Tag Archives: I Grade Records

Skillful harmonizing on the Nazarenes’ fourth album

Ethiopian brothers Noah and Medhane Tewolde are known as the vocal and multi-instrumentalist duo Nazarenes, a duo that has been based in Sweden for many years.

They established themselves in 2001 with their self-produced debut album Orit. Their breakthrough came three years later with the acclaimed set Songs of Life, a set followed by Rock Firm in 2008.

Now the Tewolde brothers are back. Back in full swing with an album produced by Tippy I of Virgin Islands-label I Grade, a label known for working closely with Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite.

The first collaboration between the Nazarenes and Tippy I was the single Everlasting which was included on the various artists’ compilation Joyful Noise put out in 2009.

On Meditation the Nazarenes have made an album that confirms just how great roots reggae can sound in 2012. Meditation is reggae in the same school as excellent vocal harmony groups like The Meditations or The Mighty Diamonds. And hearing these two brothers sing together is a soulful experience.

Meditation re-uses some of the riddims used for previous Tippy I productions, and if you’re familiar with Jahdan Blakkamoore’s Babylon Nightmare, Toussaint’s Black Gold or Perfect’s Back for the First Time you’ll most likely enjoy tunes such as Mamy Blues, Everlasting and Lonesome Lady.

But there are also a number of new riddims. The dreamy Alive is one such, Politrickcians, in a UK dub style, is another.

Several of the songs come close to pop and rock arrangements and Get Together will probably make Chris Martin of Coldplay proud with its catchy sing-a-long chorus. It sounds like it’s made for playing at large festivals or stadiums.

The Nazarenes might have a long way until they’ve achieved a following as big as Coldplay, but if Noah and Medhane Tewolde keep making music as good as Meditation it’s just a matter of time until they play at Glastonbury or Madison Square Garden.

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Jahdan Blakkamoore wants to inspire

Jahdan Blakkamoore made a name for himself in the trio Noble Society, an outfit that received the award Reggae Album of the Year on iTunes in 2008. Last year he dropped his solo debut Buzzrock Warrior, an album that received the same award. Next week he is about to drop his second effort. Reggaemani got a chance to speak to him about the new album and his desire to inspire.

Jahdan Blakkamoore. Photo: Amir Ebrahimi

Jahdan Blakkamoore was born in Guyana and moved to the U.S. at an early age. Now he’s based in Brooklyn, NYC, and spends all his time in the studio recording and learning.

He seems to have no musical boundaries. On Noble Society’s debut album Take Charge, he and his band mates Delie and Diego “Fuego” Campo tried their hands on many different styles ranging from one drop reggae and dancehall to hip-hop.

On Jahdan Blakkamoore’s solo debut in 2009 he explored raw digital bass lines in the field of electronica and dubstep.

Buzzrock Warrior was very electronic and I was inspired by European house and jungle. It was supposed to be a mixtape, but ended up as an album, says Jahdan Blakkamoore on the phone from a recording studio in New York.

Jahdan in a new light
The first single from his sophomore album Babylon Nightmare is a different excursion compared to what he has previously put out. All Comes Back to One is partly acoustic, laid back and easy going.

− It’s a beautiful tune, states Jahdan and explains:

− It has a folky acoustic feeling and is about the concept of oneness. It’s a unique part of the album.

He describes Babylon Nightmare as a mixture of hip-hop and soul with a Caribbean feeling. And he emphasizes that it’s a musical album with live instrumentation such as live bass and horns.

Jahdan Blakkamoore – All Comes Back to One (single version)

Treats and surprises
Some of the tunes on the album have been featured on different compilations. But Jahdan has something up his sleeve.

− People might have heard some of the songs before, but the versions on Babylon Nightmare are different. It’s a little treat, a surprise, he says and gives an example:

− The album version of All Comes Back to One has horns and a different mix.

Babylon Nightmare is the antidote
Jahdan says that Babylon Nightmare is a conceptual album about the world we’re living in.

− We’re all facing negative elements created by ourselves. We created the babylon nightmare, he says in a serious tone, and continues:

− Babylon nightmare is mass confusion. But it can be utopia. We can change the nightmare. My personal antidote is to look inwards. You need to understand yourself. Learn about your culture and the true power of love.

