Words and Photos by DJ Gravy
Leighton Walsh, better known as Walshy Fire, is a Miami native of Jamaican descent. You may know him from his days as MC and selector for Black Chiney, the Miami-based collective of Chinese Jamaicans founded by award winning producer, Supa Dups. Even more likely, you know him as MC for Major Lazer, the reggae meets EDM trio that catapulted Diplo from king of the underground to pop darling. You also may know Walshy Fire from a million other places, including LargeUp: He’s blogged here since 2010.
While he’s on private jets in exotic destinations nearly every other day, Walshy hasn’t lost touch with the streets or where he comes from. Equally comfortable in the ghetto, garrison, or at the Grammys, Walshy lives up to the title of cultural ambassador of Miami, and beyond.
Lately, Walshy has been solidifying his name as a producer, putting his touch on what might be the biggest song in Jamaica right now, “Toast” by Koffee. A few weeks before that track arrived, we linked up with the Fireman to chat about another recent release that’s making waves. A collaboration with California-based reggae outfit The Expanders, Thanks For Life Riddim is a juggling segment featuring Randy Valentine, Cocoa Tea, Buzzrock from Trinidad and some new names like Blessed Be, Promise and Hamali.
As we caught up with Walshy at a picnic table in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood on a Wednesday night, we got into reasonings which immediately lead to debates on music, media, culture, technology, and where it’s all going. We figured we may as well press record and get the scoop on this heavily harmonic and unexpected recent release that has people talking,
Large Up: What’s the first reggae song that you remember hearing as a kid?
Walshy Fire: “Stealing Love On The Side,” which is actually an American song, but it was done in reggae. That’s the first song I remember because my mom used to clean to it, and so she used to play it over and over again.
LU: Fast forward to a lot of years later, what was your first experience working with live reggae bands?
Walshy Fire: Machet, I would say was the first actually, and we did a song together called “Naturally;” and that song actually got really big. It got picked up by a YouTube ad campaign and was in commercials. That’s the first time I saw a big check from reggae music and from music [in general]. Like huge, where it was like yo, music makes sense now.
LU: So your first success as a producer was with live music?
Walshy Fire: Correct. No question – Machet, and the song was called “Naturally.”
LU: So how did you connect with The Expanders?
Walshy Fire: I met them at an event called Day Out in L.A. They came to the event and were like “Yo, we’re a reggae band and we love what you’re doing,” and I was like, “Cool.” And I always listen to music when people send it. Always. So we exchanged numbers and they sent me their music and I listened to it and yo, it was fire! Every song was fire. I became a fan immediately. They weren’t really trying to work with with me. They were just like, “We love what you do. We do stuff too” kinda vibe, and I became such a fan I actually asked like “Yo, these rhythms, they’re so good. They’d be really dope if you put them out as rhythm compilations.” And they were one hundred percent keen. So I picked the four best ones, and we just started putting them out. “Thanks For Life” is actually the second one, and we actually have two more I’ve already voiced on.
LU: So you’re contacting artists and voicing them?
Walshy Fire: Correct. Getting artists in the studio personally or linking them and sending them the rhythm through email, then kinda curating who should go on the rhythm.
LU: Can you speak on any of the artists?
Walshy Fire: Randy Valentine, I just dropped his video. Then you have Blessed Be, a guy from Toronto who everybody kinda slept on when the rhythm dropped ‘cause they were looking at the Randy Valentine and the Cocoa Teas and some of the other big names. But all of the sound men gravitated towards Blessed’s song because he talks about a Jamaican having to move to Canada and marry a white lady to get his visa, and it resonates. It’s real shit. This is a different topic. So the song is called “Money Don’t Grow On Trees” and it’s talking about the hard work you gotta do when you reach foreign. It secretly snuck up on everybody and blew up. And there’s Cocoa Tea. He’s been on every project I’ve done. Great artist – love him. The last song we did was on the first Expanders project and it was called “Medical Marijuana.” …Marijuana had just started to get legalized and he’s basically saying, Jamaica, look at Colorado. Take that example and let’s get going. And then of course, I’ve got the young artist that I think have to go on rhythms; because I think if they don’t get the exposure next to the big artist, then a lot of the times they’ll just never get heard. So I’ve got Sage, Sean Taylor – every single riddim I put out [he] does the trumpet version, and it’s just so good – Kai and BuzzRock from Trinidad [to name a few].
LU: What’s the feedback overall?
Walshy Fire: Great. It’s been intense. To be honest with you, I don’t think anybody does riddims anymore. Rhythm compilations are like a thing of the past. So when a person does a rhythm compilation, I actually think that the new generation is like: “What is that? Why would you do eight people on the same beat?”
We grew up in the era where there were four of those dropping in a day. They grew up in an era where everybody is doing singles. There’s no collaborative efforts anymore. If you do a rhythm track, most artists are like, “ Is a riddim? No, no, no, I don’t wanna be on it,” you know? Or they wanna know who else is on it. So the collaborative effort days are pretty much done. Everybody is out for self. I feel like riddims are a major part of reggae and dancehall culture and I don’t want it to die. So that’s the main reason why I do this. I promise you I will not make a dollar from this at all. I [just] don’t want the culture to die. I know not a lot of people put out riddims anymore, [so] If i’m gonna be the last one, I’ll just be the last one.
LU: I’m gonna ask you a loaded question. Where do you see reggae going in the next five years?
Walshy Fire: The answer is I don’t know. ‘Cause I actually don’t know. We can try and guess, but, I don’t know.
LU: So where would you like to take reggae?
Walshy Fire: Well, I mean, to me personally, I would love to see reggae move into a space that maybe a new genre comes out from under it… that begins its own movement, you know? Reggae has had and will always have its movement, but reggae stays in the reggae realm, and then maybe something new comes from under it. Something brand new: Something designer. Something that’ll be representing of the youth now. Reggae’s always gonna be good. But hopefully a new movement will be inspired from what a lot of us are doing now. What I’m doing is still reggae. Thanks For Life Riddim is definitely reggae. But maybe it’ll inspire some people to continue to push the music forward, into new places that it’s never been. That’s what I’d love to see come from whatever I’m doing: Somebody else take it and make me be like, “Yo, that’s crazy! I wasn’t even thinking to go there.”
LU: What was the creative process like on this? The actual music making aspect?
Walshy Fire: Well the band made the music. I just took the instrumentals off of an album they already had out. So I don’t really know the experience they had making the music so much, I just got the instrumental.
LU: What about it spoke to you, though? You’re no stranger to this and you know a zillion producers and you can get [a lot of] rhythms from a lot of people. This wasn’t even a rhythm, this was actually a song. What made you gravitate to this?
Walshy Fire: Honestly, the way it made me feel. As a person who grew up, loves, [and] promotes reggae music, it gave me that feeling I used to have when I listened to John Holt or Ken Boothe, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs. That emotion that I used to get that would make me zone out and just sit, listen [to] music, wait ‘til the needle buck and then pull it back up and play it all the way through again. The emotion that it draws out, man — it’s weird. ‘Cause the band is from California. There’s one Jamaican guy in the band. But they grab the right emotion. They got the right intensity that I think good reggae music has always brought me. They bring it. And I felt that immediately, and that’s why I suggested to them, “nothing’s wrong with the singer that you have. Nothing’s wrong with the noting. But yo, this woulda wicked if it could cross the country, go down to the Caribbean, get some of their artists on this, and see just what could happen.” And I think it came out great. Yeah, man.