Back in December of 2017, we published a Throwback Thursday article about Give Thanks, the one and only album from Skadanks, a New York City reggae band popular during the 90s. The lead singer of this band, Rocker-T, eventually relocated to northern California and went on to have a long and successful solo career.
While Rocker-T is known throughout the reggae community for his conscious dancehall music, today Rootfire looks back at his first album released as a solo artist, 1998’s Nicer By The Hour which is quite different stylistically from the majority of his catalogue.
Nicer By The Hour offers a rapturous array of reggae styles that demonstrate Rocker-T’s compositional and vocal skills while also showcasing the crackerjack musical and production talents of the Lower East Side New York City reggae scene from which he emerged. Crafted under the nurturing guidance of accomplished savant King Django with plenty of creative input from the clan of reggae-loving musicians that hung around Django’s Version City Studio during the 90s, Nicer By The Hour emulates vintage reggae with precision while offering higher fidelity.
This album has something for all reggae fans — roots, dub, early reggae, ska, dancehall, love songs, even Nyabinghi – it’s all there, performed and produced to perfection.
The album kicks off with a banger, “Boss Dee Jay,” a killer groove with spacey dub effects under layered patois vocals and utterances, all delivered by Rocker-T inna deejay stylee. “Boss Dee Jay” is the “Stayin’ Alive” of reggae, the kind of tune that prompts one to strut down the avenue, head held high, knowing you are top rankin’.
Many of the 17 songs on Nicer By The Hour will prompt listeners to shake a leg, none more than the fourth track on the album, “One More.” A Rocker-T fan favorite, this upbeat pro-ganja anthem utilizes a heavy-hitting flyers drum pattern that perfectly supports the rapid flow of the vocal delivery.
The next track, “Fiya Bun Roam,” expressly allows Rocker-T to flaunt the true beauty of his singing thanks to its sparse instrumentation. The airy arrangement includes a gentle bassline and hi-hat drumming punctuated by occasional organ strokes and perky trumpet riffs, and together with the vocal melody creates a song that can get lodged into your consciousness for days on end.
Speaking of simple arrangements, “I-Story Lesson” is perhaps the most intriguing song on the album. In sort of a dub poetry style, Rocker-T recounts in spoken word patois the political machinations between Mussolini’s Italy and Ethiopia leading up to WWII over an uncomplicated bassline, the hi-hat drumming common to the album, and guitar skanks. For texture, the song sprinkles in some 60s-sounding surf guitar and moments of reverb to give it that full dub effect.
Staying with the theme of uncluttered arrangements, “Grow Mi Locks,” delivers a stripped down, dubbed-out riddim while juxtaposing a lumbering tempo with rapid-fire toasting along with some garage-rock guitar accents.
The album wraps up with two energetic early reggae numbers that share positive messages. In “Judgement Day,” Rocker T sings:
You got learn to love your Creator
You got to learn to love your fellow man
You got to change your foolish ways
Before judgement day comes
With a similar uplifting sentiment, “Tell Di World” calls for unity:
Its like a revelation
Its like a new creation
We got to sing out
We all got to chant
Unto the Most High one
Go tell the world
How could you fight and kill your brother man
And spill your bruddah blood upon your mother land
We all got to learn to come together man
We all got to come together everyone
This album may have been written twenty years ago, but these are words that need to be heard today more than ever.
In order to provide Rootfire readers with more insight into this well-respected veteran reggae musician and the work that went into making this awesome album, we reached out to the west coast and hit up Rocker-T with some interview questions. After completing some projects in the studio, he kindly made time to respond with just what we were hoping for.
ROOTFIRE: In reading through your biography, it looks like you started playing guitar at a fairly young age. Did you come from a musical family that encouraged you to take up an instrument, or was it something that you pursued on your own?
ROCKER-T: From a very musical family. Singing in choir from the age of three, playing piano since age seven and guitar since age 13. It was mandatory for the brothers, sisters and cousins on my mother’s side of the family to either sing or play instruments, or both. So besides being encouraged and “forced,” I was motivated to write and play on my own as well.
ROOTFIRE: Your bio also speaks briefly about how, as a youth, watching Joan Baez perform in the Woodstock movie had a profound impact on you, inspiring you to become a musician. Do you remember what about her performance moved you? Can you tell us a little bit about how you ended up meeting her many years later backstage at Reggae on the River, and how that evolved into a friendship and musical collaboration?
