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MIDNITE: It A Go Dread Inna DC

midnite

Ron Benjamin (l) and brother Vaughn (r) of MIDNITE

For all intent and purposes MIDNITE is Vaughn Benjamin (vocals, percussion), Ron Benjamin (bass, multi-instrumentalist), Kenny Byron (guitar), Christian “Sly” Molina (drums), Edmund Fieulleteau (guitar),  and Ras L (keys).  At least this is the band that tours as MIDNITE currently.  The recording artist MIDNITE is Vaughn Benjamin and whoever he chooses to work with, whether that is Higher Bound Productions, I-Grade Records, Zion I Kings, Lustre Kings, Zion High Productions, or a whole host of other production outfits.  Several MIDNITE albums, including the forthcoming Lion Out Of Zion, have been recorded at Ron Benjamin’s Afrikan Rootz Lab studio in St. Croix with Benjamin taking on all production and instrumentation and Vaughn handling the vocals.

This is the story of MIDNITE’s defining days in Washington, D.C., their journey back to redemption at home in St. Croix, and the recording of the three seminal albums that set them on the path to reggae greatness.

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Ron Benjamin, Vaughn Benjamin, Joe Straws (Photo by Harlee Little)

Summer 1997, East Coast Flavor Recording Studios, Washington, D.C.

A small crowd of Rasta and conscious musicians converge on a small D.C. recording studio to record an album.  No, not to record an album – those are the wrong words – to perform 10 songs live in-studio while an audio recorder is running.   After several years of incessant touring up and down the east coast of the United States, Midnite, a struggling roots reggae outfit borne in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, enters the studio to perform 10 songs that were forged during late nights in front of small crowds inside of small clubs.  Each song the equivalent of a time bomb set to detonate on the busy streets of Babylon at a time to be determined.   The band is harmonizing together as one cohesive unit on the same vibration.  This tends to happen when you are crammed inside vans and shitty hotel rooms for several years.  They eat together.  They sleep together.  They are a machine lubricated with the anointing oils of His Majesty, Jah Rastafari, Emperor Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia, Elect of God.  As Vaughn Benjamin wails into the mic, eyes closed, head to the sky

“They can’t feel love yeah
Even when Jah show them love
They don’t know love
They can’t feel love yeah
I am the kaaba stone”

                       -Kaaba Stone

 “Bushman,” “Love the Life You Live,” “Eyes Are the Light,” “Propaganda,” “Kaaba Stone,” “Due Reward,” “Don’t Move (Lion’s Dread),” “Meditation (Babylon Fruits),” “Mama Africa,” “Time and Time Again.”   Each song will be performed and recorded live.  Here in this small Washington, D.C. recording studio.  Just like a live gig.  Benjamin wails into the microphone:

“Did not this morning start with darkness
Well so does tonight
Alpha alpha and omega I
The beginning and the end”

                -Propaganda

Two mics.

No overdubs.

No delay.

No equalization.

No reverb.

No mixing.

Just raw, naked talent and pure instinct.  Unpolished.

It’s no coincidence that Midnite emerged in 1995 from streets of Washington, D.C. with a wholly unique sound and vibe.  Washington, D.C., a city where the injustices committed by the few results in punishment meted out to the many, where truths and rights go to die,  is also a city with a rhythm of it’s own – a pulsating, bass-driven blend of funk, rhythm and blues and early hip-hop, with a focus on lo-fi percussion and spiced with congas, timbales, and cowbells.  D.C. Go Go.  A meld of the best in African American music styles which originated on the streets of D.C. with groups like The Young Senators, Black Heat, and multi-talented singer-guitarist Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers.  Its a wild style music – primarily a dance hall sound with an emphasis on live audience “call and response.”  These riddims pervade a city where people are always on the move.  Nobody is from D.C..  Everybody moved to D.C. and will soon be leaving.

Midnite hits DC with their own unique sound – classic Rastafari roots and culture with an Afrocentric “chant and call” lyrical style, which many reggae fans have found to be a bit off-putting.  This style gives their music a “spiritually intense” and an overtly Rastafarian vibe. Fuck a new jack swing, this here is the real thing.  The lyrics are deep, delivered in rapid fire succession in a no-nonsense, take-no prisoners-style.   Everyone is held to account.  The rich.  The politicians.  The warmongers.  The Babylonians.  The songs focus primarily on the plights of the oppressed, the inherent faults of the current political, economic and social settings on a global scale.

Like D.C.’s own music – “Go Go” – , their music is most powerful when experienced live, where the vibe may shift from melancholy to rejoiceful to downright edgy within the same song.  Vaughn Benjamin’s distinctive voice is given strength by the band’s fans, the most devoted we have seen in reggae in decades.  When it comes to performing live, Midnite “rule de time,” perhaps the best live reggae act this side of Steel Pulse.  Their live shows routinely go for 3-4 hours, the band steadily building a tension so palatable, so real that no strain of sensi can take the edge from it.  This band is real.  This band is authentic.  This band is the best roots reggae collective to emerge on the scene in 25 or more years.

