t’s no secret that Jamaica has historically tried to keep soca at bay, which created a “them and us” musical mentality for much of my formative years and that of many of my peers.
However that seems to be changing, slowly but surely.
One of the key protagonists of this movement is Kurt Riley, a DJ and producer who is the son of famed reggae producer Winston “Techniques” Riley. His work in the meshing and introduction of soca to the wider Jamaican audience is without parallel.
So how did the offspring of one of reggae’s most iconic producers become the leading soca DJ on the island? “It sounds weird and unheard of, right? No one saw it coming – not even me. I just love it – I always have since my Dad brought the music home from all over the region”, he tells me down the line from Jamaica.
His DJ style is unique – high energy, hit after hit and a party within a party. He explained how this came about.
“Most Jamaican DJ’s play many all types of genres but very few specialise in just one style”, he states. “In 1998 I was in a party and a Trinidadian DJ mixed two songs – “Rev The Engine” and “Swing Engine” and I had never heard someone mix music like that.
“I went to speak to him afterwards and asked him how he mixed them like that – he said I should treat soca like dancehall. I knew exactly what he meant – he was guiding me to take the same love and passion that I have for dancehall and bring it to soca.”
It’s fair to say that this musical acceptance of soca in a dancehall context is a recent thing, something which Kurt feels strongly about.
“Soca and dancehall are basically brothers who have lived under the same roof but no one has really paid much attention to the pair of them together. Listen to a track like RDX “Jump” – it is heavily influenced by soca heavily and you can hear dancehall’s input on work from soca artists like Lil Rick.
I remember visiting Jamaica years ago, and noticing that soca was seen as an “uptown” form music – not for the ghetto youths – and I was keen to find out if that stigma had been lifted?
“Slowly but surely it is developing, but the stigma is still there because it is hard to change the mindset of generations of people in a short space of time…we need good PR and a proper understanding of the music for the people.
“When I produced the “JAMBE-AN” riddim I wanted people to know that music from Jamaica (Jam) and the rest of the Caribbean (Bean) were one and the same. You will always hear the stories of Trinis not liking Jamaicans and Bajans not liking Trinis and so on – I hate all that stuff – so I put artists from all over the region on the one riddim to demonstrate the power of a link up”, he tells me with great passion.
As a producer Riley’s stand out moment was the smash hit “Party Animal” by Charley Blacks, which achieved smash hit status and took on a life of it’s own outside of the core market.
“That song was recorded in early 2013 – and now you can see it’s staying power! South America loves that tune (there is a remix featuring reggaeton star Daddy Yankee) – that market is growing in it’s importance. I was DJ-ing at the West Indies cricket matches a while ago and was playing it at every opportunity because the crowd was loving it.
“I didn’t realise that the match was being televised globally, and the track was being played loads of time across the world! So you could say I helped to buss my own tune.”
Kurt is a real DJ’s DJ – a man whose belief in the music he pushes is admirable, and the energy he has is something which is lacking in some quarters of the music game which also means he looks for trends that are happening and reflects them in Jamaica. He is bang on it when it comes to what’s hot right now too.
“Afrobeat in JA is coming strong because we can feel it – it’s another relative of dancehall and right now it sounds more dancehall than some dancehall being made! I am gonna try my best to fuse soca, dancehall and afrobeat together”, he says confidently.
Legendary producer, musician and pioneer Byron Lee was instrumental in the development of carnival in Jamaica, and there are similarities in the way Lee “reggae-fied” soca to the Jamaican audience and what Riley is doing now.
The carnival is Lee’s baby – it fizzled out but it is coming back stronger this year after creeping back into the fold last year with some small scale events.
Riley is excited by that prospect. “The people have something for themselves again – it’s huge and can attract up to 75,000 people. Big artists like Bunji Garlin are coming over for it. His song “Differentology” is still big here. The carnival is happening all over the island- Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Kingston and St Elizabeth. Local artists are getting involved and the synergy is great for everyone all round – from the peanut vendor to the juice man and the community at large”.
He ends with a reflective thought.
“At the end of the day people just want to hear “feel good” music and want to enjoy themselves and party.”
Yep, that’s the over-riding wish of the people the world over.