Exclusive interview with ‘Tippy I’ of Zion I Kings

Polarities is the 13th and final full album of new material from Vaughn Benjamin and I Grade Records along with Zion I Kings, the culmination of a 20 year working relationship that began with 2001’s ‘Nemozian Rasta’ album, which was Midnite’s 4th album released to date at that time.

‘Polarities’ was produced jointly by the Zion I Kings production team, with Tippy I of I Grade at the production helm, alongside Vaughn Benjamin himself. Zion I Kings is a family of producers and labels that include Jah David of Zion High Productions, Tippy of I Grade Records and Andrew “Moon” Bain of Lustre Kings Productions. Tippy and Vaughn have been producing songs together since 2001, and this ‘Polarities’ album was a return to their roots of sharing album production. The sound reflects this collaboration as it weaves deep roots basslines with intricate melodies and instrumentation.

So who is Tippy? He is a former Olympian, representing the Virgin Islands as an accomplished swimmer at the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona. He is a 1996 graduate of the prestigious Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is also a 2003 graduate of Yale Law School. However, his true passion is music and his story is inextricably linked to the rise of Midnite and the Virgin Islands reggae movement.

So obviously the tracks included on the ‘Polarities’ album were voiced before Vaughn’s transition in November 2019. Why did it take two years for the album to reach the fans?

“The songs on ‘Polarities’ were mostly recorded between 2016 and 2019. Many of the songs were recorded on the road when I was working as Akae Beka manager and FOH engineer: some in Kingston, some in Chile, one in Vermont, some in France, and a few in Florida. We were steadily working on this album at the time of Vaughn’s passing and were just starting to select the songs for the release. It definitely took some time to come to adjust to new realities without Vaughn, and I was not in a rush to release the album soon after.

Feeling the urgency of the songs in the age of pandemic, I tried to have the album ready in the second half of 2020, and did release the first two singles that year, but timing with the album artwork and spacing other Akae Beka releases pushed the ‘Polarities’ release into this present time. It’s Jah who rules the time. Things are finally in place to share the album, so giving thanks for that.”

More than any other producer, you have been inextricably linked to Vaughn Benjamin’s projects since your very first collaboration on the song “If I Betray,” which appeared on the 2001 album ‘Nemozian Rasta.’ Talk about how you initially linked up with Vaughn Benjamin and the nature of your relationship throughout the past 20 years.

“Well it has been an amazing journey working alongside Vaughn for so many years. Working with him definitely changed my life’s trajectory. St. Croix is a small island, and we knew of each other growing up, but musically we first linked with the song you mentioned. In late 2000, while I was in my first year of law school and back home on a break, my bredrin Danny Dread and I created the beat, and Vaughn later voiced it after I had gone back up to the US.

At the time I was doing music strictly for the love of it, and had no designs of a record label or music production as a life path. When I returned to St. Croix on my next trip home, Vaughn wanted to record more with me and my partner Kenyatta Itola. We steadily recorded anywhere and anytime we could: on a digital 8-track recorder and a 2-mic drum set up in bedrooms and abandoned houses, creating some heavy tunes that I would return to the states with to mix and master.

I Grade Records was formed to release the ‘Nemozian Rasta’ album in 2001. We released two more albums the same year: ‘Assini’ and Dezarie’s first album, ‘Fya.’ Vaughn produced those albums with us: some tracks he built in-studio with us, others we would bring to the studio, and others we would create together live. By the time I finished law school in 2003, we had released 6 albums together.

I moved back home in 2005 and continued to work with Vaughn and many other artists from the VI, steadily releasing albums on I Grade Records, and helping to produce and record many other Midnite albums for other labels: Lustre Kings, Andrew Bassie, Zion High, Higher Bound, Rastar and others.”

Vaughn had an amazing work ethic as you can see by the amount of songs he recorded. No one producer could keep up with him, and he would usually have several albums bubbling at once with different studios. His life was fully in service to his life’s mission and to decoding and revealing mysteries and truths and life lessons through music. I went to some top schools, but I’ve never met an intellectual mind like Vaughn’s. He has memory recall, sharpness of wit, and wordsmith skills like no other.

