Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley
The Rootsman riddim —as heard on such hits as Chronixx’s “Here Comes Trouble” and Jesse Royal’s “Modern Day Judas”— has been effectively running reggae music since it’s release in 2013. The rhythm track that cemented the arrival of the so-called reggae revival is the work of producer Philip “Winta” James, until recently best known for his role as Damian Marley’s keyboardist. His second and latest major act as a producer is Protoje’s Ancient Future album, released last month.
We spoke to Winta about the roots of Rootsman, the sounds of Ancient Future, Damian Marley’s production skills, and his thoughts on the term, “reggae revival.”
LargeUp: Tell us about where you come from, and how you came to be the keyboardist for Damian Marley and the founder and producer of Overstand Entertainment.
Winta James: I grew up between Saint Thomas in Eastern Jamaica, and Clarendon, where my dad is from. I started learning to play piano, and when I graduated high school I started playing in hotels on the North Coast. I got my first tour when I was 18 years old in a band called Ruption Kru, with friends from high school: Jubba White, who is the drummer for Dubtonic Kru; Veron Dinnall, who plays bass with Alpha Blondy; and Rohan Gordon on guitar. We were backing artists such as Mighty Diamonds, Leonard Dillon from the Ethiopians, and Winston Jarrett. Then I was in bands for Junior Kelly, Bushman, Pierpoljak and Anthony B.
I got a call from Damian in 2007, on the recommendation of Lamar “Riff Raff” Brown. I went into the studio and jammed with Gong for about a week, just making music, and I got offered the job to join his band. I started Overstand Entertainment in 2004, but I didn’t think anything was ready to be released until the Rootsman Riddim.
LU: How would you describe your production style?
WJ: My production style is drum- and bass-driven. I seek to establish a deep groove and then build as necessary.
LU: You’ve played a role in bringing back ’80s sounds and riddims into current Jamaican reggae, most notably with Rootsman. What can you tell us about that?
WJ: As a youngster growing up in the country, I used to go watch sound systems set up in the evening. I wasn’t allowed to go to dances yet. They usually played older tracks to set levels and tune up the sounds. Lots of Junjo Lawes’ Volcano Label, Roots Radics backing Gregory Isaacs, King Jammy’s mid and late ’80s riddims, Sly and Robbie [productions] for Sugar Minott, Half Pint, InI Kamoze. There was a particular way the drums sounded on those Channel One recordings. I became obsessed with it. I made several attempts to re-interpret it. I had the idea to redo [Kamoze’s] “Wings With Me” but I had to search and dig to find the drum samples to pull it off.
LU: The ’80s was the era of the synthesizer. Does playing keys influence your connection to that era?
WJ: I was more drawn to the drum and bass, to be honest. Synth lines were great on “Solidarity” and “Night Nurse,” but they always tended to take a back seat to drums and bass in reggae music. Playing keys, I’ve been able to draw on my experience with other genres to add synths in a non-obtrusive way. It’s all about being able to add what the song requires, not just playing a bunch of synth lines because I can.
LU: You use some unusual melodies on the keys in your riddims. What is some of the inspiration for that?
WJ: Melodies come from listening a lot of jazz, and classical music, too.
LU: Sampling is also a part of your repertoire. Why sample?
WJ: Sampling for me helps mainly to add ambience and “grit” to the sound. On Protoje’s Ancient Future LP, we were deliberately going for a reinterpretation of that classic, late ’70s to 80s sound. Every song was supposed to draw from a sample.
LU: Tell us about some of the samples you used for Ancient Future. Any interesting stories you encountered in obtaining the records to use?
WJ: That didn’t work out for several reasons. On some songs, we were able to get the sonics right without adding a sample. On other songs, we just couldn’t afford to pay for clearances. It’s funny because, in Jamaican music, people have sampled and replayed each other’s tracks without any formal clearance, and you hardly hear anything about it. When we hired a sample clearance specialist to get us the proper legal clearances, suddenly the most obscure songs were costing an arm and a leg. Artists who aren’t staples in Jamaican music came out asking for thousands of dollars, as if we were a major label and a platinum-selling artist. One artist in particular wanted $10,000US upfront, plus publishing.
