C60-C90 Go!” urged a belligerent Bow Wow Wow). Taping from live, radio, and vinyl sources proved not enough: As the rap and underground disco scenes flourished far from the commercial main­stream, drum machines, reel to reels, and primitive four-track home studios proliferated to serve the imagination of a teen underclass suddenly gifted with the means of production.

No change was more radical than the elevation of disc jockeys to the ranks of songwriters and producers. High-tech jocks behind recording consoles made be­ing able to remember (and dismember) music more important than reading it. “Mastermixes,” used by urban radio to extend the life of hit singles, created a demand for DJ-created versions of these same songs with altered rhythm tracks and arrangements. Soon no producer un­familiar with club audio trends could compete with his DJ-peers.

This new breed of producer had a choice: to give his best ideas to second­-stage remix projects, or produce and re­lease records of his own. Chicago jocks were among the first to make their own dance tracks from reworked Philly Inter­national basslines and Eurodisco synth pads. House music was born. Raw 8-track recordings from Chicago, like Steve “Silk” Hurley’s “Jack Your Body,” cut in ’86, were topping the British pop charts as early as ’87, while being all but ignored back home.

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REGGAE WAS THE first large-scale cross­over experiment of the ’80s. Since many first-generation rap and turntable artists were of West Indian descent, it’s no won­der that Jamaican inventions, such as instrumental “dubs” and impromptu rhyming over rhythm tracks, became sta­ples of early hip-hop. Whites who ac­quired a taste for rap from hybrids like the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven,” and for reggae from the Police’s Regatta de Blanc, flocked to places where they could dance to the stuff. Downtown venues like Negril and One’s catered to the hunger for original Jamaican imports; while spots like the Roxy and the Mudd Club allowed spike- and skinheads to mingle with Kangol-capped B-boys.

At the same time, Cachaça on the Up­per East Side catered to more obscure tastes in what would later be called World Beat. Brazilian expatriates gigging at Cachaça offered samba, maculelê, choro, and bossa nova, long before New Artists and Joseph Papp sponsored Brazilian pop stars. Larry Gold’s Sounds of Brazil was exclusively Brazilian when it set up shop on Varick Street in ’82. But by ’86, a spectrum of Third World ethnopoppers had graced its stage. Another early sup­porter of world music was promoter Ver­na Gillis, whose midtown Soundscape se­ries did much in the mid-’80s to expose the uninitiated to Caribbean and African musics.

Even Ron Delsener couldn’t resist the cross-cultural bug. His booking policy at the late Savoy theater was wildly eclectic: You might have seen reggae crooner Gregory Issacs there one week with a roomful of Brooklyn dreads, followed by Zaire’s M’bilia Bel the next.

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In shepherding Bob Marley’s global travels, Island/Mango realized that an entire world of pop music based on Pan­African rhythms awaited dissemination. While Chris Blackwell groomed the apoc­alyptic trio Black Uhuru for the Marley slot, and the Rolling Stones toured with Peter Tosh, there was no reason some of the African music already catching on in Europe couldn’t be promoted stateside.

There were felicitous “crossover” prec­edents. Ginger Baker of Cream had re­corded an entire album with Fela Kuti in the ’70s; Peter Gabriel, inspired by Afri­can politics as well as pop, composed the elegiac “Biko,” and in ’82 sponsored a seminal Third World pop music festival in England; The Talking Heads flaunted the African sources which informed their 1980 effort Remain in Light; and Mal­colm McLaren filled half his solo LP, Duck Rock, with Soweto township music in ’83.

By the time Mango released their two-­volume Sounds D’Afrique compilation of central African tunes, they had every rea­son to expect a certain level of avant­-garde acceptance. These discs were fol­lowed in ’83 by Mango’s first African pop star: King Sunny Adé and his African Beats. The stage show — sung entirely in Yoruba — was ambitiously presented in many American cities. Adé’s orchestra and male dancers could command a stage for two hours and never repeat a move.

The massive breakthrough Blackwell sought through two albums never happened. But Adé’s partial success in the college and alternative markets laid the groundwork for the World Beat circuit that now serves everyone from Islamic Africa’s Cheb Khaled to Israel’s Ofra Haza.

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Language and image were still the big­gest obstacles between foreign artists and Madonnaland. One by one the idols of other nations visited us, but those with­out a Yankee sponsor barely registered as blips on the scale of mass appeal. When Paul Simon won his Grammies for Grace­land it was very much his victory, in spite of the solicitous inclusion of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba on the Graceland tours.

The pure Brazilian pop and samba compilations David Byrne has assembled on Fly/Sire, and his current Rei Moma album (which deploys New York salsa circuit veterans), are wonderful projects, but of questionable benefit to the non-­Anglo musician. Salsa innovator Willie Colén wrote in a Billboard editorial earli­er this year that the Best Latin Record­ing category could soon be filled with the experiments of well-meaning Yankee dabblers elbowing out the genuine article. This is not an unfounded fear.

The same decisions that kept MTV safe so long — for the benefit of Brit pop, dinosaur rock, and heavy metal — are now those that prevent most salsa, reggae, rai (Algerian teen pop), zouk, and yes, even rap, from being played on black radio. In a remarkable turnabout, one local black station is fighting against the tide. Back on WBLS after a long absence, DJ Fran­kie Crocker is attempting a multigenre format for the ’90s-gospel, blues, folk, jazz, salsa, rap, reggae, and classic r&b. He hopes to keep root musics alive, and in the process prevent a glut of trendy, perfunctory fluff. He’s got his work cut out for him.

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ECONOMIC PROTECTIONISM operates in music just as it does with other consumer goods. It is cultural imperialism that dictates that other countries know who Ma­donna is before any American hears a tune by Cheb Khaled. The conspiracy to SELL THIS, NOT THAT! is eroding because record buyers are not as passive and pa­rochial as they used to be. If anything destroyed the myth that white features matter more than great music, the major label breakthrough of Tracy Chapman did.

So the pivotal question for the pluralis­tic ’90s is: How long? How long before the conglomerates are forced to share their wealth? Every stronghold of the record business now has its own little Trojan horse of independents chomping away at market infrastructure. Major la­bels began to buy into entire rap compa­nies because they didn’t have a clue as to how to package and exploit hip-hop. They may have to fund existing blues, reggae, and foreign import labels for the same reason. The more the industry tries to homogenize and reduce artistic stan­dards, the more music itself rises up to defy it. ■

NEXT…

The Path of Most Resistance: Poland Leads Eastern Europe Into the Abyss
By Lawrence Weschler

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The Journey of Bob Marley

So Much Things to Say

He sat with his friends smoking and rapping. Bob Marley. During his lifetime this man had become a mythical figure, yet nothing in his easygoing manner identified a superstar. He did not overshadow or separate himself from the dozen or so Rastamen milling about his Essex House suite. His laughter was uproarious, un­pretentious, and free. He blended so snugly with his peers that I could never have picked him out had his face not deco­rated record jackets, T-shirts, and posters everywhere. A year after his death. his words still sustain and warn and fulfill.

I had read about the millions of records Marley sold worldwide and that he was a multimillionaire. Still, I found it hard to reconcile the slightly built, denim-clad man with the explosive entertainer who danced across the stages of huge arenas or penetrated me with his stare from the cover of Rolling Stone. Marley got up, and politely took leave of the jolly group. He led me to the bedroom. Lying casually across the bed he carefully thumbed through a Bible. Tonight he will talk with me about Rastafari; tomorrow he will go up to Harlem’s Apollo Theater and make more history, more legend.

Marley recorded his first song, “Judge Not,” in 1961; he was 16 years old then. A helter-skelter music industry was just de­veloping in Kingston where the unemployment rate was 35 per cent and Marley scuffed out a living as a welder. “Me grow stubborn, you know,” he recalled when we talked. “Me grow without mother and father. Me no have no parent fe have no big influence pon me. Me just grow in a de ghetto with de youth. Stubborn, no obey no one; but we had qualities and we were good to one another.” In 1964 Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer formed the Wailing Wailers. From the beginning Marley strove to convey meaningful con­tent in his lyrics: “Nothing I do is in vain. There is nothing I ever do that goes away in the wind. Whatever I do shall prosper. Because I and I no compromise I and I music, I’m one of dem tough ones,” Marley said.

Soon the world discovered that Marley was no ordinary singer whose words were designed to be hummed for moments and forgotten; here was a messenger whose lyr­ics call attention to our condition, to the reasons for suffering: The music brings lightness to the feet and makes them dance, but the beat is a marching drum, a call to struggle: “Get up, stand up,/Stand up for your rights,/Get up, stand up,/Don’t give up the fight.”

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Marley came to be widely respected as a songwriter with a reach that was broad and deep. Eric Clapton had a big hit with Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” Johnny Nash scored with Marley’s “Stir It Up” and “Guava Jelly.” In 1972 Marley and the Wailers signed with Island Records, a small London-based company headed by Chris Blackwell, a white Jamaican. Marley, who wrote his songs and arranged his music, made 10 albums with Island. They all went gold; 500,000 copies sold within the first year in England, Europe and Canada. Two albums, Rastaman Vi­brations and Uprising, made gold in the U.S. His only comment when asked about his success was, “The man who does his work well, he shall be rewarded.”

During the late ’60s the Wailers became the first popular Jamaican group to make Rastafari philosophies and Rasta drum­ming the main thrusts of their music. In­spired by the back-to-Africa beliefs of Rastafari, Marley took a deep interest in Africa and the slave trade and wrote some of the most devastating statements of black rage ever recorded. His songs were designed both to tell history and to instill pride and hope in a pebple indoctrinated with the lie of inferiority. “In my music I and I want people to see themselves,” he said. “I and I are of the house of David. Our home is Timbuktu, Ethiopia, Africa where we enjoyed a rich civilization long before the coming of the European. Marcus Garvey said that a people without knowledge of their past is like a tree with­out roots.”

