Words by Selector Iscious
Photo by Martei Korley
The lead singer and founder of St. Croix-based bands Midnite and Akae Beka, Vaughn Benjamin was a voice and a force like no other in the annals of reggae music. He was a modern-day musical medicine man. A devout disciple of His Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie. An alchemist of song. A visionary teacher. A rasta-healer-poet.
Vaughn’s output alone puts him in a unique stratosphere: 72 albums in total. 61 as lead singer of Midnite, 11 in the same role with Akae Beka. And a whopping 1,500 songs in his labyrinth of a catalogue. Midnite and Akae Beka’s live performances were legendary in their own right and typically lasted two to three hours. Being in the audience was akin to entering a trance-like, highly-meditative state, and there was nothing even remotely like it. Vaughn and his fellow musicians and producers essentially created their own branch of reggae music, sometimes called Midnite Dub. Together with his brother Ron Benjamin and the original Midnite band — and largely in tandem with the I Grade Records camp — they put the U.S. Virgin Islands on the worldwide reggae map.
Like countless fans around the world, I was shocked by the news of Vaughn’s passing Nov. 4 in Port St. Lucie, Florida at age 50. The days since then have been full of Midnite/Akae Beka reflections, tributes, stories, testimonies, remembrances and most of all, MUSIC. Although it is difficult news to bear, I continue to take solace in the multitude of his works. Vaughn left us scrolls on top of scrolls of teachings and blessings in the form of song.
According to shamanic traditions, after death the physical body returns to the earth, our knowledge returns to the mountains, and our essence or soul returns to the stars. We give thanks to brother Vaughn, and pray that his journey be sanctified and jubilant. His legacy will undoubtedly live on for eternity. Jah! Rastafari!
*A note about this list:
This is not meant to be a definitive list of the best Midnite albums. Such an endeavor would be contrary to what Vaughn Benjamin stood for. With such an expansive catalogue, every Midnite fan has their own personal favorites. This is simply one fan and DJ’s rendering of seminal albums. The only order that I have given to the albums presented is chronological by release date.
Unpolished (Rastafaria, 1997/2001)
Midnite’s debut album was originally released exclusively in Namibia, Africa in 1997 on the New York-based Rastafaria label, and later re-released to a wider audience in 2001. The band was even invited to perform in Namibia in 1998 in support of the album. Unpolished was recorded at East Coast Flava Studios in Washington, DC, where the band was living at that time. That original band consisted of five insanely talented musicians: The Brothers Benjamin, with Vaughn on lead vocals and Ron on keyboards; Phillip Merchant on bass; Dion Hopkins on drums; and Ras Abijah on guitar. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Unpolished was that it was recorded entirely on a two-track recorder without the use of any mixer, equalization, overdubs or effects. The drums were not even mic’d! Pure, raw, uncut roots dub reggae with uber conscious lyrics… Midnite had arrived!
Black is the color of our Solar System
Out of blackness was born the light
Black is the color of the whole universe
Your morning starts with darkness
Did not your morning start with darkness
Did not your morning start with darkness
Did not this morning start with darkness hey
Well so does tonight
Alpha, alpha and omega I
The beginning and the end
Ras Mek Peace (WildChild, 1999)
Ras Mek Peace is 60 minutes of undiluted consciousness over pulsating bass grooves and hypnotic rhythms. This is authentic, rebel, roots, rasta reggae music with piercing lyrics, and every song on the album — which featured the lineup of Vaughn Benjamin on vocals; Ron Benjamin on keyboards and production; Tuff Lion on guitar; Joe Straws on bass; and Dion Hopkins on drums — can be considered a Midnite anthem.
The aptly-titled sophomore album was mastered live to two-track analog tape with no mixing board, filtering, compression, equalization, noise reduction, multi-tracking or overdubbing of any kind, in keeping with the ethos of Maple Shade Studio in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The D.C.-area studio, renowned in jazz circles, is situated in an old mansion on a former tobacco plantation where owner and chief engineer Pierre Sprey designs and builds all of the electronics, from microphones to tape recorders to wires.
And them a wonder what graffiti a say
This is the hieroglyphic of the modern day
And them a wonder what the hip-hop youth a say
This is the hieroglyphic of the modern day
Jubilees of Zion (Afrikan Roots Lab, 2000)
After five years in the Belly of the Beast, Washington D.C., Midnite packed up and returned to St. Croix, where the Brothers Benjamin were raised. In 2000, they opened their own African Roots Lab recording studio and record label in Christiansted. The opening of the studio would incite a roots reggae explosion on the island. With Abijah Hicks returning on guitar and Philip Merchant joining on bass, alongside the core lineup of Vaughn, Ron and Dion Hopkins (on drums), the album featured additional support from Whealan Massicott (guitar), Simpson Desbonnes (lead guitar), and Lidj Tafari (percussion).