ROCKER-T: The first time I had watched that entire movie, there were two performances that hypnotized me completely: Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix & the Band of Gypsys. I was aspiring at the time to be a great lead guitarist and had never really thought about being a lead singer, but Joan’s style and vibration changed my heart and mind in that one moment. If it hadn’t been for the encouragement of my keyboard player, I might not have had the courage to approach her and connect with her. I consider her a true legend and I’m honored to have known her as a friend.
ROOTFIRE: It seems like you started listening to reggae music in the mid 80s during your high school years. How were you first exposed to reggae, which artists or albums did you hear and what were your initial thoughts about the music?
ROCKER-T: Because of an affinity for punk rock and ska. I am a huge fan of The Clash and The Selecter as well as other indy UK, Euro and American bands. Black Uhuru, Yellowman and SuperCat were very popular at the time. Once I began to explore the meaning of the patwa and Rasta lyrics and trace where the cover tunes had come from, it opened up worlds of music that I still explore to this day.
ROOTFIRE: Fast forwarding about a decade, your bio makes reference to your initiation “into the true and living science of Word, Sound & Power and Nyabinghi chanting and drumming” by Elder Lidj Ras Menelik Da Costa and Rastafari Elder Ras Pidow. This sounds amazing to me. Could you tell us about the experience? How did it come about, what was it like, and how has it influenced your daily living and, ultimately, your music?
ROCKER-T: Actually stopped cutting my locks in 1989. I was rescued from an apathetic, drugged out existence by Rastafarians named Ras Wayne, Doc and Smally among some others I met in the Lower East Side in those days. The band we were in (Skadanks) opened for a group called Jah Levi & the Higher Reasoning at the Wetlands and that’s when I met Ras Menelik. I studied and journeyed a long time with Jah Levi and Ras Menelik who also introduced me to Ras Michael of the Sons of Negus and Ras Pidow from the Rastafari Elders. I’m still processing everything I have learned from these incredible I-dren. I would say some of the ways I incorporate all of this into my life and music is by doing my best and practicing a One Love lifestyle. I’ve learned alot of compassion and open minded-ness along this road and I am eternally thankful.
ROOTFIRE: After your first solo record, Nicer by the Hour, your music takes a clear shift toward a conscious dancehall sound. Was this a strategic decision, a decision based on personal preference, or not so much a decision but simply the voice of your creative muse at work?
ROCKER-T: Growing up in 70s and 80s NYC one has access to everything musical in the world. And I am the kind of individual who gets into as many forms of music and music making as I possibly can. So I would say there has never been any strategic plan about how I create, collaborate and co-create art. It’s more based on the location I happen to be in, the circumstances of the times and the personnel involved.
ROOTFIRE: Whether you’re singing in a singjay or full dancehall style, you certainly have mastered the technique. Not having come from Jamaican heritage, can you speak about how you developed this authentic sound? Did you have a mentor or teacher? Did you have to work hard at the craft, or did it just sort of evolve from listening to reggae music?
ROCKER-T: First off I’ll say that I consider all forms of patwa/patois to be language dialects and not mere slang accents. I have been blessed to be exposed to Caribbean and particularly East/West Indian culture my entire life in many different ways. There are friends and loved ones who encouraged and assisted my abilities regarding speaking specifically the Jamaican and Trinidadian patwas, besides the amount of language and vocabulary I gained from records, especially, as well as from movies like Rockers and Countryman and TV shows like Oliver.
ROOTFIRE: Who would you consider your greatest influences as a singer?
ROCKER-T: From my earliest memories, I know that I am influenced heavily by the Beatles, the Jackson 5, Johnny Mathis and Diana Ross & the Supremes. After that it was the Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Pat Benatar, Led Zeppelin, Earth Wind & Fire, Pink Floyd, new wave, punk, ska, hip-hop, dancehall… Besides who I mentioned previously, some my earliest and deepest reggae influences are the Wailing Wailers, the Upsetters, the I-Threes, the Ethiopians, Phyllis Dillon, Dennis Alcapone, Burning Spear, Hugh Mundell, Augustus Pablo, Cocoa Tea, Pinchers and Trevor Sparks. Truly I am influenced by every form of music that I enjoy and I have thousands if not millions of favorites.