Soon, more and more of Jamaica’s top musicians became Rastas, and reggae, the dominant music of Jamaica, became the main vehicle of expression for the Rastafari movement. Its radical ideas were carried by radio into every home and soon Rastafari permeated the society. Reggae singers like Marley became more than mere entertainers, they became “revolu­tionary workers” and representatives of Kingston’s poor: “Them belly full but we hungry/A hungry mob is an angry mob/A rain a fall but the dirt it tough/A pot a cook but the food no ‘nough.” Sung with sim­plicity and the clarity of Marley’s skeletal voice, these ideas were easily understood and quickly absorbed by even the most illiterate among the poor. Through music, Marley and other Rasta musicians at­tacked Jamaica’s skinocratic system that placed whites at the top, mulattos in the middle, and blacks nowhere. Marley sang in “Crazy Baldhead”: “I and I build the cabin/I and I plant the corn/Didn’t my people before me Slave for this country/ Now you look me with a scorn/Then you eat up all my corn.”

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The singer became the high priest, prophet and pied piper of Rasta and cap­tivated the people of the third world. Un­like most religious cults Rastafari has no written rules or procedures; its members are united by certain common beliefs and uncommon rituals. The rituals and even the beliefs vary from one Rasta group to another. Bongo-U, a college-trained phar­macologist, and now a Rasta medicine man in Montego Bay, says: “You will never know the Rastaman through books. You can tell the Rastaman through deeds, but to know the Rastaman you must live the experience — it’s the only way.” Some Rastas are devoutly religious and of ex­emplary moral character; others are thieves and criminals. Some Rastas are hardworking and industrious; others be­lieve employment means surrender to “Babylon.” The only two beliefs all Rastas hold in common are: Haile Selassie is God; repatriation to Africa is the only true salvation for black people.

“Rasta is the most dominant, most im­portant thing in my life,” Marley once told me. “You have one man defend capitalist and other man defend socialist … finally you have I and I who defend Rastafari.” Marley believed that in the Rastafari way of life there was an urgent message for the rest of the world. He believed that it was his divine mission to spread the word of the living, almighty “Jah,” and also to inform blacks in the West that they are a lost tribe of Israelites sold into slavery in a Western hell called “Babylon.” Marley came to help an uprooted and displaced people establish an identity. Bob Marley, who worked to explode the myth of a white God in a black society, was the first person to tell me that Israel was a man and not a place. He said the people who live in the country of that name are imposters. To Marley and all orthodox Rastas, blacks are the true Hebrews.

Rastas refer to themselves as ‘I and I,’ speaking always in the plural because they believe that God lives inside them. To express this divine presence they change the numeral in the title of Selassie I of Ethiopia and pronounce it like the personal pronoun. Most Rastas adhere to a strict vegetarian diet.

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In the strictest Rastafari sect, called Niyabingi, Rastas take an oath pledging “death to black and white oppressors.” Yet they refuse to carry weapons: “Violence,” Bongo-U explains, “is left to Jah. God alone has the right to destroy.” Niyabingi Rastas cite Genesis, saying that God made the earth with words — “Let there be light, Jah said, and there was light!’ They be­lieve that when all Jah’s children are united in one cry — “death to black and white oppressors” — destruction will surely come to the exploiters. “Rastas believe in mind power and in the power of the ele­ments, lightning, earthquake, and thun­der,” Bongo-U says.

From the Book of Numbers Marley and other Rastas took the command never to cut their hair: “All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.” This is the oath of the Nazarites which Jesus took. According to biblical injunction, Rastas cannot eat while others starve. They live communally, sharing goods and services among their community.

In the mid-’60s when there was an un­precedented rise in gang warfare and vio­lent robberies in the West Kingston ghettos — police and politicians alike blamed the Rastas. The government ordered an offensive against Rasta communes and po­lice viciously routed them and burned their homes. The worst attack involved the July 1966 destruction of Back-O-Wall, the worst part of the slums where numerous Rastas had settled in makeshift tin-and-­board shacks. At dawn heavily armed police ringed the settlement with bulldozers while the occupants slept. Without warn­ing they leveled the settlement, injuring and arresting scores of Rasta men, women, and children. This attack failed to destroy the Rastafari movement; instead it was scattered throughout Kingston and the rest of the island and soon began to chal­lenge the norms, beliefs, and habits of Jamaicans throughout the island.

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Once entrenched all over Kingston, the Rastafari, who had a history of self-re­liance based on fishing, farming, and hand­icrafts, now inspired the youths to seek alternative employment outside the “shitstem!” Their call to “come out of Babylon” spurred an explosion of creative art and today Rasta painters and wood­carvers are transforming Kingston into a showplace of talent’ that generates con­siderable tourist business for Jamaica. But the most important product of the Rasta artistic renaissance is reggae music. Nu­merous drumming brotherhoods de­veloped in the Kingston ghettos as un­employed youths and former rude boys turned to music as a profession and creative outlet.

Until 1966 Marley’s music consisted mostly of glorifications of the rude boy desperado life style. He had had hits with “Rude Boy,” “Rule Them Rudy,” “I’m the Toughest,” and the rude boy anthem “Steppin’ Razor.” But Marley came under the influence of Mortimo Planno, a high priest and a force among the West King­ston Rastafari, and his transformation be­gan: Marley said Planno guided him to a consciousness which was always in him and which he only had to recognize. He emphasized that no one can make a person a Rasta: “You have to look inside yourself to see Rasta,” he said. “Every black is a Rasta, dem only have to look inside them­selves. No one had to tell me, Jah told me himself. I and I looked inside I-self and I saw Jah Rastafari.”

After Planno, Vernon Carrington Gad the Prophet to Rastas, and the founder of the Twelve Tribes of Israel Rastafari sect to which Marley belonged, took the singer even further into Rastafari: “Gad revealed back to I and I the secret of the lost Twelve Tribes,” said Marley, who learned that each person is assigned to a tribe according to the month of their birth. “I was born in February so I’m from the tribe of Joseph,” he explained. “Somebody born in April could say they are Aries and that’s what they will be because the word is power and you live it. But if you say you are Reuben, then you realize you find your roots be­cause you become Jacob’s children which is Israel. Jacob said thou art Reuben, thou art my firstborn, the beginning of my strength, the excellency of my dignity.”

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In “Redemption Song” Marley identi­fied himself as the present-day incarnation of Joseph, son of Jacob: “But my hand was strengthened by the hand of the almighty.” Genesis 49: 24 says of Joseph: “But his bow abode in strength and his hand was made strong by the hand of the almighty.” Ramdeen, an East Indian dread, pointed to this biblical verse and said, “Same man that Bob Marley. Jah gave him the gift to write that music and put those words together. His mission was to deliver Israel through songs of redemp­tion.”

In 1967 Marley quit recording, left Kingston and returned to the St. Ann’s mountain village where he was born. There in those hills he made a covenant with a new God, Jah Rastafari. This was to prove a pivotal event in his life, in his musical direction and in the history of the Rastafari movement itself. For a year Marley roamed the hills and practiced the ways of Rasta and soon Rastafari permeated his entire being. When Marley returned to Kingston in late 1968 he brought with him a new music and also a mission to take the word of Jah Rastafari to the people. His religion became the content of his music, and the music there­fore became the medium through which he set out to take Rastafari to the world. Jamaica’s ex-prime minister Michael Man­ley said, “Marley took what was a sub­culture in Jamaica and elevated it to a dominant culture. He took a folk art,” he continued, “and he elevated it into a uni­versal language of communication.”

Marley’s first song of religious testi­mony, “Selassie I Is the Temple,” came in late 1968. This was followed by “Duppy Conqueror,” “Small Ax,” “Trenchtown Rock” — these songs zeroed in on poverty, injustice, and the evil of power politics. Marley had experienced a rebirth, and ready or not, Jamaica and the Rastafari had a new prophet. By constantly calling attention to the social inequities and by threatening and demanding redress, Marley and the Rastafari, mainly through music, moved not just the poor, but also middle-class intellectuals to question the ethics of Jamaican society and the conduct of government officials. Tremendous pres­sure was brought to bear on politicians as the music urged the people to view them with distrust. During the months preced­ing the 1972 elections, the ruling Jamaica Labor Party (led by Prime Minister Hugh Shearer) reacted by banning such songs from the radio. But a brisk black market developed in reggae and the music still played a big role in the defeat that year of the JLP by Michael Manley’s People’s Na­tional Party.

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Without ever getting involved in power politics Bob Marley, who said “me no sing politics, me sing bout freedom,” became a political force to be reckoned with. He was quoted and courted by both factions of Jamaica’s political establishment. Jamai­can Albert Reid, a 63-year-old tractor op­erator, swore that if “Bob alone was in power in Jamaica we would have a lovely, peaceful country.”

In Jamaica and abroad, Bob Marley transcended barriers of race, color, and class. Marley said to me, “The different peoples of the earth are the different flow­ers of the earth. Jah made them all.” In­deed, people all over the world perceived that despite his problack stand he was not a racist, they knew he stood for love and respect for all peoples. Wailer vocalist Judy Mowatt says that “even people of different languages and different cultures understood because his message was sim­ple. He sang about the need for love and unity amongst all people.” The univer­sality of the Rastafari message is perhaps the most important factor in the world­wide acceptance of Marley’s music. Reggae music is also infusing new radical content into British and American popular mu­sic — the Wailers, Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, are topping the charts. At the Gar­den concert, Oja, a black American Rastaman, spoke of its connection to blacks here: “Reggae can make the music much more relevant to the real life ex­periences of black people in America. We listen to our radios more than we read or watch television and what does most of the music say to us? Party, party, dance, dance, get down, get down. But a reggae song might deal with the lack of food for the people, or about the war in Zimbabwe, or the need for blacks to unite. That’s why it’s so important for our people to hear reggae.”

In strife-torn Africa where various na­tions are in struggle for political power and self-determination, songs like Marley’s “War” inspired the revolutionaries to keep up the struggle: ” … Until the ignoble and unhappy regime/That now hold our broth­ers/In Angola,/In Mozambique,/South Af­rica,/In subhuman bondage,/Have been toppled,/Utterly destroyed,/Everywhere is war.” His “Zimbabwe” became a war cry for SWAPO and ZANU guerillas on the battlefield in what was then Rhodesia. This song internationalized the struggle and helped to win world support for Zim­babwe’s liberators. In 1978 the Senegalese Delegation to the United Nations pre­sented Marley with the Third World Peace Medal, in tribute to his influence as a revolutionary artist.

