Now Things: Talking Global Caribbean Sounds with Chicago’s MC Zulu

November 9, 2011

Words by Erin MacLeod

Photo by Jessica Flavin

Chicago is not really known as a hotbed of Caribbean music, but the Windy City’s MC Zulu has been pumping out some of the most interesting tropical tunes for over a decade. Whether genre-jumping with producers like Poirier, DJ C, Kush Arora or on his recently released album Electro Track Therapy (stream the Poirier-produced single “Call Red Alert” here) the man otherwise known as Dominique Rowland makes the kind of music that one might want to risk labeling as transnational. LargeUp had a chat with Zulu about his love of music and mixing things up.

LargeUp: You’re originally from Panama. What was your introduction to music as a child?

Zulu: My parents listened to a variety of music. Like the Midnight Express soundtrack and Steely Dan, Bob Marley and other stuff with Caribbean influence. We weren’t the kind of family that would go out and by music or go to concerts, but we would go to Carnival. It was a big thing for us to go to Carnival, so I could hear that kind of music. The music that was playing there didn’t really have a genre. It defies categorization. Yes, sometimes it’s soca, but it also slows down a bit in Panama, and there’s other music.

LU: Carnival music exists worldwide—it may not always be soca, but there is definitely an energy.

Zulu: Yeah. I think there is. There’s a kind of energy that makes people act the way they act that I saw in the streets when I was a kid. I would see people jumping up and down in the back of a truck and happy. They may have been really poor, but that music made them happy. So I know that you can do that, and you can spread this energy to people worldwide.

LargeUp: How did you get into dancehall?

Zulu: After I got to high school, friends would come back from a vacation in Jamaica and other parts of the tropics with tapes. And for some reason they would ask me, “what is this tape saying?” One of the tunes that stood out the most was Tiger, “Ride Pon Riddim”. I understood the words, and I knew that I wanted to contribute to this kind of music in some way.

LU: What is the scene like in Chicago?

Zulu: First of all, there used to be a pretty vibrant Caribbean community here, but in the late 90s, early 2000s they had this big series of police busts and things like that. I guess there was weed trade and other stuff going on, but the police and the authorities in Chicago just ran through the community arresting and reporting—it was a very heavy handed effort. And I noticed from that point the Caribbean community dispersed. They are here and there around the South Side, or they moved to different cities or they went back to wherever they came from. The program today that is going on with crime busting is going overboard. The record labels that I used to remember, like Roadmaster Records, they had links in Jamaica. Jamaican artists would come up all the time. One of my first concerts was opening for Lady Saw. They would have these bashments where people would dress the best way that they can—the same as in New York. People would pay $25-$30. It was the same type of thing. Now that’s gone. Now, if I want to be connected to the Caribbean community, it has to be on a worldwide basis.

Photo by Parris Reaves

LU: And you’ve said you can deejay Jamaican style on any type of music from anywhere.

Zulu: That speaks to the influence of reggae worldwide. The music of Jamaica changed the world. But that’s my thing. I can take these vocals that are reggae influenced, and I can lay it over almost anything, it’s just a matter of matching tempos and pitch. But mostly what I do is that I find the holes in a track. So I am not necessarily saying that I am going to take reggae and mix it, but I find the reggae. That’s why I’ve been able to make myself known in a place where there is no Caribbean community pushing me, there’s nobody in Jamaica that I’m necessarily linked to. But I still have some notoriety, because this is my self-expression.

LU: You’re riding the riddim whether it’s juke or dancehall or electro or whatever. It’s really doing what a deejay has always done—just riding the riddim.

Zulu: Yeah, definitely. And when you hear juke, you hear soca. People will say, “man, how can you sing something that is 160 bpm?” But people do it all the time; if you break it down like that it’s easier to approach.

LU: And when you do get on a riddim, your lyrics are pretty conscious. People complain about dancehall lyrics often, can you tell me about your approach?

Zulu: When I was listening to reggae and hip hop, that’s where my influence was. People who would chat reggae lyrics are more on the conscious side. That’s why I went my way with dancehall. I don’t stand in judgment of anyone, but that was just what interested me. My vocals and lyrics are more in line with calypso and roots reggae than dancehall. But I want to be careful to not come off as preachy. And even when I do slackness, I want it to be more interesting than explicit, because it’s more seductive—and seductive can last forever. Once you get what you came for, you are on to something else. If you leave it to the imagination, you can always come back to that song.

LU: What interesting to me is the way you bring things together. You have these 90s style conscious dancehall lyrics, working with these new producers doing a bunch of different things. You’re situated in a spot where you can pick and choose…

Zulu: I borrow from the past, but not just the past. I borrow from blues. I borrow from jazz. All this different stuff. I want to establish a sound. I’ve planned three records, the Crowd Control EP, now the Electro Track Therapy and I’m working on Love Machine—love songs. So I’m going from mad crowd, to therapy to spreading the love.