The joyful clamor of playing children echoed over the brightly hued wooden shanties in the brutal Jamaica ghetto of Mojo Pin. Tarnished zinc rooftops covered the sagging houses and colorful crosses were crudely painted over doorways to ward off evil spirits. “Welcome to paradise,” mumbled the cab driver, his words dripping with patois and loathing.
The bumpy ride from Kingston Airport had had more curves and hills than the roller coaster at Coney Island. Although my dead friend Grandmaster Dynamite, an old school hip-hop dj murdered the week before, had often spoken of his home parish as though it were paradise, obviously his memories were tainted.
Grabbing the vinyl travel bag that held Dynamite’s cremated ashes, I handed the driver a crisp American twenty-dollar bill and cautiously stepped into the muddy street. The driver popped the trunk and I retrieved my suitcase.
A hush hung over the neighborhood as a million hostile eyes watched me, a light-skinned Yankee interloper dressed in khaki pants, a white linen shirt and sneakers. As an M-16 strapped police officer stared at the departing taxi, I walked over to a beat-down bar called Morgan’s, where a few dudes puffing ganja spliffs slapped down dominos with gusto. Hesitant for a moment, I finally inquired on the whereabouts of Trevor McGregor.
“Who you?” a one-eyed bad boy asked. An obvious menace, his left socket was covered by a thin web of skin. “You the American from the magazine here to interview Trevor?”
“Yes, but I’m also an old friend.” Trevor was Dynamite’s first cousin and we had been friends since the eighties. The scary man stood slowly and walked through the flimsy wooden door of the bar. He returned minutes later with a folded chair, a glass of over-proof rum and a bottle of Coke.
The one ice cube in the drink was rapidly melting. With disgruntled servitude, he handed me the glass and unfolded the seat. “Trevor soon come,” he grunted, returning to the dominos game. Gulping the white rum much too quickly, the liquor burned and the cola syrup was thick as blood.
Juicy flies buzzed around my head, occasionally landing on my arm. Closing my eyes, I smelt curry goat and jerk chicken simmering on the grill and salt from the sea blowing from nearby Gunboat Beach. Twenty minutes later, buzzed from the strong rum, I was startled by a dread locked giant standing in front of me.
“You looked so peaceful I didn’t want to disturb you,” Trevor laughed. Extending his rough hand, his massive shadow shaded me from the blazing sun. “Sorry for your wait, but I was down at the studio.”
Trevor’s accent was a mixture of coconut trees, concrete streets and rainwater drizzling from the Kingston sky. Dressed in loose jeans, white t-shirt, spotless pair of old school Adidas and an old-school applejack hat, it was obvious from his belly that the bearded Trevor wasn’t as impoverished as his soul brothers were.
Caught between two worlds, he owned an exquisite sprawl in the lush hills of Kingston, but insisted that his studio remain in the ghetto of Mojo Pin. Leaning over, he picked up the travel bag as I wheeled my suitcase unsteadily down the unpaved street.
After walking for ten minutes, Trevor stopped in front of a small snack cart and ordered two bottles of the grapefruit flavored soft drink called Ting. “We’ll be at Rebel Sound in a few minutes,” he said. “Don’t worry, you get used to the sun.”
Everybody in Mojo Pin knew about the legendary Rebel Sound Studio. Built during the late sixties, when the more R&B aspects of ska culture was beginning to morph into the darker textures of reggae and dub, the primitive cathedral of sound was constructed by the late Dexter Andy.
“I watched everyday as Dexter designed, laid the foundation and built Rebel from the mud of the earth,” Trevor recalled, slowing down as we approached the studio. “I was just a kid, but I watch him sweat blood and cry fire as he built his temple of sound. Years later, he closed it down, but when I returned to the island after working with Dynamite, I took it over.”
Rebel Sound looked more rundown than I expected. The limestone walls were painted red, green and gold. Wild weeds grew from patches of dirt and broken glass. A dead banana tree on the verge of collapse leaned a few feet away from the entrance. In the distance, the barking of wild dogs and the tinkling of wind chimes drifted through the air.
Guiding me through the door and into the musky space, that many a Jamaican musician called “The Sweatbox,” the small studio was illuminated by a few red light bulbs hanging overhead. While the wooden floor was littered with spliced audio tape and orange Rizla packages, one wall was covered with a stunning mural of Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie, Bob Marley and Grandmaster Dynamite.
