Roots reggae with hip hop and pop flourishes.
Seven years is an eternity in popular music. Trends, styles, tastes, and popularity divide, replicate and morph at an exhausting pace and even the greatest pop artists struggle to keep up. Social media enhances the difficulty of staying atop the pop culture firmament and, before you know it, an artist who was up today, tomorrow fades into obscurity, a victim of the relentless forces of the pop culture market place, Darwin’s evolutionary theory writ large on the cultural stage of capitalism.
For those who believe in such things, however, the number seven has divine significance, particularly in the Old Testament. For example, even non-believers are familiar with the story of creation in Genesis. The first book of the Hebrew Bible describes how God created the world in six days, and on the seventh, surveyed what He had created and rested. From there, the number seven reappears, in contexts large and small, instrumental to concepts of divinity, as well as to detailed codes of personal behavior. Seven is an auspicious number, so much so that even people who are not devout attach propitious significance to its occurrence in the ordinary aspects of life.
It is perhaps no accident then, that reggae artist Dre Island is releasing his official, debut album seven years after his first collection of songs, Rastafari Way, hit the airwaves. That mixtape yielded the quietly anthemic title cut, a gentle, hip hop-influenced track, which extols the virtues of Rastafarian values and culture. In the video for the song, Dre walks the streets of the neighborhood where he grew up, the Red Hills Road section of Kingston, accompanied by children and other residents of the area. These same streets produced Dancehall legends Buju Banton and Red Dragon, the former having a significant impact on Dre’s artistic development, as he has had on many Jamaican artists. Banton’s presence in the community was something that was almost taken for granted and Dre says that “I would see Buju all the time in the neighborhood. I had a passion for music from an early age and Buju and the Marleys were big influences on me.”
“I was born and raised in Kingston and I heard all kinds of music as a child. Michael Jackson, Buju Banton, Bob Marley, Al Green, Dennis Brown – a wide variety of music,” Dre continues. Marley and Brown are revered in Jamaica, and on the world stage, Brown especially by the reggae cognoscenti, and there is more than a hint of Marley in Dre’s voice, both Bob and Stephen.
Seven years passes in a single breath. It is a truism of life that is often lost on the young. Dre Island is no longer a young man, but in pop culture years, he’s not old either. His dreads are longer, the lines on his brow more visible, and deep grooves are etched into his face. His beard is more full, too, with faint sprinkles of grey at its edges. All of this is the visible evidence of the things he has learned and experienced in the last seven years of his life, and are the physical signs of his spiritual growth, as an artist and as a human being, since the release of Rastafari Way. When I spoke to Dre Island by phone last week, I was in Connecticut and he was in Kingston, contemplating the reality of promoting new music during a world-wide pandemic, something that many artists are now confronted with. He seemed to take it in stride. “We have an evolution of process, from tape to CD, back to vinyl.” He told me that musicians will have to find new ways to get their music to the people, new ways which must reflect the changing times. Live streams of his performances are among the avenues that he is exploring with his management team.
When I bring up the seven years between the release of his first collection of songs, and now, he acknowledges the passage of time and the emotional impact of the five year gestation period for his debut, Now I Rise, which drops on May 29th. “It’s a relief, a weight off my shoulders,” he admits about the record. At the same time, he accepts a divine hand at work, through him and his music, and in the providence of the release date. As Dre Island told the Jamaica Observer in April, “I am inspired by life and everything I do is inspired by the father and so I am moved to drop this album at this time because I am divinely inspired to do so,” a belief that he reiterates to me as well.
Piano is not the dominant instrument is most reggae songs. Reggae favors a 4/4 time structure, with an emphasis on the third beat, that mimics the rhythm of the heart. The bass and drums are more pronounced than in other genres of music, with the bass guitar often providing the foundational “riddim” of the song. Keyboards can add color and tone, and in the Digital Dancehall Revolution of the 1980s, it became common for synthesizers and other electronic keyboards to replace the traditional set-up of bass, drums and guitar that characterized roots reggae and early dancehall. For this reason, Dre Island’s use of piano brings a sparkle and sheen to his music that some traditional roots reggae lacks and it’s one of his secret weapons.
“I started piano lessons at a young age, three years old,” he tells me, encouraged by his grandmother. In the “Introduction” to Now I Rise, the piano adds depth and even melancholy to the pastiche of speeches that set the tone for the rest of the album. Segments from each are worth quoting here. In one, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous Blueprint speech, the civil rights leader reminds his audience that “doors are opening to you–doors of opportunities that were not open to your mothers and your fathers — and the great challenge facing you is to be ready to face these doors as they open.” The other two speeches are fictional and drawn from Charlie Chaplin’s film, The Great Dictator. Chaplin says, in character, “Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: ‘the Kingdom of God is within man’ – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.'” This opening tacitly admonishes us about the current state of the world but it seeks to inspire us as well because Dre Island is a spiritual man and he wants to lift our spirits to action, not simply chastise or shame us for our failings. “I don’t judge no man, only myself,” he says. When the door of opportunity opens, Dre Island will be ready, and he wants us to be ready, too, and walk through with him.
Dre Island’s other secret weapon is his voice. It has grit to it, and he is as adept at singing as he is at chanting and assuming sing-jay mode. “I was singing when my mother gave birth to me,” he says to me over the phone, chuckling at the thought. “I was singing all the time.” The practice from an early age shows. Dre has an ache and a longing in his voice that many singers lack, and a pleasant gruffness, too. That grittiness adds a surprising heft to even his most light-weight songs. On the songs with more meaning, like “We Pray,” an early single from Now I Rise, his voice soars and it packs an emotional wallop, a call to arms on behalf of the downtrodden, the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. His voice makes us want to pray with him, because his voice conveys to us that we are all in this boat together.
