Some original content for my website. A shorter version of this interview with Vaughn Benjamin of Midnite was published in German in Riddim magazine Issue 60 in February.
2011 has been a year when maverick, highly prolific artists seemed to listen to their more conservative critics. Firstly Sizzla Kalonji, having made a series of somewhat challenging and uneven cultural albums for Greensleeves, teamed with John John and some old Jammys rhythms for the wobbly masterpiece, The Scriptures. Likewise the notoriously nonconformist Virgin Islands deep roots outfit Midnite, having cut almost as many longplayers in their career as Sizzla in half the time, made their first with a Jamaican producer, Andrew “Bassie” Campbell. The result, entitled King’s Bell, released via trusted Midnite allies I Grade Records, appeared to offer a tentative olive branch to the conventional reggae industry. Gone were the ponderous phlegmatic plank-like constructions that usually provided a flat canvas to lead vocalist Vaughn Benjamin’s verbose, lyrically dense messages. Instead Kings Bell puts his erudite reasonings to some glossy up-tempo modern one drop rhythms, played on by the cream of the latter island’s musicians – including Leroy Horsemouth Wallace, Squidly Cole and Earl Chinna Smith. Even in taking such a sharp right turn into the mainstream at such a late stage in their journey, the move was still true to the spirit of Midnite in being impossible to predict.
Since they first arose from the Washington DC live scene in 1997 with debut album Unpolished – which stated that “blackness is the colour of the universe” asking “didn’t your morning start in darkness?” – everything about Vaughn, his brother Ron and their myriad collaborators has suggested a refusal to play the music industry game. Studio forward reggaephiles were confounded by 1999’s follow-up, Ras Mek Peace, recorded with just two audio channels in the style of an old ska 45, and without mastering, reverb and delay. The group’s concerts have sometimes lasted in excess of three hours, with Benjamin’s interviews have reached similarly herculean lengths, leaving interviewers unable to remember their questions due to the sheer volume of conceptual information his responses require they digest. The new record, while attracting the lion’s share of media attention, is in fact just one of five album projects that the furiously productive collective has issued in various forms this year.
“I’ve been expecting you” says Benjamin in a deep bass tone when Riddim phones him on his home island of St Croix. It’s an unusual start to an interview with an artist. But then, Benjamin doesn’t give usual answers, period. It’s immediately clear that he doesn’t concern himself with such music press mundanities as his group’s “direction” or whether he has created a “crossover album”. For him, he explains, it’s all about the music coming full circle to return to its Jamaican roots, “to have the generations meet and join and try to do justice to the height of the works.” He is certainly proud to have worked with Campbell and the musicians of reggae’s so-called golden age. “These particular players are setters. The ones who were in the holy power in the shape of it of what came to the world. It is an honour to be even offered at all the intellectual properties of ones who set these powerful works down.”
Midnite has always been a loose entity, centring around Vaughn and his composer, producer sibling Ron and altering on a project by project basis. For this venture, however, Ron and the players traditionally associated with Midnite were nowhere to be heard. “They were involved,” says Benjamin “as natural support”, explaining that they were working on a concurrent project when this one came up. “There are many talents among us” he continues “My brother is amazing. A priest of this music. I don’t know when the world will tell the full truth of what kind of mind they see at work upon his instruments.”
Amazing minds clearly run in the family. Vaughn Benjamin could be said to have done more to widen the pool of subjects discussed in a roots reggae song than almost any other artist in recent times. In just one song, his lyrics can cover more topics than some reggae artists cover in an entire career. “Vaughn is definitely a person of information,” says Andrew Bassie Campbell the following day, “More knowledge, more wisdom and certain things that maybe you wouldn’t get in a book or in the news – you can listen and see now this man is like wow!”
In 2005 Vaughn published a book Koll Pekude (“All Reckoning” in Hebrew) based on huge archives of unrecorded writing. Despite his vast back catalogue he claims to have plenty of recorded material yet to be released. How does he manage to hold all those lyrics in his head? Vaughn laughs “Because when a man goes into a good meditation, a high place, with the holy herb and goes there with the intent of heart to overstand. Not coming with preconceived notions and self imbued ideas – just being aware of the larger picture and the larger record at all times. I think this is why. This is an approach to life itself you see”. Making a musical record and a historical record are identical to him. “I approach it in the same form which everyone first called it: ‘this is the record’. The essence and the meaning of the word seems to be overlooked now today.” Yet he is quick to steer the conversation away from his own talents – for self aggrandisement is exactly what his approach opposes “There’s a world trend that’s going towards just pure boombastic self braggery, self boastedness vainglorious thing so I just avoid these things and try to hold the things which were given and proven to be pillars and foundations of society and world and people.”
But while Vaughn is critical of the modern world he is not afraid to engage with it. Subjects addressed on the new release include the civil war in Libya and Sudan and the financial crisis. The latter is “a temperature problem” according to Benjamin caused by a lack of awareness of our “interdependency “. “Like how the equator divides the earth, the places which are cold in the cold seasons if they have no sustainable they have to draw from the places which do just for survival in real life.” And the solutions to the earth’s problems can be found in the teachings of Haile Selassie. “His Majesty says technology should be used solely for the well being of man”.
And to Vaughn, popular culture is as worthy of scrutiny as the big issues. On Banking In The Pig, on Ras Mek Peace he criticized the messages sent out by the TV programme Sesame Street. On 2007’s Better World Rasta he discussed Harry Potter while on the new disc he talks about the connection between Gondar in Ethiopia and Gondor in the film Lord Of The Rings. “But of course! We must.” says Benjamin, although it is typical of his holistic mindset that he then links his pronouncements to scripture “If you look at Hebrews ‘Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood for no man gave any attendance at any alter’, this man would be a secular man because the essence of his righteousness would be the things that appear in natural nature itself. It’s not a matter of locking away from life. Nothing that is good and righteous and holy is too much wanted to be hidden because it is needed to be for all the earth”.
