Zion I Kings’ upcoming release ZION ITES DUB, featuring some of the top-ranking producers and musicians working in reggae music today, is the guiding light many of us have searched for. With this new album, the dub collective known as ZIK is humbly leading the original dub movement. They move us authentically down the creative path carved originally by Jamaican treasures King Tubby, The Scientist, and a world of other producers who followed their instincts – to strip reggae versions down to their fundamental drum and bass, consequentially discovering a new dimension of divine inspiration through sonic exploration.
“The message of Rastafari Haile Selassie the First – both directly and indirectly, is still fully relevant and fully at the fore front of Jamaican reggae and other forms of reggae today” – Jah David Goldfine
Rarely in the continental U.S. reggae scene do we see much reflection on H.I.M Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia and the 2nd coming of Christ to so many prominent reggae artists from the musics inception to present. Around the world however, His Majesty is still the central theme for a majority of reggae happenings and gatherings. Besides being a pioneering voice of African unity and global human rights dialogues, it feels important for everyone to fully embrace how much of a source His presence is for the world of reggae music.
Globally, Reggae music is the vehicle and Rastafari is the voice. Despite the late great Bunny Lee’s wish to “tell it plain” that “It’s not rasta alone – reggae music -it’s not them who control it. Everyone who can sing have them music in them,” Reggae music is responsible for carrying the words of H.I.M Hailie Selassie I and the words of the Rastafarian movement around the world, educating and inspiring people in every corner of the globe in multiples of ways – both spiritually and practically. Reggae is devotion music, and it stands alone in its global popularity as a music that is both inherently spiritual as well as pop. There is no other music that has popularized a historical political figure as much as reggae has amplified the life, works, and words of Ethiopia’s last emperor.
“That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; That until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained; And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.” – Haile Selassie I
As a reggae musician and a non-Jamaican (the author of this piece speaking), the above words are to me what Reggae music is all about. That statement made by Hailie Selassie I and spread around the world millions of times by Bob Marley is the mission and the solidarity point that all involved with reggae music should strive to accomplish. That and the guitar chop. That is the call. It’s an anti racist music inspired by His Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I, and that should always be respected and acknowledged.
To become familiar with the works of Zion I Kings is to step into the meditations inspired by this history and the Rastafarian faith. It is not always in words that we pray.
David Goldfine, better known as reggae bass legend Jah David, handles the foundation engineering and dub mix in the dub collective Zion I Kings (ZIK). Along with Andrew “Moon” Bain and Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred, Zion I Kings is a dub production collective who for more than twenty years have been the hands behind some of the most influential reggae tracks to date – including numerous works with Midnite, Akae Beka, Jah 9, Protoje, Dezarie, Blakkamoore, Lutan Fiyah – the list goes on and on – even including genre benders Snoop Lion and Major Lazer.
Under pressure of the heaviest of human conditions, reggae music has exploded infinitely like the universe. A tiny speck of energy jammed into a tiny point of a Caribbean island erupted -continuously spreading its waves throughout planet Earth since the moment reggae music launched globally 50 years ago. By way of radio, sound system, satellite, ethernet and wifi, Jamaican music and its unimaginable propelling force has created a new population of stars making speakers sing and the earth shake. Throughout all evolutions of style, dub has existed as an alternative track to travel. It’s almost an under current hidden between the sounds of airhorns and binghi hits. Big chunes blowing up the sound system have another existence in dub versions.
Dub is the realm of producers and musicians. There now exist multiple generations of an informal guild, consisting of creative engineers who play a sort of chess match with the music and the listener in the form of a remix. It is a mindfulness experience. When executed pristinely, a dub will always keep you guessing from listen to listen. It will forever reveal sonic secrets in a ritual sequence from play to play.
With the toughest of drum and bass, ZION ITES DUB brings it low and slow, providing a solid backbone for a deep dive inward. The listen provides 56 minutes of meditative versions flush with regal horns and heavenly melodica weaved throughout. The bass is so big and round, it pulls you inside its frequency bubble, rearranging your cellular structure to once more align with positive reflection. The record is a sonic chiropractic experience.
If you are trying to get there, Zion I Kings will take you. There are comforting trails of nice long changes to follow until they drip away into the sublime. The tracks journey in a truly introspective manner, without any aggression or anxiety for progression. This record is far and away the greatest collection of dub meditations I have heard in recent memory. Zion I Kings maintain the tradition of the golden times of Jamaican dub while forwarding to the future with modern sounds and sonic possibilities.
