Dangerously Roots consistent with August Town journey
It has been eight years - and an album in between (Black Gold, 2010) - from Duane Stephenson released From August Town (2007) to his current Dangerously Roots (released September 2014) set. Still, the St Andrew community, which borders the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus, and is as famed for its historic connection to Alexander Bedward as periodic upsurges of violence, remains consistent in his art.
That art is not only in Stephenson's music, but the visuals for Dangerously Roots. The motorcycle Stephenson straddles for the CD's cover art (the machine reappearing throughout the booklet) has 'Aug Twn' on the licence plate. Stephenson tells The Sunday Gleaner that the personalisation came from a computer, not the tax office.
However, the message of commitment to community is clear.
The musical thread that runs through From August Town to Dangerously Roots is also consistent. It is predominantly roots reggae but with sufficient variety to indicate a wider grasp of music. On Dance for Me, the music literally reflects wider travels, Stephenson acknowledging what The Sunday Gleaner has deduced, that it is heavily influenced by his two years travels with The Wailers through South America and many other places (Stephenson says, "there is no such thing as conventional reggae markets with The Wailers").
But there is Stone Love Movements' ebullient selector Geefus' introduction of Good Good Love ("Now, in the meantime, wanna say nuff respect reaching out to all original foundation, man like Jack Ruby ... , People, this is a brand new track done by Duane Stephenson, reaching out fe all the ladies, all the babies, right about now. So!"). And before Jah Reign, there is Mutabaruka's first of two inserts ("You see da bredren ya, him a sing some roots, rocking, reggae music, undisputable, the music weh make Jamaica known and put Jamaica pon the map.")
Stephenson has shaped Dangerously Roots for maximum reach. "Since Black Gold, I deliberately kind of made a step back to kind of do other things ... some research, soul searching, and just search for the music some other ways and some other directions, other place. Just to get a feel and sound of what the world is listening to exactly and what the world is expecting of us here in Jamaica making reggae music," Stephenson said.
"I learnt a whole heap about how people receive the music and how it is presented in different places," he said. So he refers to places as diverse as Manchester, England, and treks through Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, and Argentina in South America, as well as Zambia and South Africa in Africa, and New Zealand. "You get a different feel of what is going on out there," Stephenson said. "A realistic look at the world marketplace in terms of music and not just reggae."
And he confirms that "the more you go out there, the more your music changes".
Stephenson started making Dangerously Roots at the end of 2012, the sound changing as he travelled more extensively with The Wailers. At the point he decided to pause touring to concentrate on the album, Stephenson was at seven or eight tracks. He scrapped it all and started all over again.
From that earlier period, only Run for Your Life made it to the final product. "The sound had to change because now we know we had to do things a little bit differently," Stephenson said. "What is the use if you have education if you can't use it?"
Dangerously Roots is done with all live instruments. Mixing Lab, Tuff Gong, Harry J's, Grafton, and Big Yard are among the studios where production work was done. The look was as important as the sound, Stephenson said: "A lot of times, you do a great album ... is like you go so and buy the nicest steak inna town, if you is a meat-eating bredda, and you go so, boom, and slap it on a paper plate.
"Presentation is such an important thing, pleasing to the eye. Sometimes is there so it start. A man have no interest in buying an album and him say, 'Wha! That have an interesting look about it. Make me see what a gwaan.'" The pictures were taken in Helshire and Caymanas by Marvin Bartley, and Stephenson laughs as he says that he is not the best of riders.
The images for Dangerously Roots are not only stills as there is a standout video for Cool Runnings, Stephenson's remake of the Bunny Wailer song centred on a dancehall scene. The video was done by Ras Kassa in about March 2014. Stephenson's voice gets intense as he imitates the director, saying, "Me like da idea of the dancehall. We just have to take the dancehall outside of the dancehall."
"It has definitely worked," Stephenson said. "It has garnered major support from places like MTV Europe and recently MTV Brazil, which is new for me. I started work in those markets through Wailers and a lot of my original stuff started filtering behind me when I was opening. So I got a little interest there, but nothing to this magnitude; and the fact that this was premiered on MTV Brazil is a great thing and a great feat."
In the video, there is a shot of the original cassette for Bunny Wailer's Cool Runnings album. It is important to Stephenson to honour those who were there before. "We can't take it for granted and gwaan like a we set the thing. Without them great man, chances are we wouldn't even have any ground to stand on," he said. "Sometimes, we get so caught up in ourselves that we forget we walking in those people footsteps, but we can't do that."
Previously, Stephenson did over Tyrone Taylor's Cottage in Negril, also to excellent results. He has a simple formula in deciding which songs to remake. "With me, it start with a very selfish thing. Is the songs that I love. Any tune, inna the middle of the football, you a keep goal and you hear the song start and you run leave the goal to listen to the song. You know, 'Yeah, man! That song can work' Cool Runnings was one of those songs," he said.
His personal experience makes it into Dangerously Roots from another remade song. Ghetto Religion, a collaboration with Tarrus Riley, speaks about a landlord knocking on the door for payment from a family that simply has no money, and Stephenson said: "That song represents the living I know. I grew up in August Town; I still live in August Town. Went to New Providence Primary School; I did high school at Tivoli ... . I don't know nothing but them kind of vibe. Is not one and two and three and four times we been around this kind of situation and this song rang out to me. This song was originally done by R. Kelly and Wyclef ... . It was one of those songs that them never sing when them was so prominent."
While Stephenson does not carry himself like a firebrand, much of Dangerously Roots agitates for societal change, among those songs, London Bridge and Sorry Babylon. "I don't believe in extremism in any form at all because extremism make you unreasonable. And if you want change, you have to carry yourself so you end up in the places to make the change," he said.
Stephenson also collaborates with I-Octane (Julene), Lutan Fyah (House of Lies). "When you doing a collaboration, you're thinking about their energy ... The whole persona fits," Stephenson said. All the elements come together on a set that reaches back into his past and uses the experiences to chart a course into his future, Stephenson declaring his faith on the first song, Rasta For I.
"Me say Dangerously Roots. The road is a journey from August Town, and we keeping it rootsical, but we still have this new age, that edge," Stephenson said.