Vaughn would spend hours every day reading all types of books and texts, often while watching the news in the background. His songwriting would weave in and out of what he was reading at the time. In the studio, he wrote through reasonings. The things he spoke about, holding court so to speak with his one-of-a-kind charisma, would end up in the songs. I learned a tremendous amount about music, life, history, current events, science, politics and people from Vaughn – both from song and from studio session reasonings.

Naturally, my relationship with Vaughn evolved over the 20 years. Being five years younger and new to music and to the path of Rastafari, I was mostly in student mode for the early years. But we ended up doing so much work together that things matured and intertwined over time. Vaughn entrusted me with planning and business counsel in the two years after he transitioned from Midnite to Akae Beka, which was a turbulent and difficult time in some ways. Traveling with Vaughn regularly was a whole new layer of life experience.”

You and Zion I Kings are responsible for some of Vaughn’s best work. From ‘Nemozian Rasta’ to ‘Assini,’ ‘Let Live,’ Rule The Time,’ Beauty For Ashes,’ and my personal favorite Portals.’ Do you have a favorite album that you guys collaborated on?

“No, I can’t choose one favorite album. It’s like trying to choose a favorite child. But I will say that the last four albums we did are very special to me. Musically and mix-wise , they are some of my favorite works as the Zion I Kings sound reached some new levels, particularly with Drew Keys’ increased involvement. And the four albums fit together like chapters in a larger story. ‘Beauty For Ashes’ was a sonic gem, with some big songs that resonated with the people far and wide. Ride Tru took the sound and word even deeper to some creative heights and depths. ‘Portals’ was the first Akae Beka recording and carried a high spiritual current, and now ‘Polarities’ feels to me like it completes and compliments the three that came before.”

I was informed of Vaughn’s passing through an early morning text sent to me by our good friend Darryl Burke of The Archives. Needless to say I was stunned, and I still am to this day. How did you find out that Vaughn had passed?

“I came off of a plane to several texts. I was on my way to New York with Pressure to promote his new album, which became a very difficult time for all of us. We didn’t believe it at first, but when I called a band member who was in tears I knew it had to be true. The weight of his absence hit me very hard for several days and weeks after.”

You toured extensively with Vaughn and his Akae Beka project. Were you aware that Vaughn was having health issues? Was there any sign that he was not in good health?

Yes, anyone close to Vaughn knew that he was having health issues during the five years prior to his passing. It was apparent to the concert-going public to a degree as well. Vaughn’s transition to Akae Beka was a heavy time for him personally and for the extended team around him. Vaughn was battling serious illness while still touring and recording extensively. It felt like he worked with even more urgency than before. Throughout the entire time and with the media, Vaughn remained private about his health issues, and it is not my place to disclose details that his family has chosen not to share at this point.

In 2014 Vaughn split ways with his brother, disbanding Midnite and re-emerging as Akae Beka in 2015. I was actually at the show at the Howard Theater in DC when Midnite did not take the stage. Only Jah9 played the show. Did Vaughn ever confide in you why he decided to part ways musically with his brother?

“Vaughn did confide to all of us in the van on tour about the many reasons why he needed to make the transition he did in early 2015, but the word “confide” has meaning that I am not here to betray. I think his decision can be best described from my point of view as a personal and spiritual evolution sparked by his health and life changes. The oaths of the Akae and the Beka in the 69th chapter of the Book of Enoch so perfectly describe Vaughn’s musical and life mission: to reveal truths that have been hidden. The song By All for All on the album ‘Portals’ was the first song he wrote/recorded after the transition and it really explains the Akae Beka oath. I think he had to walk on his own and craft his musical endeavors on his own terms in order to fully commit to that oath.”

In my opinion, Vaughn Benjamin is the most prolific and intellectual songwriter in the history of reggae. He pioneered a whole new approach to songwriting, structuring his songs in a way that was truly inventive and unique. Midnite was nothing if not original, from the lyrics, to the vocals, to the album artwork, the messaging, the live experience. I could go on and on about how he alone devised his own formula for a reggae career like no other. Talk about Vaughn’s significance as one of the most pivotal figures in reggae and his status as a modern reggae legend.

