Honest Music DC, run by Darryl “Trane” Burke and Christos DC (Chris Vrenios), is one of the most dynamic and innovative production houses in reggae. The studio behind Kenyatta Hill’s critically-acclaimed 2014 album Riddim of Life, Puma Ptah’s In One Accord, Christos DC’s The Long Road, and the Kingston 16 riddim compilation is poised to become one of the premier production houses in reggae.
Both Burke and Christos have been making movements in the DC reggae and club scene for decades now. Burke cut his teeth working with Bebo Philips and Clive Jarrett at Grapevine Records, backing such artists as Carlton Livingston, Gregory Isaacs, and Lone Ranger, to name a few. From there, it was stints with reggae legend Carl Malcolm, Moja Nya, Joseph Hill and Culture, Abyssinians and Eek-A-Mouse. He was also the founder of The Archives, a reggae project that was the brainchild of Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton.
Artist/producer Christos DC is a Greek-American born and raised in Washington, D.C. by parents who sang opera and taught voice professionally. Christos’ career began in the early 90s producing hip-hop and R&B tracks with indie artists from DC, but it was his deep appreciation for the sounds coming out of Kingston, Jamaica that led him to record with legendary reggae artists Sly and Robbie as well as the Firehouse Crew. He spent several years on the road as guitarist and backing vocalist for Don Carlos and The Itals. He has produced and recorded with artists such as the legendary Augustus Pablo, Sugar Minott, Roots Radics, and Meditations. He has also co-written with DC’s own Thievery Corporation.
World-A-Reggae sat down with Christos DC recently to discuss his label, new single, and forthcoming album.
WAR: So I first became aware of you through Kenyatta Hill. I heard his album Riddim of Life when it came out in 2014 and I was just blown away with that album, especially the song “Jah Is My Friend,” which features you on vocals. I didn’t think reggae that sounded this good, this authentic, was still being recorded. So I dug deeper and found out that you weren’t just doing a guest spot on the album, but you produced the album and released it through your own label Honest Music DC! Tell the people about Honest Music.
Christos: “I originally started on honest music with the intention of just releasing my own recordings. I released to albums on my own prior to being approached by Darryl Burke who had the idea of Expanding the label. He was the one who brought Kenyatta Hill on board to create the “Riddim Of Life” album. We very quickly realized there was a special report in the studio and that we shared many influences as well. We began working together for the release of my last album ” Long road” and have not looked back since.”
WAR: Although I just discovered your music a few years ago, you’ve been a touring and recording artist for many years. You’ve played with a whole host of reggae artists and acts. People might be surprised to find out that you have a long history with Don Carlos. You guys have been friends for years and you still play live dates with him. So how does a young, white reggae artist link with and gain the respect of one of reggae’s true living legends and a respected elder Rastafarian?
Christos: “I discovered reggae at a very young age and felt an immediate connection. I began making mix tapes as a teenager and this led me to meet many elders of the Rastafarian community. This led to my introduction with singers and groups from Jamaica such as Peter Broggs and the Itals Who recruited me as a guitarist and back up singer. This led to my introduction to many other artists from Jamaica who I would go on to work with including Don Carlos.”
I actually met Don for the first time as a teenager and he very graciously signed a record for me and brought me on the tour bus to introduce me to his band. Years later I met Gold Who had done several recordings with him. I played him a song I was working on at the time. He must have made me play it dozens of times that night and later that week he contacted Don to tell him about me. Soon after word I begin doing some overdubs on a record that was never released. This led to our meeting face-to-face and lead to what has been a great friendship to me over the years.”
WAR: You guys did a single together in 2015 titled “Righteous Chant” which was also issued on the Honest Music label. I selected it as the best reggae single of 2015. It is a phenomenal tune with brilliant vocal performances by both you and Don. For me personally, that tune captures the essence of Don Carlos, that intangible “thing” that makes him so beloved the world over. Talk about how that whole thing came together.
Christos: “Don recruited me to play in his band back in 97 I believe. I have been working on my first album entitled offering. The album featured various artists from Jamaica so I approached Don about this. I played him several of the rhythms are used on the album and he was immediately struck by this particular song. I remember going into Lion and Fox Studios and recording him with Jim Fox at the controls. Don made the song in such a manner that seemed effortless. 20 years after releasing the album we decided to re-issue some of the tunes. We both agreed this would be the best one to start with and Don was gracious enough to allow me to sing on it with him. I feel truly blessed for this experience and I am very excited to be out performing the song with him!”
WAR: One thing I’ve noticed about Honest Music is that everything you guys put out is only of the highest quality. The music, the visuals, the packaging, you really go beyond what most small labels would do these days. I don’t think I’ve been disappointed by anything you guys have released! So is quality culture at Honest Music?
