One Band, Many Sounds

April 09, 2007

We're always elated to see FADER favorites get mainstream coverage, as Black Chiney Soundsystem recently did in the Miami New Times ("If You Can't Riddim, Join 'Em" HAY HAY!), if for no other reason than it gives us an excuse to put up our own stories from past issues. For Issue 43, Edwin "Stats" Houghton went down to Miami and came back not only with a killer feature (read it after the jump) but the inside line on Black Chiney's Drumline Riddim, which we eventually put on our most recent FADER/Southern Comfort limited edition 7" with Busy Signal hammering his version. Little did we know at the time that the Drumline Riddim would cause much fury between our dudes Vybz Kartel and F42 coverstar Mavado. You can still listen to what started it all on our DJ-mixed podcast from F43 here with the peace of mind in knowing that Vybz and Mavado are now buds.

Miami Sound Machine

In the hands of Black Chiney Soundsystem, musical bastardization is a plan for world domination

By Edwin "Stats" Houghton

Somewhere in a beat up social studies textbook left over from the ’50s there is an illustrated portrait of the “typical human.” Sidebars break down the face by its statistical relation to the earth’s population—predominantly “Mongoloid” features indicate the masses in Asia, brown skin and “Negroid” traits represent a second major stream from Africa, while “Caucasian/other” is not enough of a drop in the gene pool to register visibly on the face of humanity. It’s intended to illustrate a mathematical abstraction, but nowhere does the graphic disclose that there might be actual humans who look like this, or that they live in Miami and have names like Supa Dups and Walshy Killa. But there are. And they do. “Black Chiney Soundsystem” may suggest a forgotten Wu-Tang spin off, a fantasy born of spooky soul and Kung Fu sound FX, but in fact it is pretty much what it says it is: a dancehall soundsystem manned exclusively by Jamaicans of Afro-Chinese descent, four selectors who are among the world’s greatest in a fiercely competitive sound-sport. More importantly, the sound has morphed into a label and production team who are contributing to a transformation of both reggae and mainstream music as producers and ghostwriters of some of the most impactful dancehall currently circulating.

The Book of Black Chiney (aka the bio on their website), chapter 1, verse 1 states: “The sound, like Jesus, had very humble beginnings…” which, minus the god complex, is basically true. The Black Chiney name was first used by Dups for a hip-hop/reggae mix CD, conceived as a desperate attempt to keep his cell from being cut off. Black Chiney 1 - Enter the Dragon not only sold out (and paid the phone bill), but reached boomboxes as far away as the Cayman Islands. By the time they got to volume four, Black Chiney had become a household name in under-served zones of the Caribbean—nations like Belize, where cassettes and bootleg CDs formed the entire basis of music retail—and even got run in Jamaica. “Me and Bobby didn’t even know it was big in Jamaica until I went down for my father’s funeral in December of 2000,” says Dups. “That’s when we find out—Black Chiney was like this big phenomenon but nobody really knew who we was.” Dancehall artists were approaching the duo to voice dubs for free but, as Dups tells it, “We were still scared, all these producers want to shoot them because [the mixtapes were] killin their sales. I don’t think it even registered to me and Bobby what it was going to be until Bounty Killer cut a dub for us and said ‘Black Chiney are de sound, ha. Big up, Supa Dups and Bobby Chin are de selector, ha.’ That’s when we like ‘Oh shit, fe real.’ From that, everybody and their gran-momma start booking us.”

From 2001 to 2004, the newly minted sound toured non-stop, taking the title at dancehall’s premiere event, Fully Loaded. Soon after, they clashed the dethroned “Fully Loaded King” Tony Matterhorn and won again, rising to the top of the dancehall heap more or less overnight. Their instant success and no-holds-barred approach—mixing reggae with Miami bass, soca and anything else at hand—produced as many detractors as it did lucrative bookings. By 2003 the two were burnt out by the constant travel and hatemail, and recruited Willy Chin Remix and Walshy Killa to handle passport gigs. Except for Willy, who is Supa Dups’s younger cousin, the crew are not related to each other in any way, linking up by chance, and the story of their travel routes, career paths and bloodlines all converging in Miami is a saga unto itself.

Supa Dups, aka Dwayne Chin-Quee, comes from a family several generations deep in reggae. In the 1960s his uncle Winston launched Wincox, a joint venture with legendary producer Coxsone Dodd that was one of the first labels to voice Bob Marley on tunes like “Simmer Down.” Brought up to Miami in ’79 to escape the violence of the bloody 1980 election in Jamaica, young Dwayne spent the ’80s shuttling between uptown Kingston and Miami hoods like Homestead. “When I was 13, my brother had a good friend who was the music director at Power 96 and he all hyping him up on me, cause I was DJing big-people clubs by that age,” says Supa Dups. “They gave me a shot and from that I came religiously every single Friday ’til I was 17. The first time I actually went on the air I played reggae but then I would also play bass music, and in ’91 this whole hip-hop revolution happened in Miami.” Dups’s trademark combined reggae with a 2 Live Crew approach to crowd-pleasing, alternating between the “Lick lick lick lick you…” of Ludacris with “You a licky-back!” from Beenie Man. Custom versions from Supa Dups became secret weapons for some of the top soundsystems, and it was one such that brought selector Bobby Chin knocking on his door. They connected instantly. “We’re two Chinese guys that think we’re black,” says Dups. “We’re mixed—like my father’s two parents are Chinese and my mother is half black, white and Chinese…his mom is half black and half Chinese, father same thing.”