Hailing from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, the brothers Benjamin, Vaughn and Ron, founded Midnite in 1989.

The brothers were raised in a musical family, Vaughn explaining that he learned a lot about music and culture in his house growing up, as his father is the notable Caribbean guitarist and vocalist Ronnie Benjamin, Sr.

The Antigua-born Ronnie Benjamin Sr., who calls St. Croix his second home, lived on the island for more than 25 years.  The love and respect shown by the people on the island for this celebrated musician is boundless and he  is respected and loved by many throughout the island of St. Croix.  During an interview at the 2006 Reggae in Paradise Festival in St. Croix Benjamin talks about his love of the island and his experience there as a musician:

“I did quite a lot of things.  I played almost every place on the island.  Any venue you can think of I’ve played there.  I would say that ninety percent of all the St. Croix musicians have played with me and now their sons are playing with my sons!”

Benjamin came to the island in the early 1960s looking for more opportunity to make a living.

“I came to St. Croix in the early 1960s.  I was 21 years old.  I played music all over the island but I did not do a recording until the 1980s.  The main reason was financial.  I put up my own money to buy studio time and I did my first recording in Puerto Rico at Chalwa Studios for $100 per hour. ‘Don’t Change,’ ‘Happy Song,’ ‘Moving On,’ were the songs we recorded.  The singles were very successful.  This allowed us to record my first album in 1983 called Celebration Time.  This was very popular in Jamaica also.”

“I recorded some other artists also because over time I was able to buy my own recording equipment.  Mostly calypso, some reggae.  There was one artist who I recorded in 1986 just when the dub thing became popular on the island.  He was doing a lot of stuff these guys are doing now.  His name was Hippolite but I don’t think he went too far.”

Ronnie Benjamin, Sr. left the island in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit.  It destroyed everything.  There was no music to play.  Nothing.  He and his son Ron and the band had an opportunity in Antigua to play 7-nights a week for good money, so they wisely pursued it.  At the time the band was Benjamin Sr., Ron Benjamin, a musician named Malik, and Manasseh Williams, the drummer.

Ron Benjamin showed an interest and proficiency with music from early on.  His father would take him to piano lessons.  One time the teacher told Benjamin Sr. that his son stopped coming to the piano lessons.  He only went for nine months or so before quitting.  When Benjamin Sr. asks Ron why he stopped going he replies “I am at a point now where I want to learn more and she is not teaching me more.”

Benjamin Sr. recalls “all of my instruments were at home and Ron could play anything he wanted at anytime.  I never told him to play this or that.  So sometimes he would play the keyboard, or other times the drums, and also guitar.  He was really good at drums I remember.  He would be up playing and I would say to myself ‘What is Manasseh doing up there now playing drums.’  But it was Ron.

Ron went away to school because he wanted to be a doctor.  He showed back up in St. Croix and said he no longer wants to be a doctor, he wants to play music so I got rid of my keyboard player and Ron went on the road with me because he is my son.  I showed him the ropes.  He is a guy you only have to show him something once, or sometimes not at all.  I am very proud of both of my sons.  They grew up in a musical family so they just had to do it.”

Vaughn Benjamin says he found strength and wisdom as a youth in the Rastafari culture and the music made by its adherents.

“Bob Marley has had a big impact. And the drum and the bass from like Flabba Holt. Sometimes I listen to the bass man alone or the drummer alone.”

Benjamin also hails The Abyssinians, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer as influences.

By all accounts, Benjamin is an uber-intelligent, articulate, well-read and well-versed poet, lyricist and black history buff with a special interest in black sociology and Egyptology.  While living in Washington, D.C. he was well-known in the burgeoning live poetry scene where he would participate in local spoken word recitals and live poetry “slams.”

According to Benjamin the riddims arranged by his brother inspire him to turn inward for words.

“I don’t fight for inspiration.  The riddim brings inspiration. If the riddim is militant and heavy, you have to fight this battle called life.  I meditate and go inside. I don’t sing a melody in front of everyone. The music is already there.  I make everything from scratch. It’s not just singing a song. The bottom line is sincerity. I do it for myself.  It’s about word, sound and power. It’s always about word and sound. These things come together in music.”

Former Midnite drummer and current D.C. resident  Ambrose “Amby” Connor, who has also played and toured with The Itals, Englishman, and Jah Works,  met Ron Benjamin while still in high school and talks about a kid who loved making music.  He recalls an early encounter with Ronnie when it first came to light that Vaughn Benjamin had some vocal ability.

