Theirs is a musical delegation that’s a part of a higher purpose. Something bigger than themselves. A spiritual calling. It’s music they’ll create anyway, even if no one is watching. But, isn’t it nice when others can recognize the dedication and commitment that goes into putting out, in this case, some of the most respected roots reggae music around? And a team at Apple, Inc. recently did just that when it named St. Croix’s own Midnite’s Beauty for Ashes as the 2014 iTunes Reggae Album of the Year.
The award is issued every December by the iTunes editorial committee that ranks the albums it believes represent the top choices in each musical genre of the outgoing year.
Beauty for Ashes is a collaboration between Midnite and Twin City’s most prolific reggae music label, I Grade Records. The album bested those of other big-name reggae artists also appearing on the 2014 iTunes Best of List, including SOJA, Rebelution, Chronixx, Addis Pablo and the Virgin Islands’ own Pressure-I Grade collaboration, “The Sound,” which snagged the No. 11 slot on the list.
The VI Consortium caught up with I Grade’s Laurent “Tippy” Alfred, the project’s producer and engineer, to learn more about the Dec. 9 iTunes honor and what the project means to him.
“I feel blessed that more ears and minds and hearts will be exposed to this music as a result,” Alfred said when asked about his thoughts on the recognition from iTunes. “The real validation of this music is in the positive effects it produces in individual minds, and collective families and communities.”
Alfred said all of the album’s lyrics and vocal melodies, except for three guest vocalists, were written and performed by Midnite frontman, Vaughn Benjamin. He said the music was produced by the Zion I Kings production team, of which he is a part, along with co-producers David “JAH David” Goldfine of Zion High Productions and Andrew “Moon” Bain of Lustre Kings Productions. Lloyd “Junior” Richards took charge of the drums, with additional tracks by Wilburn “Squidley” Cole and the late Lincoln “Style” Scott. Much of the guitar work was performed by Padraic Coursey, owner of Aqua Sounds Studio in St. Croix, where most of the album was recorded.
Midnite followers know that Beauty for Ashes was released on iTunes on Feb. 25. While Alfred said he is unsure of how many downloads the album has received since then, a press release issued about the award states that iTune’s editorial committee’s chart is not based on album sales. However, no matter the number of downloads, it’s clear I Grade Records is doing something right because this is not the first time iTunes, the world’s largest digital online music retailer, took notice of the record label’s efforts.
“This is the first top selection that I Grade Records has received, but other albums have made previous years’ charts in other positions,” Alfred explained.
As for some of the tracks on Beauty for Ashes, Alfred said two of his personal favorites are “Same Boat We” and “A Healing.”
“If people deeply take heed to the words of these two songs, a lot of the problems that we face in this world and in the V.I. – individual and collective – can be made so much better,” he said.
And perhaps Alfred is right.
“Same Boat We” intertwines messages of personal responsibility, mutual respect and human dignity against a backdrop of that classic Midnite sound featuring Benjamin’s distinctive vocals. View the official YouTube video here.
And with lyrics like “a therapeutic walk through the soul is a talk of healing/just a spark of meaning/forgiveness is redeeming,” in “A Healing”, Benjamin pleads for the restoration of the human spirit in the face of countless societal ills. Early in the song, he sites a medical journal’s research on the connection between addiction and a person’s inability to make a gainful living, writing: “Increase the money, they leave the substance be/medical journals pedigree have it printed in them stationary.” View the official YouTube lyric video here.
Alfred said the three combo songs on the album “are all very special, as well,” including “Same I Ah One” featuring Pressure, “When JAH Arise” featuring Lutan Fyah and “Weather the Storm” featuring Ras Batch.
Beauty for Ashes is the eighth collaboration between Midnite and I-Grade Records, with the earliest dating back to 2001’s Nemozian Rasta. While the 13-track album was primarily recorded at Aqua Sounds Studio, additional recording took place at Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston, Jamaica and South Beach Studio in Miami, from late 2012 into 2013.
Of the collaboration’s title, Alfred said it was Benjamin’s choosing and was selected from Scripture found in Isaiah 63:11, which states: “To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.”
“To me, the award-winning producer said, “the title evokes the feeling of the times–so much beauty among the ashes all around.”
When asked about his musical inspiration for the album, Alfred said it comes from a higher power.
“Haile Selassie I the First, and his exemplary model of word and deed,” the music man said.
Furthermore, the Christiansted, St. Croix-native credits both faith and family for the longevity and success of his career.
“Some of the things that keep me grounded are my faith in Rastafari, the beauty of my children’s smiles, the quiet of nature, and the importance of the music that I help create to the betterment of people, both here and now and into the future,” Alfred explained.
Although his work often takes him far and wide, Alfred remains connected to the people and culture of the Virgin Islands that he so loves.
“The Virgin Islands are blessed with so much beauty, both in terms of natural environment and the amazing minds that inhabit these small mountaintops of the Atlantic basin ridge,” he said. “Being blessed to live and work among such human and natural beauty is what I love most about the V.I.”
When he’s not in the studio working on the next roots reggae hit, Alfred can be found trying his hand at other entrepreneurial pursuits.
“I will be pushing a recently launched business called Moringa Lion that sells high-quality Moringa leaf powder that is 100 percent organic and locally grown, harvested and packaged,” he explained. He said the plant is “a true miracle plant that can bring so much healing to various physical ailments and conditions.”
But make no mistake, Alfred’s first love is and always will be music. And he works hard at it. On the same day iTunes heralded the Beauty for Ashes collaboration, Dec. 9, Midnite and I Grade released yet another collaboration, their ninth, titled Ride Tru.
And there’s more coming in 2015.
“For me, God willing, I will continue to produce and create quality music that adds something positive to the world,” he said. “I Grade Records has several projects slated for 2015, including an album with Lutan Fyah and several dub releases of previously released albums. I will also be continuing to bring I Grade Dub–the live dub mixing sound system that has performed at events like Dub in the Rainforest and Dub on the Beach–to people around the V.I. and the world.”
Alfred says he is grateful for the support he and other roots reggae artists have received, and believes the kind of music they create can help change the world.
“To all supporters of this roots reggae music that we create here in the V.I., I would say first and foremost, ‘give thanks’, for tuning into a frequency and supporting a movement that can make our islands and our world better, and improve our dealings with one another.”
Local Midnite fans can see the band perform next at the Crucian Christmas Carnival Village on St. Croix on Jan. 2.
Feature Image Credit: David Berg of Blackwood Imaging. Dub in the Rainforest at Mount Victory Camp, St. Croix, Beauty for Ashes album launch event.