Protoje leans on reggae’s foundations to build a new revival
by Carter Van Pelt
photos by Che Kothari
Listen to enough reggae and you tend not to evaluate performers by the albums they make. LPs have never been the genre’s preferred mode of transportation, as fifty-plus years of cut and mix dancehall culture has ensured. Yet albums can be vehicles for enduring artistry, and this was largely how Bob Marley translated reggae for the world.
Until I heard Protoje’s Ancient Future album, released last year through Mr. Bongo, I had to go back to Tarrus Riley’s Parables from 2006 to find a full length Jamaican reggae album that could work its magic from the top down, without triggering a kind of Reggae ADD. On the strength of Ancient Future (plus a very positive impression left from his Sierra Nevada World Music Festival performance in 2013), I was on board for the opportunity to talk with Protoje this past February in Kingston, as he returned home to promote the new work with a full concert and community forums.
The eleven-track Ancient Future is one of relatively few albums to come out of the “reggae revival,” a much discussed musical and cultural movement that coalesced in Jamaica over the past five years. Informally a creative community, it includes roughly a dozen reggae artists who could be thought of as Jamaican Millennials, and Protoje (real name Oje Ken Ollivierre) is one of its central figures. The movement’s best known singer, Chronixx, doesn’t yet have what would qualify as a full length work, though his singles continue to make an impact in Jamaica and abroad. That Protoje places such emphasis on the album format is significant and gives some insight into his philosophy.
For an enthusiast of classic reggae interested in hearing a contemporary voice, Ancient Future works as a progressive musical statement still respectful of Jamaican music’s canon. This is accomplished through original compositions, channeling a broad array of influences, and digging beyond hackneyed riddims when quoting the past. The echoes of Prince Buster, the Roots Radics, Zap Pow, and Hugh Mundell are heard through crisp instrumentation and a lyrical style informed as much by hip-hop as reggae.
Protoje’s awareness of things before his time, his sense of a creative continuum, and the very concept of legacy is at the album’s conceptual center. From the powerful opening track, “Protection,” featuring the heretofore unknown Mortimer, the work is simultaneously autobiographical and worldly. Ancient Future features guest appearances from the new generation of performers, both established (Chronixx, Jesse Royal, Kabaka Pyramid) and emerging (Mortimer, Sevana). The contributions of both of these latter singers are striking, for Mortimer as noted, but particularly for Sevana whose male-versus-female breakup duet with Protoje, “Love Gone Cold,” showcases some of the album’s best writing and strongest vocals.
Protoje’s collaboration with producer Phillip “Winta” James is essential to the album’s sound and quality. James is Jamaica’s hottest young producer and keyboardist in Damian Marley’s band. His earliest professional work was touring with the Mighty Diamonds, the Ethiopians, and the Heptones. His signature achievement prior to Ancient Future was the Rootsman Riddim, which propelled Chronixx on his anthem “Here Comes Trouble” in 2013. With a similar flavor and production aesthetic, the most recognizable single on Ancient Future is “Who Knows,” which features Chronixx and predates the LP by a year.
Protoje’s previous association with the well-established producer Don Corleon (Seven Year Itch and Eight Year Affair) naturally made fans wonder how his follow-up would test. “I moved on to my third album to control when my material comes out, how it comes out, and my ownership of my intellectual property,” he explains. “I’m an artist where I know what I want to do. Obviously, I can take pointers and direction from people, but at the end of the day I need to be at the reins of my vision. That’s the difference with Ancient Future… The way Winta and I work is a symmetry. I know when to step back and give him [the] lead, and he knows when to step back and give me [the] lead. That’s what you see happening with Ancient Future, when it’s built with that energy.”
Two days prior to our interview, I attended a complete concert performance of Ancient Future in Kingston’s Hope Botanical Gardens. While there were a few a cappella teasers, the performance was otherwise free of crowd-pleasing catalog hits, an assertive move for an artist still building an audience. “This was a test to see the temperature for Ancient Future live,” he explained. “[It was] the best connection I’ve had with an audience in Jamaica… People came out for the album.”