“I met Ronnie when I was in high school in St. Croix – ‘round 1986 says Connor” during our recent interview.  “I used to work at the music store and Ronnie would come in almost every Saturday to reason with the store owner Felipe Garcia, who is also my drum instructor since I was nine, and myself. Ronnie was producing lots of tracks for folks back then. He would bring some of those tracks in for us to check out on occasion. One day he brought in a recording and asked if I could guess who was singing. The voice was incredible and it sounded like him so I said I thought it was him. He laughed and said it was his brother Vaughn. Up to that point, I didn’t even know he had a brother. I met Vaughn shortly after that.”

“I also met original bass player Joe Straws through my high school music teacher Greg Richter. We played together at a few school functions. Later that year they called me up to play some gigs with them but I had broken my wrist. Joe would also drop in to the music store on occasion, so we kept the link.”

While it is clear that the earliest assemblage of Midnite was formed in St. Croix, Connor did not begin playing with them as drummer until they relocated to D.C. in 1994.

In 1994 they decide to uproot themselves from the islands and travel to New Jersey to stay with a friend as they try to break into the New York music scene.  They immediately began touring the northeast and mid-Atlantic circuits, playing shows in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C..  In 1996, they are invited to perform at Clark Atlanta University’ homecoming in Atlanta, GA.  They even tour the island of Puerto Rico.  In January 1998 they are blessed with the opportunity to perform in Namibia, Africa in support of their debut album Unpolished which was exclusively released in the country in 1997.  They toured incessantly without even having an album to speak of, steady honing their performance on stage, and figuring through which songs vibe with the audience, and which ones fall short.  Time tuff, but the band tuffer.  They were hungry.  They were exhausted.  Jah is the driver.  It was during this period, from 1994-1999 that they were able to refine those songs into uniquely constructed Rastafari anthems that would eventually make up their first full-length album.

“I started playing with Midnite when they relocated from St. Croix to D.C. – ‘round late 1994. We added Chris Ntaka on guitar who used to play with Lucky Dube and later on added Juicy Carter on saxophone.  Unfortunately, he passed away recently.

Connor recalls the D.C. reggae scene at the time.

“The reggae scene in D.C. circa 1995 was crazy! You could see live reggae music almost 5 nights a week. We played clubs like the Roxy, Takoma Station, Mr. Henry’s, Kaffa House, State of the Union. The crowds were always positive and turn out was always good.”

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Midnite had the opportunity to be among some of the most pivotal figures in reggae while gigging the D.C. circuit.

It is during this period when MIDNITE was gigging the smaller DC venues that people began to take notice of what made this band truly unique and unlike any other reggae act that came before them.  Unlike the traditional Rastafarian singers and players who dressed in fatigues and boots, the Benjamins were always impeccably dressed.  At the time, Vaughn Benjamin’s stage act was far more loose and energetic than the stoic chanter we know him as today.  On stage he was very reminiscent of Junior Reid, a stalwart and serious Rasta but also willing to give the audience a good show.  Ronnie on the other hand had a whole different style and fashion.  He eschewed the locks and regalia of a Rasta in favor of a tightly-cropped short haircut, dress slacks, and dress shirts unbuttoned to the chest.  His whole vibe was more reminiscent of the popular RnB performers of the time like Johnny Gill or Keith Sweat.

MIDNITE live in DC, 1994

“I just remember that their live sound and vibe was incredible” recalls Washington, D.C. record producer and sound engineer Jim Fox of Lion and Fox Recording Studios, the same Fox responsible for the sound of every Israel Vibration album recorded stateside (some 20 in total).  He handled the sound for Midnite when they played Reggae Thursdays at the Roxy in Washington, D.C..

“You know, Dera Tompkins brought them to my studio to do their first proper demo tape.  I’m not sure, but I think Dera had something to do with it.  It was her who paid for the studio session.  They may have even stayed at her house for some time.  I can’t remember for sure though.  It must’ve been late 1980s or real early in the ‘90s because we did everything analog and I distinctly remember giving them a tape.  Not a CD, but a tape.  Funny thing, a couple years after that I was working as the sound engineer at a club called The Roxy, which used to be located in Dupont Circle, at 18th and M.  Every Thursday night was reggae night and different bands would come through and play live reggae on Thursdays.  So one night I’m there and Midnite shows up to play the show.  I will never forget the vibe they had going that night.  And the sound was just phenomenal!  They were tearing it up on stage and I’m mixing the hell out of it.  We had a vibe that night.  There were only 5 people in the place.  After the show, I’m walking out with the manager of the club and he says ‘the band wasn’t so good.’  I guess he was looking at his beer sales or something because I walked out of there stunned.  It was the best night of live reggae I had experienced up to that point.”

