Kingston, Jamaica has rightfully earned a worldwide acclamation as the hotbed of one of the biggest music genres in the world – reggae. Similarly, a subgenre of the cherished music, dancehall, has continued appealing to a growing audience the world over, prompting pop-stars like Drake, Rihanna and even Billboard’s chat topping sensation, Justin Beiber to incorporate the dance-oriented, up-tempo rhythms in their own sounds, attracting both admiration and criticism in equal measures. While reggae and dancehall are certainly Jamaica’s biggest music export, there are untold stories of the various acts going against the grain to contribute differently to the music of the world.
Rightfully so, we all can’t be similar, we all can’t have the same interests, and we all can’t create a homogeneous sound. There is beauty in diversity, respect in uniqueness and admiration in exploring the uncharted territories. Going against the odds.
Much as we can’t ascertain these to be the reasons behind Five Steez’s motivations to focus entirely on Hip Hop music, we can affirmatively state that he is indeed doing the genre justice, upholding the culture’s core principals and staying true to the course. A certified MC and lyrical chef d’oeuvre, Steez has stayed put on the furtherance, despite a seemingly evident attempt by a number of Jamaican industry individuals and structures to restrict the progress of Hip Hop, a genre he dearly holds close to his heart. In an effort to take a stab at the Jamaican hip hop music scene, we had a week-long chat with the Havendale, Uptown Kingston born and bred musician and event organizer. What followed was true a revelation of not only how hard Hip hop artists have to fight for acceptance but also a shocking insight into how far industry stakeholders are willing to go to curb the advancement of the genre, based purely on perceptions, with nothing solid to support their dislike for the music.
As such, we will have a full week dedicated to the Jamaican Hip Hop scene through the eyes of Five Steez.
“So, is chicken a very popular meal over there?” I ask Steez as he tells me that they are enjoying a sumptuous meal of chicken in Kingston with a couple of friends. To which he confirms that indeed, it’s the most popular delicacy, getting my mind to veer off to those late nights when we have randomly stopped in town with friends to grab a takeaway wing or breast after spending all day grinding with no proper meal. Kingston, after all, seems to be just like Nairobi; chicken is highly appreciated here as well.
Away from the chicken, we catch up on general topics and Steez informs us that Kingston just experienced a storm the other day – a Tropical Storm Earl, but it didn’t leave much of an effect on them. Yet they hardly get any rains, like it only showered on Monday and Tuesday of that week of storm and then it went right back to being sunny and hot. Unlike Nairobi, the traffic jam is slightly less, especially now that schools are closed. He also factors in the option of their population being lower.
For an artist considered a visionary pioneer in the Jamaican Hip Hop scene, it’s rather surprising just how easy it is to have a conversation with Five Steez on any subject ranging from gang affiliations, street violence and the future of reggae music, childhood upbringing and even Maryjane. He is never shy of sharing his views on the different topic, shooting straight at the bulls’ eye. That’s what hit me when we started conversing with the Havendale native a few weeks ago.
Perhaps, these are the makings of a real Hip Hop crusader.
“you can tell I’m dope just by my song titles” – dirty couch
When I first hit him up, he was kind enough to feedback and ask for a reschedule as it was 12:05 in Kingston, an exact eight hour difference to the East African time. He was about to hit the sacks. I was just starting my day. The difference time creates in our lives.
True to his words, he touched base with us at 8 pm Kenyan time and we kicked it off major, like a Slaughterhouse cypher!
Sticking to the African culture, we opened up with greetings where Steez schooled us on simple Kingston salutations; Wha Gwaan? To which you respond Deh ya. I was already feeling Jamaican and shit, so the guys around had to hold me from going all out on patois, splashing my favorite one-liners off popular lyrics from the likes of Bob, Sizzla and Culture. Jamaica is the land of legends. Five Steez admits that there’s a bunch of successful artists from the Caribbean island nation – Jamaica.
“I just wanna make history before I be a goner” – dirty couch
We first got introduced to Steez through Awkwords ‘I Am’, the multi-continent collaboration that had artists from Nigeria (Modenine, Maka), Tanzania (Wakazi), Malawi (Third Eye), Zambia (Holstar), Los Angeles (Latasha Alcindor) and South Africa (The Assembly). He credits the song for getting him new supporters and more listeners in Africa. While I Am did open up new frontiers for his music, it is Slaving off the 2012 EP War for Peace album that still connects with people according to Five.
During the period he has been actively involved Hip Hop as both a collective and a solo act, Steez has connected and worked with some of the genres legendary acts like Dj Ready Cee and even got his music played by Chuck D on his shows on several occasions, something he owns is exciting. So then, how did all these come to be?
“Luck in many instances lol. I’m blessed. Ready Cee who has done my mix tapes. I just found him online and liked his mixing. I sent him some music, he liked it and played it and we started building from there. With Chuck D, I believe I submitted music for his show and he played it eventually. Other legendary folks have also discovered my music sometimes because of mutual connections.”
Born in Kingston, Jamaica on November 11, 1986, Steez was introduced to hip Hop music through his elder brothers who were already a fan of the genre.
“My older brothers who were into the music. And later, through cable and the net. We have all the popular American channels lol” he explains when we implore his first interaction with the genre.
