On his fifth studio album, “Love Situation”, Jamaican singer/songwriter Tarrus Riley and longstanding producer and musical director Dean Fraser pay tribute to reggae’s direct forerunner rocksteady. But more than findinging his musical direction, now working independently and owning his music, Riley says he has finally reached maturation in a changed music industry.
"Love Situation" is Riley’s first album to top the Reggae Album chart (for the week following its February 4th release) and unlike his previous albums, “Parables” and “Contagious”, it was released as a joint venture between Cannon, Riley’s BSMG (Blak Soil Music Group), Riley co-manager Shane Brown’s Jukeboxx Productions, and South Florida based digital reggae distributor Zojak Worldwide LLC. While those previous works that were released through a licensing/distribution deal between Fraser’s Cannon Productions and Queens, New York based reggae label/distributor VP Records helped his profile, Riley said on this album it was time to break out on his own.
“VP Records gave me major distribution and made my music more popular but Mr. Fraser and I always spoke of becoming independent. And having done three albums, we are going into this with an established fan base; as businessmen, you become more powerful in this position,” Riley told Billboard at the Kingston offices of JukeBoxx Productions.
The Love Situation tour, Riley’s first U.S. tour in four years, commenced with 19 west coast dates in February; Riley then took a break and returned to Jamaica where he filmed videos for three of the album’s tracks including “123 I Love You” (the song’s lilting rhythm adapted from The Gaylads’ 1968 hit “ABC Rocksteady”); the video directed by Mike Abela, debuts here:
Riley’s six-week Spring into Summer U.S. tour begins May 25th at Miami’s 8th annual Best of the Best (BOTB) reggae concert, which pulls 20,000 patrons to Bayfront Park. BOTB co-promoter Jabba who spins reggae/dancehall on Sirius XM’s The Joint and alongside Bobby Konders as Massive B sound on New York’s hip-hop station WQHT (97.1FM), says Riley stands out amongst the concert’s 20-act lineup.
“His great voice and great songs have kept cultural reggae alive,” said Jabba. “There is too much hype in the business; Tarrus’s music isn’t endorsed like it should be, but I believe in due time someone will recognize his talent and take his career to the next level.”
According to Riley’s co-manager, producer/engineer Shane Brown, Riley and his team will spend the next 12-18 months promoting “Love Situation”, by releasing singles, filming videos, banging the social media drum and touring in new territories. For the first time, Riley will hit Europe this fall on a full tour from Sept. 15 - Oct. 18.
“We have performed at many European summer festivals but our first tour there later this year is an opportunity to present our full set and connect with new fans. When we toured the U.S. in February, we went to cities we had never been to, sometimes for no money; it’s a sacrifice but we are planting seeds which will yield good fruits,” said Brown — son of Bob Marley’s former engineer Errol Brown. “My dad was always on tour with Bob and [now] it’s the same thing… You can’t depend on radio play for reggae, you have to depend on touring to get your product to the consumer.”
Since the 2004, Riley, now 34, has distinguished himself as one of his generation's finest singer/songwriters in the genre. That was the year of his first album, “Challenges”, on the Jamaican imprint Ya Man Music. It was followed by the critically lauded “Parables” in 2006, featuring the dulcet lover’s rock smash “She’s Royal” that catapulted him into reggae’s major league where he has maintained a steady output of hit singles.
His diverse catalogue ranges from the syncopated dancehall verve of “Good Girl Gone Bad” (featuring Konshens), to the percussion driven celebration of African identity on “Shaka Zulu Pickney”.
Jamaica’s brief, yet influential rocksteady period lasted roughly 18 months between 1966-1968. Rocksteady’s streamlined, slower rhythms (contrasting the frenetic pace of its ska precursor), pronounced bass lines and one drop drum beats laid the foundation for reggae’s development. Decades later, rocksteady provides an ideal platform for Riley’s talents, with “Love Situation” his finest, most cohesive full-length release to date.
Fraser’s exquisite production and the burnished subtleties of the Blaksoil band deftly adapt 21st century sensibilities to nearly 50-year old rhythms culled from the vaults of seminal Jamaican labels such as Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle, which dominated the rocksteady era. Riley displays spectacular, nuanced control of his evocative tenor, whether scatting syllables in tandem with legendary toaster Big Youth and rapper Mr. Cheeks on “Five Days”, scaling falsetto heights on “Version of Love (My Story)”, a 1967 hit written by his father singer Jimmy Riley, or crooning a persuasive plea to his lady on “Dem A Watch”.
In addition to their distributor role, Zojak Worldwide LLC is providing marketing, publicity, assistance with videos and tour support, which includes manufacturing physical copies of “Love Situation” for sale at Riley’s shows. It is only the second time the seven-year old digital distributor has manufactured a physical product.
“We see a spike in sales whenever an artist tours,” acknowledged Zoe Espitia, co-founder of Zojak Worldwide LLC with Aaron Mahlfeldt. Espitia is confident that “Love Situation” can take Riley beyond his core reggae fan base.
“Tarrus and Blaksoil have the ability to appeal to any audience that loves live music, especially jam band audiences, so we will introduce them to promoters that are unfamiliar with their music and get them on a tour with a US band that doesn’t typically pick up a Jamaican reggae act,” she said.
Tour by tour, album by album, Riley and Blaksoil are committed to capturing fans beyond their already established following. “Any artist wants more ears for their music so we are in this for the long run,” said Riley. “Jamaican music is very much about its culture and sometimes music takes longer to reach other places because of the culture that comes with it, but we are gaining fans with this album so we are on the right track.”