U.S. Virgin Islands has over the last ten years become a powerful force in reggae, especially in the United States. But in Europe the impact has been more moderate. Reggaemani has talked to producer and label owner Laurent “Tippy” Alfred to learn more about the scene in the VI.
U.S. Virgin Islands is an autonomous part of the United States, and can best be described as a tourist paradise. The three main islands of St Thomas, St John and St Croix are located in the western Caribbean, just east of Puerto Rico. The largest island – St Croix – has about 60.000 inhabitants and is the base for a type of reggae which is popularly known as Virgin Islands reggae (VI-reggae).
U.S Virgin Islands are located just like Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea. But they have more in common. For example, the Rastafari movement have been strong on the islands for many years.
− Elder rastamen from the VI will tell you that the Rastafarian movement has been in St Croix and St Thomas since 1930 – and 1940’s, not long after the inception in Jamaica. So reggae, which is rasta music at its core, has been here a long time, writes Laurent “Tippy” Alfred, producer and owner of the record label I Grade based in St Croix, in an email to Reggaemani.
Started in the 70’s
He says that the first reggae recording in the VI, which he knows of, is Ras Abijah from St Thomas, who released the album Ras Abijah vs. The Beast in 1979. But there are more pioneers than that.
− Zeus & the Kasha Heads, The Zioneers, Umoja, Inner Vision and of course Midnite. Midnite was formed around 1989, eight years before they released their first album Unpolished. This crucial first release marked the start of the contemporary VI-reggae scene, Tippy writes, and continues:
− From there numerous studios and production houses emerged like Glamorous Records, Sound VIzion and I Grade.
Midnite is the foundation
Tippy describes the feel as unique and far more diverse than most people think. For example, there is not only one VI sound.
− The Midnite sound is the foundation of the VI-reggae. So that’s the dominant sound and what most people associate with the VI. Heavy bass lines, slower tempos, live instrumentation, sparse arrangements, bubbling keyboards and stiff guitar skanks.
Something that brings together reggae from VI is that most use live instruments, which he considers to be classic roots reggae, but Jamaica seems to have left it behind.
While the VI has a classic reggae sound, it is not reactionary or boring. Tippy lists several producers who he thinks we describe VI-reggae the best.
Tippy has a hard time classifying his own sound. He mentions Midnite, but also hip hop, soul, jazz and British steppers as his influences.
− Overall, I think the lyrical content is what unifies the VI-reggae sound. It is the only reggae movement that I know of where 100 per cent of the artists, so far, sing conscious lyrics.
For an island with only 60.000 residents St Croix has succeeded in shaking up lots of talented singers and producers. Tippy says that the islands have an abundance of talented artists and it seems that it every month emerges voices with international potential. When he shall explain why there is so much talent, the answer is somewhat puzzling and reminds one of the popular TV series Lost.
− St Croix is a unique and mystical place. We’ve produced many internationally known artists, thinkers, musicians, writers and athletes. I think that St Croix has some of the most creatively talented people on earth. Why is something of a mystery. My feeling is that there are centers of energy in the earth that create and shape minds in a way that modern science cannot grasp, writes Tippy and continues:
− St Croix must upon one of those energy centers. I think there are undocumented reasons why the VI has been so sought after by so many colonial powers on history. That is also why there are so many military installations and radio telescopes located nearby.
He also provides more robust explanations and writes that St Croix has always been a rebellious island and the population is independent of the mind, something he believes fosters musical creativity. To be part of the United States he believes also has an effect.
− We are a U.S. territory and have a large population from all over the Caribbean. Those who grow up here may be influenced by both the U.S. and the Caribbean. All this cross-cultural mixes makes for a very fertile environment for creative music and arts.
Moderate interest in Europe
Reggae from the VI has had a stronghold on the U.S. mainland for many years, but in Europe, interest has been moderate so far. Midnite and Pressure Buss Pipe are the most successful to date. Even singer Dezarie has received some attention. But not really much more, despite talented artists such as NiyoRah, Ras Attitude and Batch.
− VI-reggae is starting to get wider attention in Europe, but I think that it is difficult because artists from here have not received much support from Jamaica. Commercial success in Europe depends on the acceptance in Jamaica, says Tippy, who says that Midnite still managed to break that rule.
Midnite has never had a single in the Jamaican charts. They have never played in Jamaica, but is still respected and loved in Europe. Tippy also highlights the lack of resources as an additional reason.
− VI labels are small organizations without the resources to launch promotional campaigns that penetrate Europe.
“A lot to be hopeful about”
Tippy is critical of some Jamaican artists and believes that dancehall is currently undergoing significant musical changes right now.
− It is hard to even call most of the riddims reggae in any form. They are basically hip hop / pop arrangements with little originality. It’s nothing like the dancehall of the 80’s or 90’s that brought a whole new sound to the world.
− There may be a lot to be disgusted by contemporary reggae, but also a lot to be hopeful about. Even though artists like Vybz Kartel and Mavado get most of the airplay, there are countless others who spread positivity.
Tippy is not worried about the future, either for roots reggae in general or VI-reggae in particular. He believes that the contemporary dancehall sound may come and go, but the roots will always remain.
− The key will be for conscious reggae artists and producers to adapt commercial and promotional formats so that we can continue to create music that will be heard.
SEVEN QUICK ONES TO TIPPY
Vaughn Benjamin (Midnite)
Lustre Kings Productions
Handsworth Revolution by Steel Pulse
Favourite record sleeve?
A New Chapter of Dub by Aswad