It is at that same club Roxy that local activist/promoter/free-spirit/reggae goddess/self-prophesied “mother hen” to struggling reggae artists, Dera Tompkins, first took note of the band.  Dera Tompkins is a towering figure in the reggae and Rastafari movements, especially in Washington, D.C. where she has lived for many years.  She has been forwarding the cause of reggae, roots and culture and the ideals of the Rastafari throughout the world.  She is the founder and producer of Washington D.C.’s annual Bob Marley Birthday Tribute and has advocated for the reggae and world music communities to be recognized as part of D.C.’s expanding black demographics.

Tompkins took them in, gave them a place to stay, actively promoted the band on the local scene.  She declined to be interviewed for this piece.

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MIDNITE at Bokum Cafe, Washington, D.C. circa 1997

Very early on, perhaps before even settling in D.C., and even to a certain extent today, the Benjamins started maintaining a certain level of mystique around the band, the lyrics, the performances, and their background.  When you talk to people who know the brothers, it is not their talent in music that is most impressive.  It is their intelligence.  By all accounts both Vaughn and Ron Benjamin are exceedingly intelligent.  So much so that there have been times when they may not have heeded the advice of those who had their best interests in mind, yet there have been just as many times when they made very conscious, difficult, even unpopular decisions which ended up only helping to advance the interests of the band.  The sound, vibe, and sheer number of their studio albums are perhaps the best example.

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MIDNITE, Washington, DC, 1996

 


 

Midnite left such an impression on their adopted US home of Washington, DC that they even made the Washington City Paper’s coveted Best of DC readers poll ten years after returning to their native St. Croix.  Voted the Best Band That Should Return To Town in 2008:

Best Band That Should Return to Town

Midnite

In the early ’90s, the members of Midnite left their native St. Croix, Virgin Islands, for D.C., and soon enough the group was rocking the city’s reggae venues with marathon sets. But after six years at the top of the scene, Midnite returned to St. Croix, leaving a profound impression on the region and a void in D.C. reggae. Midnite’s fusion of traditional roots reggae and future beats provides a foundation for the almost mystical chanting of frontman Vaughn Benjamin. While the majority of his peers in the conscious Rastafari reggae movement simply aspire to burn down Babylon and destroy its wicked ways, Vaughn’s lyrics articulate a vision for the healing and cleansing. During their District residency, Midnite recorded two albums in classic low-fi style: one room, two mics, minimal takes, and few effects. It has been a few years since Midnite’s last D.C. appearance, and the city is anxiously awaiting their return—Jah knows we could use the positive vibes.

There are many things which add an air of mystery and mysticism to this band: the prolific nature in which they release albums, sometimes as many as 2 or 3 a year with no supporting tour; the mystical performances that go for hours on end; Vaughn’s subdued presence on stage, almost trance-like; the limited interviews; the cryptic statements made from time to time about their own music. There was even a period early on in their careers when they refused to say where they were from, and denied having an address anywhere.  All of this, whether authentic or created, has made this band an enigma.

Unpolished, the band’s first proper full-length LP, was released in the African country of Namibia in December 1997, however it did not see wide release until four years later when it is released wide by Rastafaria in 2001.  The album, produced by Ron Benjamin, Yuri and Preston Powell for Jahsoul Productions and recorded at East Coast Flavor in Washington, D.C., was recorded with no mixing board, which means no overdubs, no reverb, no delay and no equalization.  There were only two mics in the studio for the recording, and the drums were not mic’d at all.  It is transferred directly to analog tape.  In describing Unpolished for an interview, Ron Benjamin noted “whatever is this band’s essence, is on this album.”

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Bose, Ron, Ken and Vaughn, Namibia, Africa January 1998

Amby Connor recalls recording the album as the drummer for Midnite.

“The songs on Unpolished are songs that we were delivering during our live shows back then. Powerful stuff! We recorded some of the songs at Lion and Fox. Not certain, but I think Jim Fox tracked the music and I think some songs were recorded live at the Roxy in D.C..  There were also 2-3 songs that were not released on Unpolished but were recorded at Lion and Fox.  These ended up on a music compilation for the Smithsonian Museum i.e. ‘Ashanti Girl.’”

Unpolished garnered much praise from the reggae community, Worlds Music even calling it “arguably the greatest reggae album ever made.”  “Raw and naked,” Unpolished had the reggae critics and album reviewers drawing comparisons to Lucky Dube, Misty In Roots, and even Bob Marley.  Reggae Reviews gave the album 5 heads and even referred to the track “Love The Life You Live” as an “enduring classic.”  In many cases, hype like this could work to destroy a band from both outside and from within as the expectations become too high and the band starts believing its own hype.  If you want to hear bad reggae music, listen to a band who thinks they cannot be touched.  Reggae is a sufferah’s music, and the art suffers when the hunger fades away.

