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Artist Spotlight: Victor Rice

If you think no one is taking you as seriously as you are, you’re doing it right. – Victor Rice

The Elovaters. Easy Star All-Stars. The Skatalites. The Slackers. The Toasters, The Scofflaws and The Pietasters. The Loving Paupers. The Stubborn All-Stars. Subatomic Sound System. Hepcat, SunDub, Prince Fatty. Dub Syndicate. New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble. Dubmatix, Crazy Baldhead, Rocker T.

What do all these reggae and ska artists have in common? Victor Rice.  

If you have been listening to ska or dub over the past few decades, chances are solid that you have listened to music that Victor Rice has contributed to. Whether it be as a bassist, a mixing engineer or a producer, Victor Rice has applied his venerable talents to a legion of recordings of Jamaican style music, not to mention his own solo albums.

Speaking of solo albums, Rice is set to release Drink, his second of a trilogy on Easy Star Records, following up his 2017 offering, Smoke. Both records creatively fuse Brazilian and Jamaican cultures by blending samba and rocksteady into a delectable concoction, which, according to Easy Star co-founder Michael Goldwasser, “are breaths of fresh — or should I say stale and smoky (alluding to the jazz club named Smoke that they used to frequent together) — air.” Goldwasser, who has known Rice for years and also worked with him as a member of the Easy Star All-Stars, added, “The tunes, the arrangements, and the playing all work so well and there’s really nothing quite like it out there. Victor has the perfect combination of instinct and knowledge. He’s got the feel for so many styles of music but also the music theory to back it up.”

That musical education started as a youth with the influence of four older siblings who continually filled their house with sounds from their large and diverse record collection, which included plenty of reggae music courtesy of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff. “By that time, I was taking bass lessons and playing in a band, and I gravitated to reggae mainly because the bass has such a pivotal role,” Victor recalled. “Always fundamental, sometimes melodic. I guess reggae spoke to the bassist in me, especially since I wasn’t one to listen to lyrics.”

So, it was on the bass that Victor Rice started his professional career as a teenager in the early 80s, playing in recording studios. After high school, he studied at the Manhattan School of Music while playing in an orchestra, various jazz ensembles, a rock band called The Madding Crowd, and eventually the influential ska band, The Scofflaws.  “My original dream was to be a session bassist in NYC,” Rice recalled. “I was always more interested in the studio than the stage and that was where I imagined myself after school.” 

At first, Victor viewed his experience with The Scofflaws more like recreation, a “night off” from his serious studies. Yet he took his work with The Madding Crowd pretty seriously. 

“We were doing a fusion of rock and funk, and were pretty sure there was nothing like it out there yet,” he said. “One day, I was in a record store and I heard the sound of my dreams playing over the speakers. It was everything I wanted – only much, much better. I asked someone what it was, and they said, ‘The Red Hot Chili Peppers,’ already on their second album. I was devastated. I thought, ‘There really are no more original ideas left,’ or at least they weren’t coming to me.” 

At that point, he reasoned that he should just deal with a medium that already exists. “My thinking was that I could probably satisfy my composing urges (reggae, jazz, modernist) with Jamaican ska because it was the only instrumental dance music that had the potential. So, from that moment on, I took The Scofflaws way more seriously.”

Victor went from playing bass for The Scofflaws to producing for them as well. This led to studio work for a number of 3rd wave ska bands, most of which were releasing records on the integral Moon Ska Label out of New York City.

Buford O’Sullivan, trombonist extraordinaire who has played with The Toasters, The Easy Star All-Stars and Dub is a Weapon, has known Victor from their days in The Scofflaws together. He reminisced about Victor as a central figure in the NYC ska community:  

I’ve known Victor since the Scofflaws days, when I’d catch a ride from him on the upper West Side where he was getting his Masters at The Manhattan School of Music. He had already been in the band for a while before I joined in 1989, as he was a native of Huntington, Long Island, and that’s where the band was based. We would ride out for rehearsals and gigs on the Long Island Expressway in his shitty car nicknamed ‘The Demander,’ his upright bass crammed in through the hatch. Torquing around the clover-leaf is his sport, he likes to play with the centripetal forces while everyone else hangs on for dear life, teeth bared, screaming. He just doesn’t understand why everyone gets freaked out! He has a tune called The Demander, which I think captures that feeling you get from being in the passenger seat with him at the wheel.

