Last night at South By Southwest, Caribbean culture website LargeUp.com brought a taste of the Virgin Islands to Texas for their “Austin Island” party. Put together in conjunction with the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, it featured some of the biggest musical acts from St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas. The lineup included Rock City, Pressure Busspipe, I-Grade Dub and R&B artist Verse Simmonds.
The night’s roster reflects the diversity of sound that is currently coming out of the U.S.V.I. The pop-duo Rock City recently caused a stir with their hit song, “Locked Away,” featuring Adam Levine, which topped Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart last fall. That said, reggae is having a special moment, particularly in St. Croix and St. Thomas.
We had an opportunity to talk with Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred, the founder of I-Grade Records, and artist Pressure Busspipe over the phone, and they shared their thoughts on growing up in the Virgin Islands.
Tippy I of I-Grade Records
What it was like to grow up in St. Croix, and how did it influence you as a person and a musician?
St. Croix, U.S.V.I. is where I was raised. Born in Haiti, but actually just went to Haiti to be born and then came right back. So I was conceived in St. Croix, grew up in St. Croix, and it has definitely had a huge influence on the music we make. St. Croix is in our blood and influences everything around us. If you ever visit the Virgin Islands, you know that it has an ambience and a feeling, everywhere in the Caribbean does, but particularly the V.I. And it comes through in the music. The music we make is very natural, organic—we like to stress the live instrumentation, good arrangement, and get inspiration from everything around us.
When did you begin your career in the music industry and when did I-Grade Records begin?
I started playing music a few years before we launched I-Grade Records in 2001. I’d say the late ‘90s is when I got my start. I was living up in New York City after college. I had left the Virgin Islands and went away to Boston, ended up in New York City, creating and producing music—a lot of reggae and hip-hop. Eventually moved back home to St. Croix and started I-Grade Records with my partner at the time, a bass player named Kenyatta. We launched it off with a Midnite album called Nemozian Rasta in 2001 and that was the spark. Thirty-one albums later and still producing music, still recording. Right now, we are working out of Aqua Sounds Studio in St. Croix, a great analog studio, and continuing to produce and release the best quality music that we can.
Can you fill us in on your story before music? I know you swam in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and are a lawyer as well.
Well you know I don’t have the average background for a musician or a reggae producer. I have definitely been through the halls of higher education. I went to Harvard. I went to Yale Law School. I have a law degree as you said. I worked as an adjunct professor at Columbia for a couple years before moving home, and as you said, I was an athlete. I swam in the Olympics representing the Virgin Islands in 1992. So this is definitely another chapter in my life and its something where I am always drawing upon my background of academics and athletics. Music requires a lot of focus, a lot of dedication and a lot of commitment, all things you learn in athletics. Patience, seizing opportunities, all of these things come into play, so I definitely use my unique background to create unique music.
After spending time abroad, what brought you back to the Virgin Islands?
A lot of it was the music, a big part was the weather, and another big part was my children. I had three young children at the time and it’s the best place to raise kids and to grow up. I can say that from my own experience, so I really wanted to come home. I knew I wasn’t going to be living in the States forever when I left, but at 17 you want to see the world and have different experiences. I did that for thirteen years and then it was a joy to come home and do something where I’m from with the people I grew up around.
Can you describe what is currently happening in the Virgin Islands’ music scene and why the world is really starting to take notice?
There is a lot of great music coming out right now and it is not just in the world of reggae. Rock City, formerly known as R. City, they’re doing it on the highest levels of pop music and bringing V.I. and the island sound to some great pop songs. Within the world of reggae, of course, you’ve got Pressure Busspipe. You have the world famous Midnite Band, now known as Akae Beka. They have 60 to 65 albums catalogued and tour the world as a very well respected reggae band. A lot of other great reggae artists include Dezarie, Ras Batch, Niyorah, Ras Attitude. There are many, many conscious, quality reggae artists from the V.I., and for such a small population—we are only about 100,000 in the whole territory—we have managed to produce a lot of great musicians and singers and voices. I am just trying to play my part in the production, engineering, and mixing side of it so these artists sound as good as they can.