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Marley went even further in contribut­ing to Zimbabwe. He headlined a concert at Boston’s Harvard Stadium and raised money for the new nation. For the first time in modern history a popular singer had thereby demonstrated that he could use his music and his popularity to influ­ence the outcome of a war. This action won Marley worldwide acclaim, but also earned him enemies. As Marley developed he be­came increasingly secular and interna­tional in scope. Consider his 1979 release, “Babylon System,” which deals with work­ers passing their lives toiling in the capital­ist profit machinery: “We’ve been treading on the/Wine press much too long,/Rebel, rebel./Babylon system is a vampire,/Sucking the children day by day, /Sucking the blood of the sufferers.” Marley called on the sufferers to take action to change their own lives. Such lyrics can be interpreted as anticapitalist and progressive, merely lib­eral, or anarchist — depending on the per­spective of the listener: like the Rastafari ideology from which it comes, the reggae message is open-ended. And as Rastafari and reggae become more widespread, peo­ple of diverse political ideologies read their own meanings into the religion and the music.

Some Marxists read and interpret the songs as invocations to the international working class to unite and overthrow capi­talism. “Marley’s reggae is the world’s most powerful battle cry,” said leftist economist Teresa Turner. “The task at hand is collecting the survivors of cen­turies of exploitation, racism, and de­generation — people who, as explained by Marx, are necessarily left out of the main­stream of society. Those survivors are potential revolutionaries and Marley’s reg­gae invokes them to keep up the fight as the life’s work of this generation. The mis­sion of Rasta is to recreate society on a moral basis of equality.”

But theocratic Rastas like Marley are both anticapitalist and anticommunist, saying that both systems are evil and designed to oppress and destroy. They give allegiance to no authority but Jah Rastafari. Says Bongo-U: “We shall set politics against religion, religion against commerce, capitalism against communism, and set them to war! And they shall destroy themselves.” Since each Rasta is in constant contact with God — ­reading a chapter of the Bible every day — there is no need for intermediaries. Thus there are no conventional leaders in the movement.

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***

For the five years that preceded the diagnosis of cancer Rasta prophet Bob Marley had been working incessantly, ignoring the advice of doctors and close as­sociates that he stop and obtain a thorough medical examination. No, he wouldn’t stop, he would have to quit the stage and it would take years to recoup the momen­tum. This was his time and he seized upon it. Whenever he went into his studio to record he did enough songs for two albums. Marley would drink his fish tea, eat his rice and peas stew, roll himself about six spliffs and go to work. With incredible energy and determination he kept strumming his guitar, maybe 12 hours, sometimes till day­break; but he had to get just what he wanted, always the perfectionist.

When Marley and the Wailers arrived in New York in September 1980 for their concert at Madison Square Garden, straight away I sought them out. Minion Phillips, a close friend of Marley who trav­eled with the Wailers, was even then ex­tremely worried about Marley. She had had some terrifying dreams. In one she dreamt that Bob stood before her and she saw a big serpent curled up and moving round and round in his stomach, eating it out. “I’m afraid for Bob,” she said. “I have a feeling something terrible will happen. I don’t think this tour will be completed.”

“Marley! Marley! Marley!” resounded under the huge Madison Square Garden dome, then amid thunderous applause the audience of 20,000 jumped to its feet. There he stood. About five feet four inches, a slim man in denim jacket, jeans, and construction boots with his guitar held fast before him like a machine gun. He threw his ropelike head of hair about and it became a whirlwind around his small black face. The crack of a drum exploded into bass, into organ. And high above the roar of the audience, the sinewy terror sliced through the inky space like the shrill call of a sea gull: “There’s a natural mystic flowing through the air/If you listen carefully now you will hear/This could be the first trumpet, might as well be the last/Many more will have to suffer/Many more will have to die.”

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He became rock-still and intent at the microphone, a presence at once shocking and magical, totally in control. His eyes were dark holes in cheeks of slate. A huge crown of matted locks haloed his face and fell onto his back and shoulders. I jumped the barriers between seats and moved to different ends of the Garden, searching hard for signs of any weakness. Marley seemed in excellent form and the audience screamed for more each time he completed a song. “He’s okay,” I told myself, “he’s got to be okay to perform like this.”

The band was silent. Marley picked out a low note on his acoustic guitar: “Eman­cipate yourself from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds/Have no fear of atomic energy none of them can stop the time … These songs of freedom is all I ever had … ” But why was he singing this one alone? And why the past tense — ­”all I ever had?” The next day, Sunday, Marley collapsed while jogging in Central Park. Tuesday the same thing happened in Pittsburgh during what became his last concert. The following Saturday I visited Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt. “How’s Bob?” I asked. Rita took my hand. “We don’t know for sure,” she answered, “the doctors say he has a tumor in his brain.” I looked up at Minion Phillips and she was staring straight into my eyes. We both knew. The horror choked me.

The knowledge that Bob Marley might soon die haunted me for those months he spent fighting for his life in Dr. Joseph Issel’s cancer clinic in West Germany. Still I was shocked when I heard that he had died in Miami on Monday, May 11, en route to Jamaica. He knew the work was over. While in the hospital he told his mother, Cedella Booker, that he had had enough of the needles which for seven months pricked at his flesh. Less than 70 pounds, he was too weak to lift the guitar he hardly left alone for 20 years. Says Mrs. Booker, “He wasn’t afraid or bitter at the end. He said he was going into the hills to rest for a while.”

Bob slept and Rita Marley flew back to Jamaica. She journeyed to the mountains of Nine Miles Village, St. Ann’s. Marley had lived in a small house built by his father on the side of a steep hill overlook­ing the village in the valley below. There on that hill, Bob sat on a huge stone and wrote his classic, “Trenchtown Rock.” There she had spent some of the happiest days of her life. Bob’s tomb would stand beside the house right where the stone sat. She carefully chose the spot.

Rita decided then to build a temple with a roof and space enough for her to sit and talk with Bob. He would not be buried under the earth, but rest in a vault five feet above ground, She would embalm his body in the same way Egyptians and tribal Africans preserved their kings. Gener­ations to come will be able to break the seals, draw Bob out and gaze upon him. She would take him to his resting place with the pomp and glory befitting a king.

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When a king dies everyone has a theory; the reggae king is no exception. Some, like Fatso who sat behind me on the flight to Kingston, say that Marley committed sui­cide: Did Marley work himself to death at age 36, or did he work so furiously because he knew he would die young? Marley was always rubbing his forehead and grimacing while performing. Did he know something no one else knew? “Who feels it knows it Lord,” he sang in his “Running Away” in 1978. “Bob spent too much time up in the ozone layer, that messed up his health,” said his photographer friend, Fikisha.

There is talk of foul play, despite what police say. One dread told me Bob was killed because he was an important revolu­tionary. He argued that “laser beams” were hooked up between the spotlights while Bob performed and they “burn out ‘im brain.” Jamaican police sergeant Ver­nal Savane was certain marijuana killed Marley. “Ganja has destroyed a lot of youths,” he insisted. To Rastas that claim is ridiculous. Rasta George, a Niyabingi dread, said, “The holy herb can kill no one, it can only heal I and I.”

But the most controversial belief of the strict Niyabingi Rastafari is their total re­jection of death. “Don’t expect a man like Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh at Bob’s funeral,” said Niyabingi Rasta Ras Joe, “them men are livers — they do not deal with death.” Psalms 6:5 says, “For in the grave there is no remembrance of thee,” thus Niyabingi Rastas like Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer say let the dead bury the dead. They do not attend funerals. No hard feelings exist between the three founding members of the Wailers, indeed, if Peter died Bob would not have shown up at his burial.

Marley, like other Rastas, believed that a person manifests himself again and again in the flesh. Thus Selassie is the same man, David. Marley has given up one body, but he will manifest himself again in a new body in the days to come. To Rastas who believe Marley was the “fleshical man­ifestation of Joseph, son of Jacob,” his passing merely marked the departure of a great prophet and there was no sadness. Dread I-One, a one-legged Rastaman taxi driver, pointed into the starry blue sky and said there was no need to be sad because “we are numerous as the stars. Every prophet that falls, 12 are born.”

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***

Wednesday, May 20, was a national day of mourning, and by noon 12,000 persons had beaten me to the Arena; viewed the body and left. Another 10,000 gathered outside the Arena trying to get in before 5 p.m. Thousands rushed the gate and police resorted to tear gas to repel them. Sister Sissy, aged 60, held fast to a young man she did not know and fought her way forward as if she could not feel the tear gas biting at her skin. “Me never get tear gas on me befo,” she said, “but me tek it only for Bob Marley. I never knew him, but oh I loved him. God knows he was a true prophet. I had to see ‘pon his face before they bury him.”

I stood there staring at what looked like a doll with Marley’s face. It was a very eerie experience, hearing his voice, watch­ing him lie there. His handsome face looked scrubbed, plastic from embalming, but the trance only increased its mystic magnetism. His majestic locks, scorched by radiation aimed at his brain, were laid in twisted ropes almost down to his waist. He was still wearing his gold, red, and green undervest and knitted wool cap in the colors of the Rastafari, and his usual jeans and denim jacket. The stream of faces of a thousand different colors flowed slowly along in step to his voice wailing from huge loudspeakers: “So old man river don’t cry for me/Cause I’ve got a running stream of love you see/And no matter what stages/… No matter what rages … changes/Rages they put us through/We’ll never be blue … ”

At 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 21, over 200 police officers and thousands of Jamai­cans lined the road outside Kingston Max Field Park Ethiopian Church. His Eminence Archbishop Abouna Yesehay, the Western church head, came to Kingston to officiate at a members-and-invited-­guests-only ceremony which began at eight. Inside the gates the bishops gathered, arrayed in splendid gowns of gold, silver, and crimson. Like wise kings from the East they mumbled prayers in Amharic and Geez as the archbishop lit frankincense which filled the church. Drums pounded amid the tinkling of bells and the humming of songs and prayers. Journalists and television crews hustled in to take all the space between the altar and the congregation, blocking the view of church members and guests.