That’s not unlike his musicality. He plays harmonic games with natural forces and tests the stress forces between notes. A few of the tunes on his latest record are motion studies, and he achieves haunting atmospheres, I think, by way of math. He doesn’t use standard chord changes, they are the result of his calculations, which, by the way, he makes using paper and music staff pen (five pens connected to draw the staff, rather than using pre-printed staff paper). He barely uses a piano. These harmonies are all in his head.

His bass playing is quite the opposite. Simple and steady with graceful timing and precise ear. He knows what works and places each note just where it should be. He isn’t flashy. He’s rock steady and continuous. No crazy games, no careening on the verge of disaster, he is calm and confident. His producing style is similar. He doesn’t need to beat the stress test. He knows what works, while he’s open to experimentation, he won’t go too far off the path. He has an impeccable ear, knows how sharp or flat a voice needs to be in a chord to work; hence he will take time with a horn section and say, ‘You’re on the third, play sharp… wait, the next note is a fifth, so that should be played flat…’ He’s confounded many a section with that. 

I wouldn’t use ‘genius’ to describe him, I would use the word ‘guru’ instead. He has direct eye contact that carries weight. There’s something deep and magnetic in there, and people follow him like they would a guru. Maybe because what he does just works. He’s like a mac that way – there’s no bloatware. He’s very nice, but he’s real, and he’ll let you know when he doesn’t like something. He’ll look at you with those direct eyes and tell you what he thinks, and you won’t question. He’s called me on some things, and, well, he was right! 

photo by Alisson Louback 

Looking back at the exciting resurgence of ska music during the 90s that bled into the early 21st century, I asked Victor about his feelings on why the East Coast sound, from what I could recall, had typically remained closer to traditional ska, while West Coast bands like Reel Big Fish, Dancehall Crashers and Buck-O-Nine merged ska with punk and a more pop sensibility. Further, I was curious if, before the days of our ultra-connectivity, there had been any sense of community amongst all of these artists or if bands from opposite coasts were separate factions that existed in silos.

 “There definitely were bands in California doing the traditional style, and arguably much better than what was going on back east,” he began. “Hepcat, first and foremost. Afterhours comes to mind as well. That said, the ‘trad’ bands were definitely on the fringe of the scene at the time. Moon Ska was created by Rob ‘Bucket’ Hingley as a vehicle for The Toasters and they were the most influential band in the States by a long shot. They toured nonstop, in every state. Bucket encouraged new bands wherever they went and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he single handedly created a national scene. ’Zines became a thing, something that was already happening in the punk universe. Moon Ska eventually became a vehicle for everyone in the scene. And I think the Toasters had a tremendous influence, musically, on what American bands were doing in the ‘90s. The ‘fast’ thing, what would become the ‘ska-punk’ thing, basically the 2-Tone thing, kicked up a notch or three. So, I think we (in the Scofflaws) saw the Dancehall Crashers, Reel Big Fish, Buck-O-Nine etc. as doing what we thought was the ‘Toasters thing.’ The Scofflaws wanted no part of that sound. We were very happy doing the opening slot for the Skatalites, after all. They respected us. We really thought we were the only ones ‘getting it right’ — that is, until we heard Hepcat, which was a harsh awakening — for me, anyway. The West Coast bands seemed to take themselves more seriously, and there was a reason too; there was more money to be made out there, everything happened on a much bigger scale out there.”  

“As for existing in silos, sure, there was definitely more isolation in those days before internet. But there was this sense of community within the circle of musicians working in NYC. Jeff ‘Django’ Baker was responsible for much of that, the Stubborn All-Stars is the case-in-point. Between Bucket/Moon Ska’s storefront and Django/Stubborn’s Version City studio, both on the Lower East Side, there were physical locations for people to hang and meet up; the fans at the Moon store and the musicians at Version City. There was a sense of community in L.A. as well, though I’m under the impression it physically revolved around clubs and certain shows. My perspective, anyway.”

