Tonight at Robert Bar, Scratch Famous of Deadly Dragon Sound will be joining me in an exploration of the foundation of reggae. If you’ve never had the chance to meet him, either out at Downtown Top Ranking (New York City’s longest-running roots reggae party) or at his old storefront, allow me to introduce the man formally known as Jeremy Freeman. His knowledge of Jamaica and the history of its recording industry is expansive. His record shop was a beacon to every fan of Jamaican music, in the city and way beyond. Sadly, rising rents and stubborn landlords have become an increasingly common theme here, and he had to close the brick-and-mortar shop last year after a great run. He still deals in records privately and on the Deadly Dragon website, and he’s still turning many of us onto hidden gems every day.
I’ll never forget the first time he invited me out to play alongside the crew at Downtown Top Ranking years ago. Deep into the night, when I was let loose on the turntables, I was in the middle of running “You Don’t Care” riddim. I still hadn’t gotten my hands on a clean copy of Nora Dean’s “Barbwire” and he knew that I had been looking for it for a little while. Just as I was about to switch riddims, he handed me a nice copy of it and told me to run it. After the tune was done and I handed it back to him, he told me to keep it. Since then, my stacks of 45s organized by riddim have grown quite a bit, but leafing through that group of records brings that vivid memory back to me every time. Like most of my favorite people, when you get to know Jeremy, his cynicism and biting commentary reveal themselves over time. But his sense of timing, generosity, and impeccable memory are still the characteristics that stand out the most. I’m looking forward to seeing what magic he brings tonight.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Coming up in May, Crazy Baldhead sound system (AKA Jay Nugent of The Slackers) will be live dubbing at a punk loft in Brooklyn. He’s going to be bringing multitracks from sessions he’s done over the years, and reworking them in fine style right before your eyes. This is a special event, and one I’m overjoyed to be a part of, especially as I make my own forays into live dubbing. I’ll be playing the heaviest and strangest dub tunes I can dig out of my crates, giving Jay some relief by assuming the role of selector on this night. Forward!
The Soon Come analog sound system emerges once again, to kick things off at 9:30pm. This bill is massive! We’re bringing along a few special guests to nice up the performance. We’ll be joining Subatomic Sound, Screechy Dan, DJ Gravy, Zuzuka Poderosa, the MGSP selectors, and many others to send Emch off to LA in fine style. Don’t miss this one.
Next week, Dave Hillyard and The Rocksteady Seven will be coming to Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn. They’re going to be playing strictly songs by Roland Alphonso, a founding member of The Skatalites. I’ll be DJing between sets while the band recharges. Hope to see you there – doors open at 8pm!
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.
It’s been a long time since I publicized anything that I’ve been working on in the studio. If I’m honest, there was a period of time where I really just wasn’t working on much, and many periods of time where I just wan’t happy with what I was creating. Sometime within the last year or so, that all changed.
I’ve always been fascinated with the process of making and listening to music. My mom always had an impressive sound system, and I used to sneak into her music room when I got home from school to play with the equipment. I was always careful to return everything to its proper place; apparently, this paid off – when I told her all about this almost two decades later, she admitted she never had a clue about it. She had a turntable, a dual cassette deck, a CD player, and interesting EQs and spectrum analyzers, along with a ton of homemade cassettes from her friends in Eastern Europe. Playing around with all of this gear got me thinking about how music was actually made, so I started asking her annoying questions like:
What’s that sound? [I was referring to a synthesizer featured on some Jean-Michel Jarre track she loved]
How does sampling work? [I was trying to understand how Vanilla Ice was related to Queen and David Bowie]
What does stereo mean? [I was floored by the movement in the intro to Michael Jackson’s “Speed Demon” while wearing headphones]
Some, she knew the answers to. Others were met with her best guess. But she did a great job of explaining what she knew about creating music, as a huge music fan and consumer. I was extremely intrigued. I began experimenting with production when I was about thirteen years old. This happened to come at a time when I was beginning to discover the roots of punk, reggae, hip hop, and electronic music… nearly simultaneously.
