The upcoming album by Trinidadian soca star Bunji Garlin, whose career has soared internationally since the release of his soca-meets-EDM single “Differentology (Ready For The Road)," will be released through a joint venture between RCA Records and Queens, N.Y.-based reggae independent VP Records, reps from both labels have confirmed exclusively with Billboard.biz. RCA/VP will jointly handle sales, marketing, promotion and publicity. Garlin’s as-of-yet untitled album, reportedly a mix of soca, EDM and hip-hop, is due before the year’s end.
Produced by Trinidad’s Keron “Sheriff” Thompson, “Differentology” was originally released in November 2012 on Sheriff Music in anticipation of the plethora of parties, concerts and musical competitions held during Trinidad’s annual pre-Lenten Carnival season. In addition to spending 18 weeks on the Reggae Digital Songs chart, peaking at No. 7, "Differentology" has led to groundbreaking achievements for the Trinidadian artist. The track won a 2013 Soul Train Award for Best International Performance; defeated tracks by Eminem and DJ Khaled in New York hip-hop station Hot 97's Battle of the Beats; was featured in an episode of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy; and earned Garlin an enviable slot on Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam’s main stage alongside artists like 50 Cent, The Roots, and Nas.
“RCA Records is about breaking new artists and being innovative in our approach to music. Joining forces with VP Records to release Bunji Garlin’s album is an example of that,” RCA director of marketing Shani Fuller told Billboard.biz. “'Differentology' takes soca into another realm, as it is infused with EDM, yet remains true to its Trinidad roots. That's what made us eager to lock this in: his music is not genre-specific, which allows it to transcend boundaries and makes for great crossover potential.”
Though RCA A&R reps Morgan "Mr. Morgan" Lieberthal and Keith Naftaly brought the Garlin project to the label, it was Fuller, formerly a product manager at VP, who helped secure the deal. “We received offers for joint ventures for the single, and an album from several labels under Sony and Warner, but it came down to the RCA staff," said VP senior marketing director Brian Greenspoon. "Shani came from VP, and is familiar with the culture of Bunji’s music, and I have previously worked with various members of the RCA staff, so I can vouch that they will do a great job with this project."
Greenspoon also spoke confidently of Garlin’s “massive” potential in the US market. “'Differentology' has broken barriers that better-selling soca songs, like Kevin Lyttle’s 'Turn Me On' and Rupee’s 'Tempted to Touch,' couldn’t," he added. (Released on Atlantic Records in 2003, Lyttle and Rupee's respective singles peaked at No. 4 and No. 39 on the Hot 100 in 2004). “'Differentology' had a good run at urban radio, and we are looking to take it to pop radio with another remix with a feature on it. We are also looking at further sync placements."
The RCA/VP joint venture release will undoubtedly bring greater visibility to Garlin (born Ian Alvarez). Though his music enjoys enormous popularity in the Caribbean, it has had little impact beyond those islands’ shores or Caribbean outposts within North America and Europe. “This is an honor that will bring great opportunities for soca. Everyone involved in soca culture has supported the song by voting for it and sharing it. Without them, this wouldn’t have happened,” Garlin, 35, told Billboard.biz in a recent phone interview from his Trinidad home. “Soca artists and producers are getting more attention now from the outside. Before we were given a cold shoulder, like our work wasn’t worthy; but there is a movement now so it makes sense to tap into it.”
Garlin entered the carnival arena in 1999 with “Send Them Rhythm Crazy," his robust vocal delivery on the track more closely aligned to a Jamaican dancehall deejay than a soca singer; nonetheless, the track scpred third place in that year’s Ragga Soca competition. His formidable rapid-fire rhyming skills, honed on subsequent singles like “From The Ghetto," “Warrior Cry," “Blaze The Fire,” and “Fiery” slew his rivals in carnival’s higher-profile Soca Monarch competition while earning Garlin the commanding designation the Viking of Soca. VP’s Senior Director of A&R, Edwin Howell, Sr., brought Garlin to the label in 2002; he initially signed a one-album deal for “Revelation”, and inked his current three-album agreement in 2006, which has yielded one release to date, 2007’s “Global”.
He signed a one-album deal with VP Records in 2002, for “Revelation," before inking his current three-album agreement with the label in 2006. That deal has yielded one release to date, 2007’s “Global." In August 2013, Garlin signed a deal with the French independent Play On that covers Europe (except the UK); all remaining territories are covered by Garlin’s VP deal.
On March 6, VP released Garlin’s four-track EP “Carnival Tabanca,” featuring his 2014 hits “Red Light District" and “Truck On D Road," an auto-tuned EDM post-carnival single from 2013 lamenting the season’s end (a feeling summarized in Trinidadian vernacular as tabanca). An accompanying videomentary was shot in Trinidad’s bustling capital Port of Spain.
Garlin’s wife, soca star Fay-Ann Lyons, co-leader of their Asylum Viking band and daughter of soca icon Super Blue (Trinidad’s first Soca Monarch) signed a four-album deal with VP in March 2014.
Throughout his 16-year recording career, Garlin has independently released eight additional albums primarily timed to the carnival season to benefit from that period's increased airplay, performance, and endorsement opportunities for soca artists. Sales for most soca singles and albums, however, are quite small -- piracy was an ongoing concern for the genre even before music could even be illegally downloaded.
Soca, the fast-paced descendant of calypso that has undergone several transformations since the mid-1970s, drives the majority of carnival celebrations in Trinidad -- the larger, more cosmopolitan island in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago -- and throughout the Caribbean. Artists with the most popular songs during the six-to-eight week carnival season (roughly Jan. 1 through Ash Wednesday) perform multiple gigs per night as the season peaks and secure more lucrative bookings at Trinidad-style carnivals held throughout North America later in the year.
Occasionally, as "Differentology" has done, a soca hit transcends the carnival circuit. “Trinidad has never had a global ambassador like Bob Marley is for Jamaica, so there hasn’t been as much international interaction with our musical brand," commented Major Lazer’s Trinidad-born DJ/producer Christopher “Jillionaire” Leacock. "So it’s surprising that 'Differentology' continues to grow organically."
"Differentology” was brought to Jillionaire’s attention by Trinidad’s Jarrod Farria, whose J-Rod Records initially handled its marketing and distribution. A Major Lazer remix replaced the original track’s flamenco-styled guitar riffs by Trinidad’s Nigel Rojas (lead singer/guitarist with the rock outfit Orange Sky) with sputtering synth-grooves and assorted sound effects.
“Major Lazer started playing 'Differentology' at various festivals and then followed it with their remix, which takes it to an entirely different audience. There’s not a price I could ever put on that so I am forever grateful,” Garlin said.
Major Lazer produced Garlin’s 2014 single “It’s A Carnival,” and Garlin will perform select dates on their upcoming Mad Decent Block Party tour. “We want to spotlight what’s happening in Trinidad. Soca has slowed down a bit and, without giving up too much of itself, is in a good place to crossover to the North American urban dance market,” adds Jillionaire.
Garlin refrained from competing in the Soca Monarch contest in 2013 and 2014. Besides objecting to certain contractual clauses, he also cited musical tournaments as obstacles to his global aspirations. “Structuring music for a competition is limiting, because you are only on that stage for one night, but your music still has to play for the next 10 months,” Garlin said. “Since stepping away I am now releasing songs that will bring equity several years down the line.”