“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.”
We are now living in the “I-Grade era” of the reggae timescale. For nearly two decades now, reggae fans have witnessed not only a geographical transmigration of the cultural and spiritual core of reggae from Jamaica to Europe and the U.S., but also a fundamental transformation in the sound and style of production. No one has done more to force this change than Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred, owner and purveyor of the signature I-Grade sound – a modern sound characterized by an authentic and profound spiritual intensity, overtly Rastafarian and Pan-Africanist thematic elements that give the music a deeply reverential and ceremonial feel, multi-layered percussive and horns-driven soundscapes, and a well-balanced mix where keys and hand-drumming are given equal billing with the bass and drum.
Notwithstanding recent claims staked by the likes of Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, Jah9, and most recently, Addis Pablo, the roots reggae crown still sits in St. Croix, and it will take more than a few brilliant modern roots reggae albums from Kingston’s finest new artists to return it to the place of its birth. If you doubt MIDNITE’s ten-plus year domination of the roots reggae genre I invite you to read MIDNITE: It A Go Dread In DC where I make the case.
Perhaps it is no coincidence then that MIDNITE’s latest effort dropped on the same day as the extraordinary IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE by Addis Pablo on Tuesday February 25, 2014. With his album, Prince Pablo makes the boldest statement yet for the new roots movement in Jamaica. If there is any tug-of-war going on here, it is a respectful one as Pablo recently laid a melodica track for MIDNITE. And while MIDNITE has surely taken notice of the sound and seriousness of the music coming from Jamaica of late, they don’t seem to be intimidated in the slightest.
Their new collaborative effort with Zion I Kings titled BEAUTY FOR ASHES is their most solid since 2012’s CHILDREN OF JAH, and the crowning achievement for Zion I Kings (ZIK). The album features stellar performances from the ZIK band: bassist David “Jah D” Goldstein (ZIK), Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred (ZIK), keyboardist Drew Keys (ZIK), guitarist Padraic Coursey (ZIK), guitarist Andrew “Moon” Bain, and drummer Junior Richards. The album also features a variety of guest musicians as well including drummer Lincoln “Style” Scott (Roots Radics), drummer Wilburn “Squidley” Cole (Stephen Marley), percussionist Noel “Scully” Simms, and many more.
BEAUTY FOR ASHES is very strong, with consistently solid riddims from start to finish – all of them a product of the brilliant musical minds of Zion I Kings who bring the pain for MIDNITE and his tight band of talented musicians. Throw in a brilliant mix by I-Grade’s engineer-in-chief Tippy-I and you have a nearly flawless record. Brother Vaughn is back with plenty of fodder for the government conspiracy theorists and alien enthusiasts. His “chant-and-call” style of vocal delivery is still as unique-sounding as it was when I first heard it, however, his style has evolved considerably. No longer content to spit deeply intelligent lyrics over his brother’s timeless roots riddims, the enigmatic lead singer now allows his vocal to ride the riddim – and more often than not, drive the riddim home – making this tight band’s sound almost airtight. Add to this the collaborations with some of Jamaica’s best and brightest roots reggae artists, and you’ve got a modern roots reggae album that will surely turn heads.
The title of the opening track “A Reminder” is a fitting one, as those who slept must be reminded that MIDNITE is still the reigning, undisputed heavyweight champion of new roots reggae. Tracks like “When Jah Arise” (feat. Lutan Fyah), “Betterment Mouth,” “Same I Ah One” (feat. Pressure), “Weather The Storm” (feat. Ras Batch), and “The Healing” bring a strong dose of uncompromising heaviness and unapologetic Rastafari reasonings. Vaughn Benjamin hypnotizes the listener with his steady, consistent chanting, setting up Lutan Fyah to deliver a painfully articulate knockout verse, nearly tearing the track to shreds. It only takes one listen to these tracks to realize that MIDNITE is not at all losing the head of steam built up over the last twenty years of incessant recording and touring. No, instead they are getting stronger, tighter, and more confident with time. This is a band in it’s prime.
The band’s influence is undeniable. Just listen to today’s emerging artists, or those that have emerged especially from the Virgin Islands since 2000 – all of them imitating MIDNITE in some form or fashion. While Jamaican artists have seemingly accepted MIDNITE as the global soul-force that they are, the band still lacks the respect of the Jamaican people, and still have not been welcomed to perform on Jamaican soil.
Although Jamaica may tout the album sales of it’s dancehall artists as proof that the music is still relevant and marketable, it cannot deny the fact that this same music holds no real weight. It is unserious music that lacks soul, rhythmic human connection, and gravity as a force for social change.
This is why reggae roots torch-bearers like MIDNITE, and the new and emerging crop of Jamaican roots artists that have been influenced by them, are so very important to the future of reggae as a style of music that is worthy of being considered among the popular genres of jazz, blues, soul, and rock. And although there might be a silent battle going on between the good, their continued mutual respect for each other, and willingness to collaborate in the name of conscious music, is essential for winning the war.