What is something about St. Croix that the locals know and the rest of the world should know?
I guess I would say how nice it is. That sounds like a cliché, but its like Pressure says, when you sit by a beachside and you can spend your afternoon under a sea grape tree, ready to take a dip in the turquoise water, these are special moments that we as Virgin Islanders often take for granted. People save up and work all year just to get two days of that.
What do you have in store for 2016?
Yeah, we have a lot of new projects in the works. Right now, I’ve just finished up a new album with Akae Beka. The album is called Portals and comes out April 1st on I-Grade Records and iTunes. Beyond that there are a few other recording projects this year. I am working on a compilation project with my studio partner. We are known as SoundPonics, and are putting out a compilation album sometime in April or May. Lutan Fyah, out of Jamaica, also has an album on I-Grade coming out this summer. Pressure Busspipe has an album due later in the summer as well, so we have a lot of music to put out.
Part II: Pressure Busspipe
What was it like to grow up in the Virgin Islands and specifically St. Thomas?
For me growing up in the Virgin Islands as a young boy required being very focused. You have to keep your mind right because even in the Virgin Islands, like other places in the world, it is easy to fall victim and it is hard to stay focused and be on the right track. Violence and criminal activity took part around me in the community that I grew up in. I can’t sit and say it was all bad, but Jah prepare life in a way that we really have to make a choice, which road we want to take. I just chose the good road.
You were introduced to music at an early age and school played an important role in your development as an artist. Can you talk about your path to the music industry?
At a young age I really got to be musically inclined: playing the trumpet, learning to read music, and having an early start with my dad being a part of a band in the Virgin Islands. I learned how to find chords and match notes with notes, so it was easy for me coming up. Then by linking with the Star Lion Family, where I was basically the music arranger, the music director, and playing the part of trying to get the work together on radio stations and having production for us, it was a great start for me. I felt that set the foundation for Pressure. It is where I developed a lot of my skills and training in the reggae industry. During my time with the Star Lion Family I was really critiquing myself to get better and reach out to the world.
Can you talk about your relationship with Rastafari?
Well definitely, God is everything and I put the most high Jah first and everything else after. Doing that, everything becomes easy because when Jah sees you are trying, he meets you halfway. When he sees you are going in his direction, he meets you halfway to help pull your energy. My meditation has always been with Jah because of my God-fearing heart and way of life. By doing Jah’s work, he always prepares the table for I. If it is motivation I need, he always sends that inspiration to me to continue his work because he knows I am serious about it.
Many of your songs address social issues, especially gun violence, which you yourself were a victim. How important to you is it that music has a social message?
Music is supposed to inspire, music is supposed to elevate, and while everybody is doing the opposite, I just want to stay on the right track and continue to help those in need. As time goes by, music is a way of expression, and all musicians express themselves differently, some people express what they want in life—monetary gain, vanity, materialism—and all of those things are a part of the Kingdom, but they are not what I focus on. My meditation focuses on what matters to the people and what will keep the people strong now and for years to come. Upful music, music that carries the God-spirit, is what the people really need in these times.
Can you explain what goes into your song-writing process and how you decide which riddim works best for a particular song?
Everything happens naturally. Sometimes I get in the studio and I don’t have any inspiration at all from the riddims that I’m working on. Sometimes I go in there so inspired that I record more than two or three songs in a night. It happens naturally. It is not something I push and try to complicate. As for trying to come up with lyrics and all that, I have always been into literature, and English was one of my favorite subjects in school. I have really studied communication and how to react to people. Social lifestyles! That is who Pressure Busspipe is, so to bring that life into my lyrics and music was not hard for me. And being a Rasta man and trying to do things in a righteous manner, also, God helped me with that. Inspiration comes straight from the Most High.
You’ve either hosted or been featured on a number of mixtapes by DJs like King I-Vier and DJ Child. How did those projects come about?
