Larry McDonald, the Living Legend

Tonight is Larry McDonald‘s 80th birthday bash at Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn. It’s tough for me to describe Larry’s importance to me in words. My adopted Jamaican grandpa, a mentor, a friend, an inspiration, a legend in my eyes. He’s lived more in 80 years than most would in 800. He’s consistently one of the wisest and realest people in my life. I’ve spent the last few months compiling memories and anecdotes from Larry’s friends and collaborators. Thanks to all of you who contributed; the stories and photos are below the flyer.

Happy birthday, Larry! (One day early, since his actual birthday is tomorrow.)

Larry McDonald's 80th Birthday Bash at Hank's Saloon


Bongo Herman (Jamaican Percussionist)

Special thanks to Summer Clarke at the Bob Marley Museum for capturing this footage for me.

Dave Hillyard (The Slackers)

A little fact about Larry is that he was a “tally man,” like in the Belafonte song. He was the guy who tallied the bushels of bananas as the crop was brought in. Then he transferred the bushels into crowns, half crowns, shillings, threepence, and all the crazy old English currency that was based on 8s and 12s. So young Larry was mathematically gifted. To that point, he told his parents he was leaving Port Maria to go to Kingston for more schooling, when in fact he had a plan on how he was going to be a musician.

Carter Van Pelt (Coney Island Reggae, WKCR)

My lasting impression of Larry is that he can say “motherfucker” with more style and authority than anyone I’ve ever met.

Eddie Ocampo (Full Watts Band)

I’m writing this with the utmost respect – although Larry is the elder statesman among us musicians, the smile he cracks when playing is that of a kid in a candy store.

It is always an honor to play with Larry. He is a true living legend whose depth of knowledge, riddim, artistry, and vibes are palpable in his musical expression. Every gig I play with Larry is a learning experience for me. He is a crafty wizard of a percussionist who shifts and shapes time, and can paint with rhythmic colors and textures with mere flicks of his wrists.

My favorite moments playing with Larry are those when he and I connect musically in fleeting instances, but on a level which elicits that twinkle in his eye and an impish smile that I know acknowledge some inside joke was just shared between us… never caring if anyone else caught the magic.

Emch (Subatomic Sound System)

On our way back from playing Coachella 2013 with Lee “Scratch” Perry, we saw cops in the LA airport on Segways and of course, we were having a good laugh at their expense. Next thing we know, Larry is talking to one of them and the officer asks Larry if he wants a ride. This sounded like maybe some sort of setup, but the next thing we know, Larry is cruising through the airport on the police vehicle.

Larry McDonald riding a cop's Segway

It’s moments like this that remind me that Larry McDonald is magic. God loves Larry.

Dave Hahn (Dub Is A Weapon)

Back around 2000 when I started up my own group, there was one man in particular that I wanted to recruit more than any other: Larry McDonald. And while he was one of many musicians who were involved in the early shows and recordings we did, he was one of the few that ended up driving thousands of miles across the US of A with Dub Is A Weapon. His long-term involvement was a constant inspiration to me, and that musical partnership is what I’ll always regard as the highlight of my musical career.

Playing shows with Larry as many times as I did, I’ve been absolutely spoiled to see a true master in his element night after night. It’s as if a classroom has been transported to the grandstand when Professor McDonald hits the stage. Larry brings a genuine intensity to everything he plays that pushes you and every other musician to lay down their best – and I’m a much better musician (and man) for it. And this energy isn’t just saved up for the “big” shows in fancy venues – this is something Larry Mac brings to the table every single night.

Larry – we’ve had many amazing musical adventures. But more than anything I’m grateful to have you as a friend. I feel truly blessed to wish you a Happy 80th Birthday!

Amy Wachtel (Night Nurse)

A few thoughts on Larry Mac – the youngest 80 year old the world has known:

Hep Cat. Cool Cat. Knows how to chat.

A friend for life. A brother. Family member.

Wise One. Counselor. Confidante.

He’s there when it counts. It counts when he’s there.

