The extended lockdown that most of the nation endured due to the COVID-19 pandemic created a serious amount of angst for people. Beyond the tragedy at the heart of the matter, our lives were severely diminished as we had to limit interactions with friends and family, often cancelling meaningful events, celebrations of milestones and other social gatherings that we all enjoy. Within the realm of the music business, fans surely yearned to congregate for live performances, and the artists likely missed touring even more for they largely lost their ability to earn a living.
On the flip side, all the anguish, conjecture, conflict and political turmoil seemed to have amply stoked the creativity of musicians, and with so much time stuck at their home bases, many of them were able to conceive and create works from concept to fruition. In the scope of the American reggae scene, a review of Rootfire’s Reggae Release Radar over the course of 2021 reveals a remarkable amount of new music that has enlivened the massive. Artists such as Rebelution, Jesse Royal, Etana, Turbulence, Kings & Comrades, U-Roy, Josh Heinrichs, Indubious, KBong, and Iya Terra, to name a few, have all released albums over the past 6 months or so, and Rootfire homies The Elovaters drop their new Castles LP tomorrow.
Tomorrow also marks the release of a single called “Accidental Badman,” the first delicious taste of a forthcoming album that I am extremely excited about titled Easy Star Presents JonQuan & Associates.
Who are JonQuan & Associates, you ask? No, they are not an accounting firm that moonlights as a reggae band. JonQuan is the de facto bandleader of Buddha Council, a Virginia based “future roots” reggae band that gets super high marks from this writer, and his “associates” are a mix of accomplished reggae artists that he strategically recruited to collaborate with. The group consists of international talents from bygone eras of Jamaican music as well as the current-day, including Sammy Dread, Screechy Dan, Vernon Maytone, Dennis Spence, Carlton Livingston, Danny Rebel, Kelly DiFillipo (of Loving Paupers,) JonnyGo Figure, Elliot Martin and Victor Rice.
I first caught wind of this project back in January of 2020 when Quan had emailed me an early mix of the track he had been working on with Elliot Martin. Already a fan of Quan’s work, I knew immediately after one listen that this album would be something special. Of course, at the time, I had no idea that I would have to wait over a year and a half to hear the completed album.
What took so long? Well, for one, Quan, like many musicians these days, has other demanding commitments beyond his artistic calling, such as the one that primarily puts a roof over his head and food on his plate. In his case, Quan is a career longshoreman in the Port of Virginia and occasionally treats his Instagram followers to breathtaking sunset views from his perch atop a straddle carrier high in the sky.
Quan admits that he has a love/hate relationship of his occupation. “My job is basically just that — a job,” he said. “Although yes, the views are cool, but what it’s done to my body and mind isn’t exactly healthy. Over the past 16 years, I’ve been forced to work multiple consecutive shifts, sometimes over 28 hours at once. Demanding mentally and physically, it recently caused me to have a spinal fusion due to a work-related incident. It’s afforded me a very nice lifestyle which I’m extremely grateful for, but it has caused pretty devastating consequences to my body.”
Quan was born in Norfolk and lived in Virginia Beach all of his life. He did not grow up in a family of musicians, but as a young adult, taught himself how to play the bass guitar and the keyboards. Without formal training, he cannot read music, and he’s still figuring out proper ways to play the instruments he’s drawn to. “Practice makes better, but never perfect,” he quipped. “Playing with The Pietasters now keeps my chops up at a faster pace.” (Always juggling, Quan also performs with the D.C. area third wave ska dignitaries.)
Reggae first came into his life courtesy of his first girlfriend’s brother at the age of 15. “From there, I began collecting records here and there,” he said. “Ska kind of hit me out of nowhere. A lot of people are introduced to reggae via Sublime, and branch out backwards and forwards. I found a Skatalites tape at…get ready…Blockbuster Music…and it blew my mind. From there, I navigated other people’s mixes and playlists, magazine suggestions, and started diving into the oldies and never really left.”
After a few years playing with Virginia-based reggae bands Session Rockers and Bimini Rd., in 2013 Quan formed Buddha Council with other local reggae musicians. Since 2014, Buddha Council has put out three excellent studio albums as well as a collection of remixes. A favorite of mine since being introduced to their music by Rootfire founder, Seth Herman, I penned this premiere of their last album, True Love, back in 2018.
The following year, Quan first started to conceive the music that would end up as the collection known as Easy Star Presents JonQuan & Associates. “I started this journey late 2019. After a long summer playing local gigs and abroad with Buddha Council, Rhett (Walton, Buddha Council’s drummer) made a boss move to Hawaii, so that left us on our usual winter hiatus. I took that time to invest in this solo riddim building project that turned into this.”
Quan created the riddims for the album and produced. He also played all of the key parts and some percussion, and of course wrote lyrics for the lone track he sings, an old school lovers rock track titled “So Far Gone.” In addition to his writing, producing and playing chops, Quan is a talented singer with a dynamic skill set.
Asked why Quan decided to release his latest work under JonQuan & Associates rather than Buddha Council, he explained, “I did mull the idea over of releasing the album under Buddha Council, but it didn’t feel right. Although Rhett played drums on quite a few tracks, that’s it. No one else played on it. I spent countless hours alone in the studio cooking foundations for these tunes, so a solo project release felt best. I wanted a little different tone out of this record, so I went where I knew I’d get it first take.”