There are a lot of producers and DJs out there that wanted the same thing that I wanted. They wanted somebody to help them get over the industry’s hurdles. If they have been DJing for a long time, sometimes it just takes an artist to want to work with them. Even me, I was an artist at one point in time that was hoping one day one of these big time producers would want to record a song with me, or that one of the artists I really loved would want to collaborate. So going forward in life I remind myself that those who come to me and want to work with me always deserve a listening ear because I was once that student who wanted help to get over hurdles and help with my homework.
Many feel the Virgin Islands are having a moment musically and the SXSW showcase is supposed to represent that. Is it an exciting time to be an artist from the V.I.?
Yes, it is! Yes, it is! You want me to tell you what is so significant about [the showcase]? Myself, Rock City, and Verse Simmonds, we had our own group in high school! And we called ourselves, “Too Extreme.” We used to sing girl songs, cover songs like K-Ci & Jojo, Sisqó, and all the popular love songs during the time we were in high school. You could catch us serenading girls at lunchtime. We would go into classrooms and serenade girls. And we did talent shows, introductory night, we did everything and the girls really loved it. It was something that I never thought 16 or 17 years later we would all be pulling our own weight in the world of music. To see Rock City do so well with their single with Adam Levine and all the other music they’ve been working on with other artists and to see Verse Simmonds doing so well in Atlanta with his song, “Boo Thang” with Kelly Rowland and much more, and for me to be getting so many blessings all over the world doing reggae music—it was something that we worked so hard for from then to now. And we saw the vision, we saw where we wanted to go with it, we put in the work and here we are today on a big international stage at SXSW in Austin, Texas. 16 years later!
And Rock City are like my high school best friends. Before I started to do reggae music, before I started to sing, chant, whatever, I was actually looking at them do their thing. And I’m older than them! But they’ve been doing their thing since 6 or 7 years old, and since Kris Kross was the big thing around the world. That was their inspiration, Kris Kross. The first show I saw them do was them opening up for Ice Cube in St. Thomas and they totally mashed the show up. Mashed up the show so! Growing up, I’ve always been blessed to say my friends mash up the place. So I started to get into the chanting, singing, and stuff because of the inspiration they gave me. I took my own road doing reggae music and dancehall music, while they were still into the rap music. They were into Busta Rhymes and all that. And Verse Simmonds he was into the singing and he was the one who said, “Alright, let’s sing over this K-Ci & Jojo, let’s sing over this Sisqó.” He was making us cover those songs, and today he’s a very, very blessed R&B singer. To see where we are coming from, where we are at right now, and where we are going is a tremendous feeling. It is more than even words can explain to know that we all put forth the same effort and got the same results.
In your opinion what is something that people from the Virgin Islands know that the world should know?
That reggae music in the Virgin Islands right now is at its peak! The reggae industry in the Virgin Islands is very high right now; it is full of nutrients, full of vitamins, and all the essentials to the body. This music that is coming out of the Virgin Islands especially the island of St. Croix is like a volcano erupting into the world, and we’re are getting so much recognition around the world. People from all over are looking toward the Virgin Islands and St. Croix for the culture, the conscious music, especially with the Dub in the Rainforest that we’ve been doing consecutively, repeatedly and month after month after month. It has drawn so much attention to the world that we now have people booking dates because they don’t want to miss Dub in the Rainforest. They don’t want to miss that and it creates such a special element that the Virgin Islands really needed. I’m giving thanks to be apart of it.
What do you currently have in the works for 2016?
I have so much going on right now! I am getting ready to release a lover’s rock EP that consists of just love songs alone. The female fanbase has been like, “Yo, Pressure! What happened to ‘Love & Affection?’” So I decided to dedicate this project, this EP, to the ladies and the lovers out there. While doing that I am also working on my latest album for I-Grade Records. We have been working on that piece by piece by piece until I get this lover’s rock out of the way and can go full-force with the production of it. This year you will be hearing nuff from Pressure Busspipe! It is going to be a sick, sick, sick year. Believe that!