A lover of herbs. A wicked, incomparable percussionist. Mad culinary skills. Down to earth, and out of this world.

African bloodline. Rhythmically blessed. A tribute to the ancestors, a gift to the rest. An ancient soul who does not grow old. A white hot spirit with a smooth chocolate stance.

Roots man. Rasta elder. Cosmopolitan flair. Hard core roots, and debonair.

He’s snazzy and jazzy. A man of fashion, style and taste.

Gemini of the highest order. Forever young like Peter Pan. Mercurial. Loquacious. Wordsmith (Damn, for years I kept a notebook at hand during phone calls or visits with Larry, as there was always a new vocabulary word or Jamaican expression to learn).

His laugh can make you high. His wrath can make you tremble.

We’ve known each other somewhere between 30 to 35 years. In the earlier chapters, I knew him as Michael and Ronald McDonald’s older brother (Ronald McDonald. He actually has a brother named Ronald McDonald. Isn’t that hilarious?!). I knew him from the distance – as the hip, deep voiced bredda who played with Gil Scott-Heron. Yep, originally I knew his baldhead twin brothers; they did reggae radio on Long Island, as did I in those times, and they worked at Philip Smart’s HC&F Recording Studio. But that eventually flipped, and Larry became my McDonald of record.

Ten years ago, when Dub Is A Weapon was backing and opening for Scratch, Larry and I somehow re-linked. It was at B.B. King’s, and it was Larry’s 70th birthday. That was the kick start to the strong bond we now share. When I brought “Rockers Arena” to Miss Lily’s and did my first show there in 2012, I was feeling a bit nervous and awkward – while I’d been broadcasting since I was in college, I’d never done internet radio before. And I’d never stood in a storefront window, either. Who surprised me, and christened that first broadcast, showed support, and created some vibes and niceness?! Larry Mac, of course. He’s cool that way. Bonafide. Legit. Has your back.

We can go months without speaking, and when we do link up, it’s like no time has passed. Even still, we’re both secretly wondering why the other one hasn’t checked in, and we both are kind of vexed and feel a way. For a minute.

Larry McDonald and Amy Wachtel the Night Nurse at Radio Lily

Rock on, drum on, play on, tour on, keep on!

Love and respect to the one called Larry McDonald. He shows us how to do it.

… and finally, I’d be remiss not to share my own thoughts on Larry.

I think of Larry every time I roll a joint. One time, we were in my car waiting for the rest of the band to show up for a gig at the old Two Boots on 7th Ave in Brooklyn. Larry asked for a rolling paper, and he began crushing it and rolling it around in his hands. I looked at him quizzically and asked what he was doing – it was then that he taught me that doing this helps soften the paper and makes rolling easier. Years later, I was rolling a joint in front of my Time Warner cable technician, because I happened to be his last appointment of the day and we were getting along after he noticed the piles of records strewn about. He saw me do this and looked me up and down, bemused, and asked where I learned that trick. Apparently, he’d never seen a white person employ that method. I told him about Larry and he laughed in acknowledgement.

Larry once told me about how he was in the room for the recording of early Skatalites material, like the Jazz Jamaica Workshop record, and how his association with Cecil Lloyd got him in the door. He said he never played a single note for those sessions, but was one of the only people in the room strictly observing and listening. He said he remembered feeling like he wasn’t at their level yet, and was still paying dues, but he knew he would get there one day. And he said the number one thing he learned while earning his stripes was: “Don’t get in anyone’s way.” He felt that if he stuck to that, he would be successful. I still try to be mindful of that lesson in every aspect of my life.

Larry and 100dBs at Coney Island Reggae

David Hillyard and The Rocksteady Seven will be playing some rarely-heard songs, and I’ve put aside some very unique tunes for this monumental event. This is a very fitting lineup, since Dave was the one who initially introduced me to Larry over a decade ago. Please join us in honoring Larry’s legacy and his continued contributions to the world of music.

