Do You Really Know My Steez?

Do You Really Know My Steez?

The Journey of An Artist (and a Genre) in Jamaica

History is a subject I never studied in high school, but I always appreciated. ‘Black History’ or African history were my favourite topics as a teenager. As my love for music grew and I started making it, its development over time, naturally, became an interest. Being a Jamaican, I was familiar with Mento, Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae, Dub and Dancehall, but I wanted to know the details of who did what, when, where, how and why.

Strange to some, but not uncommon for many in my generation, my love for Hip Hop outweighed my appreciation of any other form, including Jamaica’s indigenous genres. If I ever had any doubt or reservation about my love for ‘foreign’ music, I was given assurance and confidence in knowing the culture’s forefathers and some of its greatest contributors were Jamaicans or the children of Jamaicans and other Caribbean people. This is why history is important.

I know I envisioned it for myself in some form when I was younger, but I didn’t see myself being a part of history quite the way I am now. You may consider me to be ‘underground’ (a badge I wear proudly because that’s where art has to be authentic to thrive) and I am not a full-time working artist as I strive to be. However, somehow, I have found myself on stages overseas, in a recent national advertising campaign, mentioned in books and the subject of academic papers. Not bad, considering I used to be told that rapping in Jamaica would get me nowhere.

All of my achievements have been without a record label, a manager, a publicist, a ‘producer’ (in the Jamaican sense where one is expected to invest in and ‘buss’ an artiste) or any major investor or sponsor. I cannot take credit for everything and say I have never received advice, help or support, but I am the quintessential example of an independent artiste, and, more precisely, a DIY (do-it-yourself) artiste. That often means playing all the previously mentioned roles, plus many more. I took control of my career and put the wheels in motion whereas I found that many Jamaican artistes had a mentality of waiting for things to happen or people to do things for them, and no concrete plan that they could execute for themselves.

As a Hip Hop artiste in Jamaica, I quickly learned my artform wasn’t viewed the same way Dancehall or Reggae was, and the traditional avenues for music were not open and welcoming to my genre. It was not so much a case of people not liking Hip Hop or not liking me personally, or my music necessarily... they just did not believe in it. This includes other artistes, industry insiders and even friends. Hip Hop in Jamaica just did not appear to be a nice bandwagon to ride, and it still is not. Chances are if you are a Five Steez fan, it is because you genuinely appreciate my character and/or my work, and not because you think I am the biggest thing or the next superstar. I love these fans the most because human beings can be fickle. Some people ‘lose offa’ an artiste when they don’t become as successful or famous as they had hoped. For me, as a true fan of music, as long as the artiste’s work is good, I will still be listening and following.

Getting support doing Hip Hop in Jamaica was not easy. Like many artistes have experienced, radio play seemed to be garnered mostly through connections and payola, if you were not already established or popular. In 2007, a series of live events catering to Hip Hop, or at least embracing artistes of the genre, emerged (I chronicle these events in this article on my website). By early 2009, my peers and I also discovered that while radio wasn’t an open field for us, local cable television was. One of the first music videos I appeared in was Get Down. It was then we began releasing visuals that were shown on Hype TV and RE TV, as well as the traditional TVJ and CVM. While we had some opportunities to perform, there was little community ownership of these events and the platforms eventually fizzled.

The year 2010 was incredibly pivotal in my journey and that is when I stated making a name for myself as Five Steez. This is when I start my official story, although my closest peers will tell you I was first called Five Star and belonged to a group called The Bulletproof Army (The BP Army / BP). Nomad Carlos of The Council was a member and so was Simon the Writer (then Simo-B) who is now more recognised in the local creative scene as a poet and the main organiser of The Apollo Series.

Many developments took place in 2010. Like many creatives have done or wish to do some day, I took a massive leap of faith and left the corporate world. I returned 3 years later, but what I was able to accomplish and learnt over the period is invaluable. I definitely lost out on income at the time, but I laid a foundation for the path I am on today.