Ms. Lorna Bennett, our chief negotiator, was able to get reductions on a few, and on others we just had to go back to the drawing board. We had to change the bass line on “The Flame” at the last minute.
LU: Being around the Marley machine, what have you learned that has helped you as a producer developing your own sound and label?
WJ: I’ve learned a lot from being around the Marleys, Damian in particular. He is a dope beatmaker, a surgeon with the MPC. I was inspired to re-chop a lot of my samples when I saw how precise he was with his technique. I also learned that there is nothing wrong with taking your time to get it right. Obviously, their resources make that part a bit easier, but I have always been one to take the time to get it right. I’d rather make one dope beat in a week than 10 weak ones.
LU: What are your thoughts on the term “reggae revival”?
WJ: The term “reggae revival” was coined by an author named Dutty Bookman in an effort to put a name to what he saw happening in Jamaica with the new roots music movement. I think the confusion started once the artists themselves started using the term to describe what they were doing. That’s when it starts sounding a bit contrived. Artists living in the French Renaissance were not the ones to give it that name, those things should be left to historians.
On the other hand, there is more parity within Jamaican music now than there was five years ago, when almost everybody was making emo reggae and graphic dancehall. It’s interesting that a lot of veteran roots artists have come out so strongly against the term, claiming that they have been burning the fire from ever since. In reality, most of them got distracted and drawn into what was “hot” at the time. Now that roots music is “hip” again, they’re claiming that they never stopped making it. Well, if they were always making roots music but still music of less substance took the lead, maybe they just weren’t making it good enough anymore. You can’t take the audience for granted, times are changing. If some young artists are coming up, inspired by what you did before, don’t down them, crown them. That is the nature of the beast, though. The need to be the king is way greater than the need to see the kingdom flourish and continue to prosper.
LU: Do you feel it applies to you at all?
WJ: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the young generation of roots artists, and I am grateful for that. I strongly believe that these artists are a part of the future of Jamaican music. I didn’t work with them because they were a part of any movement, but because they were good enough. To be a part of history is very humbling, regardless of what labels have been coined.
LU: Protoje’s first two albums were produced by Don Corleon. There’s a lot of history there, seeing as they are cousins. How were you and him able to get outside of the box, and create your own thing?
WJ: The first riddim I ever sent to Protoje was thru Don Corleon—the Rootsman riddim. At the time they were working on [Protoje’s second album] 8 Year Affair. Protoje got back to me, said he liked the sound and asked me to send him some more stuff. After that I sent him the beat for “Criminal.” I went to his spot and we reasoned for a while, he told me he had a concept for an album, and he thought my sound was the sound he was looking for. I felt comfortable that he linked me for my sound, not because i was a household name, nor a hot producer at the time. We talked about what we wanted to achieve individually and we were pretty much on the same page from day one.
LU: What was the inspiration for for the vocal effects on “Stylin”? Is that a vocoder?
WJ: Yes, that is an analog vocoder on Stylin’. I had been listening a lot to Daft Punk’s last record at the time. I always had it in mind to buy a vocoder anyway. We had originally planned to get some male background vocals singing that Hugh Mundell refrain, but then I thought, why not use the vocoder? So I bought [one] and that’s the first song I used it on. Protoje wasn’t entirely convinced at first but he trusted me and kept an open mind, which is all you can ask for from an artist. When he finally heard it in the tune he dug it!
LU: Rootsman is the biggest riddim of the last few years. Do you feel you have anything in the bag that can top it?
WJ: I’m happy that Rootsman Riddim did so well, it opened a lot of doors for me and I give thanks. I don’t think about topping it, to be honest. I just try to make dope shit everyday. Some things connect more than others, but that’s the risk you take when you try to grow and not just repeat yourself all the time.