"We Got a Taste of Everything": New Kingston
"Where we live in New York, the whole Jamaican and Caribbean culture is huge"
From the Bee Gees to Boards of Canada, Sister Sledge to Oasis, brothers and sisters have a certain chemistry that seems to lend itself to truly singular music.
It seems hardly surprising, then, that New Kingston are creating some of the most creative and exciting reggae music to come out of the USA in a long time. Brothers Courtney, Stephen and Tahir, drawing from the musical expertise of their father, are taking their Jamaican roots into the modern landscape of New York hip-hop, R&B and dancehall, with their new album ‘Come From Far’ released on the legendary Easy Star Records imprint in September. Ahead of their performance at The Bullingdon on 4th October, Jack Rayner spoke to drummer and vocalist Courtney about their roots, ethos and unique vision.
I wanted to know a bit more about your musical background. At what point did you, Tahir and Stephen start making music together?
It was our father’s idea really. We were just young kids in New York City, going to school, and in the summertime we were just hanging out on the road all the time. Music was basically our father’s solution to giving us a path in life: “Here’s music, if you guys want this, it’s up to you.” You know? “Here’s something to do.”
So what sort of music was your father getting you into?
Well, he’s was a musician as well; he started off Shaggy’s career, and he played for an endless amount of reggae artists. His peers were always around us, so reggae was always our foundation. Having said that, the thing I love about our father is that he was always into every genre of music – funk like Earth, Wind & Fire, The Whispers... we heard Chaka Khan early out of the gate, ‘Sweetest Taboo’ by Sade... That was one of the first drum tracks he tried to get me to learn. Steve Gadd was a real big-time drummer in terms of the grooves he was playing – they weren’t simple grooves – so for my dad to give that to us first was good for our career.
So was that how you came up with your whole ethos of fusing reggae with dancehall, R&B, hip-hop and the rest? Did that come quite naturally to you guys?
Yes, most definitely. Where we live in New York, the whole Jamaican and Caribbean culture is huge. That’s why I loved growing up in New York: we got a taste of everything. We had the Trinidadian culture, Bajan, Haitian... all the Caribbeans blended up, you know?
New Kingston started out performing covers, but were you still writing your own material back then?
In the early stages we were just learning covers because you have to learn something before you’re able to be yourself, know what I mean? What my dad did was made sure we were learning lots of different styles, so when we were ready to start doing our own thing, we had a whole bunch of styles mastered. Also, as well as being a drummer, I go by the name of DJ Courtney P and I used to DJ in all the dancehall nightclubs since I was super-young.
A few years ago you went on tour with Collie Buddz. How important was your relationship with Collie Buddz to your future success?
Oh, touring with Collie Buddz honestly opened us up to a different realm of people who accept and enjoy reggae music. Reggae has expanded so broadly across the world, and there are so many artists making reggae music – we just never realised that they’re not always Jamaicans! So when Collie Buddz took us to California, as well as the UK and elsewhere in Europe, it was a real eye-opener to see that the culture is so vibrant in these other places. I think the best thing for a musician to do is travel, and witness as much as you can. In the UK, you guys have reggae more deeply rooted than us.
Oh yeah. Caribbean culture has been the dominant force in a lot of UK music for decades.
Exactly, and that’s why we always big up Collie Buddz because he opened our eyes to that kind of thing. I don’t even know if we’d ever have visited some of the places we’ve visited without him.
So, fast forward to now, and you’re part of the Easy Star Records family. How does that feel?
That’s another NY connection and I’m really glad it went down the way it did. My dad knew [Easy Star Records boss] Michael Goldwasser from the early days. We have to learn from the Easy Star artists and we really appreciate the opportunities we’ve been given.
It’s been seven years since you released your first album, and the musical landscape has changed a lot since then. Who are you inspired by now compared to your earlier days?
In that respect, it’s almost like we’re moving backwards again. We used to go to see artists like Steel Pulse and Ziggy Marley from when we were really young – I’m talking five or six years old – but when you’re that young you don’t really appreciate the art, you know? So now, what we’re doing is revisiting that music; I’m listening to Ziggy’s ‘Conscious Party’ album a lot now. The instrumentation and the musicality in that album is incredible. It’s like, “Why did I never get this before?”. Same with Steel Pulse’s ‘True Democracy’ album – that’s a huge influence on us right now. I guess everything comes with age. Naturally, we’re all musicians and producers as well as vocalists, so revisiting these musical roots of ours has been hugely important. We produced the whole of the new album with our uncle Fabian Cooke, so it was great to be able to do everything ourselves and see what we’re capable of.
On that subject, it seems at the moment, particularly in hip-hop but also across the board, that it’s all about getting a million different features and a million different people in to collaborate on one song. Going against the grain, do you deliberately try and keep it in the family and within your close group?
Yeah, most definitely. We have used various producers and collaborated with various other musicians in the past – Dub Inc, Sidney Mills, Rellee Hayden... It’s cool to have those elements, but then there comes a time where we have to think: “We’re musicians, big up everything our father taught us, now is the time to apply that.” This, now, is the essence of New Kingston. This is what we’re about.
You’re playing in our wonderful city at The Bullingdon in October. When you’re playing over in the UK or elsewhere in Europe, what are the main differences to performing closer to your home turf?
Mostly, when we come to the UK I’m just blown away by how much you guys do the research, you know? I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s always amazing to me how much Caribbean culture there is in Britain. You guys have prepared yourself!
We certainly have. Thanks Courtney.
New Kingston are performing at The Bullingdon on Wednesday 4th October alongside The Skints. Tickets are available at wegottickets.com.
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