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Gee Jam puts down roots in Portland


Music mogul Jon Baker (left), with Carlos Best, in the Gee Jam Studios with a view of lush Port Antonio. - Norman Grindley

By Andrew Clunis, Freelance Writer

PORT ANTONIO is a world away from London's Gee Street and downtown Manhattan in New York in terms of distance and development.

But given a choice between creating his music in those urban centres and from a state-of-the-art facility which has the pristine Caribbean Sea as backdrop, Jon Baker would chose the latter any day.

In fact, he has traded his chair at major record companies for his own embryonic operation here in Jamaica.

Gee Jam studios at San San, on the outskirts of Port Antonio, embodies Jon Baker's passion for cultural diversity and his dare-to-do approach to life, from which Gee Street Records and Management Limited was born in 1986.

Despite his triumphs as a cross-cultural music executive, slipper and shorts-wearing Jon Baker is as identifiably 'rootsy' as one gets.

Overlooking Turtle's Cove, Frenchman's Cove and Alligator Head, the designers had no problems with the decor of Gee Jam. The glass panels reveal breathtaking Portland nature in its purest variety. The dwelling house is called Sanwood Villas and there are several cottages nestled among whispering trees around the cascading property, designed for the comfort of the international and local recording stars expected to make up the clientele.

There are eight rooms, each with its own awesome view. The main dwelling is a refurbished house from a derelict structure Baker bought 12 years ago. The living area which opens to the sea is adorned with fine paintings, testimony of Baker's natural flair for art.

There is an outdoors pool table, a table tennis set, a gym, a sauna and you can relax in a jacuzzi on top of the studio and record at the same time, using a unidirectional microphone hooked up.

Hit songs

Gee Jam is simply fascinating. Any artiste who can't create a hit song in such an ambience isn't worth studio time.

Gee Jam studios is the continuation of Baker's journey. It is testimony of his love for Jamaica and Portland in particular where he has had a home for 12 years. His wife Ziggi Golding is Jamaican and next year he will be moving his children Savannah 9 and Troy 6 from London to live here and attend school in Kingston.

The music mogul is planting his roots here at a time when the country is experiencing one of the greatest migration spells in history.

"I plan to get my Jamaican naturalisation too," he disclosed.

The beauty which is Gee Jam Studios was conceived five years ago and completed a year and a half ago. It cost US$1.5 million, but its tropical sophistication is worth every penny. The facility is totally state-of-the-art, offering several recording formats and on the day Showtime visited, a Cuban group, Ore Guma was working on Baker's pioneer project in Jamaica, the Cuba/Jamaica project. We also tasted tracks from million-sellers PM Dawn's forthcoming album which Baker is producing.

Successes

He has had major successes with that group through Gee Street Records, a company he formed upon his return to London in 1984 following a sojourn in New York City where he got fixated on rap and hip-hop culture.

Baker was born in London in 1960 and originally planned on a career in photography, enrolling in the Chelsea Art College. That was the epicentre of the punk movement and Baker is uninhibited in declaring "I became a punk. It was a great eye-opener in getting on with people and not caring where they came from and what colour they were, just being on one level."

Remnants of that punk era are the tattoos on his arms. When he flashes a wide smile he reveals a tooth with a solid gold capped with a glistening diamond.

He left school and started a clothing design collective called Axiom. Fashion brought him to New York in 1980 and he immersed himself into the club scene immediately. His roles evolved from doorman to entrepreneur, firmly at the forefront of the blossoming youth culture scene.

On his return to London, he took over a dilapidated warehouse building on Gee Street. On the bottom two floors was an eight-track recording studio, while upstairs his wife Ziggi operated a modelling and photographic agency.

With a zeal to transplant hip hop to the UK, Gee Street began making deals with rap labels in the US and became the UK avenue for established acts like Queen Latifah and the Jungle Brothers. The studio signed UK group Stereo MCs as founding act and the group soon had a licensing deal with Island Records. This was a major turning point in Baker's life.

There are traits of Chris Blackwell charateristics in Baker's demeanour and mannerism and it is obvious the tremendous impact the philathropist had on his life. When Gee Street met hard times in 1990, Island bought 50 per cent of its stock and Baker returned to New York with his staff.

During his tenure, Baker worked as head of Island Jamaica for North America. He described the early 1990s as his period of apprenticeship in the American record business. Under the tutelage of Blackwell he learned to balance dollars and sense which he said was very important, while maintaining creative integrity.

After Blackwell sold Island to Polygram, Baker decided that independence was best for him. He cut a deal with Richard Branson of the Virgin empire and worked along with V2 Records, although Gee Street was a stand alone entity in control of its own marketing and promotion. In November of 1999, Baker sold Gee Street to V2. Over its 15 years of existence, the company recorded gross sales of US$70 million from eight million units worldwide.

Umbrella group

Gee Jam Studios, managed by Steve Wilson, is part of the umbrella group Gee Jam Media Inc. which also includes Gee Jam Films, a digital editing company run by Rick Elgood. The latter sponsored and produced the programme about AIDS in Portland, titled 'You Can Make A Difference', which was broadcast on Worlds AIDS Day on CVM and TVJ, directed by Rick Elgood. The director recently received the Best Documentary award for 'Backyard Chat' at the Jamerican Film Festival, in St. James.

A web design division is being established. Baker is a partner along with American Jay Moskowitz and Jamaican Frank Lawrence, in Port Antonio Villas and Charters, the company that is buying Navy Island.

He has a soft spot for Latin music and is exploring the marrying of Cuban music with Jamaican music. "Cuban music is the hottest selling Caribbean music now. The love for reggae in Latin areas is phenomenal," he said drawing reference to a project taking place between Cuban piano virtuoso Reuben Gonzalez and Jamaica's greatest guitarist Ernest Ranglin.

Kymani Marley, who recorded for Gee Street, will be a part of the venture.

"What we do here is like a workshop. I have a terrific songwriter here, Michelle Vicino, who is working on the project and a great team overall including local engineer Murphy. Jamaican music is in a quandary at the moment. I feel it might be something of an identity crisis," he said.

Baker plans to keep Gee Jam an independent company, representative of his great belief in Jamaica.

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