Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Major Lazer in Kingston

On Friday, I was sitting outside on campus where I can get some free wireless, and I checked my Facebook page, which is how I keep up with my friends at home. But this time I saw something happening here in Kingston, that I hadn’t heard about. One of my Facebook friends (check how these connections work) the wife of a guy I had been introduced to (via email) by an entertainment lawyer friend of mine in SF –she runs a website about events in Jamaica, and she posted the following information:
Major Lazer was launching their tour right here at Quad, the biggest club in Kingston, tonight!

I called the guy, hoping he and his wife and some other people were going, and he said yes.. and offered to pick me up on the way to the club. Woo! He came by at midnight or so and off we went.

We got there around 12:45 or so. I was on the guest list, which eases my passage past the security guards who gave me shit about wearing sneakers last time. Heading through the entryway, a jazz club called “Christopher’s” is on the ground floor, to our left. The crowd here is older and/or wealthier/more conservative looking than elsewhere in the club. The main stairway leads up past the jazz bar to the main floor. This floor takes up the entire building, but is broken up by the shaft of the central staircase (which is enclosed, and the kind of staircase where the stairs go around a central square opening that is open all the way down). This means that althogh the space has a big capacity, it's impossible to see more than about 1/3 of the room at any one time and thats when you stand in a corner, the space is broken up by the central staircase. There are bars around the outside walls, the DJ booth is at on end on the outside wall, and there’s a dancefloor in front. The ceiling is oddly low, every area is irregular-shaped, with islands breaking up the dancefloor into a smaller space, and a serious air-conditioner blasted chill air onto us from above. The sound system is pretty huge, and pretty clean. I’d looooove to play on it sometime. I’ve been through here a few times before. I’ve always been impressed with their weekend DJs, although the crowd is nowhere near as lively as Boassi, the guests have never blown my mind. And these guests?

The Major Lazer crew I recognized as they trickled in. Diplo and Switch and Terry Lynn showed up in the DJ booth, I saw them through the glass, her big sunglasses reflecting back the light. A bit later a couple of other people I assumer were MCs collected back there as well and I hoped they would all get on the mic at some point. Diplo came on the decks maybe an hour or more later.

The order of his sets gets a bit mixed up in my mind. But I think he started by playing a mix of familiar (from the Jamaican scene) stuff, i.e. dancehall and hip-hop/R&B. It wasn’t too adventurous, but certainly no worse than what I’ve heard elsewhere.

Then there was a moment where he had an MC come up. This was where the crowd livened up the most. The MC was dressed in “african” style clothes, colorful Batik-patterned long tunic and trousers and a tall cap, and wraparound shades. His rapping had a distinct accented-english style. It was Prince Zimboo, whose way of rapping the Gleaner helpfully calls a "deep African accent" (!), and he made some funny dirty jokes and the crowd responded well, with cheers and gunhands and such. He is already known in Jamaica especially for his presence on the famous Black Chiney mixtapes (hah more racialized performance - they're out of Miami but they are Jamaicans of partly chinese descent popular in Jamaica). His second big cheer came from a phrase off of one of those mixtapes - he calls himself the "Punanny Macguyver." (hee)

The fact that he is not actually African but is a sort of “African-face” performer weirds me out and is worth a post in itself – anyone else want to take a crack at that? Looks like the backstory is even less cool, but not so unusual. Lots of people really get into stereotypes here (of everyone including Jamaicans – the most popular comedienne right now wears blackface and plays a ‘low-class’ Jamaican who mispronounces words and is loud and dresses inappropriately –this SLAYS’EM in the aisles). And Jamaicans are perfectly capable of saying horrifically racist things about Africans. But I digress.

I recall a set of clubbier remix tunes, Baltimore club and house music, mixed in with Kid Cudi’s “day n night” (which is pop/r&b’s sonic excursion into club sounds)—this is something I might have done, trying to get the crowd into the clubby vibe and getting them to realize it’s not so different from music they already like. Except I kinda hate that song so it would have been hard for me to play it even for such a sensible purpose.