I have in fact been chasing these sounds by ear for years. Though I was familiar in name with all three ZIK producers separately, I was unaware of the full ZIK experience. Personally, it has been a gift to discover and dive into their collaborative works that manifest from a passion for dub, friendship, and the forwarding of Rastafari and the reggae movement. I believe in this kind of work and the power it can manifest. ZION ITES DUB and previous ZIK recordings provide evidence.
Zion I Kings are not here for the glory; they are here for the works. They have gone to the well and they have drunk the wisdom. These are the records that will define the continuation of dub to come. They should be treated as the mile marking pillars that they are. Make them part of your infinite dub experience and record collection.
As for the history? I can’t help but take the opportunity to reflect on where these producers are coming from and how their music entered my life.
For a few summers in a row I slept some on a 6” high plywood stage in Manchester, TN. Under a tarp, between a Rogers drum set and my 8×10 Ampeg, I soothed myself to sleep during 90+ degree days while 100k people milled around tripping about the Bonnarroo Music and Arts Festival. Blessed by our nomadic chef friends of Sunweaver Solar cafe, our band would link and assemble a battalion of vehicles – coordinating our tour through the festival to Guerilla-Dub the night crowds with all night music till the sun came up. The Solar Cafe folks cooked and sold delicious food to happy psychedelicos while simultaneously powering a fantastically bass-y sound system with pure solar energy. Panda would dub to the ever shifting sea of dancers who would stumble upon the yard in their late night wanderings.
Then morning would come and with it the blazing hot sun. We would pack up the instruments under a tarp on the little homemade stage we built and I would nestle into my nook, strategically waiting to be blasted with the powerful waves of bass that was sure to come as Green Lion Crew took over the system and DJ’d the breakfast rush. Away drowned the rest of the world and only I remained swimming in a sea of bass.
It was those years, blasting sound through infinite mindscapes of sweat-induced psychedelic sleep and wake that I learned of the seemingly endless catalogue of modern roots reggae coming out of the US Virgin Islands, specifically St. Croix. It was reggae outside of Jamaica but still in the Caribbean. Its sound split the difference between the roots I desired from the 1970’s Golden Age of reggae and the slick modern dancehall R&B production of chart topping new Jamaican reggae and hip hop music.
I had been a big fan of the St Croix reggae royalty known as Midnite since receiving Ras Mek Peace from a professor at Ithaca College who taught a class called “The Political Economy of African Diaspora Music”. “Ras Mek Peace: Before Reverb and Without Delay” is famous for its sparse production and sheer bone-dry roots delivery. It’s linear notes famously state that the record was “Mastered live to a two-track analog tape…created with no mixing board, filtering, compression, equalization, noise reduction, multitracking or overdubbing of any kind.”
This new music Green Lion was pushing through the system was quite different. It had an ocean of artists and sounds on the opposite production end of what Ras Mek Peace set out to accomplish. The foundation could still be felt unmistakably though as coming from the land of Midnite. I found out that a lot of this music was being put out on a label called I-Grade. I went and sought out as many recordings as I could, often from the merch tables set up outside of Midnite performances which often ended at 4-5 am. Names like Tippy I, Digital Ancient, Lustre Kings, Jah David, Andrew “Moon” Bain, were all over the credits. Midnite was bringing together all kinds of sounds, allowing their sound to bloom and change, all the while maintaining a consistent roots aesthetic over complex and simple rhythms alike. Albums like Assini, Rule the Time, Infinite Quality, and Jah Grid stood out to me and really connected to what I was feeling musically at the time. St Croix seemed to be reaching out to the world. The frequency of releases was impossible to keep up with and the cast of characters was all but legend on the backs of jewel cases. The basslines and keyboard bubbles styles stand out prominently throughout the I-Grade catalogue. I discovered that this was not only the sound of a band, but the sonic identity of a major movement in reggae music. This was St. Croix reggae, from an island even smaller than Jamaica, and it was coming with more word sound and power than I had ever experienced in my life. Through those Mackie powered speakers and 18” subwoofers surrounding me, I instantly fell in love with all music that had this frequency. It simply did a body good at the very foundational level of listening. I started to look forward to the festival every year, partially because I knew that I would have these private deep bass sessions while fighting off madness in escape from the Tennessee sun.
