A couple of weeks ago I took part in the annual chat about music fun-o-thon that is the EMP Pop Conference. This year’s theme was music and money, so myself and a few excellent folks (namely Josh Chamberlain, Mel Cooke and Tomas Palermo) put together a panel we called “Selling Jamaica” (a somewhat cheeky riff on Michael Manley’s famed “We are not for sale” slogan from the late 1970s). Josh talked about the economics of dub plates, Mel’s focus was on the historical relationship between dancehall and the corporate community in Jamaica, Tomas talked about the increasing lyrical focus on money, and I talked about the economics of collaboration between Jamaican dancehall artists/producers and foreign artists/producers. My paper was entitled “Major Lazer, Major Money? Dancehall’s Relationship between Yard and Foreign”, and I tried to cover UN economic recommendations suggesting the Jamaican music industry to work with foreign musicians and producers, the ongoing anxiety in the Jamaican press about reggae losing its “Jamaicanness”, and the increasing number of collaborations involving foreign interest in dancehall (hence the title). You can see my abstract and our panel description here. Apparently there will be audio eventually on itunes university, but that’s yet to be posted.
In preparation for the paper, I had the opportunity to interview Dre Skull, whose eagerly awaited Vybz Kartel album drops soon soon soon. Though in my paper I was only able to use bits and pieces, I thought that it might be an idea to post Dre Skull’s interview in its entirety. I think that Dre Skull raises all sorts of interesting issues about collaboration and composition–especially now, in 2011. I’d love to know what folks think about these issues. I’m working on extending my conference paper, so I’m all ears.
Do you have a specific philosophy where collaboration is concerned?
To be a good collaborator in the true sense of that word, I think being a good listener is paramount. In fact, you really need to hear things even when they are not spoken…that’s where the magic is. As a producer, I try to listen to what is said in dialogue with another artist, but also what is said by the body of work that I usually get to experience before I begin any collaboration. When it comes time to start crafting a track, I’m either thinking about the strengths of the artist and working to make tracks that are well suited for them, or I’m intentionally doing something different from what they usually do. In those cases, I think about styles and tempos that the artist has never really explored where there might be room for breaking new ground. So if an artist is well known within a genre, I try to separate out in my mind what are their core talents, as opposed to what are the confines and signifiers of their genre, and if I find something there, then it’s a question of exploring new ways to work with those core talents. For example, if someone is an expert at crafting a pop song, like Kartel, then it can become interesting to think about what kind of songs he has never done or tempos he’s never really voiced, and in exploring those questions, ideally you can get a performance or a song out of Kartel that is the result of him reaching a bit outside his comfort zone. I think sometimes that when we are reaching out past our limits we can hit creative peaks and a good collaboration has a bit of that element.
How did you begin collaborations with Jamaican artists? Were you interested in particular vocalists/particular sound?
My first project was the single “Gone Too Far” with Sizzla, and I reached out via the internet. In terms of my interest, I’ve been a fan of Jamaican music for a long time, so it was a longstanding dream to be working with Jamaican artists. The first track I did with Vybz Kartel, “Yuh Love,” was a similar thing (over the internet). But lately, I’ve been coming to down to Kingston quite a bit to get into the studio with people directly and that’s definitely my preferred way of working when it’s possible. In terms of whom I’ve worked with, I’ve basically chosen people I was interested in for particular projects I had in mind. There are other artists I’ve wanted to voice whose label has offered very bad contractual terms so it wasn’t possible to get it done. But overall, I feel very good about who I’ve worked with, it’s been amazing and I expect to keep doing more projects.
What do you think the Jamaican music industry has to offer to foreign producers/performers/musicians?
I think the most prominent two things it offers are amazing songwriters and performers, and the artistic and business approach to popular music that is riddim culture. Jamaican vocalists are some of the most talented I have ever worked with and I think the talent is probably partially a result of how the music business has operated in Jamaica for the last few decades. Therefore, the way I see it is basically that riddim culture has allowed for artists to write an incredible number of songs over their careers. Most big US artists have maybe recorded 30-200 songs in their entire careers (and on top of that a lot of big US artists don’t even write their own tracks), while someone like Kartel, on the other hand, has probably written and voiced more than a thousand tracks over his career and quite possibly a lot more. To me, the effect of that really can’t be underestimated. That cultural aspect of prolific songwriting also creates a situation where upcoming artists can be taught the craft of writing and performing by people who have mastered the craft themselves. This creates what I believe is called a virtuous cycle and the result is all of the great music that has been made in Jamaica.
What do you think foreign has to offer Jamaica?