Next he played a set of dubplates by big names in dancehall. This seems like going for something familiar to dancehall fans, after the unfamiliar music played before. However, my companion, a longtime Jamaican music industry guy said they weren’t even the hottest dubplates, either not the biggest artists or not the biggest songs. I can’t say I know enough to judge that, I only remember one by Konshens, who is pretty big, but no Vybez Kartel I think. But the crowd didn’t really seem that into it. I thought it might be that dubplates in themselves aren't that big for this kind of crowd. My impression is that dubplates (special versions of a tune re-sung by the artist who is known for singing it ---or by someone who SOUNDS like that artist—but dropping the name of the DJ in the song) are more important in soundclash competitions between rival djs/sound systems, or in the street dances where artists really get street cred. Then again, several scholars of dubplates I know suggest that dubplates are losing importance more generally in JA. Whatever the cause, nobody seemed that impressed here.

Quad is considered a more uptown scene, it has an entrance fee of 800/1000 Jamaican (around 10-12 bucks), which is pretty high for Kingston and the inside is white and shiny and gleaming, at least the counters. The crowd is definitely more conservative or boringly dressed than at street dances, in a way that I have come to associate with an uptown crowd. People look pretty healthy – good skin, good teeth, physically pretty fit. Guys in polo shirts or t-shirts and short or shaved hair, girls in tight dresses with not a lot of jewelry and not-too-complicated hairstyles, or somewhat conservative jeans and tight tops. High heels popular (the club’s “no sneakers on women” rule is apparently followed, by most), but there are plenty of women in flip-flops too. Maybe I would call it at least partly a college crowd. More hard shoes on the men than a college crowd in Boston where I grew up, but Boston is a buncha schlubs basically.. “upscale and college” maybe?

People didn’t dance much to the housier/clubbier stuff (except for me and one guy in a white button-down shirt and a shaved head). When that stuff came up people calmed down into standing around and bouncing a bit and chatting. Except for my fellow dancer, who was black, the only people I actually saw cheering any of the clubbier tunes were white or very lightskinned (I was in front of the dj booth while these tracks were played, and I was dancing but most people just watched me or the other guy).

Overall, the crowd was not particularly enthused, at peak moments more folks busting out and dancing (maybe up to 50% of the crowd I could see, more of that on the central dancefloor), or ladies here and there bending over and rubbing their butts back against the groins of their male partners (this move is sort of catlike and questing in a way –sending the butt backwards against a guy and then making kind of a scrubbing motion- and it’s kind of funny because sometimes the men just stand there at get scrubbed). I saw a few guys who looked more like dancers but they never busted out any moves where I could see it. Things heated up a bit during the regular-dancehall set. Their biggest response of cheers and gun-hands-in-the-air, other than to Prince Zimboo, were when Diplo played the big tunes –tunes currently big in every club and dance in Jamaica – in the expected sequence: Big R&B track, then Big Jamaican vocal on the same riddim, for example.

They people actually started thinning out by 3 (which is by no means when things stop at Quad). The place had gotten pretty packed but after that initial peak nobody seemed to be really into it, although they didn’t seem exactly hostile.

My take on it? Well, I was surprised to hear about the gig in the first place. Definitely impressed that Quad took on an adventurous booking, and unimpressed by the lack of initiative, energy and responsiveness from Major Lazer/Diplo. The dancehall stuff I could have heard anywhere in Kingston, the dubplates were probably expensive but not really impressing the crowd, and the club stuff did not connect for most people there although they didn't run completely away. It was ok, but not earthshaking. I’ll fess up, we left before the end, but the crowd had left the dancefloor already and I couldn’t see anything dramatic on the horizon that would have changed the scene.

If I had been part of Major Lazer – here’s what I would have done: Since the crowd really responded to the MCs, whatever my initial plan had been, I would have asked the slew of interesting MCs behind me (like Terry Lynn!) to work with me to make a live show, freestyle, more high energy, even winging it a bit just to throw some energy back at the crowd. People would have at least respected and enjoyed them putting on a show and committing a lot of energy to it. I’ve noticed that over and over again at Jamaican shows – when someone really gives it 100%, even if the audience doesn’t really like the music, they usually respect someone for trying. But this performance was lackadaisical to watch, and not that thrilling to listen to on a number of fronts, so it felt pretty flat.

This is getting long, so I’ll save my big-picture comments for the next post.


  1. Great review Ripley! Sounds like you had an interesting time at least.
    Did you see the NY Times review of the show in NYC? I posted it on YardEdge.

  2. thanx for the review...was toying with the idea of going....what u descirbed is what i thought it would've been like..

  3. saw diplo in pittsburgh recently. kind of the same deal. very predictable. good tunes, some stuff i hadn't heard yet (like major lazer stuff before the release), but the openers cutups (who i think you know) and keeb$ from pittsburgh owned the night..