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A motorcade quickly assembled after the service and cruised across West Kingston, passing by Marley’s Tuff Gong Stu­dios and then turning into the National Arena where a state ceremony had to com­mence at 11 a.m. The huge arena was filled to capacity. State politicians, am­bassadors, international media, music stars and thousands of Rastas dressed in white with red, green, and gold caps min­gled and talked, and then the politicians took turns making speeches: Sir Florizel Glasspole, Michael Manley, and finally Prime Minister Edward Seaga. He an­nounced that a statue of Marley standing with his guitar is to be the first erected in Jamaica Park, a shrine for distinguished Jamaican heroes. “May his soul find con­tentment in the achievements of his life and rejoice in the embrace of Jah Rastafari,” said Seaga and the audience jumped to its feet. Thunderous shouts of “Rastafari! Rastafari!” punctuated the ap­plause — in death official society finally recognized Marley and his God.

At the end, Wailer musicians, incensed at the way the establishment co-opted the funeral, pushed aside police pallbearers, and Marley’s lifelong companions bore him outside. Horse-mounted police forced a path through the huge crowd and the motorcade moved. People piled into trucks and buses, some rode motorcycles, others set out on foot. Down through Spanish Town, down past a thousand shanties, up into the mountain passes and through vil­lages where people gathered in solid walls along both sides of the road, deeper and deeper into the heart of Jamaica, they traveled back to the hills from which Bob Marley came.

I arrived at a steep hill atop which the mausoleum stood and fought my way up. I pushed a black-suited man aside and came face to face with a smiling Edward Seaga standing on the threshold of Marley’s tomb. Black-jacketed men flanked him. Seaga arrived by helicopter, avoiding the slow and grueling 55-mile trip in a 90-degree sunsplash. Yes, he had seen Ja­maica come out that day. No, he had never seen a funeral like this, yes, it was an incredible sight. He moved aside, I stepped around him and saw the open vault wait­ing.

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I heard the crowd exclaiming and there came the police pallbearers battling uphill like packhorses straining under their heavy load. They headed straight for the vault and pushed the coffin in. “Bob Marley, king of reggae, has chosen to come here to rest,” someone announced over a loudspeaker. And 10,000 voices all rose up. Did they shout, “hail him”? Or was it, “praise him”? Coherence was lost in a roar that reached up to the sky. Again and again, they hailed him.

The photographers scrambled to tree tops and clambered to the roof of Bob’s father’s house. A trumpet pealed. The sun burst between the silhouettes atop the mountain and illuminated Bob’s ledge. His wife and mother sang: “Angels of mercy, angels of light singing to welcome the pil­grim of the night.” The sun dropped be­hind the mountain and immediately it was cooler. Only the bishop’s voice broke the silence, reading the final sermon. A stout man placed a red metal plate with a gold star of David — this was the first seal. One by one he inserted the studs and fastened them. A heavy steel-wire grill was bolted on — the second seal. They fastened a plyboard sheet in place and poured buck­ets of wet cement between plyboard and metal — this formed the third seal.

Darkness falls swiftly once the sun leaves those hills. The television crews, the police, and the politicians hurriedly boarded vehicles, engines roared, trucks and cars negotiated tricky turnabouts and rumbled downhill. at 7 p.m. African drum­mer Olatunji walked around Marley’s tomb ringing an agogo, a ceremonial bell. The drummer struck out a range of dif­ferent pitches and rhythms. He stopped at Marley’s head and rang out a long pene­trating peal that ricocheted off the moun­tain sides and lingered in the still dark­ness. The mountains became giant lumps of coal. Down in the riverbed a fire burned before a small house. Shadows danced and moved in and about the yard. Powerful speakers drove Marley’s voice out the door, it resounded against the hills and filled the night: “How long shall they kill our prophets/While we stand aside and look/Some say it’s just a part of it/We’ve got to fulfill the book./Won’t you help to sing/These songs of freedom … redemp­tion songs.”

One-legged Abraham Moriah came hopping uphill to the tomb on his crutch to welcome Bob home. “Bob made us hold our heads up. He has to call my father uncle, all of us in the village is one family. He gave us a message of honesty. I believe he is a prophet because many things he talk fulfill.” ■

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Sound Culture Fest’s Afro-Caribbean Rhythm Mission: ‘This Goes Deep Into Roots’

[pullquote]‘You can’t go to any Caribbean club and not hear African music.’[/pullquote]

On September 5, D’banj, the Nigerian superstar best known for his irresistible dance hit “Oliver Twist,” will co-headline the inaugural Sound Culture Fest at Irving Plaza with GOAT-status Trinidadian soca artist Machel Montano. D’banj’s energetic and highly danceable new Afropop is part of a family of club-friendly mainstream African music often packaged for export as Afrobeats. Soca is the calypso-rooted sound that fuels Trinidad’s Carnival fêtes, and Montano has built a career over the course of three decades on being the life of those parties. Rounding out the evening’s entertainment is OgaSilachi, a New York-based Nigerian-American singer who dubs his music “AfronB,” and Eddie Kadi, a British comedian originally from Congo who is flying out to act as master of ceremonies. Planned to coincide with Labor Day and New York’s Carnival weekend, this show is definitely going to be a festive affair.

It might seem like a gamble to bring two major artists from distinctly different music cultures together in New York City, but if it is, it’s an astutely calculated one — maybe just a minute ahead of its time. Sound Culture is the product of a cultural convergence that is well underway. “It’s got to do with how African music is going right now and how Caribbean music is going right now,” concert organizer and all-around African pop music maven Rickie Davies says of the vision for Sound Culture Fest. “You can’t go to any Caribbean club or Carnival without hearing African music. And at African clubs, you definitely hear Caribbean music.”

Songs like Ghanaian-British artist Fuse ODG’s azonto earworm “Antenna” have become major party hits across the Caribbean in recent years, leading Caribbean artists to seek out collaborations with their African counterparts. Timaya has turned out remixes of his song “Bum Bum” featuring Machel Montano and Sean Paul, recasting it as soca and dancehall, respectively, as well as a version of his hit “Sanko” featuring soca artist Destra Garcia. Montano has also performed with Timaya in Trinidad and featured on Nigerian singer 2Face Idibia’s “Go,” the video for which was shot in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Montano finds both great opportunity and profound meaning in this cultural exchange. “Now we see the modern side of Africa, and we see it’s so similar to what we are doing. I have invited them to my shows in Trinidad, and when they come they love the similarity of what we’re doing,” he says. The similarities he’s referring to stem from the African roots of so much Caribbean culture, but also from the direct influence the Caribbean has had on African pop culture. West Africans today grew up on reggae alongside Afrobeat, and some of the continent’s biggest stars are dancehall artists like Shatta Wale from Ghana and Nigeria’s Patoranking.

Davies has been a connector for Montano’s African collaborations. She too talks about the intrinsic value of promoting Caribbean-African crossovers and the great strategic possibilities they offer. “There are so many similarities between the cultures,” she explains. “I’m from Ghana and there’s so many things that we eat that I’ve discovered Jamaicans eat. When I was growing up in the U.K., Jamaicans didn’t necessarily like Africans because they were basically taught [that] Africans sold them out. So, this goes deep into roots. This is very important for us, bringing both cultures together. And I also thought it would help the African music industry cross over, because the Caribbean artists have been able to do it.”

Perhaps the most compelling rationale behind the booking is that it’s a fantastic bill with headliners who really are, in many ways, two of a kind. Davies’ Nairobi-born partner Winnie Kigara gushes that D’banj “has an amazing aura about him. Machel is the same. You can watch him one thousand times and it still feels good.” It’s hard to imagine that their pairing will result in anything other than serious, combustive, waist-wining chemistry, especially since it’s guaranteed the two giants will do some kind of performance together before the night is over.

Sound Culture Fest has its origins with another brilliant match. Davies and Kigara met while they were both working with international artists nominated for BET Awards and quickly joined forces. As a publicist, Davies has been an influential booster of new African sounds in the U.K., making it possible for artists like Nigerian rapper Ice Prince to connect with British audiences. Kigara’s great love and professional focus as an artist manager has always been Jamaican music, which she calls “my heart, my everything.” Bringing African and Caribbean artists together for events and collaborations as a team became a passion for both, and they’ve been having a fabulous time doing it. Recounting Timaya’s trip to perform in Barbados, Kigara casually drops in that the Caribbean’s most famous pop star got down with the rhythm as well. “Rihanna was there. She enjoyed it.”

A precursor to this fest was their well-received Sounds From Africa/Sounds From the Caribbean showcase earlier this year at South by Southwest. Montano performed on a stage outside the Palm Door event space alongside Jamaican reggae singer Gyptian and other performers of the same sonic ilk. Inside, D’banj and some of the other biggest names in African pop — including Nigeria’s Wizkid and Ice Prince — did it up like it was the holiday season in Lagos.

Now the pair hopes to build on their success in Austin by trying the concept out in New York. The two organizers are betting that multicultural lineups like this one can bring New York’s large African and Caribbean communities together and then some. “We don’t want to target just Africans or Trinidadians. Our target is anyone who loves the music — people who heard ‘Oliver Twist’ and loved it. I know a lot of people from the Caribbean who got to know ‘Oliver Twist,’ but not all of them got to know it was D’banj behind it. So this is an opportunity to introduce fans of both artists to each other,” Kigara explains.

Once everyone’s been properly introduced, Kigara and Davies plan to scale up rapidly with bigger Sound Culture events in New York, London, Africa, and the Caribbean. “We don’t want it to be just a one-off thing, but a movement,” says Kigara. Part of this involves bringing together a diversity of musical styles. Under the Afrobeats umbrella are genres such as hiplife, Naija pop, and juju. Likewise, Sound Culture might showcase Caribbean styles as diverse as dancehall, roots reggae, soca, and reggaeton. Kigara envisions a dream lineup that puts Daddy Yankee on the same stage as D’banj, Montano, Sean Paul, and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley.