Christos: “Trane and I both come from an era of fine art and quality recordings. We take this very seriously in everything we do. Also we both believe very strongly in putting out sounds and images that are unique that give us our own identity and Brand.”
WAR: Over the past year or so, Honest Music has released several notable singles. You did a cover version of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” which really surprised me. When you guys first sent it over I kind of cringed thinking that it might be too tall of an order. However, you nailed the vibe of that tune perfectly and the production is simply remarkable. I thought that was a risky move on your part and I respect your willingness to take those risks and put yourself out there.
Christos: “We had been discussing doing some cover tunes and I always had thought heart of gold would make a great reggae cover. It was an honor to do this song as Neil Young was one of the first tunes learned to play on guitar an early influence on my style as well.”
WAR: Kenyatta Hill’s cover of his father’s “Police Man” is another one which really blew me away. I think it is every bit as powerful as the original and it features some great performances from Puma Ptah and Akae Beka. Who’s idea was it to do relick that tune?
Christos: “The remake of ‘Police Man’ was a great idea and unfortunately reflective of the current state in the US amongst the citizens and those in power. Kenyatta and Trane for coming up with this as the tune was never released on a Culture album. It was truly a blessing to have both Puma and Vaughn make such powerful contributions to the track .”
WAR: Speaking of Akae Beka, Vaughn Benjamin also appears on your new album. One thing that impresses me about Honest Music is that you guys make really solid choices when it comes to who you work with, enlisting only the very best talent. For example, Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred has become a mainstay at Honest Music as you guys use him to mix a lot of your music. I can’t think of a better, more innovative producer in the game today. Talk about your relationship with I-Grade and the Virgin Islands crew.
Christos: “We are very thankful to be working with such talented people as Tippy from I-Grade as well as Vaughn Benjamin. Trane had a close relationship with Ron Benjamin (Midnite, Vaughn’s brother) backed when they had settled in the DC area and were performing on the local scene here. Puma (Ptah) initially linked us with Tippy I and our first meeting with him in person was when he happened to be in the Baltimore area and came down to the studio to mix ‘Righteous Chant.’ We feel these brethren are at the top of the genre in the current market. We hope this working relationship will last and much more great music will come of it.”
WAR: So this new single titled “Speak The Fire” finds you teaming up once again with Amsterdam’s Skankin’ Monks, who you worked with on 2015’s “Human Dignity.” The single is massive! Heavy riddim, nice vocal, just a damn good roots reggae tune. How did this tune come together? Did you work up the arrangement?
Christos: “‘Speak the Fire’ came about when I visited the Skankin’ Monks in Amsterdam and met them face-to-face for the first time last summer. They played me the tune while in the studio and had an idea for the hook. I changed the wording a bit and came home to begin recording. I reached out to my brethren from Bulgaria who is a very talented upcoming artist by the name of Zafayah to collaborate. We completed the song while on tour together in India last December 2016. I truly love his contribution to the song and as always love collaborating with The Skankin’ Monks.”
WAR: S0 what is the title of your forthcoming album?
Christos: “The album is titled Tessera, as this means four in Greek and also happens to be my fourth full length album release. The Number 4 also resonates with the vibrations and energies of practicality and patience. Building solid foundations through discipline and hard work. Something I strive for in every aspect of life.”
WAR: So we’ve already established that Akae Beka will be featured on the album. Any other guest appearances?
Christos: “The first single and video is “Speak The Fire” featuring Zafayah and The Skankin’ Monks. It was filmed by Antonio Rodrigo exclusively in Goa, India. Akae Beka collaborated with me on the song titled “What Is Happening” and we may have a couple more surprise guests as well. The cover I did of “Heart Of Gold” will be on the album as well as a lesser-known Nina Simone tune called “The Desperate Ones”. Lastly I decided to remake a classic Greek song titled Ρολόι κομπολόι“ which translates to “Watch Rosary”, in honor of my heritage. The tune comes with a video too.”
WAR: In addition to Skankin’ Monks, did you work with any other outside production crews on this album?
Christos: “The album is being produced by Trane and I along with contributions from some very talented musicians such as drummer Leslie James, Jr. and guitarist Henry Tanash.”
WAR: When is the album slated to drop?
Christos: “The album will hopefully drop around late June or early July this year.”
WAR: What does the next six months hold for Christos DC? Are you touring? Producing?
Christos: “There are quite a few things coming up for me in the next few months. First finishing my album and possibly releasing another “riddim” album. I will be doing some shows with Kenyatta Hill here in the US, Sweden and possibly Costa Rica. In July I will be the support act for Don Carlos on his tour of Europe.”
WAR: What is next for Honest Music?
Christos: “The future for Honest Music looks very bright. We are sitting on a large catalog of unreleased material from some of the legends in reggae music. The only question is which project to start with first!”