The Zion I Kings story

Zion I Kings is one of the best reggae production teams in the world today.

As Zion I Kings prepares the release of their highly-anticipated Ras Teo project titled ‘Celestial Rockers Showcase,’ along with the long-awaited posthumous Akae Beka album ‘Polarities,’ Grammy-nominated bassist/producer David “JAH D” Goldfine emerges from his Zion High Productions (ZHP) recording studio to tell their story.

As co-founding member of ZHP and bassist/producer for Zion I Kings, JAH D is one of modern roots’ most ardent and respected torch-bearers. Along with I Grade Records and Lustre Kings Productions, ZHP has been the catalyst behind one of the most fascinating transformational periods for reggae in recent memory.  Their productions for the likes of Midnite, Akae Beka, Yami Bolo, Lloyd Brown, Lutan Fyah, and Arkaingelle represent the very best in modern roots reggae – their sound an unapologetic firebrand of spirituality and reverence to Rastafari that is recognized by reggae fans the world over.

The story of ZHP is the story of reggae in America.  It is a story of commitment, persistence, an abiding faith in Rastafari, and an unwillingness to compromise regardless of the costs.  A bond between two bredren which was forged in a San Diego record shop more than twenty years ago is now the force behind one of the most respected and influential production houses in reggae, and one third of the roots collective largely responsible for the most inventive and transformational period for reggae in more than thirty years.  Zion I Kings is the holy trinity of modern roots reggae production – a seriously heavy production collective which includes Lustre Kings Productions (Andrew ‘Moon’ Bain), Zion High Productions (David “Jah David” Goldfine, Ras Elliott, Quashi) and I-Grade Records (Laurent “Tippy” Alfred).

The Yami Bolo album Rebelution,’ which was ZHP’s very first full-length studio production, was a long time coming.  As a child growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, Jah David learned to play violin at the age of eight.  However, it was his love of reggae that eventually led him to the bass guitar.

“I started violin at like eight you know through school and I moved to guitar by the time I was ten…nine or ten.  So I played guitar from the time I was nine until I was sixteen or so when I started playing bass.  That was the time when reggae had sort of taken over everything.  I was like fifteen or sixteen when I discovered Culture and Burning Spear and Israel Vibration and The Itals and I started going and buying all the albums.  I was going deep you know…I would really try to concentrate on one artist at a time.  I would go buy up their whole catalogue.  I was so inspired by everything I listened to…I would just eat it up like food.”

After playing in several reggae outfits in the Providence, Rhode Island area Jah D looked west to California, eventually landing at the legendary Trade Roots record shop, San Diego’s premier reggae/record shop owned and operated by Ras Elliott Leib AKA Ram Jam Sound. Jah D spent his days exploring reggae vinyl, immersing himself in Rasta literature, and reasoning with the locals.  In his off time, he and Jah Oil formed the backbone of Jah Blood & Fyah Angels, a highly-respected reggae outfit founded by catalyst/leader Shaga Hill specializing in roots-based reggae dub. They recorded and performed with artists like Mikey Dread, Johnny Osborne, Yami Bolo, and others.

“I found myself in California with some childhood friends who I sighted up Rastafari with.  So then it was all about forming a reggae band and from that point forward music just consumed I & I.  We were doing open mics, hip-hop, breakdance, hip-hop competition.  My bredren Jah Oil, he plays guitar with Wailing Souls, he is a great, great musician.  We started to experiment with four-tracks.  Then I had another bredren named Arkaingelle…we started working together…he was my key bredren and he had a four-tack and played keyboards and was a singer.  So we just started laying things down on the four-track and those were like the first recordings I ever did.”

For their part, ZHP would go on to produce conscious roots reggae albums with the likes of Glen Washington (Masterpiece, 2012), Ras Attitude (Holding Firm, 2005), Lloyd Brown (Rootical, 2013), Cornell Campbell (New Scroll, 2013), Ziggi Recado (Therapeutic, 2014), Akae Beka (Livicated, 2016 and Mek A Menshun, 2019), Arkaingelle (Tru Da Fyah, 2017 and Nah Watah Down, 2020).  They also produced several riddim albums (Red Razor and Jah Warriah) and a couple various artists compilations (Jah Golden Throne and Nyacoustic Chants). These albums feature Zion High producing a whole host of talented reggae artists from Jamaica, US Virgin Islands, and the UK.  Zion High is also responsible for the landmark dub albums Dub In Zion (2017) and the recently released Zion Ites Dub.