Labor Day weekend will see the first stage of this vision realized, and Montano, for his part, is more than ready to travel the road ahead. “This is the frontline of the battleground to put these two cultures together, to put Caribbean and African people together and let them understand: One is where we came from, one is where we went to, and bringing them together is where we’re going.”

Sound Culture Fest takes over Irving Plaza on September 5. For ticket information, click here.

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The Slackers Take Their Ska, Reggae Sounds Straight to the Fans

Make no mistake: The Slackers are consummate pros. Since first working out their eclectic blend of ska, reggae, jazz, latin, and blues in a basement in Manhattan’s Lower East Side almost 25 years ago, they’ve earned a reputation for being one the hardest working and well-traveled ska outfits on the planet. But even seasoned pros need a little help from their fans every now and again, as the Slackers’s longtime sax guru Dave Hillyard recently found.

“We just did our boat gig, and the power went out right toward the end of the set,” Hillyard says. “So we ended up doing ‘Wasted Days’ with just drums, horns and the audience singing all the parts. You can’t plan that. It’s great that we have a lot of really nice people that enjoy our music, because we can’t do this without them.”

Hillyard isn’t just placating to the healthy legion of diehard Slackers loyalists. In fact, the band is counting on its fans now more than ever. These days, the Slackers are making moves on their own terms: Their latest, yet-to-be-titled full-length record marks their second stab at crowdsourcing, having initially dipped their toes in those waters with 2013’s My Bed is a Boat EP. Through the crowdfunding site Big Tunes, the group has raised just north of $23,500 to date through the campaign, which ends September 9. The money raised will cover the full cost of the recording sessions, mastering, artwork, and distribution of the new record.

Over the years, the Slackers have taken to working quickly, squeezing in the time to write and record in between touring. That’s no small feat for a group prone for playing more than 100 shows a year. This time out they slowed their roll, taking the time to cull together twelve new tracks over a prolonged, four-year period. They divided up their songs amongst three producers, with four each for  Brian Dixon of the Aggrolites, Vic Axelrod, whose production credits include work with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Amy Winehouse, and their own guitarist, Agent Jay.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w64HNZTxZ2Y

“It’s been five years since we did a full album of original tunes, and I think we just wanted to take the time, learn the songs well,” Hillyard says of the band’s slow and easy approach this time out. “The idea was to try and get some different producers in there, get some different sounds and a different feel. Sometimes working with different people outside the band can be liberating. They’re like an impartial referee.”

The Slackers have successfully navigated the ebbs and flows of ska’s mainstream popularity over the years. As one of the cornerstone acts of New York’s legendary Moon Ska Records, they gave ska fans a more substantial alternative to the scores of ska/punk acts that broke in the Nineties. Later, the Slackers hooked up with Hellcat Records, the sub-Epitaph imprint helmed by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, for a string of solid and well-received releases. The label system has treated the Slackers well over the years, but Hillyard said the traditional way of doing things hasn’t proven as sustainable as it once was during the genre’s mid-Nineties resurgence.

“It’s been quite an endeavor,” he says of crowdsourcing. “And you learn doing this. You realize the reason the labels exist in the first place is to take some of this work off of the artist’s hands.”

For contributing to the making of the record, fans can score the new record over a number of formats, including a set of three 45s, a CD, an LP, a double LP with alternate tracks and takes, and as a download, which will be delivered in November. Vinyl pressings of the new record, meanwhile, will be available in February to those who donate through Big Tunes, Hillyard reveals. Until then, fans can next catch the ensemble in the groove at Irving Plaza, where they’ll share the stage with the Pietasters on December 19.

“We’re lucky that we’ve been around a long time and have a good fan base,” Hillyard says. “We have these little pockets of fans all over the place, scattered all around the world. The internet is perfect that way, because you can reach out to thousands of people who will step up and support us.” If their latest endeavor is any indication, it sounds like this symbiotic relationship with their fan base is on that will continue to shine long after ska’s heyday and the label construct that brought them there.

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Stephen Marley on Celebrating Bob with the Catch a Fire Tour: ‘Reggae is the Foundation of This Family’

This summer, the first Catch a Fire tour unites generations of reggae’s first family as Stephen “Ragga” Marley and his brother Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley headline a bill that includes their nephew, Skip, and Stephen’s son Jo Mersa. It’s a special summer gathering, which includes a host of reggae artists, and is part of a yearlong celebration of what would have been the late Bob Marley’s 70th birthday.

By the time Stephen was toddling around, his father had already gained superstar status, especially in England, where Bob decamped to record his Seventies classics for Island Records. “He was already a superstar to us; he was our dad, you know?” says Marley warmly. “I didn’t know anything about him being a superstar in that sense of the word. He was always our superstar; he was special, he was dad. We didn’t live that kind of life, we didn’t live in Beverly Hills. Our parents instilled in us a sense of where we were from and who we were, and they didn’t want that part of the life.”

This tour, which lands at Central Park’s SummerStage on August 30, is named for the Wailers’ 1973 album, which was the record that put the band on the map. Inarguably, Bob Marley and the Wailers now stand as the Caribbean’s equivalent of the Beatles, and as popular as this music has become worldwide, it is also played a large part in the socially conscious roots reggae movement. It’s the family business, indisputably.

“Reggae is the foundation of this family. Growing up it was all around us from our parents — my mother too,” says Stephen, referring to Rita Marley, who as part of the I Threes vocal trio formed an almost mystical backing choir that accompanied the Wailers. “It was like being in a candy store with all these instruments around us twelve kids. We’d fool around with instruments and be around rehearsals. So it wasn’t consciously a thing; music was just all around us.”

Maybe osmosis and smarts gave the Marley children their musical chops, but there was one lesson dad instilled in them, and that, says Stephen, was discipline. That might seem at odds with a prevalent reefer-toking laid back image, but Bob Marley was serious about his music; it was a spiritual experience and a social document.

“He would teach us and sing with us,” says Marley, who at seven years old was performing with his elder siblings Ziggy, Sharon, and Cedella as the Melody Makers. “He’d have us sing scales front and backwards: do re mi fa so la ti do, do ti la so fa mi re do,” he sings, giggling at the memory. “You could not just do it just because your father does it. You had to be serious about music for yourself.”

Since those early days in the Melody Makers, Stephen has explored reggae through his own records, and never more so than on his latest albums: Revelation Part I: The Root of Life, which was released in 2011, and the upcoming hip-hop heavy Revelation Part II: The Fruit of Life. Whereas The Root of Life looked to the music that influenced reggae — from dancehall to jazz to salsa — The Fruit of Life looks at the music’s influence includes a ton of A-List guests, including Rick Ross, Pit Bull, Iggy Azalea, Waka Flocka, Dead Prez, Rakim, DJ Khaled, Busta Rhymes, Wyclef Jean, Shaggy, the Roots’ Black Thought, and also half-brother Ky-Mani Marley and Jo Mersa. Each artist was chosen to embellish the song and expand on the reggae notion. “Mostly the song dictates a vibe,” says Marley, “and then you think, oh yeah, I’m hearing Rick Ross. So I reached out and he came on board. That’s how it went from song to song. The song inspires you to incorporate other genres.”

Bob Marley’s aspiration created a huge legacy not only for his family, but also the people of Jamaica, especially those living in poverty in shantytowns, the kind of place Bob Marley grew up in and wrote so eloquently about. “My father brought pride to the people of Jamaica who saw where he was from and what he did. He was from the country on the island; he moved to the ghetto; then he moved out into the world. He wrote about the suffering of the people. He wrote about his life.”

Of course, there is sadness to this year, or any year since losing their father in 1981. Marley pauses to think about this other picture outside of music making and being in the world, the one of a child and father. “Mmmm,” he eventually murmurs, as if coming to an agreement within himself. “We were very close to him. It affected us, you know? But he’s still with us. The main thing is he leaves many lessons for us to learn. And that goes to many areas of life, not just music. We go to him everyday, you know?”

Stephen “Ragga” Marley and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley play SummerStage on August 30.

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Why Diplo Fell For the Frightnrs’ Take on Seventies Reggae Rhythms

There is a song called “Which Way” on the Frightnrs’ debut EP, Inna Lovers Quarrel, that has a falsetto vocal that is pure Junior Murvin, the late rocksteady great who sang the iconic “Police and Thieves.” “Which Way” has that classic windswept rocksteady beat and the sweet high call that takes the ear straight to Jamaica in the early Seventies. As Diplo — whose usually EDM-stocked Mad Decent label is releasing the Frightnrs’ EP digitally this month — put it, “If you close your eyes, you get transported to Kingston, Jamaica, 1971.”

The Frightnrs, a four-piece whose members are based in Queens, Brooklyn, and out on Long Island, have never been to Jamaica. But Chuck Patel, who plays organ and piano, and his brother Preet, the band’s bassist, did once live in Jamaica, Queens. “Eventually we’ll go,” he says from his home in Kew Gardens. He and Preet, along with Frightnrs singer Dan Klein and drummer Rich Terrana, had just finished rehearsal for the EP release gig at Swing-a-Ling, an all-day vintage-reggae event at Pioneer Works this weekend. “I’ve researched so much about Jamaican artists. I’ve got books and books on different ska artists. There were so many different types of music from ska, soul ballads, rocksteady, and reggae — so many great things.”

Like many kids, Patel first discovered Jamaican music via California’s Nineties third wave of ska, the crest that brought Sublime and No Doubt into mainstream rock and pop — but not before he’d ingested a lot of different music. “I was just a big music fan, and I’d dig around a lot. I got into Sixties garage rock like the Zombies and the Animals, and also the Beach Boys,” he says. “At the same time I got into Rancid and those kind of bands who were around when I was growing up. Eventually, I discovered the Californian ska scene, but ska music is different here, it’s watered down.”

