For Him, Reggae Is the Family Business
THE new hit-making force in Jamaican music doesn’t live in the steamy downtown ghettos Bob Marley made famous but on a leafy residential road high on a hill here, in the upscale neighborhood Havendale, St. Andrews. Just 18, Stephen McGregor, also known as Di Genius, is a member of one of reggae’s reigning families: the clan of the veteran singer Freddie McGregor.
Big iron gates slowly swing open to reveal a yard with a raised, shaded area designed for playing dominoes. Inside a large villa narrow wooden stairs behind the living room lead up to Big Ship Studio, named after Freddie’s 1981 worldwide hit. With its richly colored walls hung with framed awards and its big black leather couch, Big Ship feels like a cozy clubhouse outfitted with huge speakers and a mixing desk. Here Stephen, who is known as the studio’s Captain, swivels around in an office chair, punctuating a chat by flicking a fader and unleashing yet another monster hit like Sean Paul’s “Watch Dem Roll” and “Always on My Mind,” his collaboration with Da’Ville.
Also in the room are Stephen’s brother Daniel, 25, a popular lyricist and rapper known professionally as Chino, and his sister Yeshemabeth (also known as Shema), 29, an up-and-coming singer. Stephen produces them both.
All three siblings are making sound waves in Jamaica, but Stephen, who looks about 14 with his guileless smile and neat cornrows, is the most prominent. One of the hottest producers on the island (and certainly the youngest), Stephen has a challenging sound that combines playfulness, the spatial drama of a movie soundtrack and orchestral brio.
“Jamaica has a lot of great producers,” said Bobby Konders, a D.J. at the New York urban-music radio station Hot 97, “but people view him as the new kid carrying the flavor; so young but with a proven track record. He took many different influences from hip-hop and reggae and made them into his own sound. Stephen’s that dude, and he’s a winner.”
Since the 1960s Jamaican musicians have been recycling rhythm tracks, called riddims. The success of a riddim is judged by how many artists “juggle,” or make their own vocal interpretations, of it. Marked by a tension between sparse, punching jabs of sound and lush snatches of melody, Stephen’s riddims are so popular that more than a dozen people might sing over them; his thematically linked riddims have their own compilations on the top reggae label, VP Records.
Stephen’s skills are also propelling the careers of the lanky, dashing Chino, whose slightly abstracted air suggests constant mental wordplay, and Shema, whose rich voice and cameo features recall her mother, Judy Mowatt of Bob Marley’s backing trio, the I Three. Shema was in a band with Damian (Jr. Gong) Marley, Bob’s son, and she is now working on her own album, to be released this year on Big Ship Records.
Their father, Freddie McGregor, has been a star since he was a child, recording in the early 1960s for the Studio One label, where Bob Marley was an artist and in-house arranger. “I remember how Bob kept on saying, ‘We must have our own studio, our own thing,’ ” he recalled. “When I recorded songs for different producers, I always wished I owned them. I knew I had to take a chance and build my own studio.” He finally started Big Ship in 1996.
Stephen gravitated to the studio when he was a little boy. “If we saw the door was open, we’d know Stephen was in there,” Freddie said. “He was just so short you couldn’t see him over the mixing desk."
By the age of 7 Stephen had taught himself to play keyboards, bass, guitar and violin. But his prodigy status was cemented even earlier: he wrote and released his first song, “School Done Rule,” when he was 5. That was Stephen’s sole foray as an artist; he prefers the producer’s role. "It’s psychological, dealing with all the different egos and attitudes," he said. Clearly, his laid-back but cheery demeanor can coax the best out of artists ranging from the suave Sean Paul to gangster ragamuffins like Vybz Kartel and Mavado.
Stephen’s “whole energy is fresh,” Sean Paul said, “and I feel excited to work with a new sound and a new crazy young talent like him.”
Stephen had his first hits in Jamaica in 2004, while he was still attending the prestigious Ardennes High School; a local D.J. gave him the nickname Di Genius. “I never spoke about my music at school, except to my closest friends,” Stephen said.
Tactfully Stephen won’t identify the big reggae star who promised to sing on his first professional production — and then brushed him off. Instead, on a whim, he and Chino drove to the cassata-colored mansion of the zany reggae star Elephant Man, higher up the Havendale hills. He gave Stephen a break and became the first of about 15 vocalists to put their stamp on his “Cartoon” riddim.
With its cheeky samples of the flatulent trumpet sound familiar from old Warner Brothers animations, “Cartoon” was whimsical, surprising and like no other reggae track. It was followed by a string of hit riddims. “In Jamaica if you do something different that’s working, as soon as one person hears it the whole industry wants to be on it,” Stephen said.
Jamaican dancehall, the quintessential sound of the young McGregors’ generation, is far removed from the spiritually oriented conscious reggae of 1970s artists like their father and Marley. Many of the lyrics of Stephen’s songs with Mavado and Vybz Kartel are brutally violent.
Perhaps Stephen’s appeal to the American hip-hop audience is the way he projects urban tension and alarm. The somber “Darkness” riddims, with titles like “Shadow,” “Darker Shadow” and “After Dark,” sound almost frightening when heard at bone-shaking volume at a bashment, or street dance.
Still, Stephen’s key attribute is his versatility. He has worked with the Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu. He delivers sweet lover’s rock songs for his father (“Sharing the Night”) and radio-ready pop reggae for Chino (“Ruff It Up”), and the siblings’ collaborations tend more toward happy hedonism. “Our ‘Red Bull and Guinness’ riddim actually became a big movement in Jamaica,” Chino said. “Sales of Champagne slowed down.”
Another alcohol-infused McGregor hit was “Ghetto Whiskey,” named after a Jamaican tipple of Guinness, Stone’s Ginger Wine, Red Bull and Magnum Tonic Wine. “It proved the power of music,” Chino said. “People didn’t know if it would poison them, but they had to try it.”
Whether sweet, funny or ominous, Stephen McGregor’s sound palette is always fine-tuned by his domestic think tank. “We have a support system here because we’re family,” he said with a laugh. “More heads are better than one.”