Bobby Chin aka Robert Lee was already a selector in Mona Heights, Kingston when he migrated to the US at the age of 21 to select for Earthquake, his cousin’s sound in DC. After leading it to defeat established champs Black Kat and Rodigan, Chin moved on to Tampa-based Poison Dart. To these stateside crews Chin brought a style particular to Mona, a middle-class or uptown neighborhood that is home to the groundbreaking soundsystem Renaissance, a crew that was among the first to apply scratch DJ techniques to reggae and incorporate hip-hop and house into its sets.

Also with roots in Mona is Walshy Killa, born Leighton Paul Walsh near Kingston’s Halfway Tree. “My older brother [Courtney Walsh] is a cricket superstar, he’s like the Michael Jordan of cricket,” explains Killa. “So when he started to blow up we moved to Mona.” Around fourth grade he made the transition from relative affluence in Kingston to the Miami ghetto of Carol City, which, Killa says, is “the Caribbean ghetto—nuttin but Trinis, Haitians, Bahamians. You have straight-from-Jamaica cats who realize they have to become like a ‘my-nigga-yo’. That’s what we call a Miami person from the hood: myniggayos. You got to adapt to that, so you have a Jamaican person with permanent gold teeth and he dress like a myniggayo but with a hard JA accent. It’s a weird culture.” Killa later returned to Kingston for a brief stint on Coppershot, the same uptown sound Sean Paul’s brother selects for, and it’s that movement between the upscale side of the third world and the gully side of the first that defines the Black Chiney ethos. They bridge uptown Kingston parties where soca, R&B and house music are played bashment style with rewinds and air horns with Miami strip clubs where fresh off the boat yardies emulate the swagger of Rick Ross and Lil Jon. Small wonder then that they’ve caught it from both sides—they’re recognized as key players driving reggae forward with fresh ideas, and bad-minded for bastardizing the purity of the art form.

“When I say bumba, you say clot!” The call goes out and the response comes back from 2000-plus people rammed up in the enclosed yard of a venue called Revolutions in Ft Lauderdale. The occasion is the Supa Dups birthday bashment and although it seems like everyone and their gran-momma has come through, the vibe is suffering from a disease called “Too Much DJ.” The bill is packed with Miami sounds come to pay tribute, and every new selector who takes the stage has to deliver a tribute soliloquy. Frantic energy is released in short bursts between a lot of restless milling around and in true Jamaican style the heat doesn’t really build until around 3 AM when Black Chiney takes the set with an Elephant Man “Chiney Rock” dub on the wildly popular Gangsta Rock riddim. The resulting frenzy has an extra urgency because this is not Jamaica, where a bashment can roll right through dawn, and the plug will get pulled promptly at 4 AM. By the time Chin yells, “Everyone sit down if you love George Bush! Everyone sit down if you have AIDS!” a squad of revelers has lifted a fatty-lous gal bodily from the dance floor and is preparing to reverse stage dive her right into the DJ set-up, laptops and all. The music is cut to yells of “Rest! Rest!” but she still hovers there precariously and for a second it looks like she’s going to topple into the turntables anyway.

At some point, Mr. Vegas passes through to ask why Black Chiney is not playing his current boom-tune “Hot Wuk.” “The Elephant Man on that riddim is actually bigger inna Miami because we play the Ele one with a dubplate him gave us,” Dups explains later. “Vegas sat me an Bobby down for 15 minutes like ‘What me can do to make Black Chiney start playin my shit in Miami? Elephant Man just a use you, yunno.’” And indeed, Chin has ghostwritten any number of Ele tunes by giving him a hook for a dub-plate which, within days, Ele will have voiced on 45 for another producer. It’s also a Dups-produced track that apparently secured Ele’s freshly-inked deal with Bad Boy.

It’s now the day after Dups’s birthday celebration, and these dub-plate war stories are traded in the studio at his house between listens to his original productions. First up of course is the Kopa riddim, most recognizable as the beat from Nina Sky’s “Turning Me On,” but also a juggling riddim with a full complement of hybrid tunes: Elephant Man and David Banner, Kardinall Offishall and Akon. It’s a fast reggae beat that incorporates latin percussion, Miami bass and a distorted snatch of Uncle Luke’s voice garbling, “C’mon baby!” Octane is one of the hottest riddims in the current juggling and Dups has four more riddims voiced and on the shelf, including Fried Rice and Drumline, which is indeed built from a loop of marching band drums sampled from the movie. Meanwhile, Dups has produced tracks for a who’s who of forthcoming LPs—one track for Rihanna, two for Collie Buddz, three for Notch, four for Kardinall Offishall.

Considering the ghost-writing talents and rhythmic genius the sound has in-house, it sort of begs the question: why don’t they just find a copastetic vocalist and become BLACK CHINEY SOUNDSYSTEM—a proper band, like LCD Soundsystem or, you know, the Beatles? Dups brushes the question aside. “Black Chiney is a movement, we all produce and eventually each one a dem will have their own label under the Black Chiney umbrella.” Meanwhile, Killa DJs a pirate radio spot which just won “Best Reggae Show” from the Miami New Times, and he and Willy Chin Remix also do a Comcast thing wherein music videos are blended and pulled up like 45s. Chin is parlaying his relationship with artists into a booking agency to handle rising reggae stars like Busy Signal and Turbulence. “Black Chiney Empire” may actually be more appropriate than “soundsystem” or “movement”, never mind “band.” Yet, in between tracks, Dups is singing softly to himself—working out melodic parts for someone else to voice—and for a bespectacled, Buddha-like Chinese Jamaican, damn if he doesn’t have a touchingly sweet gospel tenor, clear as a temple bell.

Posted: April 09, 2007
One Band, Many Sounds