Then he found the real thing. Patel continued digging and digging and found more and more great music. “Rocksteady and reggae parties started happening in Brooklyn. Record collectors would play their records and some bands would play,” he said of the underground sound system scene. The more he dug into the roots, the more he knew what he wanted his band to sound like: pure, authentic old-school rocksteady. It’s a refreshing sound in a digitally manipulated, tricked-out musical era.

 

Coolin’ with The Frightnrs’ Admiration (Cadenza & TODDLA T Remix) official lyric video! Clash Premiere: http://www.clashmusic.com/news/track-of-the-day-57-the-frightnrs

Posted by Mad Decent on Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A big boost in creating their sound profile was hooking up with producer Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod, a founding member of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and the Easy Star All-Stars who contributed to the legendary Dub Side of the Moon album. Aside from this month’s EP release, earlier this summer saw a vinyl-only single release of the Frightnrs’ ska cover of Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” on Daptone Records.

“We pride ourselves in playing the music how it was played in the Sixties and Seventies. We try to play our instruments and really listen to what we’re playing. Our producer, Victor, really helped us as a band — because no one in the band is a trained musician, it’s kind of like we’re playing along to this music we’ve heard and tying it all together. We play off our own vibes, really.”

Recording to analog tape, not digitally, and doing it live as a band also helped achieve the warm vintage sound. “We record to real tape and record bass, drums, and guitar at the same time. We do some overdubs later, some guitar and percussion, too. We just try to mock what they did so that it sounds authentic,” Patel says, referring to his rocksteady forebears.

But playing it straight means being ripe for reinvention and manipulation, and the EP includes a jungle/dub remix of their song “Admiration” from English producers Cadenza and Toddla T. The Frightnrs aren’t opposed to remixes by other artists but, overall, they want to concentrate on their classic sound. “The goal is to sound super timeless. We almost don’t want people to think they are listening to a record from today. We want people to think, ‘Wow, this is a record I never heard from the Seventies.’ ”

As for the band’s exceptionally cool name, it’s not inspired by the dubious 1996 movie starring Michael J. Fox (The Frighteners), but by street lingo from across the pond. In London, it’s a typical East End gangland threat to “put the frighteners” on someone, meaning send the heavies ’round for some not-so-gentle persuasion.

“I’ve always wanted to use that as a band name,” Patel giggles. “I loved that English ska band the Specials. They had this whole creepy vibe. They did black-and-white videos and had that song ‘Ghost Town.’ I fell in love with all that stuff. But most of the songs we write are love songs.” He laughs. “I like the whole aesthetic of the heavy name and then people hear that we just write love songs.”

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Defend Your Ballot: Dan Weiss, Pazz and Jop 2012 Contributor

You can’t really know where you’re headed unless you know where you’ve been. For that reason, we’re taking a look back at Pazz & Jop 2012 to drill down into the ballots of contributors and voters who participated. Maybe amongst the rubble we’ll find clues about what lies ahead for music lovers in 2013. Here, music writer Dan Weiss defends his ballot.

Dan Weiss. Who are you, and how many times have you voted in Pazz & Jop?

I’ve voted in Pazz & Jop since 2007, the same year I realized my quasi-dream of being a dude who writes reviews that (some) people read and makes lists that (some) people might take their listening suggestions from. I write for a ton of places, should I list them to be cool?

You can. Or just listen the ones that people will think are “cool.”

The now-online-only SPIN‘s doing amazing things right now, I’m proud to have even a tiny hand over there. And I write for the Voice, LA Weekly, SF Weekly, Salon, The Phoenix, Paste, etc. etc.

Click for larger version.
Click for larger version.

My first question about your ballot is… well, wut? Loudon Wainwright III? Pink? Matisyahu? I mean, where’s the “Love Sosa,” man?

Matisyahu sucks, I’ll get that one out of the way. Great songs happen by accident to outrageous people. He nailed one. Part of me is amazed it wasn’t a huge hit, the other part of me completely understands why no one would give Matisyahu a chance in 2012. I reviewed the album on assignment, thought three songs weren’t horrible, and spent the rest of the year blasting “Live Like a Warrior” the way people blare “Love Sosa”.

Should we give Matisyahu a chance in 2013?

Eh, I mean, it’s an accident. He’s singing more and rapping less, that’s probably a good thing. Maybe if he worked with Dr. Luke.

What is it about that song that you enjoy so much?

The chorus is both massive in a crowd-pleasing (well, me-pleasing, a crowd of Me) way and a clever chord-change songwriting nuts-and-bolts way. There’s a pretty little breakdown, the verses have a good stop-start-stompy buildup. It’s the kind of song that would sound less controversial if people heard it all over the place first, then discovered later it was Matisyahu. Anyway, Pink.

Tell me about Pink.

Pink made a great album, it’s got some major cosigns (Maura Johnston, Bob Christgau), but it’s unfashionable and mildly off the radar. Although wasn’t the “Try” video with the dancing a big deal? One great thing about pop right now is like, most pop stars are great role models. I’m not sure the last time in history that was the case. Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Beyonce, Pink.

Expand on that a bit. What makes a pop star a “great” role model?

These are all really strong women with strong personalities encouraging people to be themselves. It sounds corny when I put it like that, but then Pink does a song called “Slut Like You” where she eradicates slut-shaming, proudly declares “I’m a slut like you!” in the chorus. And she loves dumb dirty jokes: “Blow Me (One Last Kiss).” She’s ultra-relatable, her hooklines are like, “I’ve had a shit day”. And the first song on the album, if you let it, is this great anti-Romney Occupy-style march thing. It’s called “Are We All We Are” and the chorus is “We are the people that you’ll never get the best of / Not forget the rest of”. So she and Ke$ha are these everyperson pop stars who don’t come off detached from reality, and they still know how to have fun.

Critics surprisingly flocked to the Ke$ha album, it got positive reviews all around. I loved five songs and junked the rest. I’m always rooting for Ke$ha. Pink quietly made the more consistent, durable record.

What about Taylor Swift? She got a song on your ballot, too.

I love Taylor, but I’m biased toward Speak Now, which I Pazzed at #2 in 2010. The new one has like, ten amazing songs out of sixteen. I’m not crazy about the arena-rock gestures like reverb-y Edge guitar or the Mumford-style duets. “Holy Ground” though, fuck. The drums. The new-wave synths. She’s a master melodist.

Now, the Carly Rae Jepsen album is a little weirder. You really have to dig for any personality in there.

So why’d it make it?

I’m a musician and melody is my whole thing. That album dug its claws in for me strictly as music. It was really hard to decide on. Take that Owl City duet that most people aren’t defending. I don’t think that guy’s the end of all music like butt-hurt Postal Service fans do. But I’m not proud of liking his song so much. The lyrics are totally vapid. But I can’t not sing along to it or go crazy when it comes on.

The Carly album is masterful because it sticks to the lightweight disco, and the rare ballad tries to make it count. “Beautiful,” the Bieber duet, is far and away the most listenable thing that idiot’s ever done, and it shamelessly rips off the One Direction song. Pop is weird. But the Carly album’s just a really great, consistent disco album.

So speaking of that, what sort of things do you consider when voting in Pazz & Jop? If something has no meaning but is catchy, does it work for you? And vice versa.

I vote for the stuff I played the most, occasionally giving weight to meaning as a means of tiebreaking. So when you see me vote for Carly over say, Kendrick, an album I really enjoyed, you’re just seeing unfiltered the album I returned to more for pleasure and comfort in between “work” albums. My top two was a really tough tiebreaker though.

What broke it?

I actually voted for a disc of two EPs, Burial’s Street Halo/Kindred, but only Kindred was listed I think (even though I bought the import CD containing both). That was my most-played record of 2012. I sleep to music every night, I can’t sleep without it. So Burial was functional music for me. My most-played and often favorite music in general is stuff that works in both the foreground and the background: Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Aphex Twin.

But. The Burial thing’s an EP collection, it’s slight, and I have a weird bias about electronic music culture. I think the many, many writers and many, many artists don’t demand enough. Burial’s a rarity, making some of my favorite music of the last whatever years. But his minimalism I think could still get richer and fuller. So even though I played it the most, I wanted to go with the album I thought was artistically best last year.

And that’s Older Than My Old Man Now.

Loudon for #1. I’m completely stunned it placed at #33 or whatever, but that should tell you something about how passionately its voters thought of it, when you’ve probably barely heard of it.

Yeah, I haven’t really heard the album. Does that make me a bad music writer?

No, not at all. It’s not really young-people music, at least not the sort of thing you’d be aware of automatically. He’s basically Rufus Wainwright’s dad, was around in the ’70s to be called a “new Dylan,” was known for novelty-folk songs that had like, super-cutting wit about family and being a deadbeat dad. And now that he’s old and has stuck around, he’s found a real niche. They’re very funny songs about needing his meds to get it up and whatnot. Families tearing each other apart and needing each other anyway. Facing death. There’s a bunch of guests, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot duets with him on a song called “Double Lifetime,” about asking if they could have a do-over.

It’s unusually straightforward and earnest and darkly comic for the vague indie-bedroom music moment.

This sounds like a record I need to listen to, and one that might not be the best choice if I’m feeling melancholy.

No, it is, you’ll laugh out loud at it. He’s not depressive like other folk singers. He’s more likely to make dead baby jokes. He always cameos in Judd Apatow movies. But the subjects are obviously heavy and grim, and being at an age his own dad never reached is a feeling worth exploring. There’s a track with a recording of his dad (who was like, an old Life magazine editor) and then Rufus on it, so three generations of his family. You don’t see that sort of perspective much.

You had another old dude on your ballot. Neil Young. How does Americana fit into the Neil Young canon?

I’m still kind of a Neil Young novice, actually, so I really started entering with Living With War, in I think 2005 — which came out when I was in college and trying to convince people to vote for Kerry. That was a grungy album with a gospel choir, heavy guitar, simple but effective statements. He’s still making very good records because his aesthetic is so unchanged. Long grungy jams with folk-style arrangements, unpretentious forever. Which is why he’s perfect to do an album like Americana, where he covers fucking “This Land Is Your Land,” and like, “Clementine” and “Oh Susannah,” and just completely retools these ultra-familiar songs from the 1920s and our childhood cassette tapes, into fuck-you grunge. It’s a really easy album to listen to. Both with Neil and Loudon, if you’re open to the idea of novelty music being full of substance, you can love them.

