Chronixx wanted to light some incense. In his room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, the 24-year-old Jamaican recording artist leading the so-called “reggae revival” was looking to chill and maybe neutralize the botanical stench that came from the steam chalice sitting on his rumpled bed.
It was noon on Tuesday, two days before he was set to begin his U.S. tour to promote his new album, Chronology, and he had just pulled an all-nighter with his managers, Pierre Bost and Brendon “Daddi Barnz” Sharpe, to mix the album and perfect its riddims.
Since Chronixx (né Jamar McNaughton) arrived in New York the week before last, he’s had a whirlwind schedule, including an appearance on The Tonight Show with his band, Zinc Fence Redemption. Host Jimmy Fallon has been a Chronixx fan since hearing his music play non-stop while on a vacation to Jamaica in 2014, and Chronixx increased his international renown after his first appearance on Fallon that summer, with his EP Dread & Terrible returning to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard reggae album chart.
Then, Chronixx’s message, writ large that same year with his global hit “Here Comes Trouble,” was to announce a sea change in Jamaican music away from pervasive dancehall and back to roots music, as soulfully created by followers of the Rastafari movement. On his new album, the bold innovation comes in beats and sounds. The songs “Majesty” and “Likes” both have an ’80s slow-jam vibe that gets alchemized into an up-tempo blend of music from Jamrock over the last half-century. The latter song distills the intent by stressing a commitment to authenticity with the tone of someone who has already arrived and doesn’t need recognition: “Mek dem know substance over hype/ Dweet fi di luv mi nuh dweet fi di likes.”
Dressed in black jeans, an Army green shirt, and a cream infinity scarf, he intermittently sipped from a bottle of Evian as his high-stacked dreads wobbled atop his head. His team downstairs was scrambling to order vegan food from UberEATS so Chronixx could maintain his Rasta ital diet while on the road. He finally located a lighter and pulled a pack of goloka nag champa agarbathi from his suitcase, cracked the window, and ignited a stick in a wooden holder. As the incense slowly burned to embers, we spoke about his early fascination with musical experimentation, his Rasta influences, and the state of Jamaican music today in a complex political environment.
What’s the message you’re aiming at in Chronology?
The message is primarily in the sound of it. I always try to remind myself of how powerful the sound of music is — you know what I mean? We’ve gotten to a place, especially in the business of music, where we think that what we’re saying is more important than how it sounds. On this album, people will love a song because of how it feels and not necessarily because of what I’m saying. I spent a lot of time working on the vibe, because as Jamaicans, not a lot of people will identify with our stories. And not because our stories are weird, but because of how we tell stories. People have to first be drawn to our music and our content by the sound, and then eventually say, “Oh, that’s what he’s saying.” I spent a lot of time trying to stay true to how powerful and how magnetic the sound of music is.
It is inspired by Jamaican music and the various forms that Jamaican music have taken over the last 50, 60 years. It is one of those projects celebrating the wealth of music coming out of Jamaica. The sound of it is doing that. Because of Jamaican music, there’s a lot of beautiful music in the world. In my book, that is indisputable. Everything from reggaeton, a lot of the Hispanic pop music nowadays, and pop music in general, R&B, hip-hop — a lot of inspiration has been drawn from Jamaican music. And not to say reggae, because here we are now talking about Jamaican music. Reggae music is one of probably 15 different sounds coming out of Jamaica, 15 popular sounds. You have ska — “My Boy Lollipop,” “Guns of Navoronne.” Then you have rocksteady. You have mento. You have traditional Niyabinghi music, which is from Africa. You have dub. From dub, you get dubstep. You get electronic dub. You know what I mean? It’s the first place in the world where bass was emphasized in a song, where the bass becomes the primary melody in the song. Even the lead vocals comes in less than the bass, and lower than the bass. It’s very experimental music, and this project reflects that.
Reggae music is an experimental music. That’s why it has taken so many forms over that 50 years, as opposed to developing one sound and trying to perfect one sound. So you don’t really go to studio and try to do what you did yesterday or focus on getting it to sound perfect. It is perfect in its own way. And then today is a new day. Today is a new sound. But it’s still Jamaican.
You’re characterized as leading the so-called “reggae revival.” Is that a label you embrace?