Through their works over the past decade Zion I Kings have presided over a period of enlightenment which saw a “musical repatriation” of reggae back to its roots.  It is a repatriation that occurred within the hearts, minds, and souls of righteous and well-intentioned artists and producers, and manifested in an undeniable transformation in the word, sound, and power of reggae music itself. 

Zion I Kings has not only been present for this transformation, they have been the driving force behind the entire movement as they are, without a doubt, the most creative, innovative, and inventive production team to emerge in reggae in more than three decades.  It is the consistent high quality of their productions and the pioneering spirit behind bold ideas like the ambitious Dub in the Rainforest series (a throwback to the Rastafari tradition of Grounations) that place Zion I Kings at the forefront of the modern roots movement.

On a conceptual level, Zion I Kings was established in 2006.  Jah D discusses, in-depth, the history of this collaborative production team.

“Its actually right around the time we finished the Yami Bolo album.  Tippy (Laurent “Tippy-I” Alfred of I Grade Records) was living in New York at the time.  Moon (Andrew “Moon” Bain of Lustre Kings) and I had linked from earlier on…like 1999 or 2000.  So pretty much when the Lustre Kings label came out, anything that had a bass on it…it was me.  When they first came out they were doing some digital/dancehall stuff that they issued on 45s in Jamaica but right after that we started doing more roots-styled riddims.  So I was playing bass on all that stuff.  So Moon and I had been working together for a while before any of this…I’m talking before Jah Blood & Fyah Angels, everything.  So he and I would just keep the link.  He was actually living in Rhode Island so whenever I would go back home to visit we would always link and do something…record…we would always do something when I was in town.

So in like 2003-2004 both Moon and Tippy were living in New York and producing and they met one another.  They started to work together and collaborate on some things.  I actually met Tippy when Zion High was doing the Ras Attitude project (Holding Firm, 2005) because Attitude knew Tippy from the Virgin Islands.  So Tippy actually produced some tracks on that album.

We were doing little things between 2003 and like 2006.  For example, if he was working on an album he would ask me if I had any riddims, and I would send him some and he’d be like ‘Oh yeah, I want to use this one for the Niyorah album or…so from 2003 or 2004 we were already collaborating but in 2006 Tippy brought Moon and I down to the Virgin Islands to do recording sessions strictly…that is all we were doing…like we were there about a week and we recorded six of the seven days we were down there…and we just had long recording sessions.  Vaughn (Benjamin of Midnite) was there for like four of the sessions.  So from that time on…I don’t think we branded Zion I Kings in 2006 but we’ve been working since then with the same type of closeness and involvement in each other’s projects.”

While Zion I Kings have been most closely associated with non-Jamaican reggae artists like Midnite, Pressure, and Jahdan Blakkamore, they are highly respected within Jamaican reggae circles, having done brilliant work with Jamaican artists like Lutan Fyah, Glen Washington, Lloyd Brown, Jah9, Duane Stephenson, Chronixx, and Protoje.  There is no doubt that many of the artists responsible for the so-called “reggae revival” in Jamaica have been significantly influenced by the works of Zion I Kings. 

Unbeknownst to even the most ardent Zion I Kings fans, their work has even been nominated for a Grammy Award for work that was included on Snoop Lion’s Reincarnated.  Jah D speaks about the unlikely way in which they received the nod:

“The call came through Moon…he and Jahdan were doing some writing for the sessions that were going down in Jamaica.  So Major Lazer and Diplo got Moon involved and one of our tracks over the Breadfruit riddim…Moon played it for Snoop when he was down there and Snoop was like ‘I need this’ type of thing.  But we had already released two songs on that riddim and they didn’t like that…it was almost like a deal-breaker.  But Snoop wasn’t gonna release the album without that riddim…he needed that riddim for the album.  So they ended up hiring Stewart Copeland (drummer) from The Police to produce it and play it.  But we were like ‘yo that’s still the same riddim.’  So we got writing and co-production credits and both Moon, Tippy and I got Grammy plaques.”