Heavy wooden crates overflowing with black vinyl discs were against a black wall. The expansive collection ranged from original ska recordings to Led Zeppelin to Ornette Coleman to an autographed Afrika Bambaataa single of “Looking for the Perfect Beat.” Instruments and mics were scattered throughout the room. A few broken acoustic guitars were inside a cardboard box, an old echo machine laid ideally in the corner and slowly rotating ceiling fans twirled overhead.
On the far wall hung a giant sized poster of the God Sound cover, the brilliant hip-hop album that was Grandmaster Dynamite’s masterpiece. The album art was drawn my our mutual friend C.C., a former graff artist whose painting depicted whooshing fire hydrants spewing blood, battered tenements constructed out of stereo speakers, winged turntables drifting under silver clouds, bare-chested brothers dancing beneath a broken streetlight, snagged toothed skeletons scaling fire escapes and a stained subway cars covered with Pilot marker scrawls.
“So you’re writing now, huh? Writing about music?”
“Yeah, man. Cool magazine called Blur. I’m going to write a tribute story about Dynamite.”
“Let me find some music to put on,” Trevor said, opening a closet where piles of old records were stacked high. Reaching inside, he pulled out the classic Dexter Andy album Blood in the Dirt. Featuring tracks “Dark Messiah” and “Vampires,” the record had once been Dynamite’s favorite, becoming a part of his sonic palette during the making of God Sound.
Removing the disc from the sleeve, Trevor handed me the cover and put on the record. “Dynamite played this in the studio all the time,” I screamed over the music. Waving the Tony McDermott painting of a shoeless Jamaican dancing in front of a mountain of dancehall speakers wearing baggy pants and a wide brimmed white hat, the picture perfectly captured the movement of the music.
Reaching into his pants pocket, Trevor dug out a fat sack of smoke and Rizla rolling paper. Taking the album cover back, he dumped the entire bag of weed and cleaned the seeds from the red veined marijuana. Minutes later, he held a lit spliff in his right hand. Exhaling a big puff of smoke, he passed me the joint and sat down a few feet away.
“Can’t believe how the years just flew by,” Trevor said. “Twenty years; who ever would have thought?”
“I can’t believe you never came back to New York.”
“Foreign is very stressful. I prefer being in my real home.”
“I know how you feel.”
“When was the last time you saw Dynamite before he died?”
“A few years ago, man. He was homeless for a long time, man, begging for change in Times Square. After the fire, he was never the same.”
“He never got better?”
“Man, if anything he got worse.”
“That bad? You know, his mother and my mother were sisters. Growing-up in Mojo Pin, we were like brothers. His mother drowned. A few years later, his father got run over in the road walking to church. Man, I would have done anything to make Arthur pain go away, but some pain is forever.” It took me a minute to remember that Arthur was Dynamite’s real name.
“What were you supposed to do?” I asked. “Don’t think that bastard Rupert ever lifted a finger or sent a nickel to help him either. After you gave him the masters to God Sound, he just moved on to pimping the other artists on his label. Developed quite an empire, the bastard.”
“Did he show up to the memorial?”
“Of course. Made a big show of paying for it, and gave Aunt Bev a few dollars, but it was just about the publicity. There ain’t a sincere bone in his body.” Aunt Bev was Dynamite’s daddy sister, who raised him in the Bronx after his daddy died.
“I spoke to Aunt Beverly, her say Arthur was in and out of state mental hospitals and she couldn’t even get his royalty money. You would think that the cheap bastard would feel bad.”
“Did Rupert ever pay you for completing the record?”
Trevor laughed. “I think he gave me a thousand dollars in advance, but that’s only because he was in such a rush. I tell that blood clot, ‘Cash, no checks.’ He almost shit himself.”
Me and Trevor laughed uproariously. “Well, that’s d more than anybody else ever got from that project. And, let’s not talk about the all the samples and movies God Sound has been used for.”
“DJ Premier, DJ Shadow, Rob Swift, they all used that joint.”
“God bless God Sound,” I snickered, blowing smoke. “So now that Dynamite is dead, he can be even more famous than ever before. He be like Van Gogh. Everybody respects a dead genius, especially one who stopped being a genius twenty years ago.
