Australians in NYC

For the last year, all of my work has almost exclusively focused on Jamaican music and culture (oh and a bit of soca).  So it was nice to work on a rather extensive piece for the past month about something completely different for a change.

It’s been a running joke amongst me and some friends that everyone in New York City knows at least one Australian, with many of us knowing more than one. In my neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, there are even a handful of local coffee shops and restaurants owned by Australians with many Aussies working there.

Was it just a coincidence that me and so many of my friends knew heaps of Australians in New York City or was there something to it? As it turns out, there is a reason…or many reasons. I did some investigation and from my research I saw a potential article.

Fast forward a month later and my piece has been published via The Gothamist. Read it here.

 

 

 

Future of Dancehall in 2014?

aidonia-80s-dancehall-style-music-video

As I hinted at recently in my MTV Iggy article What Happens to Dancehall Without Vybz Kartel,‘ there has been questions about the future of dancehall without it’s biggest superstar. Stop right there, though. Dancehall is nuh dead.

Dancehall suddenly disappearing as a popular, global music force is not going to happen. At least, not anytime soon. Nevertheless, there seems to be a push to (re)establish dancehall’s significance and influence. Here are a few articles on this topic including some recent work of mine covering the latest in dancehall:

Six Artists Who Could Be Jamaica’s Next Dancehall SuperstarMTV Iggy

I singled out six dancehall candidates that seem primed for “superstardom.”

Ten Dancehall Acts That Matter Right Now - Large Up

Large Up recently posted a sort of “state of the union” in regards to Jamaican dancehall by pooling the industry and naming important acts that are still making waves in dancehall.

Fashion, Forward: Aidonia’s 80′s Dancehall Style - Large Up

There’s been a bit of a trend going on in dancehall to channel the golden era of early digital dancehall in both style and sound. This is just one example I recently wrote about. Aidonia is an artists to watch. Too bad his US visa has been revoked.

I-Octane: Balancing Between Reggae and a Hard Place - MTV Iggy 

In my recent interview with Jamaican artists I-Octane, i chat with him about his global aspirations along with his new album. I-Octane is this interesting type of Jamaican artists who has set his sights internationally and in doing so has openly decided to tread lightly in regards to politics and social issues in Jamaica as well as alliances between various dancehall groups on the island.

 

 

Addendum: Jamaican Music Post-Vybz Kartel

vybzMy article on Jamaican music after Vybz Kartel is up via MTV Iggy. I tried to address what the future of dancehall and Jamaican music will be without it’s biggest superstar, Vybz Kartel. I also tried to suss out that there is more to Vybz Kartel than his music and that it’s not just about his music waning as a presence on Jamaican radio but also his presence and persona in Jamaican society.

For the article I spoke to Max Glazer of Federation Sound as well as Dre Skull of Mixpak Records. Both DJs/producers have worked with Vybz Kartel. In addition I spoke with Tad Edwards of Tad Record who released Kartel’s latest 3-disc LP, Kartel Forever. I also spoke with Neil Edwards, the  A&R Director at VP Records.

You can read the full article here via MTV Iggy.

One person I communicated with via email who is not quoted in the article is The Locked Wonder. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of TLW (he declined to give his name) but I do know he is a lawyer in Jamaica and has a great Twitter feed if you are interested in a fascinating day-day look at the Jamaican legal system (find his Twitter @thelockedwonder here).

TLW’s brief email with me was really interesting in that it offered an alternative viewpoint of many of those I quoted in the MTV Iggy article. While those who I quoted were skeptical that dancehall lyrics, themes and the public persona of these artists would change in the wake of the Kartel verdict, TLW thinks otherwise.

From our email correspondence:

security minister and commissioner of police have long held the view that violent lyrics contribute to crime and the moral breakdown of society. They will see conviction as a victory for the new anti gang legislation which seeks to restrict violent lyrics in music etc. I don’t think he was targeted but I think they were watching him and his Gaza empire based in reports of violence that they received over the years. 

[...]

The lyrics will certainly change. The conviction will serve as a message to others that there are no gods of music.  That if kartel who was the best and most fearless amongst them and the most revered can go to prison then so can they. The new anti gang legislation also gives the police new powers by criminalizing violent music which promotes crime …so it beloved them all to “clean up their act”, which is the view of the minister and commissioner 
I believe art imitates life and life imitates art. You can’t single out the music without addressing poverty, lack of education, tribal politics, poor social structures, weak economy, unemployment etc

 

Guilty or not, the general consensus in Jamaica from who I’ve talked to and what I’ve read, is that there are other motives, beyond solving and convicting a crime, in the Adidja Palmer (aka Vybz Karte)l case. It seems that a message is trying to be sent that no “don” or artist is more powerful than the government and security forces in Jamaica.

Few Thoughts in the Aftermath of the Vybz Kartel Verdict

If you follow Jamaican music in any sense, you likely know by now that dancehall superstar Vybz Kartel was convicted of murder last week.

