New Jersey is a state of great diversity and dichotomy. It contains some of the most dilapidated, depressed and dangerous cities in America yet boasts three of the top ten richest counties in the country. The Appalachian Trail runs through the mountains of its northwest corner, a heavily forested swath known as the Pine Barrens fills over 1700 square miles of its southern interior, and two thirds of its eastern border feature beautiful beaches alongside the temperate waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Its 9,000 farms cover 720,000 acres, earning it the nickname, “The Garden State,” but New Jersey also embodies the top four most densely populated cities in the entire United States, all of which are located in Hudson county.
Occupying a mere 62 square miles along the lower Hudson River directly across from Manhattan and Brooklyn, with easy accessibility via train and bus, Hudson County is essentially the sixth borough of New York City. Largely working-class and close-knit like most urban neighborhoods, it’s also quintessential New Jersey, birthing those infamous Jersey accents and providing the backdrop to much of the visuals in the opening sequence of HBO’s epic mafia saga, The Sopranos.
The epicenter of Hudson County is Jersey City, which epitomizes the duality of New Jersey, with $4000 two-bedroom apartments just down the hill from gunshots in broad daylight. Like other areas that offer affordable housing in close proximity to a major metropolitan area, in addition to its white collar professionals living in gentrified apartments, Jersey City has built up a bohemian community of artists, craftsmen and performers.
Emerging as a voice from that community are the musicians, and among them are some talented reggae artists and producers that have begun to make waves internationally. Much of this music comes out of a boutique studio called Hoboken HiFi under the direction of Jim the Boss. Hoboken HiFi offers recording and production, riddim creation, dub mixing and the skills of a full live band, the Hifi Rockers, well-versed in creating a golden-era Jamaican sound. Additionally, to market and distribute the work coming out of the studio, Jim the Boss has created the Hudson Soul label.
Within the national progressive roots scene, Hudson Soul music most closely resembles that of The Expanders and 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, who are known for adeptly recreating the vintage roots reggae sound of the 1970’s and early ’80’s.
With great appreciation for the work coming out of Hoboken HiFi, I spoke with Jim the Boss to learn a little more about his studio and label.
Rootfire: Tell us about your background in sound engineering/production. Where/how were you educated? How long have you been at it? What are some of your greatest works?
Jim the Boss: I have been recording for most of my life, starting with a two-track reel to reel I had when I was a kid, recording everything with one microphone. In 2008, I decided to do it professionally and I worked at Water Music Recorders in Hoboken, NJ. Every session brings our greatest work, we get better with each new day. My favorite recently has been a soul tune I produced with French reggae artist Yellam called “Days & Nights.” They brought me to Le Mans and we recorded it in a day at a studio called The Silo. All of the work I put in over the years led to that moment and it felt surreal to be in an unfamiliar place working on familiar music. It was like a dream and I loved every minute of the process. Yellam’s crew is well put together and everyone has their role. Organization is the key.
RF: Do you typically produce, engineer or both? What is your favorite aspect of recording?
JB: Engineering pays the bills, but when we are doing our own music or working with our own artists, I tend to sit in the producer’s chair, though the band will also typically help produce as well. It’s a team effort.
I’d say my favorite part of recording is recording drums. I grew up as a drummer and played professionally for recordings and local bands. I believe if you have a great drum sound, everything else just falls into place. I am lucky to work with two very talented drummers who have vastly different ways they approach the kit.
Mike [Majette-Torres]’s drumming has a lot of West African influence, because he went to Ghana multiple times and learned a lot of percussion playing techniques. He plays the drumset like he plays hand drums, very dynamic, light to the touch.
Ramsey [Norman] grew up on rock and jazz, so his drumming is all power. Much more upfront and full sounding.
Understanding the instrument and being familiar with their distinct styles and then tweaking the mic placement so it sounds consistent is a challenge I gladly welcome.
RF: When were you first introduced to reggae music? What drew you to it?
JB: It was 2007. I hung around with Junior Marvin’s son in Miami and he introduced me to skinhead era reggae music, you know, the stuff like Rico Rodriguez and The Cimarons. I feel everyone has an internal rhythm inside of them and reggae is my rhythm.
RF: Are there any attributes of the Hobokon HiFi studio that set it apart from other studios in the NYC metro area, in terms of equipment and/or talent?
JB: Yes, our house band, The HiFi Rockers! They are the heart and soul of the studio and without them, there wouldn’t be a Hoboken HiFi or a Hudson Soul sound. We are one of the few studios in the world that actively promote a house band. They’ve all been playing together for so long so they are very tight and know exactly where each person is going to within a composition. They are: Justin Sabaj-Guitar, B. Davis-Piano, Steve Capecci-Bass, Ramsey Norman-Drums, Mike Majette-Torres-Drums/Percussion, Jim the Boss-Organ.
As far as equipment, the sound has less to do with that, but I do tinker and build things. I’ve built some microphones, I have built reverbs – my most well-known one is the Slinky!
RF: How long has the studio been around? Does your studio produce any other type of music or just reggae at this point? What are your aspirations for the studio?