Trevor said, “You know, even though I was older than Dynamite, I still learned a lot from him. I own him a lot.”
“I know I must’ve asked you this before, but how did you guys start working so well together.”
“Because we discover together,” he answered. “For us, it was all about sound system, and from Kool Herc to Flash to Dynamite, the Jamaican sound system is the foundation of rap.”
“Got that right. Man, kids today don’t know nothing about that shit. They think hip-hop was birthed in the back staircase of some housing project in a puddle of piss, sippin’ on a forty-oz and shootin’ guns.”
“There are no branches without the roots,” Trevor muttered.
Outside the studio window, the sun slowly disappeared behind a few black clouds and it looked as though it might storm. “You want me to roll another spliff?” he asked, pulling his chair closer so he didn’t have to yell over the music.
“Man, talk and roll. I want to hear about you and Dynamite. That’s the kind of shit I need for my story.”
Grinning, Trevor pulled over the album jacket covered with weed. “Well, 1972 was a wild year in Jamaica. Just ten years after we get our freedom from the English, and we in Kingston still dirt poor. Manley got elected and Jimmy Cliff “The Harder They Come” play everywhere, but all of us still struggle to survive in Mojo Pin.
“Outside the local rum shop, bad men played dominos, banging the board as they drank over-proof rum or cold Red Stripe. Further down the road was a rickety movie theater called The Ambassador, with its torn screen and beat-up seats. The only movies that ever seemed to be playing was The Wild Bunch or something with Clint Eastwood. Many rude boy influenced by these shoot’em-ups; they want to be just like cowboys blasting guns as they rode into the sunset.
“I was a two years older than Arthur, but I was as fascinated by my little cousin as he was with me. He was so into music, had much knowledge and even at that young age was always asking questions. You could just tell he was thinking many thoughts.
“I had dropped out of school, ’cause what I wanted to learn wasn’t found in those books. I been working for small change after school at Dexter Andy’s studio, the same place we be sitting, the same place him build with his own hands.
“Dexter was one of the island’s true studio wizards, having learned the board from that crazy Lee “Scratch” Perry, who taught him to how to make the darkest music on the planet. Dexter was making dub records before they get popular.
“To us, dub was scary music that crept like snakes through the bush with a beat savage as the wings of vultures flying over dead bodies. Dexter liked to say, ‘You know how Scratch describe the rebel sound we call dub? Scratch say, ‘the bass coming at you like a gun.’ Dexter, he take them words to heart and start producing the deadliest music in the yard. Me, I sweep-up, fix microphones, catalog the tapes, fix space echo and whatever else needed to be done. But, I always watched with eagle eye every move Dexter make on the board.
“It was just an old four-track Apex machine, but Dexter make sounds like one never heard. In 1975, two years after he moved to New York, my little cousin Arthur came to visit. He bring the latest sides from America, some Motown and Curtis Mayfield, and I take him with me to the studio, where he fall in love at first sight.
“The studio looked like a spooky haunted house constructed from wood and tin; the walls were covered with scribbles and album covers and in the control room was a painting of a furious lion that Dexter swear give’em strength and watches over him. He was always saying crazy things and maybe blast his gun into ceiling if session no go right, but he still genius.
“We might not have been on the same level as the Studio One, but Dexter he find young boys like Mighty Morgan and King Frankie to rock the mic while the studio band called Echo Rebels created these crazy riddims that sound like voodoo. Bass-n-drum, drum-n-bass. And for the month Arthur back in Mojo Pin staying with us, everyday he come to Rebel Sound, he too watching like an eagle and absorbing the scene like a sponge.
“Dexter also owned one of the most booming mobile sound systems, also called Rebel Sound. Come Friday night, folks gathered in the dirt yard and danced until the sun ready to rise. There were many good people, but Dexter he working with this posse of Johhny-Too-Bad’s who called themselves The Untouchables. They leader was a ganja gangster named General Delroy. Meanest bro in Mojo Pin, dude made everybody nervous. He get in shoot-out with Army. Six times, they shoot dis man, but he still live to tell tale.
“No, joke this bwoy. His main job was to make sure that no rival sound go down while Dexter played. Delroy come from a family of bad men, rowdy in the yard since anyone could remember. He was also a singer, who recorded at Rebel Sound.