With a varied roster of collaborators contributing to the album, I wondered if Quan had written the music with particular vocalists in mind. He said he did not, but once he had the foundation tracks set, he thought of who each style fit best. “I reached out to artists with whom I’ve worked in the past, and those who I met through other artists,” he explained. “Some, I just approached on Facebook and asked if they’d be interested. Some, hours later, had me an absolute banger.”
Continuing, he said, “Every voice fits their riddim as it should, I think. I made this record with the premise that everyone who contributed was allowed their full artistic expression. Most are first takes. The singers wrote their own lyrics off of the completed riddim.”
He adds that Dennis Spence (aka EAZY D) wrote his whole song. “I heard him rehearsing on his ukulele, and I asked to record his song for him. It came out so well I decided to add it to the mix! So full credit to EAZY for his tune!”
Easy Star Presents JonQuan & Associates is a fantastic record, a gift for lovers of the classic reggae sound. As if the ten marvelous tracks were not enough, the album also includes a dub version of each track courtesy of the exceptional producer/engineer, Victor Rice. I asked Quan why he opted to include dubs in the collection and he stated emphatically, “There’s only one answer as to why to include a dub…Two words…Victor Rice. Version galore, play it some more.”
According to Quan, the biggest challenge throughout the whole project was learning new things. “Challenge isn’t a bad thing here,” he clarified. “Under the cruel tutelage of (NYC-based producer) Channel Tubes, I was pushed to free myself of my usual sounds and approaches, and encouraged to actually be a producer, and produce. Some of the finest advice I’ve received.”
Quan added, “Victor Rice, with his infinite catalog of sound processing and technique, dropped subtle hints of direction and shared his wealth of knowledge with me, and for those friendships, I am forever grateful.”
With the album completed, the next step was to find a label to help package and sell it. Lots of artists release music independently these days, but the backing of a label helps to reach a much larger audience and Quan “really wanted to showcase these wonderful artists’ work.”
His first stop was also his last stop: Easy Star Records. “I modeled the record off of their first releases, so they were a must to release it if they’d have it, and luckily they did.”
Easy Star co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Lem Oppenheimer spoke about how the album resonated with them. “It really stirred some feelings for us, because it felt very much like it echoed where we had started, way back with Easy Star Vol. 1, our very first release. That was also a record where we had put together a bunch of riddims focused on classic elements of the golden age of reggae — all written and produced by (Easy Star co-founder) Michael Goldwasser — and then brought in talented veterans and newcomers in the New York area. It felt like Jon had captured this same feel. We also really liked that it was so focused on lesser known but standout artists more based on the east coast.”
Continuing, he said, “We love, love, love our west coast bands, fans, and bredren, but we are New Yorkers, so there’s a certain pride around East coast vibes. So, hearing folks like Screechy Dan, JonnyGo Figure, Kelly from The Loving Paupers, Elliot from JBB, and so on, really excited us as well.”
Label co-founding partner and C.E.O. Eric Smith expanded upon those sentiments. “We really appreciate and value the role Easy Star has played over the years being a bridge between the more traditional reggae scenes of Jamaica, the Northeast and Europe with the emerging scenes on the West coast, the Southeast, etc. But before we dropped our first commercial release, our mission was to build up and support the NYC reggae scene that had served and inspired us growing up. We started the long running Easy Star Reggae Tuesday party at The Black Star Bar in the East Village, launched easystar.com which covered the local scene and threw weekly and one-off live shows. It was through these platforms and the subsequent early 7“s we released that we worked with the underground local talent that was bubbling up like Rob Symeonn, Ruff Scott, Ossie Dellimore, Patrick Junior, along with the Jamaican veterans. JonQuan’s project feels very much in the same spirit in a wonderful and refreshing way.”
Ultimately, Quan and the label chose a simple title to reflect this connection. Said Oppenheimer, “We all discussed and decided to add the Easy Star Presents to the title as a way to call back to those roots, which had also been an influence on Jon, he said, when making his music.”
Easy Star Presents JonQuan & Associates releases in full on December 10th, but the party starts with the release of a treasure of a first single mentioned at the start of this article, “Accidental Badman,” with lyrics written and sung by reggae luminary Carlton Livingston.
“Carlton is an absolute gem of a human. Extremely easy going and style for DAAAYS,” Quan raved. “Lyrics always center stage with Carlton. His story telling style, which in this tune is a true story, keeps listeners hooked. Plus, his voice sounds the same as it did many years ago when he released ‘100 weight of Collie Weed.’”
Oppenheimer explained how, with all these great tracks to choose from, they settled on releasing “Accidental Badman” as the first single. “We all discussed what would make sense to lead with, and we felt we wanted a song that could help set the tone, make the biggest splash. Carlton is one of the bigger names in the lineup and also represents the old school Jamaican voices on the record as opposed to some of the newer school U.S. based vocalists that appear on it. So, we felt that set up the record well, besides the song being really strong.”
“Accidental Badman” drops on digital outlets tomorrow but readers can hear the track NOW. Enjoy the music, and get excited for the 19 crucial tracks will follow.