Although he makes a clean breast that it’s hard to recall exactly the first Hip Hop jam he heard, he avows to remember watching the Tribe Scenario remix video, hearing MC Hammer in his early days as well as 3rd Bass, Public Enemy, EPMD and Run DMC. However, he credits his influence to WuTang Clan, Nas, Jay Z, 2 PAC, Dead Prez and Black Star.Steez began his musical pursuit in high school, recording music and then eventually forming The BP Army, a five-member group which released yearly mixtapes and performed at live music events in Kingston until 2008. From then on, he released his solo music quietly for the local scene until he began creating his own opportunities for exposure.
“I tried different things but none of them felt right” – My Life, My craft
Ever since, Five Steez has recorded and released ‘Momentum’ mixtape series alongside DJ Ready Cee, a 2012 debut album, ‘War for Peace’, which received great reviews from various outlets, including digital store, iTunes and the 2014 EP, ‘These Kingston Times’ – listed by World Hip Hop Market as one of the year’s best international Hip Hop releases. He is now returning in 2016 with the third and final volume of the ‘Momentum’ series and two Eps. To illustrate just how much of a hard worker the Kingston MC is, he has released 6 official singles this year alone, in addition to another song by his group, The Council.
Though he echoes that even in Jamaica, the media and the labels are hesitant to support Hip Hop, he affirms that popular music get’s as much airplay in Kingston just as it would in any other exposed country around the world.
“Jamaicans love everything popular. So you’ll hear Drake, Future and Young Thug. But the average person doesn’t know the culture of Hip Hop as much as they may listen to the modern mainstream Hip Hop.”
From the outside, one would be excused to think that only reggae and dancehall music get blasted on Jamaican radios and media houses. Personally, I used to imagine a 24 hour reggae shows in all their stations with programs like rub-a-dub Tuesday, Daggarin Thursdays, Freedom Fridays, Legalize Weekend or even a Marijuana Mondays. Sigh. I felt a bit disappointed on the realization that Jamaica, just like any other exposed country, has a myriad of popular American music on heavy rotation. Do they really know how youths the world over, and especially in Kenya struggle to master patois so as to sound like them? Do they even know how the man dem have been championing for the acceptance of the herb or how their national colours don practically every room in the Kenyan ghettos? That’s how much we adore Jamaica; or that’s just how influential the Caribbean island is!
But when we question him on whether he can meddle in the current commercial Hip hop being made, he outright opposes the idea of turning his back to what he’s presently doing.
“I can’t. It’s not me. Not in this time. I’ve tried doing different records in the past but felt it didn’t represent me or didn’t sound my best. So I just stuck with what I believe in the most.”
“you know I ride with the best” – mic to the check
Away from his growing music catalog, Five shares with us stories of growing up in Kingston. When we challenged his street authenticity seeing as he grew up in an uptown neighborhood, Steez reminds us that Kingston is small and he went to school downtown, but fortunately for him, he doesn’t live so close to the worst violence.
“Been exposed to limited gang violence. It’s around but hardly close enough most times to affect me much”
In an attempt to understand the gang phenomenon in Kingstom, we brought the much publicized feud between Gullyside and Gaza, asking Steez if he was part of or affected by the whole pandemonium.
”No I was not lol. Most of the community is middle class, working class. Good citizens lol.” He explains.“Gullyside is also near Havendale, its right off Manning’s Hill Rd which carries you into Havendale. That little rift was mostly between the two entourages and their communities.”
”Gaza is actually in Portmore (not Kingston). But Kartel aligned himself with an area known as Big Yard which is just down the road from Gullyside, so there was some tension between the two areas for a while.”
Finally understanding that, we further inquire just who the tenants of Havendale are. To which he clarifies that Freddie McGregor and his family lives in his neighbourhood, and their studio is there too.
“Konshens has his studio in the community, Vybz Kartel lived here too.”
Surrounded by all these reggae and dancehall greats, one wonders why and how then Five Steez instead chose Hip hop as his preferred vehicle of expression. We therefore questioned his interest in reggae and if he ever thought of contributing his voice to it.
“I love it. I listen to it, especially more than dancehall nowadays. But I’ve never had an interest in making it. Hip Hop just spoke to me on a different level and I felt more comfortable expressing myself in that genre.”
Hip Hop and reggae have enjoyed a great relationship in the past, leading to some of the most distinguished records in the history of music. Renowned MCs have gone far and wide in seeking uniquely outstanding collaborations with their reggae and dancehall counterparts, Toronto artist Drake being the latest addition to the statistics. We wondered what were Steez’s thoughts on these marriages and whether he was interested in doing the same. Considering the fact that he has a direct access to his peers and colleagues doing reggae and dancehall, we asked him who he would work with.
“With anyone where there is a mutual respect, I’m open to collaborating with either genre and have done so in the past. I more look to really gel with an artist instead of just seeking collabs like that, a lot of industry people are not what they present or are hard to deal with – as talented as they may be.”
“Mike beats told me I’m the Kingston Nas” – Night Streets
But what really does the Hip Hop scene in Jamaica look like, now that the world seems to only know it for reggae and dancehall and who are the success stories of Hip hop in Kingstone?
“Coming from JA and doing it out here… No one really lol. Guys may have left and done something overseas. And you have tones of hip hop legends born here or of Jamaican parentage, but the truth is, we don’t have much of a scene here. We just have to do for self. It’s been limited success for some of us and we still pushing.” Concludes Steez as we give him a break to go splurge on his favorite series, the breaking bad.