Babylon nightmare is a state of mind that you can change. And Jahdan is willing to help.

− All songs on the album are bits of antidote to the nightmare. For example All Over the World [starts singing], it’s about reggae and that it’s everywhere. Love is everywhere.

Four years to complete
Jahdan and producers Andrew “Moon” Bain, Laurent “Tippy” Alfred and Nick Fantastic have put a lot of time and love into the album. The recording started about four years ago. Jahdan seems confident in what it could achieve.

− It’ll kick up doors for me and show me in the correct light. People will hold on to this album. It’s my best body of work to date and you can play it to your grandmother or your son.

− I want people to take my music seriously and I always want to have a message. I want to inspire and enlighten.

“Hot now and not later”
And he wants to be recognized now. Not in 20 years.

Busy Signal gives me the chills when I hear his music. He’s on top of the game, Jahdan says, and continues:

− I want to be unique and have originality. If you’re a genius, you’re able to inspire your contemporaries, not 20 years later. People in your era need to say “wow” and recognize you for your music. Hot now and not later.

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Toussaint is a singer on a mission

Mixing styles and genres is difficult. To have a clear and easy labelled style is usually easier and more commercially successful. Someone who has managed to combine his two favourite genres is American singer Toussaint. Reggaemani had a chat with him just before he went on a 16 day tour.

Toussaint started his singing career like many other great singers – in the church. He’s the son of a preacher man, so church was a natural place outside his childhood home in Indiana. At home, his parents often played music. Mostly gospel and old school soul from legendary record labels Stax and Motown.

− I’ve always listened to music, but when I was younger I had to sneak out from home to listen to reggae and hip-hop, Toussaint laughs on the phone from San Francisco, where he is to set off on a U.S. tour with NiyoRah and Tuff Lion.

Toussaint is in a great mood, and describes himself as ‘psyched’ at the moment. The tour lasts 16 days through three states and he performs every night.

Something that probably also brightens his mood is his reggae debut album Black Gold, released the same day as we talk.
− The album has been well received so far and I was just on Facebook to ignite my fans, he says.

Toussaint successfully combines soul and reggae

Mashing up genres
On Black Gold Toussaint successfully combines soul and reggae. His blend of genres might be too much reggae for soul fans, while reggae fans find it too soulful. But I think he handles the mix very well.

− Over the years I’ve tried as many genres and styles as possible, whether funk, soul, jazz, reggae or hip-hop. With Black Gold I wanted to mash up genres. Mash up soul and culture, he says eagerly, and continues:

− For the first time in my life I’ve been able to do my own thing without having to compromise. I work with people who understand what I want to do and have the same ideas as myself. In Soulive, it was more difficult. We had different ideas, but it was an important experience to tour and perform live on stage.

Toussaint says that there is no difference for him to sing soul or reggae.

− Singing is a spiritual experience for me and it doesn’t matter what genre it is. I come from soul music and that’s my strength. But if I need to rhyme, I can do that too.

Afro-American issues
The concept of Black Gold is African heritage and history. It deals, among other things, with Afro-American issues. Toussaint says that there are big challenges ahead, and immediately becomes more serious, though obviously still close to laughter.

− Afro-Americans are facing difficult times. I believe that we have what it takes to conquer, he says, and quickly adds:

− I mean conquer in a spiritual sense and that Afro-Americans need to stand firm.

Toussaint says that in the U.S. black equals criminal and that people don’t understand what that really means.

− People don’t realize that power, to be judged, he says, and continues:

− It’s the same violence all over the U.S. It’s in New York, Los Angeles and even in Indiana where I’m from and that’s supposed to be a hick-state.

“You can’t own land if you’re dead at 25”
Toussaint has obviously put much thought into the lyrics and concept of Black Gold. And when I ask him if he has a solution for the problems he is quiet for a moment and then fires off several opinions and ideas.

− We need more self-determination. You can’t own any land if you’re dead at 25, he laughs, and then gets serious again:

− First we need to realize that we have problems and second we need to be aware of misconceptions about manhood and womanhood. We have to realize that we’re worth something. That we’re capable of great things.

A big heart is not enough
He wants to contribute to the cause, for instance through working with young people and teaching them history.