JM: I’ve been recording reggae since about 2008, but Hoboken HiFi came together when I met Steve Capecci in 2011. We set up shop in the Neumann Leather building in Hoboken. The HiFi Rockers came together from there. I met Ramsey at Drum Den, which is a vintage drum shop in the same building. Steve ended up playing for Kiwi and they came to record their Cure/Calico single. Alex Tea (of Kiwi, now Sananga) and Ramsey Norman both ended up joining the house band. Steve went to Berklee with Mike Majette-Torres and when we moved to Brooklyn, Mike came and played on sessions with us.
I promote the studio as a one stop shop for reggae music, but I certainly do record other genres! We have had jazz bands, rock and roll, and a lot of singer songwriter/acoustic musicians. I also have personally taken on film composition projects and other things related to TV/Film.
RF: Tell me a little about your “Hudson Soul” label.
JB: The name came from a fan’s email and how they described what the music felt like to them. She had explained how our music and lyrics reminded her of the urban struggles she faced growing up in Jersey City in the ’80’s. Our music made her think of those times and how she listened to reggae and it helped her through the rough times. I thought that was one of the best compliments we ever received. As with the label, the “Hudson Soul” sound is only music recorded by The HiFi Rockers at Hoboken HiFi. To put our sound simply, it’s the heartbeat of the people and a vehicle for the voice of our generation. Many of the singers we choose to work with have powerful messages that they want to broadcast and we make music to match their feelings and emotions.
RF: Can you tell us a little about the journey and challenges of figuring out how to emulate the classic reggae sound? What are some pieces of equipment that were hard to track down? How did you learn what gear was going to help you get the sound you were after?
JB: I promote to people that enjoy the old school sounds but I’ve never actively pursued emulating the past. I am definitely inspired by it heavily and the musicians are too, as you can hear echos of Sly and Robbie or Flabba Holt in there. I see a lot of studios that have the Mu-Tron Phasor and the Space Echo, but for me that’s all been done before, no need to go down the same worn path.
Over the years, we spent many days experimenting with different basses, amps, mics, preamps etc. There was a time when we just experimented and hardly released anything. Actually, most of what is being released today was recorded well over a year ago or more! For us, we experimented so much we came up with our own way of doing things and just replicated it over and over so we would have a consistent sound. With studio location changes we adapted, but for the most part you can’t really tell. You can only tell the difference when there is a different player such as the Hudson Soul album that features our original drummer Patrick Meyer as opposed to the Gold Rush recording that features Mike Majette-Torres.
When we go into sessions, we will look back at past recordings and see what sounds we liked and will try to adjust the room accordingly to get that cool snare sound or that buzzing bass sound, etc.
RF: Tell us a little bit about the music the studio has released to date and what is in the works.
JB: In late 2017, we released “Gold Rush” by Alex Tea’s reggae alter ego, Sananga, which used our “Fire Alarm” riddim. A few months later we released a piano instrumental over the same riddim called “Yaad Breeze” with Jaime Hinckson. Fantastic piano player! I was happy to finally work on something with him. We had been talking about it for years. After that, we released a single called “Stand for Truth” with B. Davis. B. and I frequently work with Boom One Records.
We have a few things in the works. New album with B. Davis & The HiFi Rockers on Boom One Records. We also have a big collaboration coming out with Dubmatix, Victor Rice and Esteban Descalzo. It’s a modern twist on an old idea, that’s all I will say. I don’t want to spoil the surprise!
Davis and Alex Tea also have some tracks coming out with Esteban’s Kingston Factory studio. He came to record them over the summer of 2017, so be sure to check those out also. It’s a great collaborative effort and features Dave Hillyard, Victor Rice, Maddie Ruthless and many more NYC reggae artists.
RF:Who are your greatest influences as a producer?
JB: I love Sylvan Morris, he really was the man behind the Studio One sound. I also enjoy Berry Gordy, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson. The ’50’s and ’60’s American producers had a lot to do with how I approach music. It was the music I grew up on and spent many hours zoning into to determine what exactly they were doing.
RF: Who are your favorite producers/artists currently putting out reggae and dub music?
JB: I like the stuff Jr. Thomas and The Volcanoes are doing and Westfinga, a dub mixer from France. I was fortunate to meet him when I was in Le Mans; he came to the recording session. I am also a huge fan of The Frightnrs. I discovered them the same night I met Steve Capecci, back when they had horns!
RF: Do you host any sort of sound system or live music events tied to the studio?
JB: We had a few Hoboken HiFi reggae parties but we haven’t done one in a very long time. We are only now starting to actively play as The HiFi Rockers with our own artists that we produced. There’s many ideas for the future to do revue type shows with different artists, players, live dub mixing etc.
RF: How connected are you to the Brooklyn sound system scene?
JB: I met my players technically through that scene. I had met Steve first, but he started inviting me to parties at the now defunct Swamp (or the Lake). We all played for, or still currently play for, bands that are based out there. I played organ for The Far East, and Steve, Mike and our original drummer Patrick are founding members of Top Shotta Band, Mike still plays with them. Mike also plays percussion for The Frightnrs and played on Nothing More to Say.
RF: Name your five favorite reggae and/or dub albums of all time.
JB: I’m going to switch this up on ya. I’m going to give you the top five songs that influenced my whole outlook on playing and recording reggae music. From how they are recorded to the composition of the music. If I had never heard these songs early on, I don’t know if I’d be writing this today.