The time I had at my disposal and the passion within me led me to working as a part of the non-profit organisation Manifesto Jamaica (MJ). It was Simon the Writer that told me about this initiative for some time before I joined. I remember my first MJ meeting and it was the energy I heard expressed that made me feel I was around the right people. I was also interested in the organisation’s connection with Manifesto Community Projects in Toronto, which has been staging what is now the largest urban arts / Hip Hop festival in the Canadian city.

I was Simon’s assistant for the Literary Umbrella. With Simon overseas that summer and MJ ramping up fundraising efforts, I found myself leading on the execution of the ART’ical Exposure series which was held at Bookophilia. These were the first art/music events I ever helped to organise and, interestingly enough, staging events has become a part of what I do now. Being a rapper, and being based at the now-non-existent Gambling House Recording Studio (which was regarded as the Mecca of Hip Hop in Kingston), I did my best to incorporate rappers I knew. When the final and third staging of ART’ical Exposure was held, it was a major moment for the local movement as dozens of rappers performed to a supportive crowd of hundreds and it received good press. The Gleaner article days after was my first media mention, highlighting my performance that night.

Later in 2010, I released my first mixtape The Momentum: Volume One with New York city underground radio icon DJ Ready Cee. Although I had a project in 2008 which may be known to some familiar with the underground scene in Kingston at the time when I had the moniker Five Star, I consider this to be my first release.

The journey continued with more mixtapes, performances and press, leading up to 2012, which was momentous due to the creation of Pay Attention, Kingston’s premier Hip Hop event which ran until 2015, and the release of my debut album War for Peace.

Pay Attention was first held on April 21, 2012 at Heather’s Garden Restaurant, just a two-minute walk down the street from Gambling House Recording Studio, which was at 21 Haining Road (now, a car lot). It had four stagings there until it moved to Juggz Sports Bar and Grill (formerly Christopher’s), downstairs the Quad Nightclub, and then Funky Munky on Holborn Road, before settling at South Beach Café in March 2013. While the movement started before, it was there that the brand really took shape.

The release of War for Peace was another proud achievement. It received great reviews locally and internationally. The one that stood out the most to me was the iTunes Editors’ Notes, not because it said anything particularly magnificent, but because of what it meant for an outlet like that to review an album from a ‘nobody’ like me, an independent artiste making a genre in a country with no industry for it (or its own genres for that matter... but let’s not go there now). The album was also featured on the front page for Hip Hop as New & Noteworthy.

With War for Peace available, Nomad Carlos having Me Against the Grain out and Pay Attention in full swing, The Council (before we were The Council, but were just members of the Pay Attention Committee) came together to host The Takeover in December 2012. This stageshow paved the way for Pay Attention to take on a new life, The Council to be formed later and for my working relationship with Mordecai to begin. At this event, The Sickest Drama (TSD), Nomad Carlos and myself performed Kingston Invasion, a track we did on a Mordecai beat and released just days earlier. Mordecai and I went on to release HeatRockz in 2016, Love N Art in 2019 and will release HeatRockz 2.0 this summer.

One of the things I took from my experience with Manifesto Jamaica was how we could create our own platforms. I saw the need for the Hip Hop community to have its own space and that was a major motivation behind the foundation of Pay Attention. Always keen on the Jamaican Hip Hop identity, we helped to spread the term ‘First Coast’, which is essentially the idea that without Jamaica-born Godfather of Hip Hop DJ Kool Herc going to the Bronx, there may be no Hip Hop as we know it today. It is also a term we use for the local movement and even the island of Jamaica itself. For years, we shouted this term... TSD, especially, at the top of his lungs, as he hosted many stagings of Pay Attention, and The Apollo Series, in more recent times.

Today, I am confident people will be embracing the term ‘First Coast’ a lot more. In March 2019, The Council gave the presentation ‘First Coast: The Jamaican and wider Caribbean involvement in Hip Hop’ at The Trinity International Hip Hop Festival at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. We have also been accepted to do the same at the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) conference The Legacy of DJ Kool Herc: Celebrating the Jamaican Roots of Hip Hop, which has been postponed to October due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am also discovering that my career and work is the subject of some of the submissions that have been accepted. I hope the event does take place, and I also hope UWI is exploring a virtual option in the event that it cannot happen physically due to the ongoing pandemic. In any event, we will be submitting a ‘First Coast’ paper for the conference’s anthology to be published. I may also do a similar presentation at another international forum to which I have been invited for November.