Larry McDonald performing, vintage photo

Larry McDonald performing, vintage photo

Larry McDonald, vintage photo

Larry McDonald performing, vintage photo

Larry McDonald, vintage photo

Larry McDonald performing, vintage photo

Larry McDonald, vintage photo

Saturday, June 10 – Hank’s Saloon – 46 3rd Ave, Brooklyn, NY – $8

Live Riddims at Downtown Top Ranking

Last month, we debuted the Soon Come live sound system at a record store, and had tons of fun. Thanks to all of the people who came out to hear us, and the vocalists who brought enough lyrics to fill the three hour marathon of riddims. Check out this interview covering the Record City session and watch some footage from the event below, featuring Jonny Go Figure, Willow Wilson, Peter Ranks, and Screechy Dan:

Please join us tonight at Leftfield for another Soon Come sound system session! The Deadly Dragon family will be spinning records all night, and we’ll be taking over for an hour at midnight to produce foundation riddims live for you.

Soon Come - Analog Riddim Sound System at Leftfield

Thursday, December 15 – Leftfield – 87 Ludlow Street, New York, NY – No Cover

Watch This Sound on BBOX Radio

Tonight, I have an invitation from Grace of Spades to be her guest on Watch This Sound – her new BBOX Radio show, airing every Tuesday from 8:00 to 10:00 PM, Eastern Standard Time. I’ve known Grace for a good while, and it’s excellent to see her launch her first radio show. We’ve shared countless gigs, and toured together from here in NYC to New Orleans in 2010. I know she’s probably already prepared her crates, but I’m still putting my records together. You can tune in at Don’t miss it! I asked her a few questions in advance, and you can read her answers below.

Watch This Sound on BBOX Radio

Tuesday, November 25 – BBOX Radio

100dBs: Tell us a bit about BBOX Radio, and how you got involved.

Grace of Spades: I first heard of it through my buddy Tony Conquerrah, who runs the show Shanty Town on BBOX. We linked up through the infamous reggae-selector grapevine, but also realized some other small world connections – as it tends to go in NYC! Eventually I ended up doing a guest spot on his show with my homegirl Maddie Ruthless to big up a party we were doing over the summer. Tony mentioned that BBOX was looking to bring on more shows, encouraged me to go for it, and boom! Well… he passed along some nice words about me too, I’m sure that helped. Another fellow DJ of mine (Kurtis Powers) runs a Mod/Garage/Northern Soul show on BBOX, so I was welcomed into the family very graciously. It’s a great group of supportive people and I’m really happy to be a part of it!

100dBs: This is your first radio show… what are some of the challenges for you, coming from more of a bar and party gig background?

Grace: Well, first off: I suck on a microphone. Words instantly fly out of my head, and there is something oddly awkward about speaking to a small room with no one in it – moreso than a giant room that’s packed full… which I also suck at. Anyway, I’m slowly getting the hang of that each week and shaking it off as I go. I didn’t go into this to be a “radio personality” – I just wanna play my records!

My other struggle has been the selecting itself. I’m so used to feeling out the vibes of a dance and selecting as I go along, but for these I need to plan a bit better. I like having guests, of course, so my first hour goes by way faster than I expect it to and then I pass it off. That, and I’m not juggling the tunes as much, so I tend to let them play out longer than I would at a party and it takes up bigger chunks of time.
It’s also become a different mentality in the selecting process… in the sense that I’ll end up picking things based off a themed-vibe, rather than just whatever comes to mind in the span of a 4-hour gig. Most of the times I spin out, it takes me about an hour to actually get in the groove. You know: you set up, maybe get a drink, settle in, and start playing warm ups before you’re really feeling the flow of things. For this, I need to know the flow ahead of time and jump right in. It’s been a cool, sometimes frustrating, learning curve.