I liked most of the top ten in Pazz this year, I just thought it wasn’t the most exciting music available. And I searched more than normal and ended up pazzing a Syrian pop star, those old guys, a couple really consistent pop albums, some electronic stuff and like, two indie-rock things that I thought really worked their asses off.

I think Miguel, Japandroids, Kendrick and Fiona are still getting weird and ambitious and their best stuff is ahead of them. Frank I’m not sure. I pazzed his Nostalgia, Ultra at #2 and found this new one blander and less interesting.

Is variety important to you in voting?

Variety isn’t important to me, really. If this was 1994 my top ten would all sound like Archers of Loaf. But I think right now, rock and indie-rock are where cool music is popping up, but not the most imaginative or exciting. That’s why electronic music and R&B are all the rage right now, those people have ambition because they don’t feel like everything in their genres have been done before. Skrillex is making more viscerally exciting music than say, Japandroids or Cloud Nothings. I liked their albums a lot, but I didn’t go, “wow, they can howl like Kurt or play like Hendrix.” I do think variety is the key to making a good record, I always get pissed off when someone worries that like, Skrillex is going to weigh down the A$AP Rocky record. Clearly the dude felt his album needed more dimensions and facets. I think there’s kind of a cynical anti-variety mindset in a lot of reviewing, especially rap-reviewing right now.

Expand on that a bit. Let’s make the Rap Internet mad.

Oh, I’d love to. I mean, the only rap album I voted for was Big K.R.I.T.’s barely-noticed 4Eva N a Day mixtape, which plays as smooth as fucking Aquemini. I think K.R.I.T.’s boring, but his voice has soul and he put together this wondrously lush patchwork of just music-as-music. And some of the raps are good too, I think it’s sweet when he says his girl helps him sleep. The rap world is always searching for meaning, they claim to not want the same thing over and over. But they do. They want a movie, and they want it to have guns. The Kendrick album is smart as hell, but if it didn’t have guns, most people wouldn’t have bothered.

That’s a pretty bold statement.

I challenge people to challenge it. There’s two strains of critically acclaimed rap right now. There’s post-Kanye Auto-Tune emo-syrup, with Future (who I like, don’t love) and Drake (who I find boring) and then there’s Rick Ross, Waka, Chief Keef, Gunplay, guns, guns, guns. Crime. Bow bow bow. Kendrick combines the latter with the introspection of the former. Ta-da, “masterpiece”. And again, I still think the album’s really good.

That seems problematic, though, to pigeon hole it in that way. Couldn’t you argue that someone like Kendrick has broken out of those two molds, and that’s why it’s the “masterpiece”?

Well there’s a lot more going on with the record itself, I’m just saying that’s my belief why people paid so much attention to it. There’s a lot of great rap records that match its intelligence and ambition that they didn’t. I wasn’t blown away by his Lonely Island verse. I think his personality’s still forming. I think the album’s musically lacking in sweet spots, particularly toward the long songs at the end. Kanye, Ghostface, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z and Outkast masterpieces have more melody and hooks and yeah, variety. But again, I think under the limitations of being a new original rapper who’s thoughtful and makes Compton his subject again, it exceeded expectations.

So if we removed Compton from the record, do you think it’d have the same impact?

Well, it’s funny you mention that. I think his character sketches are great too, but as I said in a Salon essay last year, someone like Serengeti who doesn’t rap about guns, does it just as appealingly, and I don’t think Kendrick’s particularly more pop-friendly. Maybe “Swimming Pools” and a couple stray hooks.

Serengeti is this guy who does these alternate personas, raps as this suburban dad named Kenny Dennis, he’s done all kinds of concept records with the character. He’s on Anticon right now, he’s crazy prolific, he’s already got at least two records slated for 2013. A little obscure, but that’s a pop audience problem, deeply embedded rap critics should have him on their radar. Mind you, the next Kendrick album could be in my Pazz ballot. I’ve Pazzed so many people I never in a million years thought I’d ever enjoy, including K.R.I.T. and Dirty Projectors. I hated Dirty Projectors. Then they made the closest thing to a rock album that I was completely blown away by every song last year. So I think a big part of being a critic means allowing your biases to get turned upside-down. Like with Carly and Owl City’s “Good Time,” I’d love to talk shit on it, because you can detail everything that sucks about it on paper. But I had to scrap that whole mentality because I want to hear it all the time. And even though I pazzed Frank Ocean’s last album at #2, nothing on Channel Orange had that effect for me. Oh well.

That’s pretty surprising. Well, Dan Weiss, what do you see happening in Pazz & Jop 2013?

Oh Jesus, so many big albums were just announced. Do I think a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album called Mosquito with an R.L. Stine cover is gonna do well? On pure visuals I think that might be their Centipede Hz dropoff. Vampire Weekend, Flaming Lips… All I can say is that people try to pin a predictable trajectory on this stuff, and you never can. Look at tUnE-yArDs.

Very few people in my top ten were people I thought I would vote for someday. And I think Miguel, Kendrick and Frank were all people that were well-liked and hoped-for, but no one had any idea just how big they’d be. I still assumed the xx or Grizzly Bear would slaughter them. I like the xx but I’m glad shit changes. I bet the next Robyn album blows everyone apart though.

I’d be 100 percent okay with Robyn dancing all over everyone.

Me too.

Thanks for defending your ballot, Dan! Good luck with the Rap Internet.

I’ll liveblog any death threats.

 

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Matisyahu Unplugged: “I Feel Like the Other Sides of My Personality Come Out In These Shows”

Since “King Without A Crown” hit the Top 40 chart in 2005 and the world received a formal introduction to his Hasidic rock and reggae explorations, Matisyahu has observed Hanukkah with a handful of shows in and around New York City. This year, he took his Festival of Light on the road, kicking off the celebratory tour in San Francisco before booking it across the country to play every major city on the eastern seaboard for each of Hanukkah’s eight nights. The Festival of Light tour incorporates the simultaneously bombastic and ethereal aplomb that Matisyahu has built his reputation on, but lately he’s been working more stripped-down arrangements into the set list, and he’ll take the unplugged approach to a new level with an acoustic tour and Spark Seeker: The Acoustic EP this January.

Matisyahu performs tomorrow, Dec. 15, at Terminal 5.

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“Last night, we did something new–we had a cello player and he’s going to be with me for the tour coming up as well,” he says in between shows earlier this week. “The kids, they all know the Hanukkah songs that I just released, which is cool. The Festival of Light tour is half and half rock show/acoustic set, with 50 percent of the show performed with a full band. My music has a spiritual connection to it, so it’s a cool thing to give people something to do on Hanukkah–my show is a place to go party and have fun and connect.”

Watch Matisyahu perform “Crossroads” off Spark Seeker: The Acoustic EP

What’s the most enjoyable aspect of touring around this time of year?
When I make music, I do it as a celebration–it’s fun, but Hanukkah has this depth to it, and we light the menorah onstage, and that’s beautiful, and then we got the disco ball dreidel, so that’s fun. It’s a combination of spirituality and music and God, but also having a good time while bringing those things together.

Where did the idea for the acoustic tour come from?
Well, the truth is, we did some acoustic shows, and the turnouts were really big. A lot of people come to those shows, so we just decided to do a full run like that. it’s a little bit nicer in that we play in nicer theaters, kind of more stripped down. It allows for different types of people to come; not just the people who would come to a regular rock show at a club, but all the people who want to bring their kids. The style is totally different. It features more of the voice. I’m performing with a cello, and it’s really pretty. There’s a lot of improvisation because I do the beatboxing and all that, but there’s still a big improvisational element like in my rock show. It’s not just that it’s stripped down, it has a certain spirituality to it and it’s a completely different musical experience. As an artist, it’s great, to be able to make my songs and make my music in different modes and different ways.

Are there any songs that have transformed in this new format for you, especially?In particular, with “Crossroads,” the first song on Spark Seeker and the first song I’ve been performing live, we change it–everything just slows down, it’s more drawn out, I’m able to sing more. It still has all the elements of the rock show. I’m still rapping, there’s still reggae and beatboxing and all that; it just comes out in a completely different way.

Do these acoustic sets bring out any traits in yourself as a performer that you haven’t seen before?
There’s much more of a focus on the subtleties of the voice. With the rock show–the electric show, or whatever–there’s a lot of sound, there’s a lot of noise, and I’m dancing. With the acoustic show, there’s really nothing to hide behind. It’s just me, sitting on the stool, and my voice. I can really get into the delivery and the way I’m singing it, the colors and the emotions that I’m using, and know that people are hearing it. They’re not missing it, you know? It’s connecting with them. We’re going to do a short Q and A thing [on the acoustic tour]. With all of the changes and stuff that I’ve been through, people have a lot of questions. I get the opportunity to talk to people as well and tell them a little bit about myself, and I get to joke around with a lot of people. People have a certain perception of who I am and I’m not always that. I feel like the other sides of my personality come out in these shows. With the rock show, I just kind of go out and do what I do. With these shows I’m bringing people into my life and into my musical and emotional life, and people get a sense of who I am as a person.

What’s the one thing you hope people take away from the acoustic tour?
The biggest challenge is people knowing what they’re going to see, that they’re going to see not just a Matisyahu concert but an acoustic concert. Sometimes people come to these shows expecting to dance at a high-energy rock show, but it’s not that. The challenge is trying to get people to meet me dynamically on the energy level I give. I hope that people connect with the music in an emotional way. I hope that when people walk away, they walk away feeling as I would feel when I was leaving a concert when I was a kid, feeling touched, feeling connected. It’s like when you go to a good movie and it gives you that insight into your own life: you have that supercharged clarity in your life. Good art, that’s the purpose of it–to lift you up and take you to a new realm, and allow you to see things about your life and help you make decisions that might need to be made.

