LargeUp Interview: Q+A with Walshy Fire

March 21, 2012

Words by Jesse Serwer—

A good friend of the LargeUp family and a behind-the-scenes contributor as well, Kingston-born Leighton Paul Walsh, A/K/A Walshy Fire, has been holding down South Florida for a decade as a selector and MC on the world famous Black Chiney Sound System. An avid sound system historian with an astounding knowledge of dancehall music, Walshy is also something of an ambassador for Caribbean culture in Miami, bringing a little Jamaican flavor to institutions like the Miami New World Symphony. It’s those qualities that made him the perfect choice for his latest role: as the new MC for Major Lazer, bringing some authentic soundman flavor to Diplo’s over-the-top dancehall project. Here, Walshy speaks for the first time on his new gig and his history in Miami’s dancehall scene.

LargeUp: How did you get started as a DJ?
Walshy Fire: I went to Clark Atlanta University and met with a sound called Changes, which was originally from Nannyville, Jamaica. To give you the real history of it, I used to sell dancehall tapes at events here in Miami. During the summer in high school and college, I would go to Jamaica, rack up on the latest cassettes—because I’m from Halfway Tree, all the cassette places were right there— and come back and duplicate and sell tapes. At night I was always standing outside the party with a radio and tapes. I made nice money off of that too because at that time there was no other way to hear your favorite sound. You’re gonna listen to Kilimanjaro or Stone Love, there’s not many people bringing tapes to you. I would post up where there was a lot of traffic, put the radio on the floor and have a box of cassettes in my hand and yell stuff like “Sound dead!” to grab peoples attention.

At the time selectors were real celebrities, like Ricky Trooper, Sky Juice. You hear Squingy from Bass Odyssey’s voice, you know you had to go get that tape, so they sold out like crazy. And that’s why to this day I consider myself a sound system historian. Before I was selling them, I was heavily into cassettes, like Sturgav, Stereo Mars, Youth Man Promotion. When the soundclash thing took off, it really grabbed my attention. I did not want to listen juggling after that. I still have like 500 cassettes in my mom’s attic somewhere that she keeps threatening to throw out, but she would never. I know so much about soundsystem culture because of that.

Because of that I was able to follow good sound, and there was a sound called Changes and that was a good sound for Atlanta, and they had a mic man who didn’t show up to the party and said, “Yo you want to get on the mic,” and because I had been listening to the sounds for so long I knew exactly what to say. You see a girl kinda of give you a smile and from that it was like “alright, well I’m going to start MCing.” It started off as a thing I did on the side in college, I didn’t really think I’d do it for real. because after college I went to grad school at Florida A&M University

LU: For what?
I have my masters in journalism. I was playing sound that whole time I was in Atlanta for five years but because I was MCing, back then it was like “you’re the selector, and I’m the MC we’re not going to blur roads.” But when I got my masters, that’s when I had to mix and talk for myself and that’s when I brought my first record.

After college I went to IBM with my marketing degree. I was getting paid ridiculous but I hated it. So I started to think “yo, I’m gonna try to do this DJing thing for real.” I had a friend in NY who’s no longer with us—RIP Dagga Don—so I was like “Yo I want to move to NY.” In my opinion the best DJs in the world were coming from NY so I thought if I want to do this, that’s were the best guys are doing it. I stayed in Canarsie and he ended up getting me a job at [Brooklyn record shop] Beat Street. That’s when I was like “there is no turning back.” DJ culture was the best thing to ever happen to me. Beat Street was like being thrown into the Harvard Law program if you wanted to be a lawyer. Every record you could ever think of was there, every DJ that mattered was coming through there. As a dude who just started buying records, it was the best thing to ever happen to me, so I stocked up on records like crazy, learned how to scratch. The night culture in NY was just dope at the time too. You had a lot of clubs that were really popping. I learned as much other music as I could while I was there. But when wintertime came I realized that I was not built for up north. I ended up getting locked up for trafficking and possession. I did a little bit of time. Then after that a friend of mine was murdered, so after that I was definitely done with NY.

LU: Was that when you came back to Miami and got with Black Chiney?
I had moved to Jamaica first for about a year, and then I ended up playing with a sound called Coppershot down in Jamaica for about a year, still some of my best friends in the world. My thought was if I could make it in Jamaica, and I could make it in NY then there is nowhere I can’t do good. I would call my cousins or beg my friends to go all over to every clash. We’d drive two hours to a clash, and then turn around and come back, to go see Exodus clash Blackkat and then come right back. After a year in Jamaica I was like “lets move forward” and in Miami I had a lot of foundation, so that’s when I came to Miami. [Black Chiney’s] Bobby Chin saw me at a party and this is when Black Chiney was the biggest sound in the world, we’re still one of the biggest but this was right after the hype of Fully Loaded, and he was like “we’re getting four gigs a night and we need somebody else, do you want to play the sound,” and I was like hell yes. That’s when I met Supa Dups and he told me I needed a computer. This was like 2001. I was sent on a flight that next week to Montreal, and I didn’t know how to play music from a laptop at all. So I’ve been playing with Black Chiney for about 9-10 years.