Victor not only helped shape the 3rd wave sound, but he had the opportunity to work with the originators as well: The Skatalites. While he never directly produced a record for them, he was often invited to recording sessions. This led to him being called in one time, “on the quiet,” to replace some of the bass lines on their record, Ball of Fire. “By that time, Lloyd Brevett was not playing in tune so much,” Victor recalled. “Though his right hand never failed and it was a real task for me to emulate that.”  

He was also called in to “fix and mix” the Ska Titans record, their collaboration with Laurel Aitken. “Those guys trusted me, Tommy and Lester. Laurel and I became friends after that as well. And of course, I was in a band with Devon (James, who played guitar from 1987–2009) for years, the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble. It was an amazing time in my life, you can imagine!”

Working with the ska legends was a very different experience than working with the young, modern bands. “The Skatalites’ studio workflow was definitely from the jazz world. That level of musicianship and experience meant there was little to no preparation for a session,” he explained. “These guys had been making records long before I was born. So, for me, it was ‘watch and learn’ as a producer. I think the younger bands (which was everyone) were way more anxious in the studio, and it wouldn’t have been possible to work with them in the same way. I think it all comes down to one word: confidence. Confidence in oneself, confidence in others. It takes decades to achieve confidence. Unless you’re Vic Ruggiero (of The Slackers.) That guy is the exception that proves the rule.”

Victor’s notable work producing ska records earned the trust and admiration of Jeff “King Django” Baker, founder of Stubborn Records, and when he opened up Version City Studio in 1996, he gave one of the two keys to Victor. During this era, he largely shifted his craft from producing to engineering with more of a focus on dub. 

 “That was a watershed moment for me,” Victor stated. “Up to that time, working for Bucket and Moon Ska, my role as producer was the traditional one; to be the liaison between the musicians and the engineers. My job was to coordinate the musical with the technical, explain to the engineers what the musicians were looking for sonically, and explain to the musicians what was technically feasible. There was a budget to adhere to, and time was money. I was not the engineer in those days.

“And then I started to work at Stubborn’s Version City studio – a very modest situation in a walk-down basement on East 3rd Street. A very different situation in that the clock was ‘no longer running,’ essentially. It was a creative space. If the space was available on any given day, I could go in alone and try to figure things out by myself. Django got me started on the basics, and pretty much left me to it. Agent Jay (Jay Nugent of The Slackers and Crazy Baldhead) would drop in as well.  We cut our teeth together in that rat-hole. It was both daunting and liberating. We could succeed and fail at virtually no cost to anyone, the tradeoff being that our productions, our successes, would be the property of Stubborn Records. This came at the perfect time for me because I was getting frustrated working with professional engineers that didn’t have the time or inclination to experiment. They had no knowledge of, or interest in, the likes of King Tubby or Lee Perry. I came into my own as an engineer and producer at Version City. I could call on my favorite musicians to play on my sessions: Eddie Ocampo, Jay, Vic (Victor Axelrod aka Ticklah), Buford O’Sullivan…the best of each band. And that’s how my first solo record came about.  I owe a great deal to both Bucket and Django for seeing the potential in me. They were my great enablers.”

The mixing skills that Victor enriched with his creative freedom at Version City has made him a much sought-after engineer on dub projects and beyond, but life never stops evolving. In 2002, another significant turning point occurred in Victor’s life: He moved to Brazil. 

As someone who feels deeply rooted to the place I grew up and continue to live, I have a deep admiration and a sense of awe of people who pack up and move their lives across the world, embedding themselves in a completely foreign culture. What prompted this drastic move, I wondered, and what does he enjoy about it that keeps him living there today?   

Victor said that while in conservatory, he had heard that a musician could live a “dignified” life in Europe. Then, after his first time visiting while on tour in ’96, he began to fantasize about moving there, especially since NYC was becoming less and less enjoyable to him, “thanks to Rudy Giuliani.” Not long after, in ’98, Bucket brought him to Brazil to play bass with The Toasters, and “that changed everything.”

São Paulo became his new fantasy destination. “São Paulo is so much like NYC was in the ‘80s, and the people are much nicer, and it never gets cold!” he said, adding, “I think there may be a correlation there.”

