Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley
So far on the St. Croix leg of our journey to the Virgin Islands, we’ve introduced to you the island’s most irie jeweler, brought you to the best home-cooked meal with a side of hoops history, and given you an inside look at the artists behind the Virgin Islands’ reggae explosion. The thread running through most of this—and much of what’s happening culturally on St. Croix—is Laurent Alfred, better known as Tippy I, who we were fortunate enough to have as our guide during our time on the island.
If you’ve followed the rise of reggae in the USVI, you’ve heard about Tippy and his record label, I Grade Records. I Grade is behind much of the music that’s put VI reggae on the map, including nine albums from Midnite and, recently, “Virgin Islands Nice,” the Pressure Busspipe anthem that inspired this series. As a producer, Tippy (who now works primarily within the unit Zion I Kings) has helped shape the sound of these recordings, as well as off-island projects like Snoop’s Reincarnated.
Tippy’s story hardly begins and ends in the studio, though. An Olympic swimmer who competed in the 1992 Barcelona games, he graduated from Harvard (undergrad) and Yale Law School and then taught at Columbia, before diving into the music business. The man is officially “Ivy League” — three times over. Though music is where he ultimately found his calling, he’s been putting his law degree to use shaping the U.S. Virgin Islands’ future, having authored two crucial pieces of legislation that stand to make the USVI a hub for medical marijuana, as well as music and film production.
Tippy is a humble man not given to touting his own accomplishments, but his track record is impressive, to say the least. We asked him to speak on the breadth of his experiences in St. Croix, and his bold plans for the future of the whole Virgin Islands.
LargeUp: You wear a lot of hats, Tippy. Why don’t you run down all of the different roles you play within music, to start.
Laurent “Tippy” Alfred: I started out as just a musician— a guitarist and keyboard player—in New York City, after I graduated from law school. And then I came home and started producing, for I Grade Records. I also have a music and culture shop called Riddims here in St. Croix, and a studio. I work out of Aqua Sounds in Christiansted. Studio B is the I Grade studio. I work with live music in a few different roles. I am the co-bandleader for the Zion I Kings Band, along with bass player Jah David. I’m doing a lot of things in the micro universe of VI reggae. My mission is to put forth and be a part of the production of music coming out of these islands here. I embrace that mission on multiple levels. I do what I can to get the music out, adapt to the new business terrain, and work the community side of it to help build what’s here in the VI into something that’s going to last.
LU: You’re also doing live dub…
LTA: I Grade Dub is the live dub mixing sound system. We’ve done a lot of different events here in St. Croix, and we’re starting to tour and do shows abroad as well. I Grade Dub is me bringing the studio to the stage. I was able to track out all of my productions for the last 15 years, and bring them to the stage in a format where I can mix live, utilizing new technology with Ableton and a controller. I’ve been doing performances, both with and without artists. When the singers chant, it’s really something special because the players get to play with a band in a sense, in my 10 fingers. The dynamic is something really unique and powerful. So far, people are really gravitating to it here in the VI.
LU: People who know your music might not realize that you’re also a lawyer. You’re doing some interesting things in the VI.
LTA: I have a law degree from Yale, class of 2003. I never practiced fully but I do freelance legal research. I’ve been involved in drafting legislation for one of the senators here, Terrence “Positive” Nelson. The legislative work is cool because I have a part in drafting some laws that can bring some positive change to the VI. One is the STARS Act, which stands for Sustainable Tourism Through Arts Based Revenue Streams. That’s a bill that is going to provide tax incentives for musicians and filmmakers to come to the VI and record. That’s unique–none of the 50 states can offer such a program.
I’ve also been working on legislation around the legalization of medicinal marijuana here in the VI. There was recently a referendum that Sen. Nelson put forward and passed, which means the people of the Virgin Islands want legislation [on] medicinal marijuana. The bill that I am helping write will be before the Senate in the coming months, and we may soon have a medicinal marijuana law in the VI that will be a big benefit to both people suffering here in the VI, as well as for tourism. We have a whole universe of interest here around the herb because of our positioning, and global trends. We are trying to get people here in the VI to see the potential beyond normal tourism and industry that the government’s been focused on. Music, arts, culture, eco-tourism, marijuana tourism — these are all answers for our Virgin Islands.
LU: You went to Harvard and Yale. Did you grow up in a family where education was really emphasized?
