LION AND FOX: MAKING REGGAE HISTORY IN THE HEART OF BABYLON (PART 3 OF 3)
PART 3 – HISTORY IN THE MAKING AND THE FUTURE OF REGGAE ROOTS
Throughout the late 1990s, Fox continues recording and mixing some very notable roots reggae albums including Culture’s One Stone and the dub version Stoned (1996); Israel Vibration’s Free To Move (1996), Live Again (1997), and Pay The Piper (1999); Don Carlos’ 7 Days A Week (1998); and Dean Frasier’s critically acclaimed follow-up to his Dean Plays Bob album (1996). In 1997 Fox releases his Dub For Daze compilation featuring rare and unreleased dub tracks from Don Carlos, Freddie McGregor, Gregory Isaacs and others.
It’s just another day mixing and mastering at the Lion And Fox Studios in 1999, now located in the Lincolnia section of Northern Virginia just off I-395, when Fox signs for a package delivery in the lobby.
“I’m down there in Virginia and I happened to be in the front office for some reason because I’m usually not there. This delivery guy comes down to deliver a package so I grabbed it and signed for it. So he looks at the signature for a few seconds and he goes:
‘You Jim Fox?’
So I say ‘yeah’, and it was Bird, Ryan Berty, the drummer for a band called SOJA.
So he says ‘I’m in a band.’
I say ‘come on down, bring your band, let’s do some recording.’
He said he’s in a band, and he knew who I was, and he was familiar with all the reggae albums we had done here. It was really very nice. He had a sparkle in his eye and I could tell he was really excited to be doing this. They came in to the studio. You know, they wanted to get booked at the local bars here and they needed a demo tape to give to the bar managers. They came in on a Saturday and we were supposed to do it in one day because money was kind of tight.
I was totally blown away. The material from the beginning was just so deep. Jake’s writing was so deep. They were so into it. I slowed them down a bit and told them ‘let’s just record it all today and then we’ll mix it tomorrow.’ I wasn’t even thinking about the money thing. I just wanted to get it right. We did four songs and four dubs, and that’s the EP, that’s the Soldiers Of Jah Army EP.”
Bassist Bobby Lee recounts this chance meeting during our recent interview.
“Byrd was working as a courier and when he found out he was delivering a package to Lion and Fox studios we knew that it was where a lot of our favorite reggae records had been recorded. When he walked into Fox’s office he had no idea what he looked like. So he said ‘I have a package for Jim Fox’ and the guy behind the desk signed for the package, scribbled Fox onto the paper. He felt inclined to tell him about the band and ask how much it cost. The rest is history!”
So who is SOJA?
SOJA, which stands for Soldiers Of Jah Army, are a group of local reggae musicians who met at an Arlington, Virginia high school and are now playing to stadiums in South America. They have more than one million followers on Facebook. They have released two commercially viable live concert DVD’s – one recorded in Falls Church, Virginia at the historic State Theater, and the other in Hawaii. They have managed to do what no other American roots reggae act has done – use the power of the web and social networking sites to become an international sensation.
It is around 2005 that SOJA makes the transition from a struggling local favorite to global roots fusion warriors. Fast forward to today. SOJA recently co-headlined a tour with British reggae legends Steel Pulse, who got their start opening for Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1977.
It isn’t so long ago that Hemphill met bass player Bob Jefferson at an Arlington, Virginia high school. Hemphill and Jefferson form SOJA after enlisting schoolmates Eric Rogers (keyboards, harmony vocals, later replaced by Patrick O’Shea in 2003), Ryan Berty (drums), and Ken Brownell (percussion).
The release of the Soldiers of Jah Army EP in 2000 is a hit on the Atlantic coastal scene, especially in the Washington, DC area where there is a rather sizable Rasta population. The band continues it’s successful collaboration with Jim Fox and record Peace In A Time Of War in 2002, a more mature album with overt political themes.
In 2006, SOJA enter Lion and Fox once again to record Get Wiser with Jim Fox, their second full-length album. It debuts in the Top 10 Reggae Albums on iTunes and has remained in the top 100 since its release. The album release party is held on January 6, 2006 at The State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia, where the band is introduced by legendary Jamaican broadcaster and Bob Marley biographer Dermot Hussey. The show consists of two separate sets, with the opening set being older songs, and the second set being Get Wiser in its entirety. The show is recorded live and mixed by Fox, and released as a DVD, known as the Get Wiser Live DVD, on November 21, 2007. Over the next few years, Fox collaborates with SOJA on several singles and EPs.
In August 2009, SOJA releases the album Born In Babylon. The band’s latest album, Strength To Survive is released on January 31, 2012.
I spoke recently with lead singer Jacob Hemphill about how Jim Fox has helped shape the band. Says Hemphill:
“He has taught us a lot. Where to simplify, where to expand, which songs had the most potential and why. Also, he taught us how to set up to record. We
still do it the same way he does, start to finish.”
At the same time he is witnessing the emergence of SOJA as a huge international success story, a bonafide reggae legend comes knocking at Jim Fox’s studio door. Julian “Junior” Marvin, former lead guitarist for Bob Marley and the Wailers, and front man for The Wailers Band, moves to Washington, DC in 1999 to help launch XM Radio’s all-reggae channel The Joint. Marvin, knowing full well that the Lion and Fox Studio is just a short walk from his home in Arlington, Virginia begins to spend countless hours in the studio.
“Yeah, I was around the corner on North Van Dorn, so I could actually walk there,” says Marvin during our recent interview. “I spent every day jamming with his engineers that work there. It was Big D., Mike Caplan, Rob Burhman, and Abas Zand. There was a guy there doing wiring named Ronnie Edwards, he was a guitar player. We would jam every afternoon and Jim was teaching me the new computer stuff like Pro Tools because this was around the time when everything in the studio was going to computers. I got a job at XM satellite radio because you had to know Pro Tools to get the job. I needed to learn the technology so Jim was my teacher for a while.”