 “All it took was 9/11 for me to say, ‘Fuck this place.’ That was the last straw for me. I stuck around for a few more months, settled my accounts, took some beginning lessons in Portuguese and in February 2002, I was off to reinvent myself in a new world. No regrets. That said, I really enjoy NYC now as a tourist!”

Photo by Alisson Louback

Buford O’Sullivan recounted a story that he feels illustrates why Victor left the US. On 9/11, Victor was working as a composer at a jingle house in Manhattan. “While the towers were burning,” Buford recalled, “Vic was at the console with a client standing behind him who was pissed off because the tragedy was interfering with her — I think it was a female — project, and she said something like ‘This is SO inconvenient!’”

Vic moved to Brazil soon after. “I think that encapsulates his feelings about American life and the lack of compassion we’ve all gotten so used to. He doesn’t take that shit anymore. He’ll just leave if it goes too much against his grain.”

So, what has kept Victor living in Brazil for almost two decades? “One major advantage, if not the major advantage,” he began, “is that I can afford to isolate myself here. I’m a recluse, and here, economically, I’m able to live and work alone and socialize when I choose. The things I love about this place cannot be found anywhere else, whereas the things I hate about it can be found anywhere else. No escaping the shit on this planet, unless you’re very wealthy.”

Victor may enjoy the life of a recluse, but he does emerge from his sanctuary to return home now and then. On one such visit, in 2004, he hatched the idea for a traveling live dub tour through Europe, the other part of the world that has always enchanted him. He reasoned that, unlike in North America where music fans are more likely to check out a band that is well-known, in Europe fans tend to be more open minded and curious about a band or artist that is lesser-known. 

“I realized I could take the studio to the stage and show people directly how dub music was originally made – physically and without computers. Real-time improvisation,” he said about his Strikkly Vikkly DubSystem, a one-man dub show. “The equipment I use is essentially the same as what we had at Version City: a tape machine with 8 tracks, some reverbs and delays, and a simple mixing desk. The productions are usually mine, or are projects I received to remix. I’d say roughly a third of it would be my own music on any given night – it depends on what tapes I bring to the show.” 

Victor continues to venture into Europe to bring dub to the people, although now he’s added another element. “I started using a projector in 2010 as a line of defense from people who mistakenly thought I was a DJ and could take requests! Now people have a bird’s-eye view of my hands on the mixer, manually dubbing the tunes. This has given the show an element of ‘infotainment’ to the point where I now get called to do workshops for the producer crowd in various cities. It’s extremely satisfying to be able to share the knowledge and to be improvising every night. After a month on tour like this, my skills get pretty damn scary on the desk – and I have to remind myself to keep it simple, keep it musical.” 

Those “scary” skills keep Victor in high demand. He continues to work with a growing number of artists on an ever-expanding list of projects. With this vast catalog that spans decades, there has to be favorites; people to have worked with, projects to have worked on, and work he is most proud of. 

“Tricky question,” he began. “There are records that make me very happy to listen to, yet making them was not enjoyable. There is a record I did in the ‘90s for The Adjusters, from Chicago, called Before the Revolution. I love the way it came out, but making it was hell on earth.”

Continuing, he said, “I engineered a record for Jamaican producer Glen Brown in ‘03, and I learned more from him than anyone else in the studio. Sadly, I don’t think that record ever came out. Glen wasn’t fun or anything, all business. But his experience, his workflow, musicality…holy shit.”

“Then there’s that record I did with Vic Ruggiero called Age of Insects. Produced with Joe Ferry, who’s life and career is a music history class in itself. Incredibly sweet person, which is hard to come by in someone so intelligent. Amazing songs and musicians, great vibes – that production had everything. The label decided, against better judgement, in my opinion, not to call it Vic Ruggiero, but the Skandalous All-Stars. But it’s a Vic Ruggiero record. This was ’99, pre-internet, so when a record slept, it effectively died. It’s online now though! I would love to see it pressed to vinyl one day – and renamed, of course.”

Victor also cited the remix he did of Hepcat’s debut record, Out of Nowhere, which was an old dream come true for him.

Finally, Victor mentions the half-dozen riddims he did with Victor Axelrod aka Ticklah together at Version City in ’98 or ’99. “Ticklah played drums!” he recalled excitedly. “That was a very inspired session – and those riddims are still getting picked by artists to sing on. We finished them separately, he with his melodies and me with mine – they wound up on each of our solo records. It’s been over 20 years and they still get attention to this day. You don’t always know at the time when you’re making history.”