− I’d like to start a foundation and do workshops and things. Right now I’m just gathering capital to do greater things. Because you must have money. You can’t approach youths and say ‘Hey, I got this big heart, do you want to eat?‘ he laughs again and says:

− I want to be honest in my lyrics. I don’t write fluff. I want to show the problems we’re facing.

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Bright future for VI-reggae

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.

Laurent "Tippy" Alfred in his studio in St Croix

− 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.

− We have Dean Pond’s polished modern roots, Sound VIzion’s upful digital roots and Bambú Station, who produce deep roots.

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.

Magic island
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.

Laurent "Tippy" Alfred and singer Toussaint in St Croix

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.

He adds:

− 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

Favourite artist?
Vaughn Benjamin (Midnite)

Favourite label?
Lustre Kings Productions

Favourite tune?
Handsworth Revolution by Steel Pulse

Favourite genre?
Roots

Favourite producer?
Karl Pitterson

Favourite riddim?
Hard Times

Favourite record sleeve?
A New Chapter of Dub by Aswad

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Ljus framtid för VI-reggae

Amerikanska Jungfruöarna har de senaste tio åren blivit en kraft att räkna med i reggaen, framför allt i USA.  Men i Europa har genomslaget låtit vänta på sig. Reggaemani har pratat med producenten och skivbolagsägaren Laurent ”Tippy” Alfred för att höra mer om scenen.

Amerikanska Jungfruöarna är en självständig del av USA, som bäst kan beskrivas som ett turistparadis. De tre huvudöarna St Thomas, St John och St Croix ligger i västra Västindien strax öster om Puerto Rico. Den största ön – St Croix – har omkring 60 000 invånare och är basen för en typ av reggae som populärt kallas Virgin Islands reggae (VI-reggae).

Ögruppen ligger precis som Jamaica i Karibiska havet. Men det finns fler gemensamma nämnare än så. Exempelvis har rastafarireligionen haft fäste på öarna sedan många år.

Laurent "Tippy" Alfred i sin studio på St Croix

Laurent "Tippy" Alfred i sin studio på St Croix

– Om du frågar äldre rastas härifrån så säger de att rastafari funnits på St Croix och St Thomas ända sedan 1930- och 1940-talen. Det är inte långt efter att religionen startade på Jamaica. Så reggae, som är kärnan i rastakulturen, har funnits här under lång tid, skriver Laurent ”Tippy” Alfred, producent och ägare till skivbolaget I Grade med bas på St Croix, i ett mejl till Reggaemani.
 
Startade redan på 70-talet
Han berättar att den första reggaeinspelningen som han känner till är Ras Abijah från St Thomas, som släppte plattan Ras Abijah vs. The Beast redan 1979. Men det finns fler pionjärer än så.
– Zeus and the Kasha Heads, The Zioneers, Umoja, Inner Vision och självklart Midnite är några som var tidiga med reggae. Midnite bildades kring 1989, åtta år innan de släppte sin första platta Unpolished. Den skivan inleder den nutida scenen här, skriver Tippy, och fortsätter:

– Sedan dess har det startats åtskilliga studior och produktionshus, exempelvis Glamorous Records, Sound VIzion och I Grade.

Midnite är grunden
Tippy beskriver känslan som unik och betydligt mer skiftande än vad många tror. Det finns exempelvis inte ett enhetligt VI-sound.

– Midnite är grunden för all reggae härifrån. Deras sound är helt klart dominerande och något de flesta associerar med VI-reggae. Tunga basgångar, lågt tempo, liveinstrument, minimalistiska arrangemang, bubblande keyboard och skarp gitarr.

Något som för samman reggae från VI är att de flesta använder liveinstrument, något som han anser vara grunden för klassisk reggae, men som Jamaica lämnat bakom sig.

Även om VI-reggae har ett klassiskt reggaesound är det inte bakåtsträvande eller mossigt. Tippy räknar upp flera producenter som han tycker beskriver VI-reggae bäst.

– Vi har Dean Ponds polerade moderna roots, Sound VIzions glada digitala roots och Bambú Station, som gör djup roots.

 Tippy har svårt att beskriva sitt eget sound. Han nämner Midnite, men också hiphop, soul, jazz och brittisk steppers som sina influenser.

– Ska jag nämna en sak som verkligen förenar VI-reggae så är det de socialt medvetna texterna.