ZION ITES DUB is the fourth album in the Zion I Kings (ZIK) dub series and a follow up to Zion High Productions (ZHP) DUB IN ZION (2017). Familiar with their sounds, I was not familiar with them individually as artists. What might have come across as elusive is actually humbleness. These producers and players are constantly busy. There is a lot to dive into. However, I knew from the first lick of ZION ITES DUB that the folks behind this record were furthering what I had heard in the St. Croix sound. With a little bit of research, a story I had been needing to know took form. If you wish to know more, I highly recommend this video of ZIK in their own words describing their process and background as they built rhythms at Tuff Gong studios in Kingston, JA.
It is one thing to enjoy the music. Overall, that is what we are all here for. But this music of reggae – it is so important, so topical, and so permeating – that it will no doubt be legendary in centuries to come. This is a run on the classics – as in, a run on classical composers. Dub should be appreciated at the highest levels of musical study. It is high art, and as time goes on it is becoming recognized as exactly that. As a writer and a music lover, I feel tremendous appreciation for anyone who has documented the work of artists such as Jah David Goldfine, Andrew “Moon” Bain, and Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred. Such documentations have helped me to realize the individual contributions that their work has been in my life, and along my journey of loving and discovering reggae music. The world is blessed to have contributors such as Carlos Culture (RIP). We lost him earlier in 2020, shortly after he had conducted a fantastic interview with Jah David. I learned a lot from that interview. Through that link you can find many more brilliant interviews that Carlos Culture was smart enough to conduct and share with the world before he passed on. As we grow and catch up to what reggae continues to illuminate, his work will provide retrospective pathways to discover where all this beauty came from.
I was extremely fortunate to have my own conversation with Jah David. He does most of the dub mixing on ZION ITES DUB. We spoke about the ZIK process, his own experiences as a bass player, his grounding and inspiration in Rastafari, as well as the works to come.
When listening to ZION ITES DUB, what really impressed me as a fan was their ability to blend the ancient and the modern. Many new engineers search for the analog equipment of the past to recreate a template for the future. Time has made this endeavor an expensive experience with limited access points for a variety of reasons. The best reggae music has always been made by artists using what’s available to them, and that is how Jah David began mixing “in the box”.
“In the box” is a term in music production that refers to engineers working only on a computer inside of a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software program called Pro Tools instead of a large analog mixing board connected to racks of outboard gear. When you hear about music going digital, it is largely because of the giant shift made in the 1990’s when sound engineers shifted from using the large analog boards to mostly using digital software. There was a learning curve and some technological limitations at first, but over the past 30 years digital workflow has provided a close to perfect representation of analogue sounds found in the past, as well as a forever growing bank of possibilities for engineers to explore.
“We take a very traditional ancient approach to the beginnings of all of the riddims, analog drum and bass, studios, live, all that stuff, but because we don’t limit ourselves and we use everything that’s available to us in this modern time” says Jah David. So while the group records the foundation instruments of drums, bass, and percussion traditionally in a studio live room through a sound board, the dubbing process which becomes the metamorphosis of the songs arrangement and final identity is done “in the box”.
Instead of two hands and ten fingers twisting knobs on a giant soundboard like King Tubby and dubbers of the past, “the box” limits you to one finger on a mouse. One might fear that this approach alone could sever the continuity of the dub production sound, but a devoted artist finds the way and feels their path through the limited light. Jah David has become quick and precise with the finger/mouse technique, and despite the temptation to achieve digital perfection with massive internal editing, most of the ZIK dubs are done live. Finger on the mouse making mutes, swells, and delayed visions of versions past, Jah David keeps the spirit of live dub engineering alive.
Before his role as sought after engineer and producer, Jah D is a bass player. Zion I Kings blend stems from the use of real drums and bass as opposed to drum machines and bass synthesizers. The real sound drums are provided by longtime ZIK drummer Lloyd “Junior” Richards while the bass is all Jah David. He has played the same Korean model Conklin Bass, with the same strings tuned BEAD, for 24 years. That is a testament to care and a proper touch. It is not all about the gear, it’s always more about the player, but the tool of the player and their relationship with that instrument is absolutely to be noted. You can learn a lot about a player’s sound by examining their relationship with their instrument. “I think the bass and the strings have a lot to do with it. Real talk though.” He has used the same bass on all recordings he has taken part in for the past few decades, and his sound is signature. A bass player since high school, Jah David reflected on the first time he really connected as a bass player with a drummer (Chasper from North Carolina) while starting a tour with Tippa Irie in the late 90’s. It was in the first rehearsal that he realized the power that such a connection between players can yield.
