Kingston nights

Pub date June 24, 2009
WriterMosi Reeves
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features


Everybody loves bounce. It persists as a state of mind, an epiphany of sexual exhibitionism and physical delirium: Baltimore club and San Francisco’s hyphy movement; Rio de Janeiro’s baile funk to Puerto Rican reggaeton; and London grime and dubstep to Berliners’ dub.

Philadelphia label owner, producer, filmmaker, and occasional journalist Wesley "Diplo" Pentz has probably done more than any other American DJ to popularize the notion of club music as an international phenomenon with common roots and regionally distinct varieties. Last year, Paste magazine claimed he "has updated the template set by 20th century song hunter Alan Lomax." Much like Lomax, Diplo has brought "undiscovered talent" to Western ears, from his early championing of Atlanta crunk as one-half of the pioneering DJ duo Hollertronix to his support of Brazilian rappers Bonde Do Role. However, just because he brings those artists to hipsters’ attention doesn’t mean they aren’t successful within their Third World communities.

Yet even if some myths of cross-cultural exchange persist, they aren’t fraught with as much racial tension as in Lomax’s day. This leads us to Diplo’s latest project, Major Lazer, with U.K. producer Dave "Switch" Loveys. The two traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, last year, recording with dancehall and reggae stars such as Turbulence, Mr. Vegas, Vybz Kartel, and Prince Zimboo at the Marley family’s legendary Tuff Gong Studios. The resulting Guns Don’t Kill People … Lazers Do (Downtown) is a wildly libidinous dance party, a hymn to club nights where pussies pop and guns blaze.

"We both concluded that there’s a lot of talent in Jamaica that isn’t really being exposed at the moment," Switch says from New York City. Many of Major Lazer’s Jamaican collaborators — including T.O.K., author of the infamous gay-bashing anthem "Chi Chi Man" — have had U.S. deals in the past. However, with the music industry’s continuing decline, U.K. label Greensleeves’ meltdown and purchase by equally troubled imprint VP Records, and the cyclical nature of Jamaican music’s popularity, they haven’t received as much attention as in the recent past. "All we’ve tried to do is expose the talent … on a more global scale than just in Jamaica," Switch says.

Switch is the lesser-known of the Major Lazer squad. He first drew recognition in West London for producing garage house tracks. He called his work "fidget house," and the term stuck: the English love their nomenclature. A U.S. trip to work with Spank Rock and Amanda Blank inadvertently led to credits on Santogold’s "Creator," a major hit that, coupled with his widely-acclaimed contributions to M.I.A.’s Arular (Interscope, 2005), helped fuel the Major Lazer project. "Now when we approach things, people are more willing to trust us when we want to make it a little bit more quirky," Switch says.

Both producers have traveled to Jamaica before. Diplo has released material by JA artists like Ms. Thing on his Mad Decent label, while Switch announces his love for the hot Kingston street party Passa Passa. After the two returned to the U.S. to assemble Major Lazer’s debut "in little bits" between other DJ and production gigs, word of the project leaked out to their American friends. "As soon as they heard we were putting it together seriously, they were, like, if you need any help, let us know," Switch says.

Perhaps the best parts of Guns Don’t Kill People … Lazers Do come when their American friends nestle against their Jamaican counterparts: Amanda Blank answers slack rapper Einstein with an equally filthy rhyme on "What U Like"; Brooklyn singer Jah Dan kicks a conscious flow on "Cash Flow"; and criminally underrated harmony sisters Nina Sky sing coquettishly on "Keep It Goin’." Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate our bouncement artists until you hear them hold their own with their Jamaican counterparts, like when Santogold chants a hook for Mr. Lexx’s gruff war chant on "Hold the Line." It’s then that you realize that club music’s lingua franca — swagger, sex, and having fun — has no borders.

Meanwhile, the cover art for Guns Don’t Kill People … Lazers Do pays homage to the comic art found on the back covers of old Jamaican albums like Scientist Meets the Space Invaders (Greensleeves, 1981) and the Upsetters’ Super Ape (Mob Entertainment, 2006). "Major Lazer is basically a fictional character we dreamt up to give this whole project we did down in Jamaica an identity, rather than it just being me and Wes — two white guys going down to Jamaica and trying to make a record," Switch says. "We tried to make it a little more fun."


Fri/26, 9 p.m., $26

Regency Ballroom

1300 Van Ness, SF

(415) 673-5716