LTA: Oh man, I couldn’t come home with no B+. I would get heat for that! I had an internal drive to be the best I could at anything I undertook. That’s inborn in me. For my father, being a first-generation Haitian immigrant, education was key, and my family always provided for us good opportunities within education. Coming from a small place like St. Croix, it was definitely a transition and a journey. I spent 12 years in America, in Cambridge, Massachusetts; NYC; and New Haven. It really opened my world up—anybody coming up here in the VI, you want to get off when you’re young. I got to the point about six or seven years ago when it was time to come home. At Yale Law School, I didn’t have the focus like everyone else to get the big job or the big clerkship. Being from St. Croix — and being a Rastaman especially — I went into it knowing the tools I wanted, and that I was going to do something more creative.
LU: When did you get bitten by the music bug? Was that something that you were always interested in?
LTA: That came later. My first music instruction was piano lessons when I was 11 but I didn’t stick with it. It was always about athletics and academics. I was a competitive swimmer.
LU: And you were in the Olympics as well…
LTA: Yeah, I participated in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. I swam the 50-meter freestyle and the 100-meter freestyle. I was 17, about to start college. It was amazing. I swam for two years at Harvard after that, but soon realized that it wasn’t taking me where anywhere that I hadn’t already been. I had already been to the Olympics and had that experience. I knew I wasn’t going to be a medalist or have a world record, but I actually held the national record here in the VI for about a decade. I had a disciplined upbringing with my academics and athletics, so I was making my family proud.
I had a great childhood here. St. Croix is a unique place. It’s a mix of cultures and an immigrant society. You have people from all over the Caribbean, a lot of Americans— just influence from all over. As far as beauty and surroundings, it was ideal. I’m an ocean child, I grew up swimming. Music didn’t hit me till college. After I stopped swimming, I just felt the urge. My first instrument was a hand drum, and I started picking up instruments one by one—acoustic guitar, keyboard, then drum machine[s]. For the next five years, I was living in New York teaching middle school in East Harlem, [and] coming home every day to build riddims with my friend Kenyatta Itola. He and I started I Grade together.
I didn’t really set out to release an album or launch a label. Vaughn [Benjamin, of Midnite] was the original spark for I Grade. He heard some music I recorded on one of my trips home, and recorded on it. It became the very first I Grade Midnite song, “If I Betray.” It’s on the first album we did called Nemozian Rasta. [That] started the working relationship that we have, which is 14 years strong now, of creating music together. Vaughn has always approached the albums that we do with a lot of creative zeal and vision for what he wants, lyrically and musically. We’ve built many rhythms together. It was a good way to start within the realm of producing and creating music. Vaughn taught me a lot about endless things. He’s a teacher. You can see that from his music. It’s been a blessing working with him.
LU: The reggae scene in the Virgin Islands is really bubbling right now and you’re right at the center of that. How long would you say that’s been going on?
LTA: We didn’t really have the movement that we have now when I was a kid. We had a lot of interest and love for Roots and Culture music in St. Croix. I remember Bob Marley passing being a big thing. I remember when Steel Pulse came to St. Croix to perform in the early 80’s. During my high school years, we’d check Midnite every Sunday at a place called Sandbar on the West Side. We had local bands but the recording industry didn’t start off really until 1997, when Midnite released Unpolished. Midnite moving back to St. Croix was a catalyst. At the same time—2000, 2001— you had other labels and producers like Ras Batch from Sound Vision Records, Dean Pond. That was the real spark for the VI reggae music movement, as it is today. But we have elders like Ras Abijah, who released the first VI reggae album in 1979. Ras Abijah actually plays with the Zion I Kings band now, and used to play with Midnite. But it’s been about 15 years since the local scene really started to emerge.
LU: Do you remember hearing any local music at a young age?
LTA: There was local calypso, soca and quelbe. We’d hear reggae, but it was cover bands—even Midnite played a lot of covers early. It’s not like now, where people can go out to a Dub in the Rainforest and catch Pressure, Midnite, Dezarie, Danny I and all these great VI artists. This is definitely a new thing for us within reggae music. But this is a music land, king. There’s a whole lot of music for centuries and decades in this place, from scratch music, which is the indigenous local music that we call quelbe— Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights. That’s always around during Carnival time, Christmas. We have songs that every Cruzan child can sing, like “Mama Bake Me Johnny Cake” that are part of our culture. Every household has music from all four corners. It’s a vibrant musical place regardless, but adding in this VI reggae movement in the last 15 years has really changed the place. VI is becoming known as a fertile ground for reggae music.
As far as impact and creativity, I will stand behind it. Right now, these islands are are putting out some of the most amazing reggae music period. We here in the VI know the roots of the music and highly rate the music coming out of Jamaica. But the world is seeing the genuine, bonafide lyrical content some of our artists have to offer. I think it’s clear at this stage, almost 20 years in, that VI reggae has a lot to spread to the world. I Grade and VI Roots are trying to spread that feeling.