But I stay positive. You know what’s really cool? Not harassing your friends to come spend money on overpriced drinks while you play records on a shitty sound system in the same bar every week. Okay, that sounds a bit harsh; I’ve had some great residencies at bars over the years and they definitely helped shape me as a DJ – I respect that. But relying on a small bar cut to cover your cab home can become a tiresome hustle, especially if the gigs start to feel like a chore and you feel the pressure to invasively promote. Sure, I promote this show, but it’s fun because you’re not getting a sad mass text from me on a Wednesday, begging you to drag your ass out in the middle of a snowstorm (or hurricane, or holiday, whatever). I’m here playing records in a room, and you can tune in now, later, or never – whatever! That’s the best part, hands down. Of course I love spinning out at parties more than ever, but the ability to share tunes with friends and strangers all over the world on a weekly basis is truly something special. More love.

Grace of Spades at home

100dBs: Tastes are always changing. For example, personally, there was a period when I wasn’t extremely interested in 80s reggae, and all of a sudden, something snapped and I really got into it. In particular, the past few years, I’ve been loving a lot of live dancehall records and clash tapes. What’s something that you’re digging in particular lately? Give us a few tunes to peep.

Grace: Same here – I used to think I disliked so many styles that I’ve grown to love. If you’re open minded, your tastes can evolve and take you crazy places. Right now? I find myself digging deeper into the early 80s stuff too. I don’t know if something “snapped,” maybe more of a slow descent into riddim madness, if you will. The Roots Radics are definitely responsible for my favorite sound of that time, so I’ve spent more time going back for all those gems I missed. Particularly after the tragic passing of Lincoln “Style” Scott – may he rest in power – I’m trying to explore more album cuts and tunes beyond the hits.

In no particular order or fashion, these are a few tunes that have been stuck in my head lately:

Johnny Osbourne – “Smiling Faces”

Madoo – “King in the Ring”

… and in the spirit of mixed taste… this murderous Ken Parker version of “How Strong.”

Check out a live version I was lucky enough to cry along to in Brooklyn not too long ago:

100dBs: What do you think about the way that “digging” has changed? I look for obscure tunes on underground networks like Soulseek pretty often, but let’s talk about things like Discogs/eBay vs. local buying for physical products.

Grace: It depends where you are and what you’re looking for, but BUY LOCAL is always #1 – if you can, of course. I’m lucky enough to live minutes from Deadly Dragon, where (if I have time) I can run a list of tunes off my head to Jeremy and spend some time digging around. Like most things, I don’t get to go as often as I would like, but that’s where I go in NYC. Plus you can always pre-dig on their website and give a heads up. Isn’t everyone selling shit online these days anyway? I guess that’s really how it’s changed. You don’t always have the luxury of walking into a dusty shop and spending hours hunched over boxes (that you absolutely have to flip through the entirety of). I get to do more of that when I’m travelling, because that’s my idea of sight-seeing. If I’m after something that is particularly hard to find, Discogs can sometimes become my best friend/worst enemy. I used to troll eBay religiously, but for whatever reason, I’ve done a whole lot less of that and just keep a few alerts set up for tunes I probably won’t ever be able to afford anyway.

I gotta say though, sorry haters, the reissue game is on fire these days. Give thanks to the repress!

100dBs: So far, what’s been the best gig you’ve ever done?

Grace: That’s a tough one, so I’ll go with the easy answer – New Year’s Reggae Prom! Definitely one of my favorite parties in general, and I always have a blast doing it. Save the date! New Year’s Eve! Tea Factory Sounds!!!

Also, I must mention the Tighten-Up Crew outta London – I had a total blast spinning at the Silver Bullet with them this Summer. Big up Tim Dance Crasher & Mistah Brown – such nice vibes til the sunrise!

Reggae in the Slope

This weekend, I’m back in Park Slope. On Friday we’re doing a proper show beneath the Tea Lounge at Port Royal on Union Street, with local favorites Dub Is A Weapon and The Brooklyn Attractors:

Friday, September 28 – Port Royal – 839 Union Street, Brooklyn, New York – $10

Port Royal, sometimes known as B Lounge, is a little known spot with checkerboard tiles beneath the Tea Lounge, and has been open and shut in random spurts since the 90s. Looks like we have the pleasure of putting the space to use again now. Let’s talk to Dave Hahn (Dub Is A Weapon) and Rich Graiko (The Brooklyn Attractors) about Jamaican music in our city.

