Interview: Reasoning with Vaughn Benjamin from Midnite

February 12, 2014


Midnite from the US Virgin Island of St Croix are not a reggae band – they are a movement, a phenomenon, a testimony to the power of being attuned to a different frequency than the rest of the world. They were formed in St Croix in the late 80s around two Rastafari brothers Vaughn and Ron Benjamin (the sons of Antiguan guitarist Ronnie Benjamin Senior), moving to Washington DC in the mid-90s and building a following based on their formidable live sound.

Since then Midnite have recorded over 50 albums in various congregations, offshoots and permutations. They have broken with some of reggae’s widely held received wisdom – cutting their initial works without post production and going to Africa before they got famous.

Sometimes Ron Benjamin produces (as with 2014’s Afrikan Roots Lab release Lion Out of Zion) but Vaughn also voices under the Midnite banner with others. The results are often Midnite’s most accessible – such as 2012’s Kings Bell for Jamaican Andrew Bassie Campbell. The latest project (likely to be one of several this year) is Beauty For Ashes which Vaughn recorded with longtime collaborator Laurent Tippy Alfred of I Grade Records. It is part of a trio of albums involving Vaughn, Tippy, the US/VI production collective Zion I Kings, Pressure from neighbouring St Thomas and Lutan Fyah. Beauty for Ashes is out on February 25th.

Vaughn Benjamin grants interviews selectively. And when he does they are similar to Midnite’s lyrics: holistic, exploratory, monumental, pulling multiple topics from the world’s vast resources of thought disciplines, just as the group can summon any number of songs from their gigantic back catalogue to their epic concerts.

This is the minimally edited transcript of our conversation – altered mainly when the Skype line failed.

Hi Vaughn – how are things in St Croix right now?
Everything is beautiful but as you know the earth is in turmoil.

There’s been a lot of talk of extreme weather in the world’s media. Have you been experiencing any extreme weather?
No, not at all. We had beautiful about 80 degrees of sunshine. But the North American continent is now colder than the North Pole. (laughs)

What do you think is the cause of this?
I think it would be common sense that it is emissions. Large factory industrial emissions would have to create something. We know just from experiments in the lab that you can create combustion in cloud from smoke. (laughs)

Yet industry is still moving forward – especially post financial crisis. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus yet that the weather is caused by emissions.
In fact people are moving forward stronger than ever. Coal and oil are more needed than ever. They are saying the green industry has failed before they tried long and hard enough. But we can only deal with the consensus that there is. We can only accept what is reality. But it would be a good thing if minds would come together – I know it’s not a simplistic problem, it’s much more intricate than the things we are saying here. Because if you take away the energy sources that are being used right now there is nothing to appropriately replace them.

Yes, the energy solutions are a combination of sources. This is very like your new album Beauty For Ashes. Midnite has always been collaborative but this project seems especially collaborative: with other vocalists Pressure, Lutan Fyah and Batch; with multiple producers Tippy I, Jah David and Andrew Moon Bain – the Zion I Kings; and in lots of locations – Tuff Gong, St Croix, Miami. It’s like a miniature eco system of musical interaction.
Yes yes yes. It’s a fusing and a melding of the talents and abilities and links and thoughts and creativities that there is. It’s about co-existence. It’s a smaller model. It’s a micro of a society really. Some of us are just learning to do it but we have to learn to do it. (laughs)

Interaction, interconnection, collaboration and connectivity – these seem to be common themes throughout the lyrics of Beauty for Ashes.
It’s a fact of the universe. We can either try to exist outside of that and still be forced to. Just traffic will prove it. So it’s a fact. It’s just how well we can make creativity and positivity come out of it.

There is a lot of creativity coming out of I Grade records right now. There are two other albums coming – The Sound by Pressure and Music Never Dies by Lutan Fyah. Were they all being worked on simultaneously – was there any sense of “this is going to be for my album” or “this is going to be for yours”?
No, there was no actual discussion of that at all. That’s usually the way it is. We make music and then we see what happens! (laughs)

How would you describe the time you all spent together?
Ah! I think in a world where you have comparison and competitiveness as just a fact of life – we didn’t have much of that whatsoever. We had really easy work and I think Rastafari is the unifying factor. Because we already know what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable and most of us know not to put yourself somewhere where your heart doesn’t want to be. So that’s what I felt from the others too. They were here happy to do this and it happened quite quickly every time.

I don’t want to dwell on the prolific nature of your work because it’s something you get asked about a lot – but is this your 50th album? I read different numbers from different sources.
I think it’s more than 50. To be honest there are many albums unreleased too so that’s why I haven’t made it an issue.

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