“The first night I take young Arthur to Dexter’s for sound system jam. It was like a carnival there: loud music playing, pretty girls dancing and enough ganja to make an elephant stoned. I help Dexter build some powerful speakers that slaughter all the other sound systems, kill ‘em with music.
“In the beginning Arthur stay close to me, ‘cause he scared. This was something the boy never experience. Little while later, Dexter played the exclusive of General Delroy’s newest dub-plate ‘Blood in the Dirt.’ It was a song about his brother, murdered by a rival gang. All of a sudden here come the whole posse ride-up on motorcycle, lick shot in the air. Them salute self when they hear them song and Dexter played it five more time, because everyone in love with music and memory.
“I remember looking at Arthur face, and he was mesmerized by the bass, drum and echoes. Maybe he was buzzed from all the ganja smoke, but Arthur stood in front of those massive speakers and just let the thick bass shower over him. Standing in a trance, he was hypnotized by the music. From that point on, music became Arthur’s entire life.”
Taking a long pull from the spliff, I closed my eyes and began to nod out. Dozing off, I felt as though my spirit, my soul was slowly lifting from my body.
As Trevor stopped talking, I could feel the music pounding in my chest and remembered the first time I had heard these same songs the day before the God Sound sessions started. Soaring through slumberland, I could clearly see Dynamite’s rough fingers holding the edge of the record as he cued-up the drum break.
“What you know about this shit, young blood?” Grandmaster Dynamite asked me in the summer of 1988, the first time he played me Dexter Andy and General Delroy. We had been friends for a few years, but since I dropped out of City College, I was spending more time at his studio. Although I wasn’t getting paid, I was learning different things everyday and puffing the best weed in the world.
Bony as hell from smoking too much crack, Dynamite wore baggy Lee jeans and a black t-shirt. As usual, his eyes were bloodshot and there was a half-empty forty-oz of Olde E next to his dirty Adidas. Nevertheless, regardless of his appearance, Dynamite was a demon on the wheels of steel and had an ever growing rep as one of the dopest hip-hop producers on the planet.
Passing me the album cover, I stared at it, but realized I didn’t have a clue about Jamaican music. I was raised with the soul of Gamble & Huff and the pop Elton John on the radio combined with the virginal visions of The Partridge Family and The Jackson Five on television and I hadn’t even heard of Bob Marley until I was 17-years-old; always thought Eric Clapton had written “I Shot the Sheriff.”
“Naw, D. That’s your shit. My shit is just to run errands. Make sure everybody is cool.”
“Yeah, but you feel the music too. I can look at you and see you got the music in you. You might not play an instrument or know how to sing a song, but that music going to come out of you somehow. You can’t bottle music, you got to release it.”
Kneeling down in front of the speakers, I listened closely; but, even if I had listened for the next hundred years, I never would’ve heard the songs the same way Dynamite heard them.
The following day, when the God Sound sessions began, Grandmaster Dynamite’s apartment became an electric circus of hedonism and madness. Simultaneously focused and furious, celestial and chaotic, he thrived in the center of the anarchy, directing the recording sessions like an intoxicated maestro screaming directions to rappers and musicians over the distortion.
It was the music of sinister spirits, the bassline of holy ghosts, Babylonian drumbeats, horn riffs constructed out of sweet wine and downbeat grooves bitter as arsenic. There was a beauty to the music–an ugly beauty, but beauty nonetheless. They called it hip-hop, but it was so much more.
Titles of the songs included “Revelation Revolution,” “Eschatology” and “Braille Teeth.” Riding the noir noise wave swift as a surfer, Dynamite’s regular rapper MC Starr flipped through his rhyme book and dropped textual razor blades that sliced through the thick fabrics of percussion. Sweat dripped down Starr’s face as wordsmith passion thrust from his throat on the song “Uptown Babylon.”
Spilling over into the every room inside the apartment were folks sniffing, licking, sticking, pumping, drinking, drugging and turning the studio into a ghetto Sodom and Gomorrah. A crew of black toughs, new jack dope kids from around the way also started hanging around the apartment/studio, supplying much of the white powder and rock everybody was sniffing and smoking.
