DAVID KATZ talks to Chronixx, a Jamaican artist who has attracted comparisons with Bob Marley… and Frank Sinatra
The problematic concept of the ‘next Bob Marley’ has surfaced at odd intervals ever since the reggae icon’s untimely death in 1981, with artists such as Ini Kamoze, Luciano and Buju Banton being saddled with it before suffering career derailments.
Chronixx is the latest to bear such lofty comparisons, yet this time, the common ground is more readily apparent; like Marley, the 27-year-old is a driven perfectionist that works with his own hand-picked band, his lengthy stage shows focussed solely on music, with little between-song chatter.
His song-writing ability and propensity for serious topics marked him out as an artist of gravity early in his career, the inexorable rise aided by a distinctive tenor that holds as much emotive power as Marley’s or that of fellow luminary, Burning Spear.
In fact, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell says he signed Chronixx to a publishing contract in 2012 because his phrasing and clear enunciation recalled Frank Sinatra’s, the link introducing his work to a whole new audience.
His debut Chronology was nominated for a Grammy and new album Dela Splash builds on its strong precedent, utilizing the broad musical palette that has kept Chronixx’s music in high demand during an era marked by fluid boundaries.
“On almost every song, it’s like a new approach,” he says, on a lockdown call from Jamaica. “I started out as a songwriter, so a part of my process is coming up with a new character for every song, working more from a writer’s perspective than someone who has a set character.
“And the coming generation, they are not as one-sided as we are: they’re taking what’s good from the left and what’s good from the right and bringing it in a neutral zone where people can experience human ideas that are for the general benefit of life on earth.
“They are people who look at things in its entirety, so these songs are really for them.”
Born Jamar McNaughton in 1992 in the disenfranchised community of De La Vega City, an inner-city district of Spanish Town, Chronixx (his father, Selvin, was known as Chronicle) made his first recordings at the age of 11 in family gospel group, Hearts of Worship.
“It was me, my brother and my two sisters,” he says. “We mainly performed at our church and we would do harmonies at a studio in Spanish Town, recording gospel music on some old Studio One rhythms. But my brothers and sisters stopped recording, because as you get older, you can’t continue singing for free; I was still in school and I wanted to do spiritual music and not religious music, but people wasn’t really interested, so I had to learn how to produce myself.”
Chronixx spent a few years hanging out at recording studios, learning the rudiments of record production. Things stepped up a notch when he began collaborating with producer Teflon Zincfence. The social commentary of songs like Capitalist and Start A Fyah already indicated an artist of substance with a striking style all his own; the Start A Fyah mixtape, released by Major Lazer’s Walshy Fire, was another stepping stone.
Released in 2017, Chronology made Billboard’s top 50 albums of the year; although grounded in roots reggae and conscious dancehall, there was a touch of house music and pop underpinnings, reflecting Chronixx’s willingness to experiment.
“Travelling all over the world, I ended up being exposed to many different sounds that really resonated with me, so that’s how I end up doing all this different kind of music.”
The experimentation continues on Dela Splash, with guest spots by the British rapper and actor, Lil Simz, American blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr, and members of Anderson Paak’s touring band, The Free Nationals, but Chronixx says Dela Splash has distinct differences to its predecessor, particularly where focus is concerned.
“My new album is more simple and the lyrical content is more local – I’m not so much in a global frame of mind. I feel like the world is over-globalised, which caused people to switch off a lot of their capacities, like since the people in China are so good at making stuff, then maybe we shouldn’t be making it, you know what I mean? And then, our industry in Jamaica has suffered for years, because reggae has become such a global music to the point where it has become over-globalised.
“So I find that because there’s so much that we can get globally, we don’t think about how we can build up certain infrastructure locally, and when I say locally, it’s not just on the island, I’m talking about the Caribbean region, I’m talking about Africa and the diaspora in general, wherever there is people who understand what I’m singing about and who can see the different layers of meanings. Because we have given so much to the globe, now we want to see what globalisation has for us.”
The local focus is reflected in the single Dela Move, as well as the album’s title, both named in tribute to a long-defunct music event held in De La Vega City, now blighted by urban decay and endemic gang violence.
Similarly, songs like the trap-influenced Boom N Rum and a forceful duet with Bob Marley’s son Damian, Darker Dayz, speak to such harsh Jamaican realities, with countless communities affected by a stark two-party divide that pits supporters of the left-leaning People’s National Party against those of the conservative Jamaica Labour Party, each living cheek-by-jowl in borderline ‘garrison’ communities; Chronixx suggests that music can act as a symbolic antidote.“All my songs are essentially about love, even Darker Dayz and Boom N Rum,” he explains. “The chorus from Boom N Rum says, ‘We need more love flowing in the streets, we need more love flowing in the town,’ and in Darker Dayz, in the chorus I’m saying, ‘Mama don’t cry’. So compassion and love, that’s like one of the bass notes in all the music I’ve ever released. Cause I write a lot of songs, but there’s this pact I have with myself where I’m supposed to put love in everything that goes out.”
Although Covid-19 inevitably threw a spanner in the works, Chronixx says it has enabled him to better bond with his wife and young daughter, using the time to reflect on his future and to cultivate self-sufficiency.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be on the road as much as I was before,” he says. “If going on a flight is so big of a part of your ecosystem and your economical world, then you have a very dumb world and a very brittle ecosystem; anything that turns the airplane off will affect your livelihood and your sustenance. It’s the same thing as importing food, and these things are the foundation of life. So whatever you have to sacrifice, it’s definitely worth it. Like whatever we are doing, we are supposed to be able to sustain it from Jamaica alone, as artists, by any means. We are supposed to get our basic and most essential things from our community.”