Ron Benjamin has spoken about the dedication that it takes to maintain the band at the level at which fans and critics have come to expect.  It is all consuming.  It is not a part of his life.  It is his life.

“You have to really study your craft, you know.  The Almighty Jah Rastafari Emperor Haile Selassie I blessed you with this talent.  So you have to dedicate yourself to it at all costs, not worrying about your own personal insecurities or ego.  This music is life.  This is not an album to us.  This is our life.  Word, sound and power, the real thing, just captured on tape.”

“We are not trying to forward ourselves personally, or our own personal thing, it is a livity, a way of life, truth and rights and Rastafari is what we are trying to forward.  It is not a music thing, or a business thing, it is a livity, a life thing.”

MIDNITE AT MAPLESHADE

Ras Mek Peace, 1999 (Photo by Elden Baldwin)

In 1999, during the period between the recording of Unpolished and the band’s sophomore album titled Ras Mek Peace, Vaughn Benjamin teamed up with the legendary Scientist and his protojé Desmond Williams, engineer and co-producer of Washington, D.C.’s Thievery Corporation, to record a handful of semi-experimental tracks. The tracks were shelved at the time as Midnite entered Mapleshade recording studios to record Ras Mek Peace.  The tracks would eventually appear on the album Kayamagan which was released on May 17, 2008 on the Rastafaria label.

Like Unpolished, the band’s sophomore album titled Ras Mek Peace (Before Reverb and Without Delay) is recorded using no mixing board, no filtering, no compression, no equalization, no noise reduction, multitracking or overdubbing, giving it a similar raw sound. The album was recorded using only two-tracks at Mapleshade in Upper Marlboro, MD with studio engineer and owner Pierre Sprey whose recording style is  summed up in the phrase he had printed to green Mapleshade t-shirts to promote the studio:

“NO Mixing Board, NO Overdubs, NO Noise Reduction, NO Compression, NO Multitracks, NO Reverb, NO EQ, Nothing BUT The Excitement of Live Music, MUSIC WITHOUT COMPROMISE.”

Midnite

Sprey employs a heavily modified old-fashioned open-reel tape recorder to make analog recordings, and avoids going into a digital format until the last step of his production – and only then so the music can be pressed onto compact discs.  The album is a fitting follow-up to their first album, considered by many to be the greatest roots reggae album recorded in more than a decade.  Produced by Ron Benjamin and released in December 1999 on the Wild Child label, Ras Mek Peace is hard, direct, and at times unforgiving.  It is now obvious to any fan, critic or listener that the sound and vibe of roots reggae is changing and it is changing fast.  Following the stunning one-man stream of consciousness opener “Pagan, Pay Gone,” the listener is treated to a heavy lesson in US economics, which is brilliantly compared to a child’s piggy bank in “Banking In The Pig.”

“Banking in the pig
Banking in the filthiest thing
And then they call I man the sons of Ham
And call man color pigmentation
Man thief money and he’s a swindler
Why them love the swine
Couldn’t be no simpler
Piggy bank is a psychological thing
Implication is only the filthy rich win”

Vaughn Benjamin’s delivery is flawless, a monotone message filled with truth and rights, sung over a blistering riddim, unrelenting, the way reggae is supposed to be delivered.  There are many highlights on this album including “Hieroglyphics,” “Empress,” “In The Race So Far.” Their faith and livication is revealed on “Lion Wears The Crown” and “Rasta Man Stand,” two of the strongest Rastafari anthems on the album. While Ras Mek Peace ultimately falls short when compared with their debut, it still stands as the second best reggae album in more than 15 years.  In reviewing the album, Reggae Reviews called it “an unadulterated and woefully overlooked classic of modern roots” and said of Vaughn Benjamin:

“Lead singer Vaughn Benjamin’s voice is a distinct blend of styles, including Freddie McGregor’s smoothness, Winston Matthews’ emotional wail, Michael Rose’s twang, Israel Vibration’s righteousness, and Mutabaruka’s sociopolitical viewpoint.  His lyrics are unique, intelligent, and thoughtful, as evidenced by ‘Hieroglyphics’ (in which graffiti is compared to ancient hieroglyphics) and the wicked wordplay of ‘Banking in the Pig.’”

Of the album Sprey wrote:

“I’d been searching three years for a reggae band to record. Then I heard Midnite, just in from St. Croix. Thirty seconds of their tight, crushingly powerful bass groove ended my search. Here was the rootsiest, most spiritually pure reggae I’d heard in decades. Not just another party band singing about dope and copping Wailers’ riffs, Midnite’s songs are brilliantly poetic and devastatingly iconoclastic. And they had the guts to record without electronic cosmetics (no reverb, EQ, overdubs, etc.)—a first in reggae history. That’s why this is the cleanest, punchiest reggae sound you’ve heard—gut-wrenching electric bass (the best I’ve ever recorded), razor-sharp guitar, raw and clear vocals.”