At the time, we were living in New Jersey, which had a healthy punk scene. The mid-90s were a great time for this. Asbury Park, though still super seedy, was a hotbed of activity for local bands – many of whom played at the Stone Pony. The Slackers were from nearby New York City and played in NJ quite often, many times at smaller venues. As an adolescent, I was always into punk bands that leaned more toward ska, but the first time I saw those guys I was floored. Nobody in the area was playing like they were – I didn’t even know the name for it at the time. It turned out that most of the slower stuff they were playing was called rocksteady, and they played some slower roots reggae as well. I realized pretty quickly that this was the music I actually loved, and started digging into their influences. This process of excavating Jamaican music still hasn’t stopped for me, and probably never will (it’s a deep well). [Side note: if you had told me then that years later I’d be joining them on tour as their DJ, I would’ve laughed in your face.]
Concurrent with this, I was becoming really interested in synthesizers, because of their ability to generate non-acoustic (unrealistic) sounds from scratch. That fascinated me deeply, and I started learning trigonometry soon afterward because of its applications involving sine waves. Unfortunately, hardware synthesizers were quite expensive at the time, and there was no way I could convince my parents to help me buy one. However, it was right around this time that consumer-grade computers were just beginning to become viable tools for making music. Early experiments with software like Hammerhead (a drum machine), TS-404 (an analog emulation synth), and FruityLoops (a primitive step sequencer) taught me a lot about signal generation and processing. That’s how I cut my teeth in production, using cheap / free / pirated software to learn the process without breaking the bank. Years later, I would work for FruityLoops (later renamed FL Studio), producing demo tunes and tutorials for the software package. I also did beta testing work and patch design for VAZ Modular, which allowed me to learn about modular synthesis, even though I didn’t own much hardware.
Back to reggae: I first heard Lee “Scratch” Perry around age 14. I can’t remember who pointed me in his direction, but I know that the first track I ever heard from him was a dub called “Noah Sugar Pan.” It’s actually a version of the Congos’ “Ark of the Covenant,” but I had literally no clue at the time that there even was such a thing as an original undubbed tune. I had brought home this CD from Jack’s Music in Red Bank. At the risk of sounding like an old man, it was both stressful and exciting to buy music at that time. There was no way to audition what you were buying, so popping it in the player at home was a nerve-wracking and thrilling experience. When the drum intro fired and the bass dropped, I thought I had lost my mind. I could hardly believe this was music produced in the 70s. The internet wasn’t quite what it is now, so it was difficult to find information on artists and releases. Digging through the mysterious shroud of history, I was able to find some hints about his process and style. One of the sources I remember was Mick Sleeper’s Upsetter website, which had some weird interviews and other tidbits about Scratch. After I learned that he did all of those classic recordings at the Black Ark on a four track recorder, I decided I could probably find an affordable one for myself.
I settled into the work of building an amateurish studio in the basement. The centerpiece for this was a simple Tascam four track cassette recorder, which I’d received as a birthday present. I must have read that manual front to back about ten times before attempting a single recording (these days, I don’t think I even look at manuals). Everything I learned during these experiments has stuck with me to this day, even if these techniques are no longer strictly necessary: ping-ponging previously recorded tracks to make room for more, struggling to get the best sound on the way in with microphone positioning instead of fixing it in post, riding faders live, making heavy use of send-return loops, etc…
Eventually, I started using the computer in conjunction with analog recording. And a few years later, after saving up all of my money, I bought my first analog synthesizer – a very strange one made by a tiny independent Swiss company. I didn’t have a laptop, so I used to do local shows by hauling around my heavy CRT monitor and computer tower along with a few pieces of analog gear, and a MIDI interface. I don’t really think many people were too interested in the music itself; it was mostly experimental electronic music influenced by artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre. But people were clearly intrigued by the setup itself and the process of creating these sounds. So here’s the genesis of my whole approach: equal parts engineer and musician. I really wanted to make music, but I was also deeply interested in how to generate sounds as well. I proposed a new curriculum at the University of Maryland, and began teaching a course in production and synthesis in the then-new electronic music laboratory.