100dBs: What do you like about this “new” venue?

Rich Graiko: This venue is ridiculous in mostly every way I can think of.  It’s a bit of a dream come true for me, I’ve always fantasized about being involved with a spot that has a legit performance space but is still comfortable for people.  This place is cozy, but big, literally underground, and it even has a pool table!  I still can’t believe it when I’m down there.

It was originally named “Port Royal” by Dave Dixon’s [the current owner’s] father years ago and was an active Brooklyn club up until the early 90s.  We were calling it “B Lounge” at first, but our first few trial parties were such a great hang without doing anything to the space that we decided to bring back the original name as a little tip of the hat to the originator.  It’s just seedy enough but really nice, down to earth, the perfect spot for some legit reggae alchemy to take place.  Well done, sir!

100dBs: For lack of a better word, do you think Jamaican music is currently undergoing another renaissance in Brooklyn? How do we bridge the gap between the “hip” crowd and the old guard? My favorite parties are the ones where I see young and old of all backgrounds mingling. This seems like a good space for that.

RG: For sure, I think we’d all like to see a little of that. As far as a renaissance, I don’t have the greatest frame of reference for that. I have only been living here for about three years, before that I was still on the road full-time and living in a tiny studio in Boston that I would camp at for a few days at a time in between tours. I’ve only been coming down here to play for about ten years or so and in my experience the NY scene has always been amazing.

As far as bridging the gap between young and old, and hipsters and heads, good question; this has been rolling around in my head for a while.

I think it all gets over-thought about when bands start to push their target mean audience ages lower and lower to make more money. The kids spend money on T-shirts and the heads spend it on beers. Bands can’t tour unless they have enough money to do so. I wish I had an answer for you. Lately my mission is just to play and record the music that me and my bandmates dig, to play stuff that I would want to listen to myself if I weren’t the one playing it, and to do my best to bring solid musicianship to the table… and of course to play and hang out with friends. I think of music as a facilitator of people coming together and sharing ideas and culture, and they give back how they can. Hopefully we hold up our end of the deal and people of any and every age, and genre persuasion, will want to come hang out with us.

Dave Hahn: I think that there’s just a constant evolution in the wider Jamaican music community in NYC. One the one hand, you have the local West Indian community for whom the music is their cultural roots. and on the other hand you have your “hipster” music lovers who just love the vibrations that the music produces. It actually shouldn’t be a surprise that these two communities might still feel a bit separate considering the very different rationales each has for approaching the music. And the fact that many of these so-called hipsters really focus in on Jamaican music from the 1960s and 1970s certainly doesn’t help – that’s ancient history when you really think about how quickly music evolves. But I do feel like all lovers of this music are beginning to interact in more meaningful ways, which is what a music that preaches about love and unity ought to be doing.

100dBs: Well said. Rich, you’ve been doing more gigs with the Attractors recently. What makes you guys unique in the sea of instrumental players of Jamaican music? Dave, Dub Is A Weapon has toured as Lee Perry’s backing band and played for thousands. Where do you go from here?

RG: The Attractors are my answer to all of the aforementioned years of touring and pushing of merchandise.  I would love to sell tons of records and merch and pay my band great, make lots of money and live happily ever after, but I’ve also been trying to accept and adapt to the current realities in the music industry.  I try to make money in as many diverse ways as possible these days so I can take the pressure off of my musical choices and, again, do what the group thinks is best.  We try to play with respect to the old school and have fun.  We also try to take the music seriously and incorporate what we see as some of the more desirable elements of American jazz.  I’m really lucky to have some ridiculously talented Jazz musicians in the group and I like to set em loose!  We’re 100% instrumental… but I don’t know if that sets us apart, just look at what Kevin Batchelor, Dub Is A Weapon, Dave Hillyard, Victor Rice, Mr. T-Bone, and the Drastics are doing.  There are some amazing players out there in the reggae/ska world!