Every producer brings his or her own set of ears to the table, whether foreign or not. For me, I’ve been exposed to all sorts of music that many Jamaican producers might not have spent as much time with (just as a Jamaican producer has their own palette and their own history as a listener). I definitely consider myself a music producer as opposed to a dancehall producer, so I’m probably coming to the table with a different perspective on both what I want from the performer and for what I want from the life of the song…and I have to assume that means I am offering something unique to a Jamaican artist. And when I say unique here I mean different–definitely not better–but that difference create compelling pieces of music. So I think it’s great when foreign producers work in Jamaica and truthfully I’d like to hear more Jamaican producers working with foreign vocalists. There can be some interesting discoveries in collaborations across cultures and across genres and I’m inclined to want to hear the results.
Do you find working with international artists fundamentally different from working with artists in your local area?
Not as different as you might think. Most people recording around the world are using computers and a similar set of technologies, so the set up is familiar despite different techniques and quirks in different locales. I’d say, the differences and similarities of working with different artists are more dependent on the individual people than the culture, so the differences I’ve seen between two Jamaican artists might be bigger than the difference between a Jamaican artist and a US based artist. For example, when I worked with Lil Scrappy he wasn’t writing his lyrics down to paper and instead was using Pro Tools as a tool for composing his verses on the fly. It’s not a situation where he was freestyling, but he was working out the verses as he went, bar by bar, and it becomes a dance between him and his recording engineer. Likewise, Vybz Kartel works is a similar fashion. In all the recording we’ve done, I’ve never seen him write a single thing down and the process is a similar sort of on the fly creation where he’s directing his engineer, Notnice, and working very fast, “writing” the song directly into Pro Tools. So, in the end, I don’t see a fundamental difference that seems geographically or culturally derived as much as differences between artists that feel like difference in personality and vibe.
What would be your ideal result for the Kartel album project?
The biggest goal would for the record to reach more people than anything Kartel has ever done and to serve as a challenge for people to aspire to make music at a higher level and to remember the power of well crafted albums. I guess extensions of that goal would be for the record to win a Grammy for Best Reggae album, which is something Kartel has mentioned to me as a goal of his own for this project. In addition, it would be great to land a single or two on the Billboard charts in the US and really cross over beyond the core dancehall market and to reach a larger audience. I think Kartel has the talent to be a top 40 artist in the US, so I’d like this album to be a step on his progression towards that. But regardless of what happens in terms of any success it may find, I’m excited to get this record out into the stream of culture and watch what happens when it’s out of our hands and in the hands of YouTube.
Kartel is incredibly popular locally in Jamaica. What, in your mind, makes him such a local favourite?
I’m not sure I’m the most qualified to speak to that, but I think from my discussions with him that he really understands the fundamentals of pop music at a very core level, both intellectually and intuitively, and in his hands that understanding is potent. On top of that, he has an incredible understanding of the larger cultural landscape which I think a lot of artists lack. I think that always keeps him a few steps ahead of people and being those few steps ahead is a piece of what keeps him so popular.
I have spoken to some Jamaican producers who say they think either specifically for the local market or specifically for international audiences. Do you ever think about producing for local dancehall fans specifically?
That’s never been my goal. I understand that line of thinking but I intentionally choose to make music without imposing those delineations.
How do you feel about the Jamaican concern over Jamaican ownership/influence on Jamaican music?
I guess first I would say I respect that concern, it clearly makes sense as sort of concern that would arise intuitively. But I also think a balanced understanding of the world is one that sees that Jamaican music has spread out across the world for decades now and with the success of that spread comes the fact that the world becomes part of the feedback loop for what Jamaican music is and should become. So effectively certain aspects of Jamaican music get encouraged (through consumption and other modes of support) and other aspects get discouraged. I see it as a situation where Jamaican music has grown far beyond Jamaica and that can create moments and situations of concern or ambivalence about what is happening with the music, but, overall, it’s a positive situation. Far beyond Jamaican music or even music, I feel like we are living in a renaissance of collaboration and the technology (internet, cheap airfare, etc.) has pushed culture forward in some very exciting ways.
Should Jamaica be worried or should Jamaica recognize the increasing viability of its music–especially dancehall?
I guess I’ve kind of just answered that, but I will add that Jamaican music has crossed over internationally numerous times before, so the viability isn’t what I see as new here. I think the new thing is that it’s more of a two way street than it ever has been, in the sense that Jamaican music goes out into the world, but the world doesn’t simply consume it, the world wants to engage with it and make music inspired by it and with the creators of it. I think the same thing is happening with American music in Jamaica. Kids are watching MTV and BET and are not satisfied being passive consumers. They are deciding to engage with the sounds and styles they are hearing, and the product is ever increasing explorations of sounds and genres and I’m not against that.
What’s your feelings on the establishment of a Red Bull studio in Kingston to allow for international collaborations?
I don’t know too much about it to be honest, but any organization that’s committed to keeping the art of recording alive should be applauded. That’s my first thought. There is so much talent in Kingston, so the more people who can get a chance to voice in a quality studio the better. Might have to reach out to them and see what’s what.