The only person who stayed somber during those two weeks was Trevor, whom I teased for his goody goody ways. “Trevor is our designated driver,” I slurred, and everybody laughed, including him.
Every evening Trevor placed the day’s work of recording reels into his knapsack and rode the iron horse back to his rented house in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Working in solitude, he edited the tapes and constructed various rough mixes and arrangements that Dynamite later approved, tinkered with or rejected completely.
“This is evil time,” Trevor mumbled one afternoon as he sulked behind the board, furious that Dynamite had just smashed a rare James Brown 45 “The Grunt” against the wall. “You can feel it in the air. Something not right”
Collapsing in the ratty chair behind the board on fourteenth day of recording, there were dark shadows under Dynamite’s eyes, his beard was nappy and hair resembled a sparrow’s nest. I had just returned from my own crib a few blocks away, where I had finally changed clothes and taken a shower. Strangely, the studio was empty. “Where is everybody?”
“They’re gone,” Dynamite mumbled. “Everybody has left. It’s just me and the music”
The apartment looked like an atom bomb had fallen on it. There were records everywhere, cigarette butts crushed on the floor and liquor bottles strewn under the couch. From the studio, a gigantic abomination of digital wrath blared from the speakers.
Looking up from the console with heavy eyes, Dynamite turned down the music.
“You need to get some sleep,” I said, trying to be the voice of reason. “You can’t keep up at this pace man, you gotta take a break.” Dazed and confused, Dynamite seemed not to realize I was talking to him. “Man, even God rested on the seventh day, you been going for fourteen.”
Staring at the ceiling, he asked, “Where do I go from here?” Truthfully, I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or to God, but I didn’t want to be the one to answer.
“You need to rest for a few days, and then get back to the studio with a fresh perceptive. You’re not a machine, man.”
“Rest,” he sneered. “Did Noah rest, did Moses rest?” Rubbing his face, he leaned back into the rumbled softness of the couch, and lit a cigarette. His hand shook like he had palsy or some shit.
Inhaling deeply on the Newport, he stared at me with anguished eyes. “I feel sorry for you,” Dynamite said. “You don’t believe in anything.”
Nervously, I chuckled. “Just because I don’t share your doomsday dreams, doesn’t mean I’m godless.”
“I’m not talking about believing in God or the Devil, I’m talking about believing in yourself,” he slurred. Snatching off his sunglasses, his eyes were electric, transmitting various levels of confusion, faith, intoxication and truth. “I’m talking about the fire within; about the soul, not money. Do you know what I’m saying?”
“Yo D., I haven’t understood what you’re saying in a long time.”
“That because, like the rest of the world you don’t know how to listen. You keep listening with your ears, but you should listen with your soul. Your intellect is disfiguring your soul.” Having not showered in days, a heavy funk rose from his skin.
Blowing him off, I replied, “I’ll keep that in my mind, but right now I’m going get a few winks on the couch. You should lie down too. Even if you can’t sleep, just chill for a minute. And, then maybe you’ll take a shower before you get back to work.”
“Come on, man. Trevor won’t be back until the morning, all the musicians are gone. I promise, when I get up, I’ll wake you up.”
Putting on his sunglasses, Dynamite slowly rose from the chair and tottered out of the room as though headed to the gallows. Although neither of us knew at the time, God Sound was finished.
Hours later, I awoke to loud banging on the front door. A thick cloud of smoke hovered above my head as flames roared from the studio. “Oh Jesus,” I screamed, jumping up from the couch at the same moment a couple of neighbors crashed through the front door. Barefoot, I ran to the rear of the apartment and opened the bedroom door.
I was surprised to see Dynamite’s crackhead girlfriend Michele lying next to him. Both were naked, knocked out by the toxic fumes of melting vinyl records and other chemicals wafting through the apartment. With all the junk and trash littering the space, the fire spread quickly.
Flames danced like b-boy breakers dressed in the brightest red and orange outfits as embers rained down from the ceiling. Choking on the smoke, I lifted Michele from the bed, stumbled to the front door and handed her to the man from next door.
Falling to my knees, I put my ear to Dynamite’s chest, listening to his faint heartbeat. “Come on man,” I choked, yanking Dynamite by the arm. “Come on nigga, you don’t want to die in here.”