It is often said that greatness comes in threes and the holy trinity of modern reggae roots albums is well on its way to becoming a reality.  In 1999, Midnite returns to their home of St. Croix to pen their third album, and one that will solidify the band as serious contenders for the king’s crown in reggae.

MIDNITE perform in Washington DC circa 2001-2003

MIDNITE perform in Washington DC circa 2001

MIDNITE perform in Washington DC circa 2001

Jubilees of Zion was the first album recorded at Midnite’s studio in St. Croix, the newly christened Afrikan Roots Lab.  It is the first album recorded without foundation bassist Joe Straws who, along with drummer Dion Hopkins, established the heavyweight ground game that make those first two albums stand as modern masterpieces.  Bassist Phillip Merchant was brought in to fill those impossibly large shoes.  Recorded, mixed and mastered by Ron Benjamin, Jubilees of Zion was the first album in which the band had complete control over the production without any outside interference from a record company – the album is the essence of Midnite – unfiltered and unapologetic.  As Ron Benjamin explained in a 2000 interview “[this is the] first time to record without outside interference.  True reflection of what we hear when we envision the songs.” 

Midnite would go on to release some 50 plus albums in total, and are readying the release of  a new album titled Lion Out of Zion as this feature hits the web.  Since releasing those three seminal albums they have influenced countless new reggae acts and paved the way for an ever-growing tribe of emerging artists hailing from the Virgin Islands.  Popular reggae acts like Bambu Station, Dezarie, Batch, Nuyorah, Abja, Ras Attitude, Umojah, are just a few reggae acts who owe a debt of gratitude to the Brothers Benjamin and Midnite.  Anyone with a somewhat discerning eye for musical talent can quickly surmise that Midnite is the most influential reggae act to emerge since The Wailers.  This is fact.  Their “brand” of reggae commands a large part of the genre today.  It is also clearly evident that Midnite is the most prolific reggae act since The Wailers.  They have released 52 albums since 1997, averaging 2 releases per year.  Their albums are serious, quality roots music with deep lyrical and thematic content and unique musical compositions and arrangements.  This is not “throw-away” material here, but instead great roots reggae music with thoughtful, conscious lyrics and heavy riddims.  There is no other reggae artist or act over the past 30 years that is as prolific as Midnite.

Midnite

Vaughn Benjamin

So this begs the question:  What are we bearing witness to here?  While I will stop short of naming them the next Bob Marley and the Wailers, I will say that we are witnessing something truly special in this band – something the likes of which we have not seen since Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Regarding their significance as a touring roots reggae act, and their relative influence in the “world-a-reggae,” after 20 years in the game we have perspective on both.  I know of no one with a better perspective on this than Dermot Hussey, notable Jamaican broadcaster who spent many years working for the now-defunct Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation and Radio Jamaica, a personal friend to both Bob Marley (Hussey co-authored with Malika Lee Whitney a biography titled “Bob Marley: Reggae King of the World” and produced the interviews featured on the Talkin’ Blues album) and Peter Tosh, and former Program Manager at XM’s The Joint and current DJ at Sirius/XM’s the Joint.

Midnite - Vaughn Benjamin - Long Beach - 2008

“When I ran the Joint prior to the merger, I played them a lot,” says Hussey during our recent conversation. “Lyrically they are absolutely original, with a ‘stream of consciousness’ that is uniquely fascinating, because it represents a level of intelligence that embraces a wider history than what reggae normally spans. It is interesting that they have never found a footing in Jamaica, even with an album produced by Andrew Bassie Campbell.  I guess they would be deemed ‘too deep’, but if you listen closely as you no doubt have, their music, the best of it is absolutely original.”

There is no doubt that when it comes to reggae (not Rastafari), Jamaica is the true holy land.  That small rock in the blazing sun where three unique spirits joined together in their own virtual “holy trinity” in the mid-1960s and created a sound and a vibe that has since not only “gone a foreign,” but touches souls daily in some of the most remote places on earth.  I’m speaking of course of those “Wailing Wailers” – Bob, Peter, and Bunny.  The reasons for why the island as a whole has not embraced – or even extended a hand – to Midnite are many.  The fact that they are not from Jamaica is the most glaring reason.  There is also the fact that Midnite has long been lauded by fans and critics as the “future of reggae,” and they are not from Jamaica.  Then there is the fact that Midnite took the Bob Marley formula for roots reggae, flipped it, cooked it up, resulting in a blend that sounds almost nothing like Marley’s brand of reggae, and the fact that they are not from Jamaica…I think you see where I’m taking this.