Continuing to delve into his vast catalog, I asked Victor to select three artists or albums that he would most want readers to investigate. He obliged:

     1.     Dr. Ring Ding and the Senior Allstars: Pick Up the Pieces “My first job dubbing an entire record. What’s interesting about it is, beside the nostalgic value, it’s the earliest example of ska dub that I can think of, something that I am associated with until today.

     2.     Firebug: On the Move “A group in São Paulo that I produced and played bass in. We did three records and this one is my favorite – possibly because I had the most time to complete it as compared to the others. The singer/sonwriter, Maxado, trusted me entirely with his music and that made me work all the harder. We still work together these days. He’s a talented motherfucker and a great friend as well.

     3.     Monkey Jhayam: Monk-Tape 2019 “Yet another case of an extremely talented singer/songwriter that trusts me completely and let me take the tunes where I thought they should go. Nothing makes me work harder than confidence in my work. I always give it all I have when I’m in that situation.”

Encompassing the breadth of his studio artistry, I asked Victor if he believed he has a signature technique or sound. “I do think I have a signature sound, though I may not be the right person to describe it. I think I’m consistent, anyway – and that’s because I’m always trying to please myself first, which is a good rule of thumb for anyone.”

Despite multiple decades manipulating machines to make music, Victor said he didn’t think the music business had changed much for him over the years, but he did point out one thing that he misses: the anonymity musicians enjoyed in the previous century. This probably should come as no surprise from a dude who enjoys his privacy. “As far as advertising, I could put up flyers to promote a gig and no one would know I was doing my own work,” he explained. “It could appear that my band had management or at least a street team. Nowadays, if I post something online, everyone knows I’m promoting myself. But it’s not as bad as all that, since independent artists are expected to self-advertise.”

He added, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes and will continue to do so, but the longer I stay in the game, the smaller these mistakes become as they shrink into the past. The only cure for a mediocre record is a better one.”

Pivoting to focus on his latest album just released on Easy Star Records, Victor titled the album Drink because he had been easing the pain of a difficult time in his life like many people do, with alcohol, and the album was created under the influence of a lot of red wine. “I was single again, which was painful. Brazil’s regime-change was underway, the economy tanking and all…complete opposite from 2002 when I arrived. What a year that was! Brazil won its 5th world cup and then Lula got elected. The vibe was so optimistic and justly so… all gone. Basically, I felt that after 16 years down here, the honeymoon was over. I fantasized a lot about moving on, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t solve anything. Bob Marley said it best, as he often did: ‘You can’t run away from yourself.’ My muse visits me when I need her most. She’s the best.”

I asked Victor how the album might have turned out differently had he gravitated toward a different vice. “Red wine is definitely my drink of choice when writing, literally ‘Creative Juice.’ I actually love vodka even more, but I’m not productive when I’m on the hard stuff. Ganja is pretty much essential, it’s my anti-depressant. But when I go off it, I start writing like mad, remembering my dreams and all that. Beer is great when I’m in Europe, but that just makes it disappointing everywhere else. Cachaça is great for conversation, but it’s hard to remember what was said the next day! Whiskey makes me horny, and that rarely ends well. Yeah, red wine is the right thing for my music. A lot of grapes are abused in the making of my product.”

Victor recorded most of the album at his friend Nico Leonard’s (of Pyrotechnist) Badasonic Studios (aka Pum Pum Hotel) in Charleroi, Belgium due to several advantages, both with Europe in general and Badasonic in particular. He said that European musicians are most familiar with his aesthetic, which comes from studying European composers all his life. “It’s also easier for me to compose when I’m in Europe,” he added. “That’s probably due to the lack of domestic obligations. Maybe due to the lack of fluoride in the water, lack of corn syrup in the beer etc. Maybe it’s all of that!”