From the rickety fire escape, a brawny firefighter kicked in the window and glass cascaded across the burning room. Carrying a tank of oxygen on his back, the massive stranger rushed over to the bed. “I’ll be all right, take care of him.”
After slipping the oxygen mask over Dynamite’s face, the firefighter hoisted him over his left shoulder. Pointing towards the ladder, I climbed down. Minutes later, I ran around to the front of the building. Mouth open wide, breathing deeply, I looked towards the fourth floor and watched as Dynamite’s entire musical world turned into smoldering rubble.
Flames leapt from the window, and seconds later two burly firefighters carried Dynamite out of the building on a stretcher. Lying beneath the while sheet, his right arm hanging off the side of the gurney.
The screeching brakes of two cars nearly crashing outside the windows of Rebel Sound caused me to jump. Car horns beeped, men cursed. Trevor walked over to the tote bag and pulled out the box that contained Dynamite’s ashes. Inside was a neatly tied bag of beige colored dust that reminded me of decorative sand.
“Lets go in the backyard,” he said. Removing the bag from the box, he walked in front of the turntable and turned over the record.
Following him, Trevor stopped at in front of a vintage Coldspot refrigerator. Inside the icebox was about a hundred bottles of Guinness and he grabbed two. Snapping open the caps with his teeth, he handed me one.
Stepping into the night, a full moon hung close to the earth. In the trees, one saw the silhouettes of owls perched on branches as a fat lizard ran over my shoes. Glancing over my left shoulder, I was surprised when I saw a stack of gigantic speakers practically covered by foliage. There were six altogether, with three massive speakers on the bottom, two in the middle and one on top.
“Dexter built these from scratch,” Trevor said, a hint of pride in his voice. “Mega wattage in them, back when they still worked.” The speakers resembled a bizarre pyramid towering towards the sky. Painted in yellow across the black mesh on the bottom speakers were the words Sounds by Rebel. “Every Friday and Saturday, music so loud it rattle your eyeballs.”
Walking across the big backyard, we stopped in front of the speakers and sat down. With my back to the speaker, I could almost feel the ghosts of ravers dancing to pulsating rhythms and sun smoothed cuties grinding with red-eyed roughnecks.
“Sometime boys start fightin’ in the yard, but Dexter he get on the mic and say, ‘Don’t mess me vibes, don’t distress the grooves.’ If they no stop, he got enforcers who throw them out. People know better than to mess with Dexter.”
A few minutes later, a stranger opened the gate and walked into the yard. He was an older dark skinned man with the gray beard and the face of a goat. A short-sleeved black shirt hung over his Buddha belly. “Tis yard open tonight sir?”
Glancing up at the man, Trevor replied, “Yard ain’t been open in years.” The man looked puzzled, as though Trevor was speaking in some forgotten language. Inside Rebel Sound, the dub grew more intense as the title track “Blood in the Dirt” blared from the speakers.
“I remember you from when you were a kid,” the old man said, pointing to the far wall. “You and another boy used to sit right there on that wall and listen to the music. I been gone many years, but I remember you.”
A single tear fell from Trevor’s left eye as the gate swung open and more locals began drifting into the yard. Guided by the midnight music that crawled-up into their bodies, the beauty of bass seeped into their souls. A teenager wearing a Tupac t-shirt held the hand of a beautiful girl wearing a red dress and a colorful beaded necklace. The Buddha-bellied man strolled to the middle of the yard and danced alone.
Possessed by the spirit of dub, the growing crowd began dancing to the hypnotic track as General Delroy sang. As a wicked wind started blowing, the yard was transformed into a holy place. Still holding the bag containing Dynamite’s ashes, Trevor tapped me on the shoulder.
“Say a little prayer,” he said, standing-up. After brushing soil off his pants, Trevor began climbing the massive speakers and didn’t stop until he reached the top of the vine covered stereo mountain. As the music grew more intense, Trevor opened the bag of ashes, casting them into the night as the dub lovers continued to dance.
Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for The Source, Vibe, RapPages, Ego Trip, XXL and Wax Poetics. His short fiction has appeared in New York Press, The Darker Mask edited by Gary Phillips and Chris Chambers, Tell Tales IV edited by Monique Roffey and Courttia Newland and various erotica collections. He lives in Brooklyn.