DH: We’ll just keep doing exactly what we’ve always done: creating the best live dub experience we possibly can.  For me personally, I’ll be happy as long as I feel like my compositions are always pushing the envelope.  I really geeked-out on “Vaporized” with some polyrhythmic bass-lines and unorthodox song forms, so I’ll have my work cut out for me moving forward.  And while touring with Scratch and playing in fronts of lots of people is obviously great, I wouldn’t be happy if we were more concerned with notoriety than making incredible music.  The fact that we don’t employ a full-time vocalist as part of the line-up will probably guarantee that we’ll never achieve widespread “commercial” success, but I couldn’t care less.

100dBs: What about recording? I know both of you must be working on new material in the studio. Any light to shed there?

RG: Yeah!  The Attractors are currently in the studio tracking for our first official release.  I’m hoping to put it out late this year or early 2013.

DH: I’m really thinking about doing something totally different this time around.  Our last two records were recorded live, with the entire band in one room playing the tunes just like we would at a live show.  I really enjoyed that approach, but what it doesn’t really allow for is collaboration with other dub engineers who really just want “raw material’ that they can dub out as they please.  So don’t be surprised if I don’t add any dub effects myself for the next record.

Catch both of these guys playing live and me playing records between sets this Friday.

Last Coney Island Reggae of 2012

This Sunday, I will return to the boardwalk at West 19th Street in Brooklyn to help wrap up the summer season with the last Coney Island Reggae party of the year. To shed some more light on the other people supporting this great event, I asked Quoc Pham (Director of Sound Liberation Front) a few questions.

Coney Island Reggae 2012

Sunday, September 9 – Coney Island – Boardwalk at West 19th Street, Brooklyn, NY – No Cover

100dBs: Tell me a little bit about Sound Liberation Front, and how you got involved with Carter Van Pelt and Coney Island Reggae.

Quoc Pham: Sound Liberation Front is a music organization that I started about 4 years ago after relocating to Brooklyn. SLF was born out of a group of individuals with a passion for music and a deep interest in exposing diverse musical cultures to the community. What started as a small side project turned into a full fledged event production and marketing start up and we are quickly expanding into exciting new ventures.

I met Carter during the inaugural Coney Island reggae event. I had heard about it from seeing the flyer on Facebook but didn’t really know what to expect. When I got to the boardwalk, I was pretty much blown away by the concept of bringing Jamaican sound system culture to an iconic environment and the unique vibes that this created. Out of luck, I had brought my camera that day and ended up capturing the event. Carter ended up seeing the photos on Facebook shortly afterwards and ended up contacted me. I immediately saw the potential to connect the dots between his vision and our mission statement and that’s how the collaboration started. Over the past three seasons, we’ve been mostly taking on the marketing and content production side of the project and helping establish it among other popular summer events in NYC.

What drew me to this project was Carter’s integrity and focus in promoting the culture and a sense of community. I think very few people, even in reggae circles understand or appreciate the centrality of sound system culture in the development of Jamaican music. Nowadays, it feels like reggae is often relegated to being a soundtrack for second tier clubs so this was a great opportunity to present and expose the music in the format for which it was originally made and meant to be experienced.

100dBs: What’s your background? When did you move to Brooklyn, and what made you do it?

QP: I grew up in France but was originally born in Vietnam. I moved to Brooklyn 5 years ago after going to college in Seattle and moving around different cities in the US. When I first came here, I immediately felt a sense of home. I think that the people, overall energy and sense of community really appealed to me. Brooklyn is definitely home for me, at least for a while.

100dBs:  It seems like Coney Island Reggae gets bigger every year. What was your favorite moment so far, and why?

QP: That’s a tough question. There’s been so many memorable moments but I think the highlight for me was seeing Carlton Livingston performing “Hey mr DJ” in a rub a dub style during the second Coney Island session. Next to that would probably be the tune for tune segment between Son’s Junior and Sir Tommy’s earlier this year.

100dBs: I’ve been seeing pictures of the soundsystem you built. Give me some details about that, and tell me what the biggest challenges were.