Tracklist

Reminder
Pagan Pay Gone
Meditation (Babylon Fruits)
Same I Ah One (feat. Pressure)
Same I Ah Dub
When Jah Arise (feat. Lutan Fyah)
Weather The Storm (feat. Ras Batch)
Worker Be
True King
Jah Bless Her
Banking in The Pig
In The Race So Far
Love the Life You Live
Kaaba Stone
Due Reward
Incline
Incline Dub
Homing Zone
Starting From
Crown Aim
Calm the Day

Recognition of their songwriting talent, lyrical content and musicianship as well as their acceptance among those within the industry perhaps suffers because of the fact that they do not conform to the so-called norms or standards of the industry.  While reggae is a music that came out of the rebellion against the system, the reggae music industry is part of that same system.    Dermot Hussey hints at this during our recent conversation about the band.

“Once while speaking to Matisyahu on the phone, his greatest desire was to tour with them, and he said that If I could organize it, he would have come to XM to do a live show. I was unable to grant him his request because Midnite would not do that, based on their stance, they would never endorse such an idea, although they would benefit immensely from the exposure.”

“I think lyrically they have changed the form of the reggae song, imbued it with what I call a” stream of consciousness” because the  effect is that of Vaughan Benjamin’s seemingly non-stop  delivery of layers and layers of history, philosophy, a different universe.  Intellectually they are way in  advance of the mostly simple messages of traditional reggae.  The key question is this:  Can they lead the social movement?  Only if the audiences can connect with them on that level, and that is their biggest challenge.” 


MIDNITE performs live at The Independent, San Francisco, CA, March 21, 2013.  Many thanks to nomotrouble at www.reggaetraders.net for taping and sharing.


MIDNITE’S DISCOGRAPHY

Ride Tru (2014)
Beauty For Ashes (2014)
Stand The Test (2014)
Children Of Jah Dubs Midnite/Rastar (March 2013)
Free Indeed Midnite/Higher Bound (January 2013)
Children Of Jah Midnite/Rastar (June 2012)
In Awe Midnite/Fifth Son (January 2012)
King’s Bell Midnite (November 2011)
Anthology Midnite (July 2011)
The Way Midnite/Rastar (June 2011)
Standing Ground Dub Midnite/ Fifth Son (2011)
Treasure Midnite/Rastar (2011)
Momentum Midnite/Fifth Son (2010)
What Makes A King? Midnite (2010)
Ark A Law Midnite/Lion I (2010)
Frontline Midnite/Various (2009)
Kings Of Kush Midnite/Rastar Mix (2009)
To Mene Midnite/Rastar (2009)
Ina Now Midnite/Rastar (2009)
Defender Of The Faith Midnite/Various (2009)
New Name Midnite/Various (2009)
Infinite Dub Lustre Kings (2008)
For All with Youssoupha Sidibe (2008)
Supplication To H.I.M. with Rastar (2008)
Standing Ground with Lion Tribe (2008)
Live 94117 (2008)
KayaMagan with Desmond Williams (Released 2008 but recorded in 1999)
Maschaana with Natural Vibes (2008)
Bless Go Roun with Higher Bound Productions (2007)
Infinite Quality with Lustre Kings (2007)
Better World Rasta with Rastar 2007
Rule the Time with I Grade (2007)
Aneed with GroundBreaking (2007)
Suns of Atom with Lion Tribe (2006)
New1000 with Mystic Vision (2006)
Thru & True with Ras L (2006)
Current with Mystic Vision (2006)
Jah Grid with I Grade (2006)
Let Live with I Grade (2004)
Ainshant Maps (2004)
Full Cup with Ras L (2004)
Scheme a Things (2004)
Project III” with Branch I (2004)
He is Jah with Branch I (2003)
Geoman” with Branch I (2003)
Vijan with I Grade (2003)
Intense Pressure (2003)
Cipheraw with Branch I (2003)
Assini with I Grade (2002)
Seek Knowledge Before Vengeance (2002)
Nemozian Rasta with Dezarie and I Grade (2001)
Jubilees of Zion (2000)
Ras Mek Peace (1999)
Unpolished (1997)

I must take this opportunity to give many thanks to my good friends Dermot Hussey, Amby Connor, Jim Fox, and Roger Steffens for their insightful input. 

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Comments

  1. DJMagafire says:

    Is the compilation from the Smithsonian available anywhere, and what is it titled? Great article.

  2. Mauricio Ripke says:

    I got to know Midnite through the shows their band backed for Dezarie. The band is just too good.. their guitar players are awesome, Ron is awesome… I mean, they just complete each other.
    Then I remember the first time I listened to Midnite (Vaughnn and band) live… man that was the craziest thing I ever heard, the vibes just kept going, Vaughnn and his non-stop lyrics. That was on another level of the reggae I knew that time.

    Nice post Raver,
    Thank you

  3. jj says:

    excellent article!! thank you for writing this. Midnite is an incredible band. Fantastic video from San Fran!

