How Reggae Meets EDM in Jamaica’s 'Rootstronic' Courtney John Project

On an April afternoon inside the rehearsal room at Kingston’s Big Yard Studios, singer Courtney John is working out the live rendition of his current single “Black Cinderella”, an audacious interpretation of Jamaican singer Errol Dunkley’s 1972 hit. Holding the microphone stand, John swoops down, arms flailing as he chants the song’s refrain: “where can I find my black Cinderella?”  

But John’s falsetto is awash in warbling reverbs and thunderous echoes. To his right, Stephen “Lenky” Marsden pumps out futuristic minor-key synth chords from behind an assortment of keyboards; on John’s left, producer Natassja “The Wizard” Hammond, her dreadlocks swinging, obscuring her face, offers intermittent shards of backing vocals while generating an array of galvanic sound effects from her synthesizer and Apple computer that alternately recede and advance from a booming drum and bass driven reggae rhythm, played, respectively, by Kemar “Spanky” Liking and Richard “Shams” Browne. This is what it sounds like when electronic dance music (EDM) meets roots reggae.

John, Hammond and Marsden have come together to play, refine, and promote their hybrid sonic creation, rootstronic, defined as “one part Kingston mash-up, one part Euro-electronica and 100% provocative in its approach to contemporary music.”

 

The Rootstronic Crew (from left): Nastassja Hammond, Courtney John, Steven "Lenky" Marsden in Kingston. (Photo: Colin Porter)

“Roots is the foundation; tronic is the innovation,” says John, an accomplished singer/songwriter best known for his lovers rock hits “When You Say” and “Lucky Man”, at Kingston’s tony Spanish Court Hotel following the band’s rehearsal.  “Whatever effects are put in, our indigenous Jamaican musical identity will always be heard,” adds Hammond, John’s cousin and the daughter of celebrated Jamaican crooner Beres Hammond.

Nicknamed the Wizard for her precocious production talents, at 21 Hammond produced the title track to Beres’ 2008 album “A Moment In Time” (VP Records). Now 26 she’s produced the first rootstronic album “Future The Courtney John Project”, released digitally on April 30 on John’s FiWi Music label. John co-founded FiWi Music with his brother Chris Smith, whose Toronto-based Chris Smith Management roster includes Grammy Award winner Nelly Furtado and Latin rapper Kat Dahlia, the latter named Billboard’s tenth Most Buzzworthy Breakout Artist of the Year; Wizard is currently working on a rootstronic remix of Dahlia’s hit “Gangsta”.

21st Music/INgrooves are handling the distribution in all territories except for the UK, France and Japan where individual deals are being negotiated; vinyl and CD formats will be available in the coming weeks. “It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of something new and fresh, our retail and marketing partners share the same sentiment about “Future”; the singles “Black Cinderella” and “Rain Like Gold” will definitely see a huge look from radio, especially in London, France, Germany and the US,” enthuses Edward Power, Film and TV/VP of syncs and music supervision at 21st Music.

"Rootstronic energetically links Jamaica’s glorious musical past with today’s technological advances; we're excited to play “Black Cinderella” for the French audience;” comments Max Guiguet, Music Director at Radio Nova, a Paris based French national station. The album’s first official single, “Black Cinderella”, released in February, is currently on the station’s playlist, which is largely comprised of electronic, hip-hop, and world music.

The campaign for the “Black Cinderella” video, directed by Ras Kassa whose previous credits include Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock” begins this week and will debut here.

The radio campaign for the second single “Rain Like Gold” commences in mid-May when the Courtney John Project, will travel to Los Angeles for a week-long residency tentatively scheduled for the Dub Club. It’s all part of an eight-month promotional strategy that also includes outreach to print, electronic and social media, devised by The Musebox a full service artist development agency with offices in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

“Black Cinderella” is the album’s sole cover version; John wrote “Future’s” nine remaining tracks including “Soul of A Man”, which was originally intended for Oliver Stone’s 2012 crime-thriller “Savages;” the track wasn’t included in the film but its spidery synth riffs, haunting vocal fragments and propulsive Giorgio-Moroder-like rhythm sparked an idea.

“It sounded crazy so Wiz and I decided to package this new sound. I thought who are the weirdest people I know that can complement this?” laughed John. “Lenky and I did some experimental recordings on my “Made In Jamaica” (FiWi Music) album and we wanted to do more so he came on board and we started making rootstronic songs.”

A heavily in-demand musician Marsden, currently the keyboardist in Shaggy’s band, is renowned for producing the Diwali rhythm, which spawned three Hot 100 hits including Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go”, Lumidee’s “Never Leave You” and Sean Paul’s “Get Busy”, the latter topping the chart in May 2003; Marsden’s Diwali success was recognized with the 2004 ASCAP Songwriter of the Year award. Marsden says the greatest challenge with rootstronic is “delivering a live performance that’s as progressive as what we have recorded.” 

The development of rootstronic continues a more than 50-year tradition of Jamaica’s musicians adapting unexpected innovations to existing styles and creating entirely new genres. For example, in the early ‘60s Kingston musicians sought to replicate American R&B and came up with ska, the island’s first indigenous popular music, the forerunner to rock steady and reggae. By the end of the decade, further pioneering efforts wrought dub, where instruments are stripped from a recording track with the drum and bass brought to the forefront (at the core of dubstep) and in the mid-80s reggae’s synthesized strain, dancehall, resulted from experimentation with that era’s new technology including the Casio keyboard. "Rootstronic is just a more modern interpretation of reggae/dub music, influenced by EDM, like most contemporary genres are now," offers Hammond.

Despite an established precedent of alterations spawning viable, distinctive Jamaican genres, John says some reggae traditionalists have been skeptical towards this most recent homegrown sonic transformation. “Some older industry heads don’t want anyone changing Jamaica’s musical foundation, but as creative people we want to try other things,” John asserts. “Rootstronic is getting rotation on mainstream stations in several European countries. We’re being played after Depeche Mode and Adele and that represents Jamaica, just not in the traditional way.”