QP: Ha… This has been a secret project in the making. As mentioned earlier, I have a fascination (turned obsession) for sound system culture so to me, building one was almost a necessary learning step. I found a very skilled builder in Brooklyn and we’ve been working on this system over the last 8 months. We spent a lot of times doing research to find the perfect combination of design and components. The rig has 12 boxes housing 24 elements powered by a total of 12,000W! I’m really happy about how the system turned out and from the few test we’ve done so far, I can honestly say that this is going to blow people away!

The biggest challenge was turning my apartment into a full on wood workshop and still being on good terms with my roommates and neighbors. We have a lot of exciting projects for the system which I can’t talk about yet but people will definitely be seeing it and hearing it soon!

100dBs: Got any surprises in store for this last one, or for next year?

QP: Wouldn’t be fun if I told you right? What I love about this event is its sense of unpredictability. You never know what’s coming and there will always be surprises, even for us.

Coney Island Reggae 2012 - Directions

Coney Island Reggae

This Sunday, I will have the honor of opening up the summer season for the Coney Island Reggae beach party with a set at noon! If you’ve been to the event before, you know how much fun it is… but just in case you haven’t, I’ll break it down for you right here. I had a little chat with President Carter Van Pelt of WKCR radio, the founder of this party, to shed some light on its history and its future on the boardwalk. Huge thanks and praise are due to him and Sound Liberation Front for keeping this event running for years, and hopefully many more years to come. I look forward to seeing you all this weekend, right by the Space Needle!

Coney Island Reggae 2012

Sunday, June 3 – Coney Island – Boardwalk at West 19th Street, Brooklyn, NY – No Cover

100dBs: Talk a bit about how the event started and what inspired the first Coney Island Reggae.

Carter Van Pelt: For years I saw guys playing small PA systems on the boardwalk under the little pavilions and thought it would be good to do that with reggae. I didn’t realize it was as simple as a Parks Department permit and a sound permit from the NYPD 60th precinct. I wasn’t originally thinking we could get away with a proper soundsystem because of the volume they can produce, but I tried the first one on June 5, 2010 and it was a pretty big success for a trial run. A handful of loyal WKCR people came out and we were capturing interest from random people on the boardwalk. The volume was never actually a problem because the boxes are pointed out at the water, and whoever didn’t want to hear it could walk away. That first time it was me, Vaughn Davis from WKCR, Dave Hahn (Solo), and Joseph Ladipo aka Sound Demension, a brilliant young selector from Queens. Mikey Jarrett, Peter Ranks, and Willow Wilson came out and gave us great vibes on the mic, and both Niney the Observer and Clive Chin were there to endorse it.

At the first event two years ago, Quoc Pham and Oona McCarthy from Sound Liberation front were there just checking it out, and later Q approached me about partnering, and we’ve done that going forward. They do a great job branding and promoting the event and bringing people from outside the WKCR reggae community.

Setting up the sound system at Coney Island Reggae

100dBs: What were some of the biggest challenges in organizing this event (besides getting dreads to show up on time)?

CVP: Running a sound system off a gas generator is a challenge because technically, it has to provide enough amperage (power), and if it falls below what the system needs, everything goes to hell fast. We kept having trouble running the first sound system, with my friend Basil/742 Sound. He is not used to running his system off a generator. Sir Tommy is friends with Barry Chanter Dinham, who has a huge rig at his place, also has vans, and has a generator. So I’ve been working with him since last year, and he and his sons, Timeless Movement, are really professional. Barry is old school and has been doing this since the 70s.

Chanter at the controls on Coney Island

100dBs: Right. We had some people asking about stereo, and you explained why mono is more efficient with power and easier to set up properly. Do you wanna recount some memorable moments from years past?

CVP: Can’t top two years ago when Johnny Osbourne and Carlton Livingston hit the mic. At the first event, I was carrying a copy of Dennis Brown’s “No More Shall I Roam” and flipped it for Willow Wilson, and he just killed it, totally channeled Brown. That same first event, I got the vibes going along mid-afternoon, playing mellow lovers rock, and then Vaughn came in and took it to another level. Vaughn is really good and playing a combination of records people know and records people don’t know. He started off with the Mighty Diamonds “Pass the Kutchie,” which while it may seem like an obvious song, when it came to the line “I could feel it cause it was the month of June…” people went bananas – crazy forward vibes. That’s the art of selecting.