LU: What was going on with Black Chiney when you joined them?
They had just finished Fully Loaded, they were touring the world, had five dates a night. If they could do it they were doing it. I had never traveled the world like that on that level.

LU: What is it about Black Chiney that appealed to people, do you think?
Black Chiney is just one of dem sounds where it’s just raw and hilarious, and it’s so Miami. The Miami sound, and I think we are seeing it now with hip hop as a whole, like Rick Ross and everything, is just a sound that a lot of people like and they’ve always liked from back then, and Supa Dups and Bobby Chin were the ones who where taking the Miami sound to dancehall, taking dancehall and putting it on top of the Miami sound and it just happened to connect to the whole globe, so we were doing everything right. We’d go to the right party and play the right dubs and the right riddims, the right remixes and nobody else could play them, and Bobby had the right speech. We were on top of the world.

LU: So what is going on with you right now—meaning Major Lazer, and other things as well.
WF: The past two years have been the best years of my life. I ended up last January getting a gig with the Miami New World Symphony as their official DJ. So I am with the orchestra now. Crazy. Everything started to move in this hyper progressive direction. Like the saying preparation meets opportunity equals success. These years that I’ve been doing this hard work and getting paid Waffle House because I didn’t know people was making money, making sure I made mixtapes and stayed mashing up every single party, that last year all of these opportunities came and then it was just, “Walsh is the best person for that,” “Walsh is the guy for that.”

Summertime, my father passes, that ends up giving me the wickedest re-focus ever. I was already on some crazy focus but my father passes in June. August, I get a call, they’re like “Yo, we got a TV show in Jamaica called Guinness Sounds of Greatness, we want you to host it.” And I’m like man that’s unbelievable. I even asked him yo, why’d you choose me. And they said we’ve been watching you. You been working hard. The Guinness show popped off and I move to Jamaica for 3 months, August to November. I ended up being in Digicel commercials because of it. I ended up hosting concerts because of it. To the point where people are like “Yo, you should stay in Jamaica.” But I don’t want to be in a small box. I want to be able to globalize what I’m doing so I would always make sure that I still have my relevance in Miami and in the world with Black Chiney and stuff like that. Then summertime, right before that, Major Lazer comes to Miami. [I was introduced] to Diplo and to Switch and everybody so I ended up being friends with them. We connected, talked shit whenever they come into town.

Diplo ended up being a really big fan of Black Chiney, which was dope. He was like “You know, Black Chiney is the reason I’m even doing this Major Lazer thing right now because you guys are the kings of this shit.” Then this November Guinness ends, I’m coming back to Miami. I kinda get a call from Wes and he’s like, “We got a lot of shows coming up and we’re gonna need some help.” So they had me, they had [Jillionaire] just kinda doing shows whenever we could because you know we had our previous bookings and stuff. So I did a couple of shows and we really, really rocked those shows. After the second or third one, the road manager was like “Yo, what do you guys think about making Walshy a permanent member of this?” I just remember sitting in the room and a bunch of people I don’t know commenting on it. I had no idea who they are. They were other electro DJ’s, techno DJ’s. You got Dillon Francis, you got Skrillex just commenting and everybody was like, “That’s a good choice.” The Major Lazer dates just started coming in more. Everything that you could want in a career is happening.

LU: What can you tell me about the setup of the new Major Lazer show?
WF: Well, it’s me, Diplo, Jillionaire and two dancers. Jillionaire is going to be handling the mixing along with the lights. He’s going to be doing some crazy lights. I don’t want to give away too much. All I can say is Diplo is going to get into the crowd a lot more. Like he’s about to be… it’s going to be crazy. And of course, you know the Major Lazer album is coming out in the summertime.

With Major Lazer at Liv in Miami

LU: So no more daggering I presume…
The daggering thing is not like it was so it all seems that it’s working out in the right time. The jumping off a ladder onto a girl thing is kinda played out and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way at all. It had a run from the mid-2000s until like 2010, where cats was really like daggering people all over the place. And it’s not like that anymore. You go to a dancehall party and you will not see somebody walk in with a mattress no more. You would go to a party and somebody would bring a little kiddie pool to a party to jump to dagger some gyal. That shit was normal and now it’s not. Everybody has kinda seen it, done it and has moved on to something else. Major Lazer, I think is the same thing. We’ve grown, we’ve developed.