While the Grammy nod is nice, Zion I Kings truly take to heart their work on Midnite’s Beauty for Ashes, which won Itunes’ Best Reggae Album of the Year in 2014.  They followed with the critically-acclaimed album Ride Tru which ranks with Beauty for Ashes as two of Midnite’s best albums in a decade.

JAH D spoke about his extensive work as a producer working with Vaughn Benjamin.

“Thirty years from now when you look back you will say that for our generation Vaughn had the most impact on reggae globally and the most impact on Rastafari as well. Really Rastafari through reggae. The whole world has sort of grabbed on to his message of Rastafari and even Haile Selassie the first. Even people who don’t see themselves as Rastafari still love to hear people sing about His Majesty and his glory and the message and the mission of His Majesty.

The first Midnite project I played on was either the Red Razor Riddim or the Infinite Quality album. I don’t remember which came first. I feel like the first Vaughn Benjamin song I ever played bass on was “Hymns” from Red Razor Riddim and Infinite Quality. Then I played on “Reala Law,” “Frequency,” “Dem A Wonda.” To keep it real, I love the stuff we produced with Midnite but my favorite stuff is the early works he did with his brother. Jubilees of Zion, Unpolished, Seek Knowledge Before Vengeance, Kayamagan. Back when it was Dion (Hopkins) and Abijah (Hicks) and Phil (Merchant).

I got into Midnite kind of late. I was in San Diego working at Ras Elliott’s shop (Trade Roots) and playing in a band called Jah Blood and Fyah Angels and my coworker Brian Lockhart booked them for their first California show. We opened those shows for Midnite at a small club that my bredrin owned called The Scene. It was two shows, 2002 I think. Both sold out.

I remember we got the first Midnite CDs from Ernie B and we were all hooked. We played it in the shop all the time and people would come in asking for Midnite. It was like wildfire in San Diego man I’m telling you. People were just blown away by this new band Midnite. We were selling like 30-40 copies a week.

Vaughn was very irie, very irie. He was my bredrin. There was also a lot of reasoning and philosophy about Rastafari and family affairs and focus on meditation. The works that he and I did together was almost always just me and him together alone. We would lock up in my studio, which is in my house, and we would just explore the archives of riddims. When he found a riddim he liked he would just start writing and writing and I would just leave him to do his thing. Man he would write and write and write and listen and rewind the riddim and replay it and write and listen. Then when he was ready he would just let me know he was ready and he would voice the riddim. He would almost always just do it in one take.

Vaughn wasn’t really open to any critique or suggestion about what he had just done on the mic. It was just his way. Vaughn was very confident in his way of doing things in the studio and it was a very positive and spiritual experience for him. So there would never be a situation where he voiced a line and I would suggest him do it different. That never happened. I tried it once or twice and the result I got, knowing him as I do, was that he didn’t want me to do that anymore. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a collaborative effort because he is voicing over the riddim we created. So in that sense there is still collaboration.”

JAH D sums up his seminal work as producer and musician both with ZHP and ZIK.

“Ras Tafari chose we you know.  Ras Tafari chose we to do these works to glorify HIM.  There is a parable in the Book of Matthew that says something like if Jah give you talent and you don’t use it, and you bury it, He will take your talent away from you…give it to the next one.  You know there are some men with many purposes but when you get right down to it there is a main purpose why every man is here…something for you to focus on, perfect and develop.  To me, that is what we are here for.  We know we have the talent.  Jah blessed it…can’t bury it.  And music, it is our life…and sometimes you say we have to suffer for it, especially as a Rastafari, even sometimes as a reggae musician, but definitely as a Rastafari. We have to suffer some type a way.”

Visit zhpreggae.com for a full listing of ZHP projects.

Stay tuned for Ras Teo’s Celestial Rockers Showcase which is set for a June 4, 2021 release as well as Akae Beka’s Polarities which drops on May 21, 2021.

Feature photo by Dena Goldfine.


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