If you forced me to pick only one Midnite album to play for the rest of my days, I’m taking Jubilees of Zion. The now-defunct Midnight Raver website ranked it as the best album of the new millennium. Personal favorites on this 15-track masterpiece include the title track, “Birthright is the Ticket,” “To the Bone,” “Great Zimbabwe Walls,” “Southeastern Moon,” “White Collar Criminal” and “Ring Out a Chant.”
When they saw Zimbabwe walls
They said it was the Phonecian
They said it was the Syrian
They said it was the Chinese
When they saw Zimbabwe walls
They said it came from the Iberian
We know it is one hundred percent African
~ “Great Zimbabwe Walls”
Nemozian Rasta (I Grade Records, 2001)
This album marked the birth of a beautiful union between Midnite and I Grade Records that would result in a staggering array of conscious, uplifting and mesmerizing works in the years to follow. Nemozian Rasta was an early release from I Grade, a label which started during founder Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred’s time living in New York CIty, and took on new life with his return to his home island of St. Croix.
The album title refers to the Greek goddess of memory who gave birth to the Muses; it featured its own Virgin Islands goddess in the form of Dezarie, the Queen of V.I. Reggae, who appeared on three of the album’s 16 tracks. Personnel consisted of Vaughn Benjamin on vocals, flute and percussion; Ron on keyboard; Phillip Merchant on live drums and guitar; Donny Dread on programmed drums and keyboard; and Kenyatta Johnson on bass. Tippy Alfred contributed drums, keyboard, and guitar, as well as engineering and production.
Little more food fe eat, little more herb fe bun
Mi chant down babylon can’t dun
Blood sucka mosquito, I smoke dem out fe fun
Still ave dem place which part dem belong
Jah mek enough for everyone
Jah mek enough for everyone
~ “Enough for Everyone”
Seek Knowledge Before Vengeance (Afrikan Roots Lab, 2002)
One year after Nemozian Rasta, Midnite returned to their own Afrikan Roots Lab studio and produced the mighty Seek Knowledge Before Vengeance. One of the highlights among the stellar 13 tracks is “New Life,” a sublime offering from Ron Benjamin, who takes over vocals with a touching tribute for his then-newborn child. Other standout tracks include the title track, “Ras for A Reason,” “Late Nite Ghetto,” and “You Don’t Know Me.” Album credits are given to Vaughn Benjamin on vocals and percussion; Ron on keys, guitar and percussion; Abijah Hicks on guitar; Phillip Merchant on bass; and Dion ‘Bosie’ Hopkins on drums.
If you tell your woman bout some movement – stars in the sky –
Bout some light from out far shining in her eye
Every crevasse of the heart of love
As you share and finalize
Let Lone Ranger keep on wearing his disguise
Let the man that she sees be the man that she hears
Bring her the fruit from the sun
Take away her double-vision
~ “Late Nite Ghetto”
Ainshant Maps (Afrikan Roots Lab, 2004)
By the time Midnite released their third album on their own Afrikan Roots Lab label, Ainshant Maps, the band was a well-oiled roots reggae machine. Ron Benjamin was at the peak of his production prowess, and Vaughn absolutely unleashed lyrical brilliance throughout the album. Highlights include the reflective opener “Praise Jah,” the upful “Livity,” the fiery “Drough,t” the defiant “Abadan Abyss,” the thumping “Man Tain,” the praiseful “True King” and the playful “Dub Playt.” Vaughn also contributed guitars and percussion to the album, with Abijah Hicks on lead guitar; Phillip Merchant on bass, Dion Hopkins on drums, and Ron doing a bit of everything: Keyboards, guitar, percussion and background vocals.
“I hope I make you feel like there’s an army of millions of furious lions coming!”
Infinite Quality (Lustre Kings, 2007)
In 2007, Vaughn joined forces with Lustre Kings, Zion High and I Grade — the trio of production teams that would later come together under the banner of Zion I Kings to produce many of Midnite’s later works — to create the 18-track powerhouse Infinite Quality.
The album was released on the Lustre Kings label, headed up by producers Andrew “Moon” Bain and Corrin Haskell, a New York- and Bay Area-based duo who have released a steady stream of conscious reggae from 1998 to the present day. Standout tracks on the album include “Dew,” “Right Here,” “Infinite Quality,” “The Grounds,” “Lose Everything,” “Stay with His Majesty,” “Dominion” and “Provide.”
Call precipitation the dew,
To perfection she bring the earth fruits,
Rainwater bring the
Equilibrium she demonstrate to brute,
Lately she only selling her celebrity to youth,
Mystery Babylon water head to be female too,
Actualizations of prophecy come true
So you see now Jah now the youth a revolute
Kayamagan (Rastafaria, 2008)
This crucial set was actually recorded nearly ten years prior to its release on the Nyack, NY-based Rastafaria label, in 1999 in Washington DC. On Kayamagan, Midnite linked up with producer Desmond Williams, who would go on to join Thievery Corporation as their lead engineer and co-producer, contributing bass, guitar and keyboards for most of the group’s tracks. The Jamaica-born, New Jersey-raised Williams, who honed his craft under legendary dub engineer Scientist, became an in-demand sound engineer for live reggae and jazz acts in Washington D.C. during the ‘90s, which is how the relationship with Midnite came about.
