Gyptian: Singer Fi The Time

Damian Marley may have this year’s biggest reggae album, but Gyptian, who was the opening act on the recent Distant Relatives US tour has 2010’s most successful reggae hit. At the time of writing, Hold You has sold over 250,000 downloads in America and generated more airplay than most other reggae releases put together. What’s interesting is that the record didn’t break from Jamaica but other Caribbean islands such as St. Lucia and Trinidad. This is a significant departure but then the same thing can be said of Gyptian himself, who came to prominence as a roots singer – with 2006 hit Serious Times – but is now reborn as a lovers/dancehall artist after chalking up hits like I Can Feel Your Pain, Hold You and new boom shot Nah Let Go.

“I’m seeing a lot of girls this time round – a whole lot of girls man!” he says on the phone from Jamaica, after being asked if his audiences have changed since Hold You struck big.” Whenever I have a show these days, it’s like a hundred men inside the place and two thousand girls… I did this show in Canada and the response was awesome. It was as if Michael Jackson or some big, international star had taken the stage and they were pulling me like they were going to rip me in half. I couldn’t believe it but I liked it though. I was really enjoying myself.”

No surprises there – only that a relative unknown could have turned his career around in such spectacular fashion. I suggest that his newfound popularity with the ladies could be due to the vulnerability in his voice but Gyptian is unconvinced.

“It’s not like I’m doing anything special,” he attests. “I’m just being natural with it. That’s just me and I can’t explain it. I just know that it’s meant to be because I’ve never taken a voice lesson yet. What I do is like an in-born thing and that means I can sing in any manner and it must come out right. It’s like pure instinct. It’s nothing that I’ve planned or been trained for. I just do whatever comes to my mind and what I feel, and I sing about everyday life so it’s nothing complicated really.”

The story behind Hold You is a little complicated though, since at least two parties have claimed credit for it. One version of the story goes like this; Imran Passard, who’s also known as “Fire Peter” presented it to VP Records in New York as the track’s producer. This was way back in the latter part of 2009. This first version of the tune was badly recorded however, and so VP requested changes. Ricky Blaze was duly hired to play it over but apparently the basic tune and melody were already there, and most crucially of all, that catchy keyboard phrase which makes the song so distinctive. Ricky disputed this, and took out a lawsuit against VP whilst recording another cut on the same rhythm called You And I, which he then signed to Atlantic. [And which then flopped.] Ricky later withdrew his legal claims against VP, which suggests some kind of backroom deal went down.

“Yeah, but I just told Ricky Blaze what to play and he did it. That was pretty much it,” explains Gyptian. “That track was actually made at my studio in Jamaica, but the person who came with the rhythm, and with the whole idea for that rhythm didn’t want to play the studio fee man, so I said, ‘Well, you’re not giving me anything and the bills have got to be paid and so if you don’t pay for your track you’re not getting it.’ That’s how come I have it and then we were there in the States, just chilling with Ricky Blaze and just doing some stuff at his studio when I played him the rhythm and asked him to do it over for me. That’s how the song came out sounding like it did. It was out for a while but then we remix it again after that until it’s perfect.”

Did you know it was a hit from the minute it left your mouth?
“Not really but from when I hear the rhythm, it bring out the melody. It’s like I sing what the rhythm says and I made sure to sing it in patois from Jamaica too, so it have that real authentic feel. That’s why I’m saying, ‘Girl, me want fi hold yuh’ and people naturally gravitate towards that, because it’s real patois. Everybody else is trying to pretty up their stuff and do hip hop but I tell them, ‘you cannot go overseas as a Jamaican artist and do it like the Americans. You got to be delivering your own type of music and your own culture, then people can accept it more because it’s new to them…’”

Just to make things even more interesting, work on Gyptian’s follow-up album to I Can Feel Your Pain had been due to start last October, yet VP didn’t really consider him a priority at the time. By Easter, Hold You was shaping up to be a crossover hit and so they understandably wanted his album finished ASAP – especially as Nicky Minag’s remix had begun to further the track’s popularity west of the Mississippi, where few reggae releases traditionally do well. There was now a lot riding on the new album and so we could have forgiven VP for taking the easy route and hiring some well-known producers to work on it but Gyptian and A & R man Neil “Diamond” Edwards had other ideas.

