“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.”
For those who were unaware, reggae left Kingston, JA many years ago. And while it has cropped up from time to time in the U.S., Canada, Spain, France, UK, and even on the Ivory Coast of Africa, for at least the past ten years its capital has undoubtedly been St. Croix, Virgin Islands. This is where we find Afrikan Roots Lab, the home and experimental sound base of MIDNITE, roots reggae’s most influential and prolific roots reggae collective.
Notwithstanding recent claims staked by the likes of Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, Jah9, and most recently, Addis Pablo, the roots reggae crown still sits in St. Croix, and it will take more than a few brilliant modern roots reggae albums from Kingston’s finest new artists to return it to the place of its birth. If you doubt MIDNITE’s ten-plus year domination of the roots reggae genre I invite you to read MIDNITE In The Garden of Good and Evil where I make the case.
Perhaps it is no coincidence then that MIDNITE’s latest effort dropped on the same day as the extraordinary IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE by Addis Pablo on Tuesday February 25, 2014. With his album, Prince Pablo makes the boldest statement yet for the new roots movement in Jamaica. If there is any tug-of-war going on here, it is a respectful one as Pablo recently laid a melodica track for MIDNITE. And while MIDNITE has surely taken notice of the sound and seriousness of the music coming from Jamaica of late, they don’t seem to be intimidated in the slightest.
Their new collaborative effort with I-GRADE titled BEAUTY FOR ASHES is their most solid since 2012’s CHILDREN OF JAH, which I thought was nothing short of a modern roots reggae masterpiece. At the time I reviewed the album I was far from a MIDNITE fan. I was a skeptic who rejected the band’s sound fifteen years ago as novelty, a blend of 90’s dancehall, roots reggae, and african mysticism with a strong afro-centric vibe. CHILDREN OF JAH spoke to me in a way that no other album did at the time, and the several months I spent immersed in the band’s music while researching MIDNITE: In The Garden of Good and Evil made me one of their most ardent supporters.
BEAUTY FOR ASHES is very strong, with consistently solid riddims from start to finish – all of them a product of the brilliant musical minds of Zion I Kings who bring the pain for Ronnie Benjamin and his tight band of talented musicians. Throw in a brilliant mix by I-Grade’s engineer-in-chief Tippy-I and you have a nearly flawless record. Brother Vaughn is back with plenty of fodder for the government conspiracy theorists and alien enthusiasts. His “chant-and-call” style of vocal delivery is still as unique-sounding as it was when I first heard it, however, his style has evolved considerably. No longer content to spit deeply intelligent lyrics over his brother’s timeless roots riddims, the enigmatic lead singer now allows his vocal to ride the riddim – and more often than not, drive the riddim home – making this tight band’s sound almost airtight. Add to this the collaborations with some of Jamaica’s best and brightest roots reggae artists, and you’ve got a modern roots reggae album that will surely turn heads.
The title of the opening track “A Reminder” is a fitting one, as those who slept must be reminded that MIDNITE is still the reigning, undisputed heavyweight champion of new roots reggae. Tracks like “When Jah Arise” (feat. Lutan Fyah), “Betterment Mouth,” “Same I Ah One” (feat. Pressure), “Weather The Storm” (feat. Ras Batch), and “The Healing” bring a strong dose of uncompromising heaviness and unapologetic Rastafari reasonings. Vaughn Benjamin hypnotizes the listener with his steady, consistent chanting, setting up Lutan Fyah to deliver a painfully articulate knockout verse, nearly tearing the track to shreds. It only takes one listen to these tracks to realize that MIDNITE is not at all losing the head of steam built up over the last twenty years of incessant recording and touring. No, instead they are getting stronger, tighter, and more confident with time. This is a band in it’s prime.
The band’s influence is undeniable. Just listen to today’s emerging artists, or those that have emerged especially from the Virgin Islands since 2000 – all of them imitating MIDNITE in some form or fashion. While Jamaican artists have seemingly accepted MIDNITE as the global soul-force that they are, the band still lacks the respect of the Jamaican people, and still have not been welcomed to perform on Jamaican soil.
Although Jamaica may tout the album sales of it’s dancehall artists as proof that the music is still relevant and marketable, it cannot deny the fact that this same music holds no real weight. It is unserious music that lacks soul, rhythmic human connection, and gravity as a force for social change.
This is why reggae roots torch-bearers like MIDNITE, and the new and emerging crop of Jamaican roots artists that have been influenced by them, are so very important to the future of reggae as a style of music that is worthy of being considered among the popular genres of jazz, blues, soul, and rock. And although there might be a silent battle going on between the good, their continued mutual respect for each other, and willingness to collaborate in the name of conscious music, is essential for winning the war.