The album derived its title from an ancient West African king by the same name. Album credits were as follows: Vaughn on all vocals, Desmond Williams on all instruments except bass by Joe Straws on “A Cool Veranda”; Guitar by Trippa on “The Trixter” and “A Cool Veranda” and Guitar by Ron on “Scarface”. Highlights include “Burning Fire” “Repatriation Song” “Scarface” “The Good Life” “Reload” “The Trixter” “Jah I” “A Cool Veranda” and “Unrehearsed.” In other words, the whole blessed album!
If a guy want fe know where them come from
Tell him consult Revelation
Which part them come from pon Creation
I-man purpose fe write pon my heart all a tune say
Vatican what dem a in dey?
What kind of big dirty secret dey hide way?
Them all a hitch up a cart a likkle white lie
to them robbery and them payday
Every Scarface wannabe movie imitator Mafioso don man
after them kill man and kiss ring
the same boy gone straight a confession
confessing to the same kind of man
and so him forgive and call it indiscretion
Beauty for Ashes (I Grade Records, 2014)
The 2014 Itunes Reggae Album of the Year, Beauty for Ashes was a landmark release for Midnite with more of an “accessible,” mainstream roots reggae sound. The album was the seventh collaboration between Midnite and I Grade, and it was produced by Zion I Kings. This U.S. x U.S.V.I. collective of musicians, producers and singers was arguably creating the highest quality modern roots reggae in the world at that time.
The 13-track gem features guest appearances from Lutan Fyah, Pressure Busspipe, and Ras Batch. Parts of the album were produced in Jamaica at the legendary Tuff Gong Studios with the late Style Scott and Squidley Cole on drums. The godfather of kette drumming, Scully, is also featured on many songs. Highlights include “When Jah Arise,” “Same Boat We” the title track, “Same I Ah One,” “A Healing” and my personal favorite, “Weather the Storm.”
The highest live, the highest live
To trust where someone is we need to live we need to live
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness
And I and I is inna sameness you see it
Beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning
The one chance the conscience see in all i-manity
‘Mong all nationality, the full spectrum of everything it is
JAH can be found wherever people be
So don’t let it be hatred of a deep degree
Lets try to put perspective to the scrutiny
When reading from the deeds chronology of history
All nations have their shame and pride revealed
As the Lion of Judah loose the seven seal
~ “Beauty for Ashes”
Portals (I Grade Records, 2016) || Livicated (Zion High Productions, 2016)
In February 2015, Midnite cancelled their upcoming tour due to “a life changing medical emergency, convictions, and revelations.” Later that year Vaughn reformed the group without his brother and renamed the band Akae Beka, after the oath between the Most High and Micheal the Ark Angel, as described in The Book of Enoch, chapter 68, verse 20-24.
Though Vaughn himself also became known as Akae Beka, the newly formed group consisted of Vaughn on vocals; Edmund Fieulleteau and Kenny Bryon on guitars; Sly Molina-Curet on drums and percussion; Ras L on bass; and Suren Fenton on keyboards. Portals, released in April 2016, was the second album from Akae Beka and the first for long-time Midnite affiliates, I Grade Records, with Zion I Kings responsible for production. Highlights on the 13-track album include the spellbinding opener “Heavy Low,” “Ideals of the Emperor,” the horn-laced “Like Rhyme,” and my personal favorite, “Let Babylon Go” featuring VI talent Danny I, as well as the serene final cut “Love is the Mainstay.”
Six months after Portals, Akae Beka dropped Livicated, a 12-track effort produced by Zion High Productions. Zion High’s main producer, bass player Jah David, was joined by Aston Barrett Jr. (the son of Family Man) on drums; Chet Samuel on guitar; Andrew “Drew Keys” Stoch on keyboards; Jah Bless on horns; and the legendary Yami Bolo on melodica. The result was a lush, crisp, and melodic musical landscape for Vaughn to do what he does. Highlights include the driving opener “Firmness”, “Discreet”, the upfull title track, the phenomenal “Daughtaz and Sunz,” “Lifetime,” the touching “Faith” and “Handle Sumptin.”
All who have and who no have no transportation
Friends moving together and inna caravan
Who inna sports car, who inna minivan
Some look well sci-fi wid dem innovation
Haile Selassie, The Conquering Lion
The wholly precious anointed the Christ-head one
Got the devil on the run and umm
Got the Satan on the run and umm
~ “Daughtaz and Sunz”