You have to understand, as artists, there is art and there are people who write about art — people who publicize it, people who publish it, people who promotes it. For you to promote something, you have to have a nice tagline, a nice logo, and I think the “reggae revival” is just one of those things. Rather than write a paragraph to decide what we are, people just comes up with the term “reggae revival” — the two best words that we can find and the two most appealing words that we can find.
But to really describe what is happening now, I would say it is the continuation of a great sound and a great music that could have otherwise been just neglected. I think I didn’t notice at first, obviously, we were taking it upon ourselves to do something that was significant. What we were doing was more significant than we thought it was. That’s the whole reggae revival. It’s a very beautiful thing. To create reggae music, you have to be in a meditation, you have to be a part of a meditation, even in the slightest ways. But you need to be serious about it. And that’s why you get the level of respect that you get when you complete a reggae project, because people know that it’s not easy to have three horns players in a room, and keyboard players, and sound engineers — that’s kind of what it takes, to make reggae music.
“I was feeling music more than I was feeling the god I was singing to. I just really loved music and the power that it had.”
Your obsession with the nuances of sound are no doubt a product of the time you spent in a studio in St. Catherine parish as a teenager. Can you describe how that mixing work influenced this album?
There was a studio in De La Vega City, and I was very excited because as a youth who was born in De La Vega City and who spent a lot of time there, I can now go to the studio and record and mix. I started going there, sometimes I’d just be there not doing anything. Eventually I started to learn music, learn production. So I started making beats, I started doing writing, and then I started to run harmony sessions as well, so I would record harmonies on songs. And I would also do a lot of demo sessions for the songs that I write. So whenever I write, I would go and sing it, arrange the harmonies, and then artists would come. At that time, I was 16.
Your father, known as Chronicle, was a singer of some note. Did that drive you to spend time at the studio?
He’s still a singer. He should be on his way to New York right now. He was signed to Massive B Label here in New York. Him and Buju Banton and a few other people. I think his music wasn’t managed well, wasn’t managed properly. I mean, he was on a decent label. But artists takes personal management and development, maintenance. Talent need maintenance.
But yeah, I was at studio and a lot of artists came there. For me at that time, like if I’m at studio and I see Sly and Robbie walks in, I know playtime is over. It’s some serious work. I got to watch a keyboard player in Jamaica called Obeah, really good. I watched Dalton Brownie play guitars. I got to be in sessions with a lot of great musicians from The Firehouse Crew, Danny Bassie. These were some of the people making some of the most popular music in Jamaica. For instance, Dalton Brownie played Drop Leaf Riddim, played most of Bobby Digital, played most of Exterminator baselines. It was just a great thing for me. I wasn’t doing it for credit at that time. I wasn’t thinking about credit at that time. Credit comes.
I honestly didn’t know how far I was going to get in music business as a career thing. But I knew I couldn’t stop until… like, I can’t stop learning music. Like I already made that decision from when I was a child to continue learning and continuing to practice music throughout my life. My father didn’t have to push me into music. From once I was 12, I was already doing more music than I’ve seen my father done. I was rehearsing like four or five times a week, in a choir or a band or going to studio. For me, it was just an inner flame that was burning that needed to continue burning. I was just sniffing down music everywhere, anywhere there was music if I found where it was. And I practiced music.
And you developed your pipes early on in church? How did you make the transition into the music you now make?
From when I was 11, I was on the children’s choir. I was on the youth choir. And I was on the combined choir at the same time. It was a church called Light House Assembly Church of God. So they called it the Church of God. It’s a very funny thing, the names of churches. It was a ten-minute walk from where my cousins lived in De La Vega City. And it was a very musical place, you know what I mean? A lot of what happened in church was musical. A lot of rehearsals. By the time I was 13, I was worship leader in the church, which means we started the church. When church starts, we sing for like two, three hours, just sing songs and hymns or whatever. Then the regular church procession would start.
I was doing that when I was 12, 13 coming up until I decided I wanted to do things that were more purposeful and meaningful, and I didn’t want to sing to a god in the sky. That’s too far. And I didn’t want to sing to a god that I don’t know, a god that I can’t feel. Because I was feeling music more than I was feeling the god I was singing to. And at that time, it wasn’t about no god or nothing. I just really loved music and the power that it had. And I was practicing music as that powerful thing. For me, it wasn’t about music theory; it was about what moved people that interest me. When I was 15, I started to go into music theory and I learned the scales.