For more than an hour, Protoje and the Indiggnation Band, augmented by a Dean Fraser-led horn section and Winta James on keyboards, rocked and grooved for a diverse crowd of more than a thousand. The concert came off as well-rehearsed despite performances of several songs being staged for the first time to complete the full album presentation. All the guest artists who recorded on the studio album made cameo appearances, including Chronixx, who was a predictable crowd favorite when joining for the hit duet “Who Knows.” Also well received was Mortimer, whose presence drew a strong reaction. Mortimer’s voice is the first heard on Ancient Future’s powerful opening track “Protection.” Protoje’s mother, Lorna Bennett, also took a turn at the mic to a great roar from the crowd, as well as the deejay Assassin.
Protoje’s performance at Hope Gardens featured extended arrangements and was free of medleys. He announced there would be “no pull up and dash weh,” meaning hits songs performed for no more than thirty seconds in the cliché style of the dancehall. “I used to watch the Bob Marley and Black Uhuru shows, and they would play out their full songs. So I was like, me nah guh do whole bag a medley and ting. Me a guh play music from start to finish. At first it wasn’t easy because people would get bored because they’re not used to an artist playing one song for five minutes. But I can see the culture changing. People listen to a song until it’s finished, then they clap and applaud, and you go into the next song.”
Listening to Ancient Future and reasoning with Protoje reveals a performer who doesn’t think about his work like most Jamaican artists who have gone before him, certainly not those whose craft was honed in the dancehall. Contrast Protoje’s three releases in five years to the body of work of the established cultural dancehall artist Sizzla, who has at least sixty albums of wildly varying quality in a career spanning twenty years, more than a third of those in a five year period. While Protoje attests to being an active and prolific writer, not all his written material finds its way to the studio or general release.
The titles of Protoje’s first two full length albums, Seven Year Itch and Eight Year Affair, suggest the time lapse from his initial desire to break into the music business to it actually happening. “From I left high school, I was committed [to music, but] it wasn’t working out, nobody would record me. I went to Canada for school to cool out. Over there I really honed my skills as a writer. I used to come back home and say, ‘Last time I was in Canada I wrote ten songs. This time twenty. This time thirty.’ I’d been trying for a long time. At the end of the day I felt people weren’t ready for my type of music yet. I’m going to release some music this year [that] I had like ten years ago. I bet you it works now. I think they weren’t ready for these styles. [They said], ‘You haffe be louder. You haffe sing more aggressive. You’re too laid back. This riddim is…whatever.’ They weren’t ready for it. Gradually, the temperature started to change, and I [thought], ‘Okay, it’s going to happen now.’ ”
I ask Protoje what about his upbringing in Santa Cruz, St. Elizabeth (roughly three hours from Kingston) help distinguish him as a person or his approach to his work.
“I think it’s country life on the whole. Spending a lot of time by yourself,” he explains, while changing is his speech pattern to emphasize his point. “Getting time to think, be free, run up and down in a whole heap of land, bush place, that you don’t own but it’s just there. Nobody cares if you’re on it. The accent, the way we say words, I think it’s unique to my style. St. Elizabeth is very laid back and very simple. That has colored the way I look at life, and I see how simple life can be. A line like, ‘Man, deh inna city hungry and no eat but food deh down a country a drop off of the tree,’ [from ‘Who Knows’] That’s a symptom of St. Elizabeth in fullness. It’s a breadbasket. I see how farming led people from a young age to have a good, a fruitful life. I saw what destruction of farming there did to those same communities. It gives me a unique perspective, cause there’s not many artists from St. Elizabeth. There are lots of creative people but not that have been able to make the transition.”
The son of attorney and singer Lorna Bennett, Protoje notes several significant events in his upbringing that helped define his approach to his craft. Born in 1981, his first music heroes naturally included the dancehall dons “you would expect” from the late ’80s and early ’90s, before a teenage hip-hop obsession began. He names Buju Banton, Shabba Ranks, Ninja Man, Super Cat, and particularly Tiger. “[Tiger] was the first artist I ever saw live, and I said, ‘Oh, my I want to do music.’ … Then I heard Slick Rick, and everything changed after that. I heard ‘Children’s Story.’ I was [asking myself], ‘What’s with this patterning?’ And then hip-hop just took over, so I wanted to be a rapper.