“We Pray” is a kind of swelling, inspirational song and one can imagine it being sung at communal events, the kinds of events where thousands of people lend their voices to the chorus, and its simplicity is its virtue: “So, we pray, we pray, we pray/We pray, we pray, we pray.” It is a rousing song that doesn’t lose its impact over time and Jamaican dancehall star Popcaan is also featured on a verse. Although their styles are fundamentally different, Popcaan’s influence on Dre, as a person and as an artist, cannot be overstated. “He’s like family,” Dre says. “We see each other every day. I see him on flights, on tour, in the studio. He knows everybody and every thing. Popcaan make me realize that every thing flow through me, the ancestors, the traditions and the words. They flow through me, a part of the creativity in me. And all of it come from above.”
“We Pray” is not exactly roots reggae but it feels like reggae. It’s more of a hybrid song, that borrows from reggae, hip hop and pop music, and it demonstrates Dre Island’s range and influences. While he has one foot in the current Roots Reggae Revival, he also appropriates sounds from other genres. Some of the riddims that come to him as part of his creative process are influenced by trap, and he tells me that trap also poached from reggae and dancehall. To demonstrate what he means, Dre begins to sing “Murderer” from Buju’s 1995 album, ‘Til Shiloh. Then, he sings the bassline from the song and I can hear the sound, the familiar high-hat patterns and kick drums that dominate so much of American rap music today, in his vocalizing. It seems that it all started with Buju.
Our conversation turns to trap music when we discuss Dre’s 2016 song, “M16.” According to Dre, the song was written in response to some of the violence he witnessed in Kingston at that time. “I saw many things happening around, bad things happening around Kingston,” he says to explain. In the song, Dre Island references Buju, the late Dancehall star Tenor Saw and even Horace Andy, the roots singer whose “Skylarking” was a big hit in Jamaica and with reggae fans outside the country. Dre’s song is solidly Dancehall, but it also contains flourishes from dubstep and hip hop, and the subject is serious, a fire and brimstone Rasta anthem that rejects the corruption of Babylon and predicts its fall. In Dre’s hands, the song becomes another rallying cry for the troops of the righteous, but like much of his music, it reflects the artist’s overall positivity, too. Dre is always urging us to do better, to not lose hope, to confront our challenges and not run from them.
The first seven songs on Now I Rise burn with the same kind of intensity as “M16.” A martial snare drum punctuates “Kingdom,” which lists the ills of the world and prophesies that “Jah kingdom is ready to rule…and Babylon will soon be overthrown.” The title cut announces that Dre Island was “born as a militant warrior in soul,” and the song’s chorus strays from the dancehall influences of the verses, with a flamenco rhythm and a plucked acoustic guitar. The song ends with Dre reciting Psalm 23:4, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…,” and even his speaking voice holds your attention.
“Never Run Dry,” the featured single from the album, begins with a police siren, and Dre advises that he’s “coming to you from a voice of the ghetto,” and warns “Babylon, your days are numbered.” In the song, he’s a Rasta preacher, decrying corrupt politicians, gang violence and racism. “Days of Stone” continues the mood, and as the song closes out, reggae fans will hear a familiar riddim extrapolated at its end. Then comes “My City,” an ode to Kingston and its people, and the place that Dre Island calls home. On the Jussbuss Acoustic performance of the song, Dre merges it with Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was.” When I ask him what prompted the mix, he sings both songs to me over the phone to demonstrate their symbiotic relationship. The acoustic version of “My City” is more mournful than the version on “Now I Rise,” but the song is hopeful, too. “Jah channeled the words through me,” Dre says and in the song, Kingston becomes a living organism, its life, its culture and its people, the blood flowing through its veins. It’s both an anthem of protest and an anthem of hope, and of promise and redemption.
Now I Rise sags a bit two thirds of the way in, when there is a succession of love songs and Dre loses the bite that characterizes his more overtly political work. The album picks up again with “Be Ok,” a song that features fellow new roots singer Jesse Royal. The track laments the desecration of the earth, and draws a connection between slavery and ecological devastation; the cover of the single shows the two men standing above a dystopian landscape, with destruction and smoke, as far as the eye can see. The beat is simple, with electronic keyboard swirls, and the emphasis on the third beat connects the song to its reggae lineage, but it hits like a dirge. The relatively unadorned arrangement allows Dre to stretch out his voice, and in spite of the dire situation, he reminds us that “everything will be ok.”
Now I Rise ends with “Still Remain, a song of perseverance and endurance that again returns to a common theme, reflecting on the challenges faced by the youth, and the duplicity and corruption of politicians, out for themselves, instead of the people. The song is an appropriate coda to the album, featuring Nyabinghi drumming and striking images of both hope and warning. The video for the song was directed by Fernando Hevia. Dre became familiar with the Spanish filmmaker’s work after watching a video Hevia created for fellow Jamaican artist Chronixx. “It was the color that drew me in,” Dre says of that video. “I didn’t even see the images. I saw the vision of the director in that video, in the colors.” The video for “Still Remain” includes dramatic images of death, birth and resurrection. “You can touch a man’s skin,” Dre says about the video,” but you can’t touch his soul. Once a man, twice a man, and Jah will always prevail.”
In some ways, “Still Remain” is a metaphor for Dre Island and his music. He remained and he has come back, and now, with his music, he will rise again, with hope and with determination, and with grit. “Life is beautiful, and at the end of the day, the Most High channels the music through me. The spirit in the words comes from the Most High,” he says. Seven years is a long time to wait, but at the same time, seven years passes in an instant. It is all part of Jah’s plan, something with which Dre Island would probably agree. You just have to pay attention to the signs. And Now I Rise. Big up, Dre Island, now you rise, again, too.