Words by Jesse Serwer, Photos by Martei Korley—
We’ve been hearing more and more lately about the community of young artists in Jamaica bringing live musicianship and roots consciousness back to reggae’s forefront. At the center of this movement, which includes bands like No-maddz and Raging Fyah and singers and deejays such as Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, Jesse Royal and Jah 9, is Oje Ken Olliviere, better known as Protoje. But, while “new roots” is a tag being used to describe this new energy, Protoje’s style is trickier to pin down.
Inspired by raggamuffin deejays like Ini Kamoze and the early ’80s production style of Sly and Robbie and Henry “Junjo” Lawes, his sophomore album, The Eight Year Affair (which was produced by his cousin, Donovan “Don Corleon” Bennett and released last month) sounds like nothing else coming out of Jamaica currently, yet its vintage energy feels right on time for the moment.
Musical diversity is in Protoje’s DNA. His mother is Jamaican singer Lorna Bennett, known for her ‘70s Lovers Rock hit “Breakfast In Bed”; his father, now a renowned track and field coach in Jamaica, was a calypsonian in his native St. Vincent known as Lord Have Mercy. We caught up with Protoje to find out about his inspirations for The Eight Year Affair, how his musical upbringing shaped him, and what his plans are to continue spreading the gospel of live music in Jamaica.
LargeUp: Tell me about the sound on this record…
Protoje: I wanted to do an update of that early ‘80s Sly and Robbie sound, with my flavor and influence from hip-hop on top of that. That’s what we really came up with. In those songs, you can really hear the influence of Ini Kamoze and Sly and Robbie…
LU: Was it a sound that [producer] Don Corleon was working with already or something you pushed him to create for you?
Protoje: Definitely a sound I was talking to him to do. Don is more one-drop and contemporary reggae, and I’m really into that Junjo Lawes, Channel One type of sound. That’s where I’m at. When we were in Europe together, we saw Barrington Levy performing—and he’s predominantly Junjo Lawes stuff— and I was like Don, this is the exact sound I want to dive into full time. I gave him the Black Uhuru Red album, and the Ini Kamoze Statement album. When we came back to Jamaica, he’d figured it out. I give him a lot of props. That shows how versatile he is, because he’s never really dived into that sound, he just did it basically to deliver on my wish, and he’s done a masterful job at it.
LU: What is it about that era that you identify with?
Protoje: Just the grittiness of it. I don’t know if it’s cause I was born close to that time. To see Sly and Robbie and Black Uhuru on stage just makes me feel alive, and I just always wanted to be on stage like that. That era to me is just my era. A lot of people are into the late 70s, Bob Marley and the Wailers era, which is also a Golden Era….
LU: Sometimes things are lionized because they are the greatest, but there’s other things that are good, too, and everybody forgets about. That seems to have happened with reggae…
Protoje: Exactly, you hit the nail on the head. That’s what I mean. A lot of people turn a blind eye to that era. For me now to keep it going I had to bring the influence that had on me and not just do what everybody is doing. It would be easy for me to jump into that Wailers era right now but for me it was important to bring forth this different type of sound. The type of energy the music has right now, I think it fits perfectly.
LU: The track that really stands out on this album is “Who Dem a Program,” that has a late ’80s dancehall sound with a synthesized melodica sound…
Protoje: Don had that riddim from about 2006, and he just happened to play it for me. When I heard it I was like yo, this is so fresh. It reminded me of that early ‘90s “Girl You Make My Day” Buju Banton type of sound. I live there. I write on all those riddims all day because that’s what I grew up on. And that was the first song that started this album. I drove down to the country to write that song. It really energized me to go forward with the second album because the sound was so different and so fresh. I’m all about trying to bring a different sound, not to be in any set pattern, but to experiment and go along up from the ‘80s to now, even to future sounds. It’s about experimenting and that gave the album a different flavor.
LU: Don Corleon is your first cousin, right? Tell me about coming up with and working together with him….
Protoje: We started a sound system together called Vendetta. I went away for about two years to Canada to do some schooling, and he kind of blew up in that two years when I was away, with the Mad Ants riddim… When I came back, I wanted to work with him but I guess he didn’t think I was ready. I went off on my own mission for a couple years and, in about 2008, I did “Arguments,” produced by DJ Karim, and that song kind of got my name out there. I invited Don to one of my shows at this time, and he heard me song do a song called “Dread,” and asked have I recorded it. I told him I was working on an album, and asked if he wanted to produce it. He said yeah, so I gave him song ideas I had, and he had a bunch of ideas he wanted me to try. And that’s how we started to work.
Read on for Part 2, as Protoje discusses growing up with musician parents, life in “country,” and making live music and bands cool again.