After earning my degree in electrical engineering, I returned to NJ briefly and quickly moved to Brooklyn. In the years that followed, my love for hip hop grew exponentially. I was particularly amazed by the talent behind the boards; producers like Pete Rock, Dilla (Jay Dee), DJ Premier, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Madlib resonated deeply with me. Their ability to recontextualize otherwise corny or forgotten songs and repurpose ordinary snippets inspired me to try my hand at sample-based production. This led to the release of a few remixes, mixtapes, and a fewalbums with Ryan-O’Neil. I was DJing bars and small clubs in the city a few times a week. While it was exhausting, I learned so much about how to set a party off and keep it going. I mostly played hip hop, R&B, and soul… but whenever I felt a signal from the crowd, I would pepper my set with reggae classics (and if I felt really lucky, 90s dancehall). Looking back, I was slow to realize it… but I was chasing the ghost of a hip hop scene that was dying. What I found alive and well instead, almost by accident, was an incredibly varied group of musicians playing Jamaican music in different combinations.
Following this period, I really doubled down on collecting reggae records. I used to shop at Jammyland on day trips before I ever lived within the city limits, and that was a great resource. Deadly Dragon Sound then took the torch from them as the only reggae shop in lower Manhattan. Scratch Famous (its owner) was so instrumental in nurturing my instincts to collect tunes by riddim; every time I thought I maybe had the full breadth of productions and vocal takes on a particular riddim, he proved me wrong by putting another 45 in my stack. It was addicting to discover so many different permutations of the same building blocks, and a good portion of my reggae collection today is still organized by riddim (as opposed to sorting by artist, producer, or label). Spinning records alongside veteran selectors like Carter Van Pelt, Agent Jay Nugent, and Chanter (who runs the sound system for Coney Island Reggae every summer) was crucially informative as well. Furthermore, the rise of Discogs made discovering vintage vinyl much easier, compared to using strictly eBay in the 90s.
After a while, it became apparent to me that what I really wanted to do was make music again. Playing records is fun, but often a big part of the game is keeping abreast of trends and pleasing management by focusing on hits – even when you’ve negotiated some niche in advance. Over time, I soured on this framework. Plus, I was so much more interested in the genealogy of music than the contemporary chart toppers. [Educated folks who want to sound smart and desperately need their degrees to be respected call this ethnomusicology.]
So how was I going to find the stimulation I needed?
Fast forward to this moment. Many years (and many sounds) later, I’m embarking on a new project that I feel really encapsulates all of my influences and experiences so far. It’s called Soon Come – a bit of a joke, since I’m a known procrastinator. With my partner Monika, who also has a deep appreciation for reggae music, I’ve been trying to do my part to map out the DNA of tunes we love in a novel context. The aim is to produce new versions of common foundation riddims from Jamaica’s nearly-infinite vault of musical culture, and perform them live using analog synthesizers. We want to create a solid platform for vocalists and instrumentalist to interact with, even if they’ve never heard our versions before. Using riddims whose reputations precede them as a model, we can achieve this in fine style. Anyone who’s heard “Real Rock” or “Full Up” before can recognize when it’s reprised, no matter how many years have passed since the glory days of Studio One in Kingston. Our recent trip to visit this Mecca of reggae music has made us more excited than ever to share these sounds with you.
We’re proud to be unveiling these new works in Prospect Lefferts Gardens / Flatbush, as a stronghold of reggae music in Brooklyn. Many of the excellent productions influencing us originated in this neighborhood, so we have big shoes to fill. One of my favorite examples of this style is a tune by Sammy Levi, “Come Off The Road” – take a listen:
Please join us this Saturday at Record City for our debut. We’ll have a talented pack of vocalists with us: Screechy Dan, Willow Wilson, Jonny Go Figure, and Peter Ranks are all set to grab the mic and chat.
This Sunday marks the second of four Coney Island Reggae sessions on the boardwalk. I’ll be kicking things off at 3pm sharp this time, with a heap of familiar faces to follow. Stick around after my opening set to hear great sets by Mumma Lioness, DJ Wicz, Rob Kenner, Scratch Famous, Max Glazer, Chanter (who strings up the sound system every year), and the great Jah Wise.
June is already around the corner, and for me that usually means plenty of visits to the beach. Selector extraordinaire Rata kindly invited me and Grace of Spades to binge on arepas and beers with him, while we play vintage vinyl all afternoon. Please join us a few Sundays from now at Rockaway Beach!
Tonight, join us for the annual Slackers Holiday Show! This year features the Pietasters (who I hear will be combining with the headliners in a special way), The Snails, and Sammy Kay! I’ll be on the turntables between sets all night.