Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Irene Stergios
Verse Simmonds cut his teeth in the music business making sultry sex jams and R&B love letters. But on 2019’s “Gunstown,” the Virgin Islands-raised Simmonds delivered a bold reggae anthem celebrating his home turf of St. Thomas. “Gunstown” was one of last year’s best and most distinctive reggae tracks: A badman theme, ganja anthem and a dark, alternate vision of “America’s Paradise,” rolled into one big, bloodclaat tune. It was also the first taste of Simmonds’ forthcoming LP Rude Boy, which sees the singer fully embracing his Caribbean roots across a diverse set of reggae, dancehall and island pop jams.
Today, Verse returns with second Rude Boy single “Bedroom Bully,” an intimate dancehall duet with Jamaica’s rising superstar Jada Kingdom, who is also his girlfriend. The track (produced by “Gunstown” beatmakers Mel & Mus, along with Cuzyn) promises to be the first of many collaborations between the pair, who recently went public with a relationship that began, at first, creatively. Long before they updated their relationship status online, we met up with Verse in New York, tagging along as he and Jada touched down at clubs and appearances. The following Q+A took place across two conversations: One in those days before the pandemic, and another this week.
LargeUp: Your track record is largely in R&B, but you are now bringing a more Caribbean sound to your music. What brought about this transition?
Verse Simmonds: I grew up in the Caribbean, so it was a foundation. My music was kind of a fusion. But when I did “Boo Thang,” it took on a life of its own and the focus became R&B at that point. But I always have included Caribbean-influenced records in my projects. It’s always been there. I always wanted to do a full project inspired by how I grew up in the Caribbean. And now, I felt, was the perfect time to do that. I was putting it off for a while. I started putting together the songs, and it started coming out dope and I started falling in love with it. The reason I’m doing this now is the music is making it become the time. It’s saying it’s ready for me to put it out.
Growing up in St Thomas in the ‘90s, what were some of the shows that came to town that you remember? Were there a lot of sound systems?
I remember Stone Love and Lady Saw coming to St Thomas. I feel like every Jamaican artist really comes to the Virgin Islands at some point if they’re big. We definitely support it. Our island is more calypso-based. Jam Band was a big thing.
Had you made straight reggae or dancehall songs as a youth before you got into the R&B lane?
I always made dancehall/reggae songs. I used to make R&B, hip-hop, soca songs. It’s a VI thing. We just get into any genre.
You’ve written a lot of songs for a lot of other people. Which are the best reflections or representations of you, and your own style? Which songs, in a perfect world, would have been yours?
What inspired you to write “Gunstown”? It’s an anthem. Were any other songs running through your head when you started constructing that one?
The beat kind of drives what I put on the song. I wanted to walk people through where I’m from in the V.I. I’ve never done that in this kind of a way. People say it sounds like a few other songs that have been out in the past, [but] the beat kind of arranged it that way, and I followed the lead. My concept with the visual was: I wanted it to be very clear about showing where I was from, walking people through places where I grew up in the Virgin Islands. And seeing the island from a different perspective. Anytime you see it represented [in media], it looks real touristy. We wanted to show people a different side of the Virgin Islands.
What can we expect from your album Rude Boy?
Rude Boy is like an international fusion type of album. You can expect dancehall, of course; reggae; afrobeats; some Latin vibes. It’s a real diverse project. I wanted it to reflect me. I am diverse in that way. I grew up in the VI but I am half Puerto Rican and I spent a lot of time back and forth in the States. So it represents everything I’ve seen and been around. It’s one of those projects that when people listen they’re gonna be like, Wow, this is amazing. I really feel that way.
Verse Simmonds and Jada Kingdom with DJ Delano in Rockville Centre, NY
You have Estelle, Machel Montano, Kranium and Jada Kingdom on this album, as well as fellow Virgin Islanders like R. City and Pressure Busspipe. How did you choose who would appear?
The features happened organically. I would be around somebody and they would hear it and it would come together like that. I didn’t go out of my way to hit anybody. They heard it and asked [to be on it] or I asked them. I’ve been letting it happen that way. At the end of the day, I don’t feel it needs the features, but having a different perspective or voice… I am always cool with that. The collab for “Chit Chat” with an old friend is a special one.
How did you connect with Jada Kingdom? What about her style do you like?
We connected through an A&R at RCA that was interested in signing her. He was like, “Check out this girl Jada Kingdom…” Once I recognized what she is doing, I was really impressed by what she brought to Caribbean music. She has a jazzy, dancehall wave which I’ve never heard before. I think it can be really big. I think she’s a star. We’re working on songs for her project, and we have other songs we’ve collaborated on where we don’t necessarily know what we are doing with them yet. We’re still in the early stages.
What have you been up to since we last spoke?
“Bedroom Bully” was supposed to release in February, and it ended up getting held up. As we went into quarantine, I didn’t want to put something out when we don’t know what the temperature is. So I sat on it and started finishing up the project, getting visuals prepared for the release. Every month we’ll be dropping a new record. We’re starting to hit the pavement.
I shot the video for “Bedroom Bully” in Jamaica, in Port Antonio. We’re getting a lot of good feedback from people waiting for the record to drop. I shot a couple more videos for “Chit Chat” and “Wide Open.” In this pandemic, it is harder to get everything together, less people are working on sets.
I did a deal with ADA, an independent distribution company. They have Ciara, Skepta, Cee Lo Green and a few other major artists as well. They come in like a major, support it like a major, they have a full staff. They wanted to do the situation as soon as they heard the records.
You were in Jamaica for a while…
I’m kind of planting my own seeds there, building with people, rocking with the DJs.
I plan on spending more time there. We went out to Port Antonio and shot “Bedroom Bully,” I shot “Chit Chat” in Jamaica. It’s not what people expect but when they hear it and see it, they will go, This is big. We are riding the line of putting out music that is 100-percent Caribbean but still has that appeal where you don’t have to be Caribbean to lock into it.
Do you have more music with Jada Kingdom?
We have been working on her album as well. We have one on her project that we did together. We are thinking about doing a small EP/collab project. That’s probably gonna be in the works real soon.
How would you describe the dynamic there?
I’m creating music with my girlfriend. I don’t know what to say about that besides: We’re making music and everything else in between.
How has spending time in Jamaica influenced your perspective?
It made me realize how familiar the islands are. Growing up in the V.I. was different but there’s stuff about Jamaica that reminds me of the V.I. as well. We’re not as big or as busy, but certain places feel like back home. Jamaica feels like an extension of where I’m from. I love it in that way, and I get to be around the culture of reggae and dancehall in the place where it is mostly created.
They support their artists for real. It’s crazy to see the infrastructure. No other place in the Caribbean has that. There’s always a new artist getting support. They have so many artists bubbling and popping. When road was open, people were still locking in shows and they were packed out. People say the infrastructure ain’t what it should be but, the fact that there’s even one, that there’s such a machine there for reggae/dancehall music, is amazing to me. It’s something other islands need to pick up on. So many artists are getting a look. They are all in every day.