“Yes the word unique doesn’t begin to do justice to how different Vaughn was from every other singer and songwriter I’ve worked with or know of. And the thing is, Vaughn’s sound was constantly evolving and changing over the years. His infinite number of styles and ways of approaching songs was his most unique vocal quality. Each album would be a tour through several vocal approaches from soulful crooning to gravel voiced chanting. He knew how to write songs with catchy hooks with ease, but often chose to write no hook at all, preferring to fill the song with needed knowledge and information.

His process of writing in the studio was very unique. I never once saw him come to the studio with pre-prepared lyrics. He was a big believer in the power of the now; in coming to his creative art as an empty vessel to be filled by what the now brings. Usually, after long reasoning in the studio, he would write intensely, while listening to the riddim, for anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour and step to the microphone to record the lyrics the first time singing them through.

And of course, the way Midnite and Akae Beka approached the music business was entirely original. Using only painted artwork for covers and no imagery of himself, not promoting singles in the Jamaican reggae market, playing shows at mostly slower tempos – these are all paths of resistance in the modern reggae music business. But it resonated with the people and that’s why it worked so well. Midnite / Akae Beka shows were experiences that were never duplicated. No two shows were the same, and cliché and hype were non-existent. People were and remain hungry for authenticity, for genuine art over entertainment, and for words of substance over hype. Vaughn’s music will keep resonating and growing.”

Vaughn was very versatile as a vocalist. He had a very distinctive singing voice but he was also one of the greatest chanters to ever bless a riddim. Through both he was a strident and unwavering flag-bearer for Rastafari. Thirty years from now I am fully confident he will be mentioned alongside legends like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Dennis Brown. Talk a little bit about his legacy and where he fits as an influential artist and originator.

“Vaughn’s legacy is the body of works that he has left us with. More so than any other singer, his songs, poems, concerts, conversations, album artwork all web together to form an encyclopedia of knowledge and life lessons. Which is why I think he may be remembered for his intellectual and spiritual contributions to humanity as much as for his music. Vaughn deciphered some things about polarities and inverse spelling in the English language that are truly ground-breaking in ways far beyond music, and in ways that researchers and intellectuals may discover in the future. The implications of what he uncovered are enormous. His full body of works will be transcribed and researchable someday, and I’m sure that will be a useful tool for humanity for a long time to come.”

You seem to be the most sought after dub engineer for many of today’s finest reggae artists. Is that where you are most satisfied working in the studio?

“Dub music is an artform that I love deeply – both the science and the art of it. The history of it as well – what the Jamaican dub pioneers did is still reverberating to this day. Since 2012 I’ve been building a midi-mapped dub rig that’s now hybrid analog / digital and very powerful. It’s been great to learn this artform and create mixes in real time. I do dub mixing for a lot of other producers and artists lately, as well as performing live whenever possible. It’s a great way to bring the art of studio engineering directly to the people through shows here in St. Croix like Dub in the Rainforest.

Through a proper sound system like Gabre Selassie’s at Kingston Dub Club, it’s a majestic experience. I think, though, I’m most satisfied in the studio creating new productions. That’s where the musical creation process all begins and that’s where it started for me as a musician. Zion I Kings and I have been creating together for about 15 years now, and the collective experience and synergy we have as creators is a powerful thing.”

What can we expect from I-Grade/Zion I Kings over the next year? I know you are working on the dub companion to The Archives critically-acclaimed Carry Me Home project. What else are you planning for the coming year?

“Yes, I’ve been working with The Archives on their recent dub release of ‘Carry Me Home,’ which was a great experience and an honor. For I Grade, we will be releasing a dub version of ‘Polarities’ later this summer. We also have a new project in the works with Lutan Fyah. As for the wider Zion I Kings family, there are many new projects in the works. Jah D of Zion High is recording at a serious pace, with several new projects on the way, the first of which is called Celestial Rockers by Ras Teo. Moon of Lustre Kings has also been busy in the studio with Medisun, working on an amazing new album in addition to his work with Blakkamoore. Zion I Kings has also been blessed to contribute production to Chronixx and to Protoje, so you can look out for those songs in the coming months as well.”

Do you have any plans to reissue any of your vast Midnite/Akae Beka catalogue on vinyl?

“Yes, I’m planning to issue ‘Ride Tru,’ ‘Beauty For Ashes,’ ‘Portals,’ and of course ‘Polarities’ on vinyl.”


Feature photo by James Gaillard

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