“Where I’m from in St. Elizabeth, nobody grows up to be an artist, so it almost seemed like it wasn’t possible,” he recalls. “I would always write lyrics and be in clashes but [I thought] that’s not going to be my profession. But then, I said, ‘Hold on, I’m really good at music, maybe I could do music.’ It was my dream anyway. I thought, ‘this is why I was writing lyrics when I was ten… I have been preparing myself for this without even knowing. I listened to more music than any of my peers… AC/DC, Rage Against the Machine, Slick Rick, Jay Z, Bounty Killa, Buju Banton, Sizzla. I used to tape every entertainment report every Friday. I had tapes so I could study everybody’s stuff. [Then] it just dawned on me that I had been preparing myself for it.”
While Protoje’s earliest recordings date back to hip-hop and dancehall mixtapes from the early/mid-2000s, he was swept up by Damian Marley’s forceful articulation of “Welcome to Jamrock” in 2005, a track at the crossroads of reggae, dancehall, and hip-hop. (Sixty-two million plays on YouTube attest to its vast impact.) “Welcome to Jamrock” informed Protoje’s approach to his breakout track “Kingston Be Wise” and draws an important line to dancehall singer Ini Kamoze, a key influence.
Protoje explains his writing in terms of three periods, delineated by the emergence of dancehall megastar Vybz Kartel in 2001 and the release of “Welcome to Jamrock” in 2005. “Remember, Vybz Kartel was blowing up huge. He was a [major] influence lyrically. Up until I heard Vybz Kartel in 2001, I thought I was the best lyrical artist in Jamaica, even then. When I heard him, I was just blown away. Twice I’ve ever felt like that in my life. When I heard Kartel and when I heard ‘Welcome to Jamrock’ in 2005. Those were the two times I felt, ‘ok, I have work to do. I have to go and mutate my style into something more.’ When I heard Damian I [said], ‘He’s lyrical but then his messages are more along where I want to be.’ Without ‘Welcome to Jamrock,’ there is definitely no me doing none of this [today].”
Protoje’s love of hip-hop should come as no surprise. His interest in rock, also evident on Ancient Future, may not be expected given Jamaican music’s traditionally minimalist approach to the use of guitar. Protoje’s affinity for rock guitar is found on “Who Can You Call” and particularly “The Flame,” the album’s climactic closing statement. Protoje talks about Rage Against the Machine with similar passion as he does about Slick Rick, Kartel, Ini Kamoze, and Damian Marley. “I was a huge Rage Against the Machine fan. I used to listen to how Zack [de la Rocha] rhymes and even how he moves on stage. My cousin used to share all this music with me, and I used to listen to Nirvana. I actually sing lines from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on tour in ‘Kingston Be Wise’ sometimes. I always had a love for rock guitars, someone just ripping a wicked line. I used to listen to AC/DC. I always wanted a guitarist in my band who knew that stuff and could bring that sound live… Then and now, Black Uhuru is my favorite band. A lot of reggae bands have two keyboard players, one guitarist. I made sure we had two guitarists. It just made sense.”
I tell Protoje at one point during the interview that it wouldn’t have surprised me never to meet another Jamaican artist under forty who could talk about music before 1985’s “Sleng Teng.” His refreshing passion for foundation reggae is at the core of his ability to bridge his music from the reggae generation to today, a formula few contemporary Jamaican artists care to study.
Of Ancient Future’s eleven cuts, five have direct antecedents from the ska to classic reggae era. References and samples include Anthony Johnson’s “Gun Shot”; the Majesterians’ “If I Didn’t Want Your Loving”; Prince Buster’s “Girl Answer Your Name”; Zap Pow’s “Bubblin’ Over”; and Hugh Mundell’s “Pop No Style.”