“The very fact that culture is important to Jamaicans still, and the fact that culture is the number one product coming out of Jamaica, that is a miracle.”
What influence has Rastafari had on your music?
We are, first and foremost, human beings. And then human beings who have chosen a spiritual way of life. And for me, Rastafari is what facilitates my spiritual life. Rastafari is my spiritual life. It’s a day-to-day evolution. Evolution and revolution, because you are never the same. Rasta is a self-teaching, and self-teaching meaning you are being taught by creation, which is yourself. To the point where you look at the tree, and you say, this tree is exactly me. And everything like me — the same things. It breathe just like me. It live just like me. It will die just like me. It has veins just like me. You look at the river and say, ‘The river is flowing just like me.’ Then you start to see yourself in everything. Rasta is what teach us oneness and the centering of yourself in the universe. So it becomes the centerpiece, so in the universe, you are a microuniverse, a microreflection of the universe.
It plays a role in life, because rasta is livity. Music is a part of your livity. Livity is not a part of your music. We don’t live as part of our music. Our music is a part of our living. So whatever comes under that living will reflect the living itself, you know what I mean? So our music is all a part of our spiritual way of life. You have to give your spirit what it needs and give your body what it needs. That is what Rastafari really is. It teaches the truth of life and teaches the truth of life, the simple mysteries— the things that are so simple that they’re overlooked.
In 2013 you performed as a peace ambassador in Nairobi for the Kenyan election. Do you think your music can bring about political change in Jamaica?
Politics, as you know — in Jamaica, there is no bright future for that. And it’s nothing bad. It’s something good. Because if stupidity prevail, then it’s a bad thing. But if stupidity eventually fall apart and make way for something of a more rational and godly nature, that’s a good thing. But politics as it is in Jamaica don’t have a far way to go. It will ultimately collapse and make way for something more sustainable. What we are experiencing now in Jamaica is not sustainable.
It’s not the parties that is the problem. It’s the whole constitution that can’t work. It can’t work. It’s not sustainable. It’s not suitable for somebody who live in a tropical country with so many inspired and talented people. The constitution was not written to facilitate that. We all know that. A great portion of the laws and the politics in Jamaica was designed to suppress the very thing that is most important to our country, which is our culture. I accept that. I accept it 100%. So for me, it’s not a problem, an issue or whatever. Things work themselves out. What won’t work, won’t work. And what will work, will work. What can’t work, won’t work. That’s the only hope I always have. I’m not a person who try to have hope and faith in things that don’t make sense. As a spiritual person, I can’t sit down and hope for something that can’t work to work. Even miracles, it’s because they can happen that they happen. It’s not because they can’t happen. If they couldn’t happen, they wouldn’t happen.
The very fact that culture is important to Jamaicans still, and the fact that culture is the number one product coming out of Jamaica, that is a miracle. You can’t blame the individual politicians. Because once you go into politics, your hands get tied. And you are sworn to politics. Just like a police is sworn to support the constabulary force. And they call it a force. You know why they call it a force? Because it’s really there to force things to happen. It doesn’t allow and facilitate things to happen. Rasta facilitate things to happen. We are trying to facilitate and harness the sunshine and different energies and facilitate the natural herbs that grow out of the earth. They are trying to force herbs to grow, force them to not grow. For us, I don’t have any hopes for politics. Politics in general is backward. Politics is like for 2,000 years ago. That’s when politics was cool. Caesar was in a robe and like, “I am Caesar.” Politics was cool. But now someone comes and says, “I am the prime minister of Jamaica.” That’s stupid. Rasta is not about that. Rasta is more dealing with love.
There’s such vibrant music coming out of Jamaica with Popcaan, Dre Island, Jah Bouks, Jah9, Protoje, Kelissa, Kabaka Pyramid, and others — is the momentum about having strength in numbers or is there healthy competition among artists?
It’s all a part of one song. I just have to make sure my verse in the song sound good. But we are all a part of one song the whole way. So man tell him side of the story. I just have to make sure my side sound good. Popcaan side of the verse sound good. So we have to make sure all the part of the story sound good. But it’s one story the whole of what you tell. Even in the next place, if he was where I was, he would be saying the exact same thing. It’s just from a different place, a different standpoint. We all grew up in the same Jamaican shit. The same Jamaican shitstem, which can be very beautiful sometimes. I like the beautiful part a lot. I like the beautiful part.
Thumbnail photo by Che Kothari.