LU: As someone who grew up on the island, left, and returned, what is unique about St. Croix?
LTA: St. Croix has a different kind of… mystical energy. It’s always had a rebellious streak and you feel that in the current, and the way people move and live. St. Croix was the plantation agricultural society in colonial times, where St. Thomas was a mercantile society. So a different society emerged than on the other two islands in V.I. It has that rebel spirit. That’s the spirit of Queen Mary, and General Buddhoe, and our forefathers who fostered liberation. And we have a strong Rasfafari movement in St. Croix, especially in the West. All these elements, mixed with the high speed of access to American things—A flight away from Miami, no visa needed to visit people in the States, American Cable TV and stores and industry—it’s a bit more worldly than the average Caribbean island. You hear that in the lyrics of artists like Vaughn. These are artists who spew out highly intellectual lyrics at a rapid pace, so you know the type of mind that emerges here in the V.I., especially St. Croix.
Topographically, we’re at the tip of a peak. Vaughn sings about this in the title track of Ride Tru: “On top of a mountain peak in the Caribbean Sea.” Right off shore, between St. Croix and St. Thomas, is one of the deepest points in the ocean in the world. St. Croix is at the tip of this place where, if the water was to be drained out, there’d be this peak that goes straight down. There’s a lot of dives that go off at this place called The Wall. We have a mystic rainforest on the northwest side, and a lot of beautiful surroundings and beaches galore. There is definitely an energy on St. Croix that you don’t find anywhere else. It fits with the sound you hear coming out from all these artists. It fits the character of the place, you know. It’s peaceful, serene, healing, but with plenty of undercurrent, plenty of double edges. This is not a normal society.
LU: What led you to return home?
LTA: A lot of it was the music. I was in law school releasing albums with Midnite and Dezirae and living in New York after that. I was an adjunct professor at Colombia in the African America Studies Dept. I taught two courses. One was about the role of the arts in different social justice movements throughout African history. Looking at Marcus Garvey, the Black Power movement, the Anti Apartheid struggle and how music and culture was used. It was a cool class. The second was a course where I brought my Colombia students into the high school at Rikers Island and taught a class there. We would teach arts-based workshops and lessons to the students there. I was teaching my students about the prison industrial complex and the prison system, from a legal and historical point of view, and them using their arts and insights to the Rikers students.
I had a good two years doing that, but just had a calling to come home. My wife and I just had our second child, I came down with the family, and decided to build it from here.
LU: It takes a little bit of effort to get to St. Croix. What do you see coming out of this legislation you authored? Has it been able to bring anything to the island yet?
LTA: We’re waiting on the government agency responsible for these things to promulgate the regulations, Applications can start to be taken for the [STARS] program. We just had elections, with a new administration coming in. We think [this] year it’ll be up and running. Interested companies have to set up a local corporation that they would run their creative works through, and record here at an accredited studio in the VI. Their creative content, intellectual property, and any revenues they make off of that is subject to the tax benefits that the law will provide.
It definitely could be a game changer for the V.I. and a catalyst for bringing a lot of attention and buzz, and activity and people and plane tickets, and restaurants and taxis. We’ve designed it to bring incentives for artists to perform as well. They get additional tax incentives if they do a certain type of performance here while they are recording. It could really invigorate the live music scene. We have shows here and there and a few venues, but it’s not nearly as vibrant as it could be — or should be — so we’re gonna get some energy and investment into that. Certain places can be hubs for music, like Austin, Texas. Imagine a hub like that in the Caribbean, where you know you can catch live music consistently throughout the week, with local artists and acts doing original music, not just cover songs for the tourists. It can become something really unique. That’s what the act is trying to do here in the Virgin Islands. It’s for audio and film so it can apply to television commercials, film, music videos.
At the moment, there’s only a few studios in the V.I. equipped to release new recordings with outside artists. It’s us here at Aqua Sounds, Backyard Studio in St. Croix, and BasRoc Studio in St. Thomas. As you know, music is a challenging business. With all of the changes, one thing that will never stop is recording. People will always want to hear great music. I think the business will adapt, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re hoping with this new law, major artists will decide to come here to record. Who wouldn’t want to record here, in a place like this?
There’s been some proposals to augment the law to entice film studios to set up shop here, like in Atlanta or Hollywood. Setting up professional studios and sound stages where people can do full-length shows and movie productions and take advantage of the tax benefits. All of that is in the works. I think the V.I. is really poised to be a unique hub for all things—music, arts, culture, cuisine. Our positioning location-wise, being on American soil as this sort of mini-immigrant hub of the region, it’s gonna help us. As long as we can get the right leadership that recognizes these things, we can really maximize the potential.