“My hip-hop experience told me [that] hip-hop came from sampling old R&B and soul,” he explains. “When I heard Ini Kamoze, I said, ‘wait, so much styles are coming from this guy.’ I started to listen to dub music—Scientist, Mad Professor, all of that. I found out what songs these dubs were created from, and my world was blown. I’m like an extremist. I had to know about everybody, all the artists, not just Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Black Uhuru, Ini Kamoze, but Cultural Roots and Linval Thompson and Michael Prophet or whoever was there that was doing music…[and] there’s always something else out there.”
In particular, I ask Protoje about the track “Stylin’,” which quotes (rather than samples) the late singer Hugh Mundell’s steppers masterpiece “Can’t Pop No Style.”
“Hugh was a huge influence for me, but that song [‘Stylin’]…in between where I sing ‘so much stylin,’ there was just space, and in that space I was just [he sings the Mundell line] ‘… can’t pop no style on I.’ Winta was like, ‘Yo, what’s that?’ I was like, ‘Yo, it’s a line from a Hugh Mundell song.’ So the song was finished already but I’m just going to [voice] it now, and he said ‘you have to put that in [the final recording].’
“Hugh is one of my favorite artists. We share the same birthday, June 14. I have a song where I say, ‘You can [hear] when I rhyme this time that my mind is like Hughey Mundell in him prime, who dem shoot down 1983, the same year him did pree, Africa shoulda free. And we born pon the same day, nineteen years apart, but the streets still stay the same way. The corruption still run Jamaica. You haffe run, you can’t stay.’ It’s a song I have from long time, a song called ’80s Baby.’ It was supposed to be for Ancient Future, but it never worked out.”
I found myself immediately drawn to Ancient Future’s hard-hitting herb song “Bubbling,” which sounded to my ear like it was riding a Zap Pow track that I had never heard. When I ask about it, Protoje pulls out his phone and introduces me to the source material.
“It is Zap Pow. It’s a sample of a track called ‘Bubblin’ Over.’ I did that one myself. I found the Zap Pow song, I chopped it up, placed it, did the verse, the chorus, loops, played drums on it, brought it to Winta… He was like, ‘This is dope.’ He took it, chopped it, changed the tempo, added different drums to make it sound bigger, and then played live instrumentation on it. Danny from my band played the bass, so the bassline is different [from the original].”
This explanation prompts me to ask him whether that is typical of his creative process: to write by using older tracks as a creative framework or whether he composes through an instrument.
“I have written songs on my guitar, but most of the time Winta send me a riddim, or I want a progression and tell my keyboard player to ‘play me a progression like this.’ I like to write from a minimal point, where I just have a key, and nothing (else) really. Then I can build a riddim around that. If I am producing, it’s probably going to start from sampling something I like. Like, ‘This would be cool to flow on,’ and I have just a four-bar loop. Then I write lyrics…and expand on it.”
Having listened to Ancient Future and speculating further on its sources of inspiration, I suggest to Protoje that there is a dominant flavor of “early dancehall,” the period in the early 1980s when producers Junjo Lawes and Linval Thompson had an enduring run of work with the Roots Radics Band and the engineer Scientist.
“Yeah, that’s my time,” he confirms. “That’s the part of the music I love. That’s what me and Winta bonded on. He played something for me and said, ‘This sounds like some Junjo Lawes’s Channel One stuff,’ and he [said], ‘What you know about Channel One?!’ I said, ‘What you talking about?! I love that stuff!’ Volcano Sound, Roots Radics as you say, Style Scott, Flabba [Holt]. He said, ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever spoken to about Channel One and Junjo Lawes, ’cause Junjo Lawes is my [favorite] producer.’ I [said], ‘That’s where I’m trying to go with the music.’ He said, ‘That’s where I’m trying to take it.’ I said, ‘Yo, let’s do it together.’ As I say, Scientist is who I really got in touch with and Scientist has dub versions of all of those songs. My favorite dub album ever is Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires. That changed my life. I heard that in Grand Theft Auto. That’s what opened me to dub music.”