Magisk ö
För att vara en ö med endast 60 000 invånare har St Croix lyckats skaka fram mängder av duktiga sångare och producenter. Tippy säger att öarna har ett överflöd av talangfulla artister och att det varje månad dyker upp någon ny med internationell potential. När han ska förklara varför det finns så mycket talang blir svaret något gåtfullt och för tankarna till tv-serien Lost.

– St Croix är en unik och mystisk plats. Härifrån kommer många kända artister, tänkare, musiker, författare och idrottsmän. Jag tror att St Croix har några av de mest kreativa invånarna i hela världen. Varför är ett mysterium, men min känsla är att det finns energicentrum i jorden som skapar och formar våra sinnen på ett sätt som modern vetenskap inte kan greppa, skriver Tippy och fortsätter:

– St Croix måste vila ovanpå ett sådant energicentrum. Jag tror att det finns odokumenterade skäl till varför vi varit så efterfrågade av så många koloniala krafter i historien. Det är också därför det finns så mycket militära baser i området och så många radiomaster häromkring.

Han ger också mer handfasta förklaringar och skriver att St Croix alltid varit en rebellisk ö och att befolkningen är oberoende till sinnet, något han tror fostrar musikalisk kreativitet. Att vara en del av USA tror han också påverkat.

– Vi är ett amerikanskt territorium och har stor befolkning från hela Karibien. De som växer upp här får influenser från både USA och Karibien. Den kulturella korsbefruktningen skapar en väldigt fruktsam miljö för att skapa musik och konst.

Ljumt intresse i Europa
Reggae från VI har haft ett starkt fäste på det amerikanska fastlandet i många år, men i Europa har intresset varit ljumt så här långt. Midnite och Pressure Buss Pipe är de som hittills lyckats bäst. Även sångerskan Dezarie har fått viss uppmärksamhet. Men egentligen inte mycket mer, trots duktiga artister som NiyoRah, Ras Attitude och Batch.

– VI-reggae börjar få ett bredare gehör i Europa, men jag tror att det är svårt eftersom artisterna härifrån inte fått särskilt mycket stöd från Jamaica. Kommersiella framgångar i Europa beror ofta på hur accepterad man är på Jamaica, förklarar Tippy, som menar att Midnite ändå lyckats bryta den spiralen.

Laurent "Tippy" Alfred och sångaren Toussaint på St Croix

Laurent "Tippy" Alfred och sångaren Toussaint på St Croix

Midnite aldrig haft en singel på de jamaicanska topplistorna. De har heller aldrig spelat på Jamaica, men är ändå respekterade och älskade i Europa. Tippy lyfter också fram resursbristen som ytterligare en anledning.

– De flesta skivbolagen härifrån är små verksamheter utan resurser att lansera marknadsföringskampanjer för att slå i Europa.

”Mycket att vara hoppfull kring”
Tippy är kritisk till vissa jamaicanska artister och menar att dancehallen genomgår stora musikaliska förändringar just nu.

– Det är svårt att klassa merparten av rytmerna som reggae. De är i grunden hiphop/pop-arrangemang med lite originalitet. Det är inte alls som dancehallen på 80- och 90-talen som skapade ett helt nytt sound.

Han tillägger:

 – Det finns kanske mycket att äcklas av i nutida reggae, men också mycket att vara hoppfull kring. Även om Vybz Kartel och Mavado får mest radiotid, finns det otaliga andra som sprider positiva budskap.

Tippy är inte orolig för framtiden, vare sig för roots reggae i allmänhet eller VI-reggae. Han tror att det nutida dancehallsoundet är en fluga, men att roots alltid kommer att finnas kvar.

– Nyckeln för sångare och producenter inom rootsgenren är att anpassa sig till nya format för marknadsföring och försäljning. På så vis kan vi fortsätta skapa musik som kommer att höras.

SJU SNABBA TILL TIPPY

Favoritartist?
Vaughn Benjamin (Midnite)

Bästa skivbolag?
Lustre Kings Productions

Bästa låt?
Handsworth Revolution med Steel Pulse

Favoritgenre?
Roots

Favoritproducent?
Karl Pitterson

Bästa rytm?
Hard Times

Bästa skivomslag?
A New Chapter of Dub med Aswad

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