I am not sure what exactly could be said about Vybz at this point that hasn’t already been shouted time and time again. But I do have a few thoughts.

1. The Music

I think wondering what dancehall and the Jamaican music scene will be like without Kartel’s presence and persona is an interesting question which I pose in a forthcoming article via MTV Iggy. There’s somewhat of a consensus that dancehall has sort of been floundering in popularity and direction, particularly since Kartel was incarcerated in 2011. In addition, a roots reggae revival (which I’ve covered quite a bit) has grown in popularity on the island. Furthermore, soca has started to grow in popularity outside of Trinidad, perhaps pose to overtake dancehall in some sense. Finally, 2 Chainz, an American hip-hop artist, headlined Sting this year. Point being that, indirect or not, Jamaican music has been changing since Kartel was jailed. Assuming his appeal fails to set him free, Kartel’s presence (not his influence) will wane and it will be interesting to see the direction Jamaican music, and in particular dancehall, goes from here on out.

However, it’s also important to remember that dancehall isn’t this wholly connected body even if it is written about it this way. Artists work independently and many of them are likely unaffected by the Vybz verdict. 

2. “Badman Lyrics”

There’s been a running idea in tweets, op-eds and articles that the police force in Kingston was trying to make a statement with this trial. Apparently, this is something of a landmark case in Jamaica where new methods of obtaining and examining evidence was being used, the same kind of technology they use in the UK and US, etc. With this being made public, many believe that there was extra pressure to obtain a guilty verdict in an effort to sort of prove its capability.

In addition, Jamaican musicians who often challenge the status quo of Jamaica’s conservative tendencies with x-rated lyrics and “badman” lyrics are singled out (scapegoated if you will) for the “ills” of Jamaican society. Kartel, to many, was seen as public enemy number one in this regard (See Jamaican Security Minister Peter Bunting’s comments on Kartel). Clearly, Kartel’s conviction will be seen as a real victory to this sect of Jamaica. And in many ways, could send a message to musicians. After all, Jamaica has never been shy to try and restrict its artists (see most recently: Broadcasting Commissions ban violent and vulgar lyrics from the radio).

The one-two punch of statements being made against “badman” lifestyle and the desire to prove its new “crime-fighting” technology sends a message and one wonders if the badman lyrical content might wane a bit in dancehall a bit out of fear of “pressure from Babylon.”

3. The Power of Music in Jamaica

I personally feel I know too little about Vybz outside of his music to make any type of judgement on the man. I think the Jamaican music scene is complex and I think music matters more socially and politically on the island that it does in the U.S. In the United States, it has been a long time since music resonated really resonated on a level where it produced real reflection and debate about the society we live in (sorry, Miley’s “twerk-gate” doesn’t count). In Jamaica, from what I can tell it still very much does and regularly.

It’s also important to remember how small Jamaica is. There are 2.8 million people on the island which is roughly the population of Chicago. To make a crude comparison, the gang violence in south Chicago has carried over in its music with the likes of rapper Chief Keef and company being rather upfront and outspoken about the violence to a point where Keef got into some “hot water” mocking the death of a fellow rapper from an opposing gang on Twitter a few years ago. The violence in Chicago amongst these gangs and young rappers is a big deal in the United States but it’s particularly a big deal and a problem IN these communities in Chicago. It’s magnified there. For those of us outside of Jamaica, we should approach this trial and all its opinions and aftermath similarly, the island is small in size and population. We have to remember how small it is and how the actions of its music stars resonates so much more that it does in a country like the U.S. (where I live) with 330 million people.  To connect the dots, when I was last in Jamaica, a traveling friend was chatting with street vendor about the Gaza-Gully conflict and at one point the vendor turned the whole conversation around and asked, “Why wouldn’t you fight over music?” Perhaps, spotlighting at least one popular viewpoint of music’s importance in Jamaica.

Whatever your opinion of Vybz, the trial, his music or dancehall, you have to take into consideration the context of the place where these things take place. This isn’t just some DJ arrested and convicted for a serious crime. This is a major figure in Jamaican society whose actions, music and words have real social significance that is way too complex to suss out in a blog post, an article, tweet or op-ed. Be weary of quick opinions. It’s more about whether or not he really is guilty of this heinous crime. It runs much deeper.

4. Further reading!

I’m hard pressed to find anything worth reading about Vybz and the impact of this trial right now. Maybe it just needs some time. But Carolyn Cooper’s op-ed in the Jamaican Gleaner poses some interesting questions. Read it here. And while you’re at it, you might as well read Vybz’s published letter to Carolyn Cooper and her response.

Dying Days of Vinyl in Reggae’s Capital

Mitchie - Rockers

 

Almost a year ago I wrote an article on a peculiar occurrence taking place on the island of Jamaica that I discovered in my visit last February. As it turns out, vinyl records are disappearing from the island.

Okay, to be clear. there are no numbers on just how many records are still on the island. I would imagine quite a few still. However, it’s reasonable to assert that the numbers have been dwindling since the late ’90s/early 2000s when the medium of choice to play music in Jamaica switched to CD (and later mp3) at dances and clubs.