“What is this that’s happening here?” He said to himself. “I had been playing music for so long, and I’d never felt this. Drums to me are where I get all of my feel from, my vibes, towards the music. Obviously my inspiration is from Rastafari first but in terms of the music itself I feed off the drummer as a bass player 100%, and it was almost like being set free to finally first play with a drummer who makes you feel like – wow – we are breathing life into this music together now. This is a different feeling. A different song.”
The realization of such a foundation is necessary to hold the reigns as a dub engineer. After tracking and drafting with the collective, the first thing Jah David does when building a “Zion Ites Dub” is balance the frequencies of the drum and bass. As the self-proclaimed traditionalist of the collective, he is trusted with the very foundation and structure of it all. Certainly an honor earned through proof and practice. The bass sound is so distinct. So memorable. Give thanks. He also makes sure the percussion is mixed in to the rhythm properly before any top melodies or sounds are considered. Jah David himself also provides much of the Nyanighi drum throughout ZION ITES DUB, a layer I found particularly beautiful and grounding throughout as the dub moves through into deep disintegrations through silent spaces.
Other players on ZION ITES DUB include keyboardist Sean “Young Pow” Diedrick known for his work with Damian Marley. On “Mountains Remove Dub” he is joined by veteran Patrixx “Aba Ariginal” Matixx on trumpet; together they combine to deliver a track full of pulsing staccato flourishes. Pau Dangla Valls, keyboardist for Jah 9’s Dub Treatment band, joins ZIK guitarist Andrew “Moon” Bain on “Imperial Morality Dub” and on “Heart Ah Dub” he plays both keyboards and melodica. In addition to longtime ZIK drummer Lloyd “Junior” Richards, Dub Treatment’s Jonathan “Rankine Jedd” Rankine performs on “Ovah Ethiopia Dub” which also features Addis Pablo on melodica. Jake Morelli (Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Quincey Jones) plays lead guitar on “Judites Dub”.
However, out of all of the players involved, the colored brilliance of many of the great chord changes are coming from Andrew “Drew Keys” Stoch. Some lifetimes are shorter than other. It is why creation is so important. We lost Drew Keys in 2020. Like most recording artists, the weight of his loss will only be heavier as time moves forward. His brilliance will be realized my more and more as the music plays on. Whether a single note piano strike on “Negus Rock Dub,” the canopy of shelter provided by the melodica on “Heavens Declare Dub,” or beautiful fender Rhodes throughout the entire collection, Drew Keys is the ethereal magic of this record. A trombone man by first trade, Keys has painted from a lush and diverse palate of sounds throughout the years of his career, blessing many an instrument and dozens of records throughout the best-of-the-best projects in modern reggae music. We give over thanks for his contributions and it is such a gift to have him here with us to enjoy
This is special music. Personally I know that it will be a staple of my dub listening from here on out. It has led me to discover the sustaining capillaries this collection of artists continues to flow through. ZIK will leave a mark with this record. If you didn’t know, Rootfire hopes that this will be the beginning of a beautiful journey through each artist’s catalogue as well as their work as a collective Zion I Kings. As we forward, be on the lookout for anything Zion High Productions, anything I-Grade, any thing Ancient Digital, and keep your ears out for the unmistakable sound of drum and bass coming from this pocket of reggae and dub creators.
As an extra blessing, ZIK was kind enough to gift us this live I-Grade dub performance from the hands of “Tippy I’ Alfred dubbing out my personal favorite track on the record, “Hola Green Dub”. “Hola Green Dub” is the dub of Arkaingelle and Zion I Kings “Dat I Am” from the 2020 Zion High Productions album NAH WATAH DOWN. Make note that Tippy is presenting live dub, something that must be experienced. Tippy brings this experience to the VI cyphers of St. Croix, allowing the space for vocalists to be alive and crackling on the whim. Check my favorite video of recent, I Grade Dub in the Fishmarket. All of these live I-Grade videos are just completely out of hand with vibes. Respect. I mean come on. These folks don’t stop. Let me tell you. Search them out. Find yourself.
CHECK THE PREMIERE OF “Negus Rock Dub” as well as the entire ZION ITES DUB on January 29, 2021.
ZION ITES DUB is the fourth album in the Zion I Kings (ZIK) dub series and a follow up to Zion High Productions (ZHP) DUB IN ZION (2017).