ROOTFIRE: The topic of this article, Nicer by the Hour, is aptly credited to Rocker-T and the Version City Rockers since you share writing credits with a lot of other musicians that played on the album. The Version City Rockers, from what I can tell, were essentially an association of musicians that hung around the studio in those days, including King Django, who produced the record, as well as members of your old band Skadanks, in addition to The Slackers, Victor Rice, Dr. Ring Ding and other heavy hitters from the NYC ska/reggae scene. Was this album conceived, written and executed intentionally together as project with a shared focus, or was it sort of put together more after-the-fact like a patchwork quilt?
ROCKER-T: Well, thanks to King Django there was a Version City Studio. He and I are deep bredren since probably 1985 or 1986. And thanks to Agent Jay, I found the studio and got very reconnected with certain people and community in the L.E.S. (Lower East Side) again. Yes, all of the actual Version City Rockers (more than are on this album) are quite talented and masterful to say the least. The album started late in the night after a concert at Tramps when I somehow convinced a bunch of us to go to Version City and record five riddims off the top of the head based on some chord progressions I liked. After that it was Victor Rice, Agent Jay and myself who continued relentlessly for some weeks recording musicians and tracks until Agent Jay and I spent two days and nights mixing for 21 & 17 hours consecutively with a four hour nap in between and completed the album! There was so much music from those sessions that King Django was able to release Alphabet City from them 10 years later.
ROOTFIRE: Could you tell us a little bit about what it was like at Version City back in those days? It must have been exciting to be working with so many talented and knowledgeable reggae fanatics as part of a revival of sorts.
ROCKER-T: It still is! From those days in the Lower East Side ‘til today in New Brunswick, Version City is one of my favorite places to be on this earth. The amount of amazing original and traditional music that Stubborn Records and VCRs perpetuate is on a level all to its own. The scene we started and cultivated since the mid 80s was and has only continued to grow into an even bigger revival of music as well as a manifestation of family.
ROOTFIRE: “Fiya Bun Roam” makes a lot of Biblical references, so I assume you are well schooled on its content. Was this from your education as a youth, or something you dove into deeply as an adult? What was the motivation?
ROCKER-T: The way I study and deal with Scripture makes it tricky to answer that question simply for most ears. I will say that I think there is a universal balancing of the Karmic scales that will naturally sort out any injustice. Such balancing doesn’t necessarily adhere to anyone’s particular schedule or comfort zone in my opinion.
ROOTFIRE: One of the most interesting tracks on the album is “I-Story Lesson,” which describes, in spoken word Jamaican patwa, Mussolini’s aggression toward Ethiopia and the series of skirmishes that resulted from Haile Selassie’s resistance leading up to World War II. The takeaway, I presume, is Selassie’s valor and prescience, essentially implying his providence? Might you share your thoughts about this song?
ROCKER-T: It is a critique of the hypocrisy and folly of modern kingdoms and rulers. Basically, if the powerful governments of the world would check and regulate each other and protect the nature and resources of the lands by living up to the grand declarations that all of their constitutions claim to stand for regarding equal rights and justice, then this world would finally have an easement from pillage, rape and genocide.
ROOTFIRE: Do you have a favorite track on NBTH and if so, why?
ROCKER-T: All of it. “Tell Di World” is my father’s and one of my favorite tracks on the album. It is also one of King Django’s favorites along with “Boss Dee Jay,” which is also one of my favorites. Agent Jay’s favorite has always been “Grow Mi Locks.” I honestly never asked Vic Rice what his favorites are. Plus I love “One More,” “Fiya Bun Roam,” “Wikid Man Run.” And “Domino Shuffle” for it’s originality and content for sure.
ROOTFIRE: Do you ever perform songs from this album when performing or are your shows strictly dancehall now?
ROCKER-T: Yes indeed. My performances are always based on the environment, the timing and the location that I am performing in.
ROOTFIRE: You had mentioned that you’ve been super busy in the studio lately. What’s next on tap for Rocker-T?
ROCKER-T: Channel Tubes just released a record called Jah Is Love with a riddim track by the Far East Band featuring my vocals. They have another track of mine set to drop this year and it features Maddie Ruthless on harmonies. More tracks are going to be released this year with Stubborn Records, House of Riddim, and Royal Order Music. I am finally finishing a 16 song Jamaican/American cover album of pre-1970 music and will be releasing that sometime before the summer. Also working on albums with Stubborn Records, Baylando Records and Folklorica Records. Besides all of that, I have a few dub and folk/EDM projects bubbling…
For more info on Rocker-T visit www.facebook.com/RockerTea/
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