Last July, Fidel Luna, aka Twice, knocked out a really tough digital set with Daddy Lion on the mic and that was memorable because it changed up the vibe. Also last year we started doing a tune for tune at the end of the day and the energy and joy and friendly oneupsmanship of that is a blast.

Deejays and selectors combine at Coney Island Reggae

100dBs: Do you see people from outside the NYC reggae scene getting interested in the music through the event?

CVP: I have to think it’s possible if it’s done right, because I swear that reggae can be a revelation when played on a sound system. A song you know or a song you don’t know can sound like the most amazing thing you’ve ever heard when it’s larger than life. This music was conceived to be played this way, and we hardly ever get to hear it this way in the States. So hopefully it does bring in new people and the older heads are reenergized and reminded why they love it so much. Plus, Coney Island is a wonderful place and the combination of the sound system at the boardwalk is about perfect in my book.

Crowd at Coney Island Reggae

100dBs: Who ripped your favorite sets in the past, and who are your favorite selectors participating this year?

CVP: I’m not going to reveal who the new names will be for this year – most of the people from last summer will be back, including Downbeat (Tony Screw), Digital English, Sir Tommy, Son’s Junior, Jah Steve, and Clive Chin, plus I’m going to have 3-4 key people who haven’t come out yet – some reclusive types. It’s really really important, actually critical that this event includes people who have been doing this since the music was cutting edge – who were going to dances in Jamaica in the 60s and 70s and really know the music through the 7-inch single and the dancehall. That’s the real foundation. There are a lot of younger people who are more visible, but I feel strongly about cultural authority. Not that we who are outside Jamaican culture can’t do it well, but I will always respect the elders, because without them we wouldn’t know anything about this music. On top of that, I respect the amount of work, time and money they all had to invest in learning about music and building collections when there were no MP3s, no internet databases, no sharing of that sort. It was learned at the dancehall and in record stores.

Selecting is an art at Coney Island Reggae

100dBs: That’s great insight and wisdom. I don’t shun technology but it’s vital to know the roots. When did you move to NYC and how did you get your start with Jamaican music here?

CVP: I moved here in 2003. I previously had a life as a concert promoter, radio deejay and “music journalist” and had written about Jamaican music extensively in the 1990s for The Beat, Reggae Report, and Dub Missive – all key publications that are sadly out of print now because of the internet. More people knew me then than now, I think, because I had a reputation from those magazines and as one of the first people to use the internet for reggae journalism and oral histories. That’s why my name is in the Rough Guide to Reggae, for example. I also was well connected in Jamaica before I moved here – Linval Thompson is like my Jamaican step-brother, or something. He’s always looked out for me there, and I can move around with ease in Kingston as a result of him and other people who check for me like Willi Williams, Mutabaruka, et al.

So getting into the community here was just a matter of meeting people, and WKCR was a key. I was in grad school at Columbia and met Vaughn and Vinnie of King Crown at the station. I used to fill in for their Thursday slot, then took over when there were some station politics that left them without a show. I was able to bring Vaughn back circa 2009. Their audience was longtime and very loyal and very largely Jamaican / West Indian. So when I was able to go in and get validation from that audience for what I was doing, I knew wasn’t a total impostor. I have been playing out more in recent years and invited to be on community shows, thanks largely to Vaughn and the WKCR connection.

Coney Island Reggae goes from noon til night

100dBs: Nice. Have you thought about expanding to different cities or doing a different spot in NYC?

CVP: Taking a soundsystem on the road would be a full time job. I wouldn’t attempt it without a strong singer and a strong emcee, but I would love to do that. I’m not sure people would “get it” though. It could be fun to try, or possibly a nightmare!

Coney Island Reggae 2012 - Directions