You are going to have some people who might want to see something like that but the people who understand Major Lazer and know that the music is what it is really about and the energy of the show are going to have a great time. You’re also going to have some people that are like “Yo, I don’t really wanna see somebody jump off a ladder on top of a girl. I saw it last time you guys came, I know what daggering is, and I know that nobody’s really doing anymore. So don’t treat us like we don’t know what’s happening out there.” If I got on stage and started daggering people, I believe that the people would be like “We know that that’s old now. We’re not dumb, we’re hip to what’s going on.” I don’t want to speak too much on what the show is about to have and has been having but it’s amazing right now. We’ve gone into a for real show. The lighting is crazy. We’re bringing stuff that’s gonna make people laugh and have a “what the hell” kinda time. You know Major Lazer’s  still gonna bring that “What the Fuck?”  but in a totally evolved way because we want to make sure we’re on the pulse of what’s happening.

LU: Are you playing like all the Major Lazer shows from here on out?
WF: Right now, yes. I’ve been playing with Black Chiney for nine or 10 years. I do as many Black Chiney gigs as I can. But right now, the Major Lazer thing, the energy is amazing and I love it.

LU: It’s a different crowd.
WF: Yeah man, it’s a completely different crowd. I stage dive at a Major Lazer show. There’s no way I’m stage diving at a dancehall party. I don’t know dancehall might get there but right now, nah nuh badman nuh really want no jump on they neck now. But the kids that come to a Major Lazer show, they’re insane. If you see the energy they bring man, it’s insane man so it’s two totally different crowds. It’s weird but somehow we are connecting the dot of those two totally different crowds.

LU: How has what they’re doing influenced dancehall in your view? It used to be that outsiders making dancehall couldn’t really get any support in Jamaica but then “Pon di Floor” came and kind of mashed up the place. I was not expecting that.
WF: A mega hit, right? Not only was it a hit in Jamaica but you go to an all American club in Texas and they was playing it. The song was a straight across the board hit. It was just one of those moments when the energy of a song is just incredible. I think that Major Lazer, Dre Skull, Adde—the guy that did the Summertime riddim—all these guys producing off-island dancehall are maybe not changing dancehall but just adding another flavor to it, really. I haven’t heard anybody in dancehall try to re-create “Pon di Floor,” really. They are still doing the riddims how they want to do them.  If everybody wants to make riddims that sounds like hip-hop that’s just what it sounds like right now. I don’t think we are really changing anything like where people go “Alright, from this album on, reggae and dancehall is gonna sound like this.” But for sure it’s bringing people from this generation who might not be into [dancehall] into it, and also adding to what you can play at a party. It’s all a plus. There is nothing negative about it, it’s all positive energy, it’s all good music.

LU: So your head bust open at the South by Southwest show stage diving…
WF: Yeah mon, mi buss up mi head mon.

LU: So what’s the most interesting thing that’s happened so far?
WF: That has to be it. I mean it’s only been like 10 or 20 shows but that is by far. Stage diving is still new to me. This is probably only like my 10th stage dive that I hit my head but it actually wasn’t the stage dive, it was getting back up on the stage, there was a low hanging speaker and I didn’t see it so while I was pulling myself up I hit my head. But I’m getting used to it. Stage diving is what’s up. Pouring champagne on people is what’s up. You know, whatever kind of foolishness that Major Lazer brings is what’s up. I just love it. And the people love it and they have a good time.

LU: What do you find people are reacting most to that you do?
WF: Oh man, the stage dive definitely wins man. But the people love when I call a person out the crowd to come dance with the girls ’cause those girls just mangle any guy. They just destroy any guy that gets on the stage. They just absolutely wig out on them.

LU: You’ve been playing shows with Major Lazer for a few months now. Why did you keep it under wraps?
WF: I honestly believe that everything I’ve done in life and been successful with is because I take the time to learn it and build in it versus jumping out with a big ass blast like “YO!!!” I take the time to make every person respect it, where they accept it. It’s just like opening a restaurant in my opinion. If you don’t have the cooks and the waiters and everything right you can have this huge grand opening, everybody comes to your joint and your food and staff is horrible and you’re out of business. I’d rather the soft opening. I’m just gonna take every show at a time. I still haven’t blasted it. I’m not really going to blast it. I would rather the people who love Major Lazer and appreciate what I’m doing to co-sign me blast me out and say this guy Walshy Fire really brings a dope energy to the party, versus me louding it up like “this is me doing this!” I feel like that guy never really gets too far.

LU: But people must be noticing, ‘Hey, that’s Walshy Fire from Black Chiney up there with Major Lazer!”
WF: They start tweeting. I had no idea that a bunch of Caribbean people would have come to a Major Lazer show in San Francisco. And then I get on Twitter after the show and see the tweets, ‘Yo, that’s Walshy Fire up there MCing for Major Lazer, what the hell!” I love that. It shows I’ve been working really hard at this, at a level where people say dat youth deh, he’s got his own voice and style and energy, and they appreciate that, and I appreciate them even noticing and supporting it.