Richie Stephens (left) and Gentleman perform at New York City's Le Poisson Rouge March 13. (Photo: Marjorie Flash)
In 1998, German sing-jay Gentleman flew to Kingston, Jamaica to further his career in reggae. Seeking recording opportunities, Gentleman called several Kingston based producers via contact information gleaned from the island's Yellow Pages but only one expressed interest in working with the Cologne-based artist: Richie Stephens. The CEO of Pot of Gold Productions, Stephens, 45, is best known for the robust, soulful vocals that characterize his numerous hit singles over the past twenty years, including the patriotic "Come To Jamaica," adapted as the official theme for Jamaica's leg of the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup, and the 2011 dancehall hit "Born to Love You."
"Many people from abroad who try to do reggae sound funny but Gentleman's delivery is very convincing, which got my attention right away. To see where he has reached now tells me I made the right choice in giving him some strength back then," Stephens recalled in an interview at the Hilton Hotel, Montego Bay following his set at the January 2012 Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, which included Gentleman as his special guest.
Now a superstar throughout Europe, Gentleman (born Tillman Otto), 36, backed by his 11-piece band Evolution featured Stephens in his New York City debut performance on March 13 at La Poisson Rouge. The show marked the U.S. launch of his fifth studio album Diversity, released stateside on Feb. 14 as a 14-track set on the Queens, New York-based reggae independent VP Records. Originally released in Germany in April 2010 (Island/Universal) as a 28-track double CD, Diversity entered Germany's Billboard chart at no. 1 and was certified gold for 100,000 units shipped, according to The Bundesverband Musikindustrie (BVMI), which represents Germany's music industry.
" Diversity is my most versatile work to date; it has dancehall, roots reggae, ballads; reggae is the most versatile music so there is no need to jump into other genres," Gentleman explained while seated alongside Stephens in the lobby of The Hilton. Gentleman's breakthrough at home arrived with a chorus he delivered in (Jamaican derived) sing-jay style on the 1997 single "Tabula Rasa" by the German hip-hop group Freundeskreis, which reached no. 13 on the German national charts.
Gentleman signed with the Sony subsidiary Four Music and released four albums for the label including Confidence, which was certified platinum by the BVMI in 2007 (more than 200,000 units shipped), prior to signing with Island/Universal in 2010.
Whether from Jamaica or Germany, artists based outside of the U.S. face comparable challenges when attempting to break into the American market, and therefore require similar promotional strategies, notes Aaron Talbert, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at VP Records. "Considering the impact of the internet and Amazon.com on international releases, we are focusing on viral media, especially Facebook and YouTube clips to familiarize North American reggae fans with the continuing story on Gentleman and Diversity with on-tour posts, performance and interview clips forming the various promotional activities we have set up for him," Talbert commented.
Stephens and Gentleman are presented with the Song of the Year Award by Irie Jam radio personalities Christopher McDonald (left), a.k.a. Dubbmaster Chris, and Irwine Clare. (Photo: Marjorie Flash)
Gentleman's vocal timbre does not possess the sonic dynamism of Jamaica's most prominent sing-jays but his ability to consistently engage an audience throughout an hour-long set, as he ably demonstrated at La Poisson Rouge, eclipses many of the island's dancehall acts. He shared with the near-capacity crowd of approximately 700 the story of Stephens' encouragement early in his career and their enduring, 14-year friendship. In 2011 Gentleman offered Stephens solace at his Cologne residence following the murder of Stephens' 22-year-old son Demar Graham, (a.k.a. dancehall artist Copper Cat) outside of his Kingston home on January 21. Later that year Stephens performed with Gentleman on several dates throughout Europe including an appearance at Poland's Woodstock Festival where they debuted an as of yet unrecorded collaborative tribute to Graham; the overwhelming response from the audience of 700,000 to the majestically arranged "Live Your Life" was highlighted in the video to the single, released in September on Pot of Gold Productions.
Now regarded as an anthem of empowerment, "Live Your Life" has topped several reggae tallies in Jamaica and throughout North America and was named Song of the Year by New York's Irie Jam radio, which broadcasts various reggae/Jamaican-centric programs for 26 hours weekly on WVIP, 93.5 FM, New Rochelle; the results are based on listener requests throughout the year with input from on-air personalities, explains Irie Jam founder/CEO Bobby Clarke. "It's a powerful song that is even more compelling when performed live; Gentleman has embraced the Jamaican tradition like his own and I fully endorse what he continues to do internationally for reggae," says the Jamaican-born Clarke.
Gentleman and Stephens' subsequent duet, the African-tinged "Warrior" (Pot of Gold Productions) is currently doing well throughout the Caribbean and will soon be targeted to the American and European markets.
Neither combination track is included on Diversity but both songs are intended for a forthcoming collaborative album; a joint tour is also planned as each artist's career has benefitted from their recent partnership: Stephens is enjoying resurgent popularity at home and gaining new fans internationally while Gentleman has attained greater credibility within Jamaica and the Caribbean Diaspora. "I feel like I have reached a new level of acceptance. As a foreigner you struggle with Jamaicans feeling like you are taking their music," Gentleman acknowledges, "but in Europe I bring reggae to people who see me on TV or hear my album and they start to discover Jamaican artists. Bob Marley already proved reggae has a message that people from different backgrounds can identify with."