Now, earlier this year, we could truly say Hip Hop came full circle when DJ Kool Herc himself returned to Jamaica for the first time in decades as a special guest of honour at the Jamaica Music Conference. I wrote this article ahead of his arrival to articulate what I believe this meant historically. I also had the distinct privilege of not just meeting and building with him and his sister Cindy, with whom he held Hip Hop’s first block parties, but also sitting with them at the conference’s media briefing to speak a little about what he means for Jamaica, Hip Hop and the local community. Of course, I explained the term ‘First Coast’ for the audience. That was definitely a surreal moment. It was almost like we spoke it into being.

That was February. A lot has changed since then. Many plans are up in the air right now for creatives worldwide because of the new pandemic, myself included. Fortunately, my full-time job does not appear to be at risk at the moment and I am able to work from home. My efficient weekday time management and the lack of traffic (which took up 2-3 hours per day of my pre-COVID life) is giving me more time for myself. Add that to my crazy work ethic in general, my determination to make the most of this ‘downtime’ and my slight anxiety that I, too (and you!), could die during this pandemic so I need to do as much as possible (I’m feeling like Tupac on Death Row Records right now LOL)... I am getting a lot done! I am now at my peak of physical activity and creative output since I was around 18, and I am also improving my business and financial acumen, while tying up loose ends.

This year started strong for me and I am not going to let this Coronavirus slow me down or discourage me at all. I intend to build on and leverage the familiarity that Jamaicans now have with my face and voice as a result of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica’s What If advertisement, in which I am featured as a rapping teacher. Last year was excellent as I released two projects in one year. In addition to Love N Art, there was the Pantone EP with French beatmaker J-Zen in October. This year, I could do the same. By the time this is published, I should be close to releasing HeatRockz 2.0 and should have finished recording an album with Brazilian producer Sono TWS. I should also be at work on another project that will remain secret until the time is right.

One of the next steps I’ve been exploring and researching is organising my own tour, or at least, more festival appearances. This is definitely where COVID-19 has wiped out much of what was possible for 2020. I am not deterred, however, as I will be using the time to learn the ins-and-outs of getting and being on the road, while creating and marketing online my brand better than before. My intention is to have new product, all my business in order and to be ready to take on the road by the time that travel and large gatherings resume. I am very hopeful that mankind will find a way to defeat this pandemic and simply make it a moment in history that we know will never return. It is just that we are very early in a fight against a new virus and we cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel as yet. We will get there, I’m sure.

In these uncertain times, I know some of what I have in store, but there is so much we cannot predict. My journey as an artist will continue. That includes writing (like this) and (maybe not so much again now) organising events. One of the things I’ve learnt in my journey is that you don’t always know when you’re making history or being a part of it. I always tell artists to stick to their vision if they truly believe in it. If people don’t get it, find those who do. I have also found it important to tell your story and document the journey as I am doing here. As a Hip Hop artiste locally, I’m prone to being overlooked or my story being misrepresented so it is essential to me, from a marketing perspective, to control my own narrative and influence others’ perceptions.

These articles I write at times about my artistic journey and/or Hip Hop in Jamaica are not journal entries, although they revolve around me and I try to be very conversational and open. These are, in fact, historical documents, for those who are interested in Hip Hop culture, as well as music in Jamaica. I can do only so much, however, and these writings are small fractions. It’s funny, I always loved history, and I tried my best to study whatever aspects of it were most relevant to me. That included history about race, ancestry, nationality, culture and music. Now, I find myself writing history. And who is more qualified to do so but the one that is actually on the frontlines making history too? The journey continues...

Originally published on the Kingston Creative Blog

Last modified on Thursday, 04 June 2020 20:29