Further, his own studio in São Paulo is specifically set up for mixing, whereas Nico’s place, Badasonic, is the perfect fit for him. “I love recording my music there,” he said. “Badasonic Studio is all-analogue, no computer. Just real instruments, a great selection of vintage keyboards, vintage mics and a 16-track tape machine. I have yet to need more than 16 tracks for my own productions. Plus, there’s Nico himself; great drummer, engineer and producer. He went to conservatory as well and we work very much the same way. We’re able to write arrangements for horns, give them sheet music in their relative keys, etc. The musicians know what to expect when they get called.”

 The first single off the album, “Simão,” features a highly chill vibe with a sort of cinematic quality to it. “I’ve been told many times that my music has a cinematic quality, which I love to hear – it’s very flattering,” he said graciously. “My dream was to hear one of my tunes in a Tarantino movie, but he’s not doing films anymore. And besides, he was all about resurrecting has-beens, not breaking new talent. I can still hope for Jim Jarmusch though, right? I think of his aesthetic often when mixing my music. He’s a visual composer of the highest order. You reading this, Jim? Hook a brother up!”

As for the inspiration behind the song, Victor divulged, “Simão is the name of my Siamese cat. He’s like a low-maintenance dog, and I love him dearly. I don’t have children, so he’s as close to a son as I’ll ever get. I sing his name to him, he seems to really dig it. The arrangement is bittersweet, because I expect to outlive him. Now he’s immortalized.”

Victor offered some insight into the inspiration behind other tracks on the record, which, with instrumentals, is usually tough for listeners to discern. “Instrumentals are funny that way, because working titles tend to stick,” he explained. “A lot of the titles are the places I stopped to write the tune: ‘Arouche,’ the neighborhood where I live; ‘Madrid,’ 4AM in the deserted airport; ‘La Mura,’ a restaurant in Tuscany. ‘Five’ is the number of chords in the song. ‘The Demander’ is the name of my first car which I drove quite recklessly. ‘This is Fine’ is all about the popular meme, the joy of denial. Quite timely. ‘Time to Go’ is pretty much a breakup song, but with a hopeful vibe. I think it will make a nice closing song for the live show.”

Victor stated that the number of Brazilians participating on the record makes it more special for him. “What’s great about the Brazilians’ contributions to Drink is that they’re musical as opposed to merely instrumental. By that I mean, I’m not interested in recording typical Brazilian instruments like the berimbau or cuica in my music. Not yet, anyway. It just seems like such a gringo move, you know? Kind of corny. So, the Brazilian influence is there – it’s in the tempos, the harmonic treatment. It’s relatively subtle, not obvious to a non-Brazilian anyway.”

Continuing, he singled out one of the contributors: “Gustavo Ruiz, for example, is a well-known musician and producer. We won a Latin Grammy in 2015 for his sister’s record, and that was his doing, not mine. He heard ‘Arouche’ and immediately understood the thing I was referencing, Brazilian samba-rock. He suggested playing an acoustic guitar with a custom tuning invented by Jorge Ben. That’s the kind of thing a Brazilian will appreciate, a Brazilian musician anyway. I doubt the average listener would catch it.”

With so much diverse experience under his belt, I asked Victor what advice he would give to younger musicians or engineers that may be reading this. “Take yourself seriously and don’t expect others to,” he said.  “If you think no one is taking you as seriously as you are, you’re doing it right.”


 

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Ever since becoming deeply moved and then essentially obsessed with reggae music as a teenager, Dave has always strove to learn as much as possible about the history and culture of reggae music, Jamaica and Rastafari, the ideology and lifestyle intertwined with reggae. 

Over the years, he has interviewed many personalities throughout the reggae world including Ziggy Marley, Burning Spear, Lucky Dube, Bradley Nowell and many artists in the progressive roots scene.

Dave has also written and published a novel, “The Cosmic Burrito,” a tale of two friends who drive across the USA in search of the ultimate burrito. He plays ice hockey weekly for a recreational team he founded and manages, Team Rasta.

Reggae music has filled his life with a richness for which he will forever be grateful, and he gives thanks to musicians far and wide, past and present, whether they perform roots, dub, dancehall, skinhead, rocksteady or ska, whether their tools are analog or digital, as well as the producers, promoters, soundsystems, selectors and the reggae massive at large who comprise the international reggae community.

You can follow Dave on Instagram at @rootsdude and Twitter at @ElCosmicBurrito.

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