If the ascendancy of Kanye West to superstar status means anything, it's proof positive that we are firmly ensconced in the age of the producer. Two weeks ago, in the Bay Area on a promotional tour for his new album, College Dropout, West seemingly popped up everywhere -- peeping out of a poster in the window of a barber shop on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, making a personal appearance at Hilltop Mall in Richmond for a sneaker-pimpin' chain store, consenting to an interview on WYLD 94.9.
Indeed, the producer is the new MC, as far as pop icons go. West's rise to fame, on the strength of his hit "Through the Wire" and production credits with Jay-Z and Talib Kweli, merely confirms a trend previously set in motion by the likes of Dr. Dre, Timbaland, the Neptunes, DJ Premier, Marley Marl, Swizz Beats, and Prince Paul -- studio wizards whose ability to craft bangin' boom-bip anthems sometimes stole the spotlight from the rappers themselves. Even alt.hop and indie rock fans swear by every knob-twiddle of Prefuse 73 and RJD2, while electronica mavens like DJ Shadow and DJ Krush are worshipped as gods in some countries.
While the concept of producer-as-artist may be just reaching its apogee in urban America, it's nothing new in Jamaica, where dubmasters like Lee Perry, King Tubby, Sly & Robbie, and Scientist have long been revered. In today's fast-moving world of digital dancehall music, it only takes one slammin' beat to make a producer's rep. Take the case of Jeremy Harding, who scored two major hits -- Beenie Man's "Who Am I?" and Sean Paul's "Infiltrate" -- off one riddim. Or consider Lenky Marsden, who created the ubiquitous "Diwali" track responsible for hits by Paul, Wayne Wonder, and Missy Elliott.
As dancehall continues to expand its core listenership in America -- thanks in no small part to Sean Paul and Elephant Man's astounding hitmaking ability -- the blending of Jamaican reggae with American hip-hop has continued to swell as well, thanks mainly to VP Records, which reportedly controls 75 to 80 percent of the stateside reggae market. But the underground reggae mix-CD scene is also booming, offering the faithful all the current songs, plus exclusive blends, hip-hop remixes, and special guest appearances, in addition to the familiar voice-overs and sound effects long associated with sound-system culture.
Enter Project Groundation Massive. It's an impressive name, one that brings to mind dread Rastafarian rituals conducted in the mystical hills of Jamaica's Blue Mountains, where English colonial soldiers were once decimated by ragtag coalitions of escaped African slaves and native Arawaks. Yet PGM is the concept of just one man, who happens to go by the nom de guerre of Child -- and who also happens to be white.
Child has an interesting backstory: Raised by hippie parents on a commune, at some point he embraced the spiritual philosophy of Rastafarianism, which he upholds to this day. Now in his early twenties, he studied at a Buddhist institute and clocked time in Philadelphia and Boston as a club DJ, rapper, and street kid before moving to Oakland eighteen months ago.
After cutting back on club gigs to focus solely on production skills, Child has quickly made a name for himself with his PGM mix CDs -- and is now working on Volume Ten. (You can find 'em at any record store that stocks mix CDs.) His style might be closer to the wildly dissonant "mash-ups" popular in the UK than conventional dance remixes. Child not only lays hits like 50 Cent's "Many Men" or Nas' "Made You Look" over dancehall riddims, but flips the script, putting Sean Paul, Buju Banton, or Elephant Man over '50s beats, creating some def juxtapositions in the process.
The technology is new, but the end result is still pleasingly old-school -- although Child creates his hip-hop/reggae blends with the aid of a computer, he has put out his remixes on vinyl and seven-inch singles, which separates him from culture vultures like DJ Vlad, the MP3 king. He also is slowly building a crew, collaborating with up-and-coming dancehall artist Lutan Fyah as well as Khai Sharrieff, a member of local hip-hop/reggae outfit Lunar Heights. PGM 7 features several Fyah songs set to Child's beats, while Sharrieff's interludes and solo tracks are a highlight of PGM 9.
"Ultimately, the plan is to move from remixes to original shit," Child says from his studio in the Oakland hills. PGM's home base is small but comfortable, adorned with electronic equipment, turntables, and crate after crate of vinyl. "We're here all day, every day," adds Sharrieff, who likens the wealth of music in the room to "a library." Child, who says he has applied a Jamaican sensibility to the American mix CD paradigm, remains in awe of dancehall artists' work ethic, even though, as he relates, their efforts are born out of economic necessity: "I know a dude who voiced a dubplate for some shoes and a T-shirt."
Child and Sharrieff are presently applying the finishing touches to a mix called "Kill 'Em So Nice," dedicated to "the haters," i.e. lazy mixtape DJs and local hip-hop crews who can't see past Child's skin tone. In the meantime, Child has high hopes for another upcoming project, a reworking of Jay-Z's Black Album, to be called the Red, Gold, & Green Album. He points to Danger Mouse, the man behind the infamous Grey Album, which mixed the Black Album with elements taken from the Beatles' White Album. Child notes he shares a distributor with DM, and already is getting anxious calls from interested retailers in advance of the project -- a sure sign of market demand.
And while Child is a little concerned that DM got "bopped" -- sued for copyright infringement by EMI after moving about three thousand units -- he says all the press and street buzz the producer accumulated was worth it, especially because DM has just signed a production deal with Jay-Z's label, Roc-a-Fella. The Grey Album opened doors Project Groundation Massive intends to walk through.
So Child plays his reggaefied version of Jay-Z's "Moment of Clarity," and there's no doubt: That's a hot blend, son. He also bumps a few other Red, Gold, and Green tracks, which sound just as wicked. Yet whether this project will be enough to catapult Child to the upper echelon of beatmakers -- or garner him a production deal with a major label -- is anyone's guess. Still, in the age of the producer, having a hot concept combined with hot beats could be enough to make it big. And whatever the future holds for PGM, Child will keep building on his already-solid foundation, while the haters will keep on hating.
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