Marvin thinks so highly of Fox that he decides to record his first solo project with him at Lion and Fox.
“Jim Fox is such a humble guy man. He really is. He has done so much to promote this music and done so much to help this music in the United States, more than any producer I know. And he doesn’t go after the money, he goes after the music. He’s great man. He’s one of the best. So when it came time to record my album Wailin’ For Love, Fox was the man.”
“He studied the work of one of the best engineers ever, a guy by the name of Errol Brown at Tuff Gong, who works with Ziggy Marley right now and also did some work with Bob Marley. Jim is a musician, a drummer, and he really likes Jethro Tull, and we became very good friends, very close friends.”
As if recording with one of Bob Marley’s main guys, a man handpicked by Marley to bring a new vibe and texture to his already-brilliant music, is not enough, Fox collaborates with a man who is making all the right moves right now in the “world-a-reggae;” A man who has garnered the respect of Rastafari’s elite elders.
It is in Jamaica while recording the Israel Vibration album Jericho in 2000 that Fox is introduced to a driven young man from California named Harrison Stafford AKA ‘Professor’ – the name given to Stafford by the elders when he was teaching the first course on the History of Reggae Music at Sonoma State University.
Professor is a founder and lead singer of the sensational Groundation, a nine-piece band with an altogether new reggae sound, featuring swirling, jazz/funk inspired horns, stout Latin and African based poly-rhythmics, and soulful harmony vocals. Groundation is considered uniquely authentic roots reggae band in the vein of The Abyssinians, The Congos, and The Melodians. They use analog instruments and recording equipment rather than digital, with Professor explaining “No digital, we don’t work with synthesizers. Just like in the 1970s. We stick to that format.”
Groundation is a band that is redefining a genre. Their critically and commercially successful albums tell a “collective and linear story that seeks to interpret the truly historic times we are living in.” Their reputation as an authentic roots reggae band comes not only from Stafford’s unquestionable knowledge of the genre and culture, or from their use of analog recording, but also because they work hand-in-hand with the greatest living roots musicians. Don Carlos, The Congos, Pablo Moses (singer), Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace (drummer), Ras Michael (percussion), and Marcia Higgs (singer) are just a few of the names that have collaborated with Groundation.
I spoke with Stafford recently about his history with Fox and how he made the decision to enlist Fox as his engineer early on. Stafford explains:
“Everything that Doctor Dread put out went through Fox’s hands, whether it was recording it, mixing it, mastering it, mixing and mastering it you know. That’s pretty much the stuff I heard and listened to growing up. So when I started a band I realized I wasn’t getting the sound I wanted. So my goal was to get some money together, find Jim Fox, and fly him out here. I wanted to work with Jim Fox in an all analog space.”
It is during one of his trips to Jamaica to conduct research and interviews for his film Holding On To JAH that Stafford is first introduced to Fox:
“I met Jim Fox in Jamaica. He was there working with Israel Vibration and Joseph Hill (of Culture) I think. I saw him working on the 2-inch machine at Leggo. I saw him at Tuff Gong. I saw him at Anchor Mixing Lab. You don’t really notice him unless you actually turn your head and see him at the console. You don’t feel his presence in the studio, he’s there to capture what you are doing as a musician.”
So what is it that makes Jim Fox’s mix of an album so desirable to musicians that his talent is so respected and in-demand all over the world? This is the question that needs a definitive, clear, and concise answer. It is Stafford who is able to explain it better than anyone else:
“Why his mix is better? There’s a sound that happens. There’s a feeling with the music when you get it real strong. It feels strong because all the instruments, you can hear them all. Everything. This feeling of strength, Fox knows what that sounds like. Sometimes when you hear an album the high hat is really strong, or the percussion. With Fox, you hear everything and it’s strong, and it’s clear.”
The motto at Lion and Fox is one that has characterized the work being done there since the early 1980s, when Jim Fox started recording reggae artists: “History in the making.” When I ask Fox about the many legendary reggae recordings tracked at Lion and Fox, he tends to downplay his role in reggae music history. He’s a guy who is more prone to heap praise on those recording engineers who he admires, guys like the great Errol Brown of Tuff Gong, Steven Stanley, Dennis Thompson, Stephan Stewart, Chris Daily , Bravo, Soji, and Scientist.
I ask him specifically about the moniker ‘History in the making’ and the circumstances surrounding his decision to put into words what he’s been doing for 30 years at Lion and Fox:
“I always wanted to be a witness, you know? That’s what got me into this business, to be a witness to some of these performances. During the Free To Move album, we were tracking along and everything’s going great. Doctor Dread had to go out. He didn’t want to stop the session so he said keep going and I’ll call in later. So we’re recording Apple’s song “Pretty Woman” and the Roots Radics, they had to slow down and speed back up again, there was a major speed change. They were so tight, I mean they were just on it. It was incredible. So we just got done recording it and Doctor Dread calls in and says:
‘Hey Fox how’s it going?’
So I said ‘Doc, you’re missing it, it’s history in the making.’
That was the first time I said those words out loud, and I realized that I had been a witness to history from the very beginning.”
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the legendary Don Carlos, Cecil “Skelly” Spence, Julian “Junior” Marvin, Harrison “Professor” Stafford, Elliott Harrington and SOJA, and my good friends Roger Steffens and David Katz.
Most importantly, I would like to thank Jim Fox for opening the door to his studio so that this story could be told. A have never met a more personable, professional, and humble guy. It was a an honor and a pleasure to tell this story.