This goes some way in explaining why as well as releasing their most commercial sounding album Midnite have also put out their first music video: for Kings Bell’s first single, a paean to neighbourliness Mongst I. The decision was not one Vaughn took lightly. “Certainly I have been very careful about video. As we know even from ancient Babylon Nebuchadnezzar exalted in his image and say all the nations must look at this image. So video has to be aware of what it is portraying”.
The key was to avoid artifice. “This video is so natural, it is not orchestrated. It is just a Sunday afternoon at home. The warm feeling of people who are happy to see each other at the end of a week of work and so forth, it’s a natural feeling which is what we need to cultivate in cities in countries, everywhere”.
The shoot took place at a favoured hangout, Fredericksted Oceanside Fish Market in St Croix, where Vaughn and Andrew Bassie Campbell first met and decided to work collectively. Campbell had been visiting the Virgin Islands while working with I Grade’s founder Laurent Tippy Alfred and the artist Niyorah, when it was suggested that he meet Benjamin. A huge fan of the group since the early 2000s when he visited the Islands touring with Junior Reid, Campbell jumped at the chance to do a track together. “We started talking reasoning a bit” says Campbell earnestly “And then I turn to him and say I would like him to do a song for me on the riddim. He said “No man, that’s nice, that’s good but how about doing an album for you? An album will be better and greater”.
Campbell went back to the studio with Tippy to choose some rhythms from his harddrive.
“Mainly the riddims that I chose were a little bit up-tempo. Because I was saying to myself and Tippy all along that it would be nice to hear Vaughn sing on a faster beat. With a faster tempo it could play to the younger generation right across the board, maybe even reach to the dancehall.”
In contrast to the expansively philosophical intellect of Benjamin, Campbell is only too willing to talk about the more technical aspects of the collaboration. All bar two of the rhythms were pre-recorded at Tuff Gong. The exceptions were opening track Exalt The Crown and the bass heavy Pon A Watch List, which were composed in St Croix and played by Campbell (bass), Tippy (guitar) the singer Batch (drums). In four sessions Campbell got to witness the unique way that Vaughn approaches his writing and music. “Normally when an artist hears a riddim he will maybe sing a melody to it. But this man doesn’t do that. He makes the riddim play over and over and over and he will listen, listen and write with his pen and paper and write and he will he will nod his head. But in the motion of doing that I haven’t heard one word or one melody!” Vaughan would then say “Ready” and enter the voicing booth “and you would be hearing the melody and the lyrics for the first time! The lyrics match the riddim the melody would match the riddim like it was made for the riddim and the riddim made for it”.
Both Campbell and Vaughn got into music through their father’s guitar. Vaughn who came west to St Croix having been born in Antigua, watched his musician dad practising scales as a small child. Campbell, who grew up in the busier brasher surroundings of Kingston 13, was given a cast off guitar, and took lessons from a local singer with childhood friend Yami Bolo. Andrew soon dropped his course in electronics installation. “Anything you are good at and quick at, that’s you, that’s what you at – that’s where you stand. For anyone, that’s where you discover your gifts, your blessing. Many people have talent and don’t use it up as much as I see Vaughn use it up. He doesn’t wait at nothing he just go through and it just manifests – that makes him special.”
Vaughn’s entire family were involved in music and to this he attributes his tireless work ethic and relentless recording schedule. “It’s blood you see? This is not trodding from now, this is trodding from thousands of years and we are same form now as we were then. What’s more we remember much more than the world would think,” he laughs “Some of us are children of royal – like direct you know? Some of us were taken like the children of Aristobulus who were taken to Rome, Alexander and Antigonus! So we have a stake in the outcome of all of this because all the nations send out of this blood lineage as the origins. If we go away from religion and creeds and ideologies, anthropology and archaeology will still end up in Ethiopia looking for any origins or any beginnings or any mention of that”.
Vaughn has said in previous interviews that music is just the starting point for Midnite. And it’s clear from his answers and his lyrics that in Vaughn’s mind all disciplines of thought: arts and science, history and technology, high and low culture are interconnected. “All of the different disciplines of the world they are just one discipline,” he concurs “They have the same kind of internal laws. That’s why we have any kind of technology at all, that’s why we have machinery. That’s why we have the negative charge and the positive charge. Any running automobile is a reconciliation between opposing concepts.”
Music is no exception. “It’s all the same thing! We have to just fight to throw away the ugly in each other. We know it’s permanent polarity is positive permanent and negative permanent. But he have to fight for the balanced place”.
During the track Earth Is The Lord’s Vaughn instructs us to “Search out the root of a matter before you rush to judgement” before asking “How many details can your soundbite fill in?”. Both statements are crucial to the Midnite ethos.
“The media is just a soundbite,” Vaughn agrees “Use the time wisely and make it be profitable and lucrative for the least amount of give and that’s the world today. But I know that things of spirit and matters of spirit are not that simple”.
Though they come at reggae from different places, Vaughn Benjamin and his fellow maverick Sizzla share one important characteristic – they refuse to be pinned down and defined by the media. Some might question his approach in music and interviews as deliberately abstruse and not succinct but Vaughn is not concerned with this conversation being “profitable” – just edifying. Even when delivered via a more palatable musical platform Midnite’s messages resist being trimmed, pruned, reduced or condensed to suit the dictates of the modern information age.