The existence of a critical mass of like-minded younger musicians amid a broader new creative class in Kingston has been well documented (see last year’s major feature in Vogue) and occasionally criticized. Four days prior to the interview, I attended a forum at the University of the West Indies main campus where the writer Dutty Bookman and Protoje had a lengthy and insightful exchange about the lyricism of Ancient Future. Bookman coined the phrase “reggae revival” in consultation with Protoje several years ago, a deliberate and somewhat savvy move to brand and distinguish the movement in the hashtag driven media environment. “He came to me with the word ‘revival.’ He said, ‘I’ve been searching Google, and I can find lots of stuff about the Harlem Renaissance. We need something [else]. I don’t think it’s the Renaissance because Bob Marley and them were the Renaissance of reggae music. But this is a revival I see happening.’ He [said], ‘That’s the word I want associated with this movement.’ He took a lot of stress for that.”
I ask Protoje if the “stress” was from reggae’s original creators who somehow felt overlooked for their contributions to the foundation on which today’s music was established. “What I got from them was positive, Sly Dunbar, Beres Hammond, Robbie Shakespeare, Winston McAnuff. It was the generation after that, [who] I would hear say certain things. ‘How them say reggae need revival?’ I don’t take it personally because at the end of the day, all reggae is benefitting from it. Everybody is benefitting from what’s happening now.”
One of the central critiques of the reggae revival is that it’s an “uptown” phenomenon and doesn’t reflect the real dancehall aesthetic or values of the country’s poorest citizens. Having sized up the audience that turned out at Hope Gardens, I asked Protoje if that’s a fair assessment. “Obviously people say that, but I wouldn’t be so quick to write it that way at all. Everywhere I go and do music, I think the appreciation is there. Chronixx has been able to reach a lot of people from in the garrison [the Jamaican term for poorer neighborhoods with politically entrenched borders]. Different people in the movement draw different crowds. That is also a good thing. If you have a show of me and Chronixx on the same stage you’re going to see a different cross section… That’s what makes it spread. Sooner or later there is no divide there at all. My crowd has definitely been a more uptown crowd. That’s where it all started. My songs don’t play in the dances as much.”
I ask him where he sees the “reggae revival” going in its next phase and how cultural themes can continue to be relevant regardless of dominant trends in the dancehall.
“It’s just time,” he pauses to emphasize. “Time. I think we’re doing the right things…the show we did [at Hope Gardens], people are going to start noticing. I’m going to be able to put on a show like that and have it be free at the gate. Sometime soon, because of the work we’re doing now. I’m going to be able to bring this show to St. Elizabeth, to Mandeville. To T.G. [Tivoli Gardens], to MoBay in the garrison, to wherever and not have to charge. And going into the schools. That’s my main thing. Work on those minds, eleven to seventeen. Five to ten years from now they’re in their twenties. Those are the minds I’m most interested in having an impact on. That’s where I’m at. My direct approach is schools.
“But why it’s coming together now it’s a gradual process. In 2009, 2010, I said ‘I wish I grew up in the 70s.’ I always told Dutty Bookman I wish I grew up then. Dutty [said] ‘you’re in the right time. We just need to have a movement.’ Me and him really sat down about really forming a movement. In 2010, I didn’t see Chronixx. There was no Kabaka [Pyramid]. I didn’t know Jah9. There was none of that happening. I felt so isolated. I used to always tell mom, ‘I can’t do it myself. I want to be part of a special era of Jamaican music. I don’t want to be the biggest artist in the worst period of Jamaican music.’ That was a fear to me because I knew how history would treat the time I came up in. I want my time to be seen as a progressive time.
“I was actively trying to seek out some kind of unity amongst ourselves and try to give strength where it can be given,” he explains with pride. “There were others thinking the same way I was thinking, and we just happened to meet up. Jamnesia [singer Billy Mystic’s surf camp in Bull Bay] was a crucial point for this, cause it brought all of us together. We all build off each other and that collective energy has spread to the people, and you can see the numbers showing it.”
Writer and radio broadcaster Carter Van Pelt is also the founder/producer of Coney Island Reggae on the Boardwalk. @cartervanpelt (Twitter/Instagram)
Protoje’s Ancient Future summer U.S. Tour runs from July 6 to August 4.
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