No big deal, right?

Despite a recent resurgence in vinyl pressing and interest in collecting records from niche market of buyers and collectors, record players (and vinyl) have been traded in (or locked away in storage) for cassettes, then CDs, then Mp3s across the globe for some time now. We know that story.

However, with Jamaica, it’s not necessarily just a changing of the guard in regards to the way many on the island chose to listen to music.  In the island’s young history since independence, its music has been a defining characteristic of that young history and culture. And vinyl is very much a relic of that musical history and culture since the island started pressing records of ska music and shipping them across the sea to Jamaica’s diasporic community in England (more on that here) in the ’50s. And problematic or not, reggae is how much of the world knows Jamaica.

There are a number of factors (mostly economic) that I outline a bit in a recent article for Guernica, why pressing and the use of vinyl records has nearly disappeared on the island. An interview I did with Mitchie Williams, who runs Rockers International, arguably the last functioning record store in Jamaica, revealed to me that Jamaicans don’t listen to vinyl anymore. Most of his customers are foreigners. And sure enough, in the three times I visited the shop in Kingston, there were visitors from Poland, Japan and the U.S. with stacks of vintage vinyl they planned to buy and take home.

If Jamaica is truly running out of vinyl due to visitors from outside the island buying it all up, then what does it mean when an important physical relic of Jamaica’s rich music past is owned outside the island by those who are not Jamaican? Can that history and culture at risk of being re-written, re-framed and re-contextualized by those outside of the island? What is the moral implications of some of these visitors using this vinyl to make money at reggae and dancehall parties they throw at clubs and venues back home? (For more on this idea, I suggest reading the Scramble for Vinyl via Africa is a Country) What is the role of the Jamaican government in preserving not only this vinyl but many of the spaces which it was recorded and produced, may of them which are in shambles? Should there be more concern over the disappearance of these relics, particularly considering Jamaica (and the Caribbean’s) fraught tussle with history or lack thereof (as recently touched on in a great review by Chris Jude Taylor via The New Inquiry).

You’ll have to read the article on Guernica for (some) of my (heavily edited) conclusions.

One parting thought: Walter Benjamin had some words a bit on the significance an object holds once mass produced in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin suggests that an object holds value only as long as it acts as an authentic relic of the historic testimony it represents. But once that object is mass reproduced (or in the case of vinyl records, replaced), the authenticity of the object fails to matter. In the case of vinyl records in Jamaica, as long as access to the music is available in some form, then perhaps these objects lose their significance and their loss isn’t to be mourned.

Still you can’t help but balk at the stench of colonialistic “power moves” that seem to be in the air when Europeans and Americans come flying in, buy up all the “rare vinyl” then re-sell it or use it for their own profit back home.

The music may remain on the island (and continue to be referenced through acts of versioning and riddims) but goddamn if that isn’t some morally problematic bullsh-t.

Which leads to this funny (albeit incredibly spot-on) satirical post on Diplo and Mad Decent. But save that for another day…

Read the full article via Guernica.

Philip Smart + HC&F Studios

philip-smart-title-600x318

 

The name Philip Smart may not be immediately recognizable to many fans of Jamaican music. But that may be due more to his long-time residency outside of Jamaica than his lack of contribution to Jamaican music for the past three decades.

Smart’s Long Island-based HC&F Studios made a name for itself recording hits such as Barrington Levy’s “Murderer” and Carlton Livingston’s “100 Weight of Collie Weed” in the early ‘80s with Smart at the controls, establishing HC&F as a required stop for visiting Jamaican artists. The studio would go on to record massive hits like the original cuts of Shabba Ranks “Mr. Loverman” and Super Cat’s “Don Dada” as well as popular riddims into the early 2000s like “Hard Drive” and “Hot This Year.”

Smart’s HC&F studio was foundational in establishing and cultivating New York City’s often-overlooked but thriving dancehall scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Labels like Jah Life and Witty regularly utilized the studio to record while international superstar Shaggy would record some of his biggest hits with Philip Smart behind the soundboard.

Unfortunately, Philip Smart passed away last week at the age of 54. For my Jamaica in New York program, I tried to contact Smart to chat with him about the distinguished work of HC&F. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to contact him. Now I know why.

The history of reggae and dancehall is criminally overlooked. Very little has been covered on it despite it’s massive contribution to not only Jamaican music itself but in bringing it beyond the shores of the island post-Marley.

In memory of Smart, I wrote an obituary for him via LargeUp.com while also pulling 13 tracks that would hopefully showcase not only Smart and HC&F’s contribution to reggae and dancehall but also to showcase its progressive diversity over the years as the music of Jamaica rapidly changed.

To do so, I was sure to contact Deadly Dragon Sound for suggestions on some deeper Smart/HC&F cuts. They helped immensely. Big up to them!

To read the tribute to Smart/HC&F (and listen to some tunes) head on over to LargeUp.com.