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Live: Catalpa Offers A Little Bit Of Everything To The Soggy Masses At Randall’s Island

Catalpa NYC: Snoop Dogg, Black Keys, Matt & Kim, Matisyahu, A$AP Rocky, Hercules & Love Affair, TV On The Radio, Girl Talk, et al.
Randall’s Island
Saturday and Sunday, July 28 and 29

Better than: Arguing over an iPod’s shuffle function.

Music festivals without a historical following or a known brand identity can employ many strategies in their inaugural year, one of which is “Appeal to as many prospective demographics as possible.” Catalpa NYC, which debuted this weekend at Randall’s Island, decided to combat this problem by throwing together a bunch of popular-ish acts and some quirky attractions—art, fire, a chance to “elope” with a fellow Snoop Dogg fan.

Results were mixed; the lineup succeeded in having a broad appeal, but lacked a coherent musical aesthetic. Many of the non-musical attractions were spoiled by rain on Saturday and, faced with the prospect of surviving on its artists alone, Catalpa became a referendum on its performers’ current positions within the musical landscape. Many attendees claimed to like “everything,” so Catalpa became a chance to find out what the new “everything” is.

The musicians played across three stages, with a whole host of corporate sponsorships filling the gaps between the performance spaces. Vodka was hawked in what looked like a sprawling series of igloos; a car company set up an obstacle course to demonstrate the trunk space and cool factor of its new trucks; a web site handed out face paint and animal masks. My personal favorite booth promoted a kind of guarana/caffeine pill that is supposed to be dropped into water, making it turn all fizzy and orange like an Alka-Seltzer from Hell—half an hour after it’s imbibed, your heart is doing high-speed interval training inside your chest.

There were other, less corporate, uningestable attractions, many of which failed to reach their full potential due to Saturday’s rain. A fire demonstration was canceled; the bumper cars were nowhere to be found; one operations employee informed me that it took nine hours to set up the bounce castle that would serve as the “house of sham marriages.” Catalpa didn’t quite deliver on its admittedly ambitious extramusical plans, but it provided a great opportunity to investigate those artists operating at the borders of the mainstream.

Matthew Paul Miller, better known as the Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, was almost too perfect an artistic choice for a festival struggling to forge an identity. After all, the man is a particularly well-traveled cultural tourist, having chosen not one but two “exotic,” appropriation-ready regions (Jamaica and Israel). When Miller first became popular back in 2004, he still wore the yarmulke, side curls and beard of the religion he chose when he was 15. Eight years later, he’s traded in his Orthodox accessories for turquoise Nikes and a denim jacket.

It’s difficult to be open-minded about this progression—especially when Miller sings lyrics like “Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do” and the hand holding the microphone isn’t smote by the wrath of a betrayed God, or when he says that he’s going to use the Jewish holiday Tisha B’Av as an occasion for rejoicing. (It’s actually a commemoration of the destruction of the holy temples, as well as a day of remembrance for a bunch of other bad stuff that’s happened to Jews over the years.)

Matisyahu does win points for taking a firm stand against the heinous, mammarian beach balls that made appearances intermittently all weekend. There is nothing redeeming about them; they smell like wet condoms, they provoke every drunkard in the crowd to lunge blindly skywards frequently knocking meek counterparts over in the process and if you don’t look up, one will inevitably plow into your head.

 

Whitney Marston Pierce of Hercules & Love Affair.
Whitney Marston Pierce of Hercules & Love Affair.

These horrible balls made an unfortunate appearance during TV On the Radio’s set; the Brooklyn rock outfit was one of three New York City representatives that didn’t quite possess the populist vibe of the other big acts. TVOTR’s live show is, in this critic’s opinion, relatively spectacular—lead singer Tunde Adebimpe and his band slowly built tension for their opening song “Young Liars,” then performed selections from their two most recent albums and gave a heartfelt shoutout to Adam Yauch. Though I found the band enthralling, the group next to me was distracted from the songs about hubris and general self-absorption by the overwhelming need to snap pictures of themselves. (“Yo, I need a picture of you in that headband for my background,” one particularly vehement photographer insisted repeatedly.)

The disco/house group Hercules and Love Affair had an easier time roping in initially uninterested Catalpans, thanks in large part to relatively new vocalists Gustaph and Whitney Marston Pierce. Pierce, a statuesque blonde in vampy makeup, was particularly effective, commanding the stage with a burlesque performance that convinced a couple of male Umphrey’s McGee fans to stay put and watch the strange, half-naked lady campily mime sex. During the group’s performance, a cheerful, tiny woman from the New York Parks and Recreation Department materialized to pick up disposed bottles and torn wristbands, dancing the entire time as she moved her trash-grabber rhythmically from ground to bag.

A$AP Rocky was the last of the idiosyncratically New York acts to perform; he was competing directly with Girl Talk’s mainstage set, and he was extremely grateful for the crowd that showed up. After letting his crew the A$AP Mob run the stage for the first ten minutes of his set, he appeared to shoo them away, claiming that it was “time to start the show” in earnest. He was plagued by relatively poor sound quality, but the Harlem MC’s earnest appreciation for the crowd went over well, and his desire to “fuck a jiggy bitch” was received with raucous laughter and a succession of enthusiastic candidates who were clearly confident about their inherent jigginess. (Rocky was one of only three rap acts, all of whom were slotted in on Sunday.)

Matt Johnson and Kim Schilfino’s brand of joyous, keyboard-driven dance-pop was more in line with festivalgoers’ tastes. It also helped that after a six-month hiatus, Matt and Kim were grinning like fools on laughing gas and kicking into each and every song with abandon. Kim volunteered to the crowd that she had been aggressively Kegeling because she wanted “to fuck the shit out of you tonight.” Matt demanded that she booty-dance on top of her drum kit; both performed exuberant acrobatics that left the crowd whooping, cheering and trying desperately to catch up through the power of stomp-and-shout dancing.

 

The Black Keys.
The Black Keys.

The Black Keys and Snoop Dogg headlined, and the similarities between these two acts go a long way toward explaining Catalpa’s underlying aesthetic.

The current incarnation of The Black Keys is a pop band, although that fact remains unspoken. At this point, Pat Carney and Dan Auerbach are consummate professionals, used to playing for very large and enthusiastic crowds in huge venues. They’ve tailored their music to match their newly sizeable audience, toning down their blues noodling, tightening their song structures, and adding lyrics about relationships and chant-along choruses. This transformation hasn’t gotten in the way of quality—an important distinction between The Keys and a band like the Cold War Kids, who tried to go “full mainstream” and lost the edge of their first, most popular singles.

The Keys were professional as always on Saturday night; Auerbach occasionally shouted encouragements like “let’s keep this moving right along” and “just a few more, guys.” Though they mostly stuck with crowd favorites from their last two albums, a couple of songs from their Chulahoma EP, where they covered compositions by the late Junior Kimbrough, snuck into the middle of their set. There’s no denying the fun of a gut-busting turn from competent rockers and the Black Keys—though they may have lost a little spontaneity on their road to commercial darlinghood—are nothing if not competent.

Sunday’s headliner, Snoop Dogg, has quietly transformed into a new-school American icon with a long career and a safe persona that combines Huggy Bear with Willie Nelson. But even though he’d clearly been chosen for his relative mass appeal, Snoop played the entirety of his 1993 classic Doggystyle. Though Snoop’s set was practiced and smooth, aided by pulpy videos which furthered Tha Doggfather’s myth, it was funny to see the crowd bemused by such classic rap tracks as “Murder was the Case that They Gave Me” or “Stranded on Death Row” (from Dr. Dre’s magnum opus The Chronic). G funk is fast approaching its thirties and aging well, but the crowd responded most to the two songs Snoop played last: “Drop it Like it’s Hot” and “Young, Wild, And Free,” the latter of which has as its chorus the defiant proclamation “So what we get drunk, so what we smoke weed, so what we have fun… we’re young and wild and free.” It’s probably the least divisive chorus that could be performed at a music festival.

Araabmuzik is an MPC wizard who splices trance, rap and R&B into a bass-heavy hybrid. His set made use of two equally effective elements: his sense of pure mechanical showmanship and the way he provokes the crowd into a frenzy by teasing traces of samples farther and farther until he finally lets songs play out in their entirety. This treat-dangling stokes the desire to hear the songs in full; even a single undistorted syllable ends up sounding heavenly. When the former Dipset producer finally let a whole song float on its own, like he did with Flux Pavilion’s “I Can’t Stop” and Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock,” the crowd (particularly the two women behind me who insisted on referring to the artist as Mr. Araabmuzik for the length of his performance) went absolutely nuts.

Girl Talk also uses samples to incite a fever in the crowd, though he doesn’t tease them out slowly; he introduces bushels of familiar singles to the crowd, tossing off old pop songs and rap hooks like so many grapes. He’s passé in the strict definitive sense of the word; he’s been making danceable music from the same idea for the last ten years. He’s not on the cutting edge, and to those for whom “safety” in a musical artist is a pejorative, he’s no longer worthwhile.

But very few people at Catalpa minded. The move toward the main stage when Gillis started whipping his hair back and forth was by far the festival’s biggest migration, and that’s because Gillis is really good at what he does. He knows the songs that make a certain group of people go “ooo!” He knows surface-level pop in nearly every genre. For a festival without a solid identity, where no one could really decide exactly what they wanted to hear, Girl Talk was a perfect fit. After all, he played everything.

Critical bias: The employee who proffered me the fizz-inducing pill told me, “It’ll make you turn into the Hulk.” This person clearly knew what I was looking for.

Overheard: “It looks like a regular concert in a field.”—someone on Facebook asking after the wherabouts some of the promised attractions.

Random notebook dump: Weed feels more legal than stuff that is currently OK for consumption at the moment (though the Hulkamania-inducing substance I ingested is not endorsed as medicine by the FDA). There were two head shops side by side at the festival, one of which had an actual glassblower on duty to make pipes. The general necessities store sold rolling papers and blunts beside the socks and condoms, as well as baggies and scales for all the forgetful dealers who were slated to show up.