“Yes, because for me that’s old,” says Gyptian. “Everybody’s looking for Don Corleon or Stephen McGregor but what about the ones who are coming after them, and looking to change up the business? I’m more into creating something new and finding my own crew of talented producers. That means when they start producing the bigger hits, everyone will associate them with me, right? I’m not saying I don’t respect the elders. I do, but I want the same for me and so when my name is linked to some big hits and gets known for encouraging new producers, then it lives forever.

Hold You changed the game man. It sounded different from everything else out there and if you notice, everybody is trying to get that same sound now. That’s how it’s been going for a while though, because ever since I came with I Can Feel Your Pain, everybody gravitate towards that one as well.”

Jamaican producer Jon FX was the architect of I Can Feel Your Pain, Gyptian’s latest single Nah Let Go and the majority of other tracks on the Hold You album. A talented multi-instrumentalist whom Gyptian calls “the real Genius,” he’s also responsible for the Drake & Gyptian remix of Find Your Love, as well as that dangerous reggae version of Rihanna’s Rude Boy.

“We wanted to look beyond what those other producers have been doing because if you just create something that’s new without any kind of foundation, then it cannot stand,” says FX from his Florida studio. “Gyptian, he just needed to adjust his sound from what he’d been doing before because he’d been focussed on getting respect from Jamaica and that can be time-consuming, y’know? The market he has, which includes places in the Caribbean like Trinidad, the Bahamas, St. Croix and the Virgin Islands, the people there really appreciate good music and they’re the audiences I pay attention to because if we were to just depend on Jamaica, we’d get depressed man. It’s the people from these other islands who start the wheel rolling where Gyptian’s concerned but he’s not like a typical singer who knows where he’s going and is familiar with keys and everything. He’s the kind of artist who breaks it all down into the simplest form, and then the songs have to be toned a certain way. It’s a formula and the mood in the studio has to be a certain way too…”

FX had played on Gyptian’s two previous albums and therefore already had a clear sense of what would make the singer sound special. The strength of their relationship ensured one hit track swiftly followed another, no matter whether they were blazing new trails by recording in an r & b meets lovers rock style as heard on Rendezvous, or drawing inspiration from the reggae vaults, the fruits of which you’ll find on Where You Belong, Leave Us Alone and Call Gyptian, which re-works a classic Steely & Clevie rhythm.

“Actually all the rhythms you hear on the album, they took like four days to come together,” says Gyptian, although you’d never guess from listening to it. “VP said we had two weeks but we did the album in four days and then spent the rest of the time partying! I didn’t have even one of the songs written already. I wrote them all right there on the spot. The only thing we had was an idea for that song Leave Us Alone, which is for the people who don’t know you and don’t even know where you’re coming from… They just come out of the blue, hating on you for no reason man.”
Gyptian is no overnight sensation, and so it’s difficult to understand how anyone could begrudge him his current success. His family were relatively poor and life was hard for him as a youngster, despite the musical training he received on his father’s sound-system, Feathertone, based in the Barbican area of Kingston. He also sang alongside his mother in their local church as a youngster, and always dreamt of being an entertainer. After moving to Portmore he’d hang out at Ravin Wong’s demo studio, where he voiced the occasional dub plate and got stuck with the name Gyptian after wearing his shirt draped over his head, Pharoah-style.

“That studio was an analogue set-up so whenever you were singing a 45, you got to be ready otherwise you’d be singing it like fifty times over before you get it right!” he says, laughing. “That’s what separates us Jamaican artists from a lot of those hip-hop and r & b artists. We can voice a track in one cut, and I don’t meet too many of them who do it like that. I learn my craft now and my songs, they’re like an air freshener man. They’ve come to clear the air, I tell you!”

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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