  4. marleybooks says:

    fantastic article! many thanks for writing and posting this for such an incredible band. great video from san fran

  5. wicked post raver, great band! check out uk band Black Slate we coming with a new album december on Unit 8 Records would love for you to do a review

  6. Slugger says:

    Great article, thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve been listening to Midnite since the early 2000s, and hearing them evolve and morph themselves from year to year/album to album has been incredible.

    Maybe I’m not that tied to the reggae community, but I often wonder: am I the only person who realizes how special this group is? I tell people all the time that Midnite is the greatest contemporary roots reggae band, period. This article made me realize I’m not crazy, they are that important. I think they are one of those groups that will always be relevant, even 50-100 years from now.

    I second DJMagafire: how can I get my ears on the Smithsonian tunes?

    1. Slugger says:

      Just realized I was at the SF show posted above! It was an incredible performance, even by Midnite standards.

  7. zionaw8s says:

    bless up fi di article… hands down the most anointed rastafari band of all time….

  8. Iyabinghi Ashanti Tafari says:

    Wonderful article with some rare pics! I have been listening to Midnite for 20 years including the Akae Beka projects of Homage To The Land and Portals as well as singles recently released. He was in Jamaica twice this past March and it was incredible. I saw both show and as I told everyone in Jamaica whom had not seen him Live that they were in for a treat. He delivered at both show and it was just great to have my sistren here from Virginia who is cousins to the Benjamin brothers, so we were able to get some private sit down time with him in Negril. And in Kingston it was a joy to see him again. To get a hug from him. I remember the first time I saw him Live in NYC @SOBs man that was trance like! Three hours on stage and he sang ‘Bushman’ for 15 minutes. I was astounded by this music that I grew up on. I knew the first time I saw them that this band was working with the authentic ROOT of Reggae and not only that it was being delivered by a young Rastafari Lion and not from Jamaica. It didn’t matter one bit to me! Being born in Jamaica in the ’61 allowed me to grow up in the royal time of reggae music with its deep driving syncopated bass lines and amazing guitar rifts I knew listening to my first cassette with Midnite in ’96 that these brethren would be where they are today!!! Then listen to Ronnie Benjamin Sr. and no one will have any doubts as to where these two brothers get this wonderful sense of music! And the storehouse of information contained in Vaughn Benjamin’s lyrics tells you immediately of his profound and talented writing skills and depth of study as well! What I personally finds amazing is his intuitive and uncommon genius as regards his people’s resolution to rise despite their disenfranchisement. The reason why Midnite/Vaughn Benjamin attracts people of all class, race or creed is one because music naturally does that but two and most important he speaks A Universal TRUTH that cannot be refuted! He is my brethren and I have always Loved him from the first time I heard their music in ’96 up until I last saw him March 27th at Dub Club in Kingston, Jamaica and this moment. As I write this post I am listening to one of the mixes posted above; ‘Children Of Jah’ in dub. Lethal! Ohhh I Love this music. I am Jamaican and I find myself listening to St. Croix more. I might just move there! I Love music with powerful messages! And the riddims………wickedly scientific!

    1. midnightraverblog says:

      You come to the right place. Jah Raver broadcast live and direct right here from Washington, DC. There is no end to the positive writings you will find here for Midnite/Akae Beka.

  9. Toni Anne Straws says:

    Why didn’t you speak with the original bass player, Joe Straws, he currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri?

    1. midnightraverblog says:

      Thank you for commenting. I reached out to Joe several times through Facebook, however I never got a response back from him. He is the one I wanted to speak with the most as everyone I spoke with said I need to contact him.

  10. Toni Anne Straws says:

    Well if you’d still like to speak with him, here’s his email and phone number. straws545@gmail.com
    816-977-5068
    I’m his wife and I’ll make sure he follows up with you, Greg Richter is in Kansas City also.
    I’m met Midnite when they came to Washington DC, I was at the Smithsonian event. Joe and I were married in 1998 and I went on many road trips with the band, they were my brothers.

    1. midnightraverblog says:

      Wow! Many thanks for checking in. Id absolutely like to speak with both of you and update this feature with your interviews. I will be in touch soon…Mike

  11. Toni Anne Straws says:

    I have a few Midnite photos posted on http://www.Facebook.com/JoeStrawsPerforms

    1. midnightraverblog says:

      Thanks so much. I will check them!

  12. J Le Roy says:

    Thanks for the great article! something you wrote here has got me very intrigued:
    ““(…)There were also 2-3 songs that were not released on Unpolished but were recorded at Lion and Fox. These ended up on a music compilation for the Smithsonian Museum i.e. ‘Ashanti Girl.’””

    Have you heard these 2-3 songs and if so, can they be found anywhere? Does “Ashanti Girl” refer to the title of one of these tracks or is that the name of the compilation?

    Many thanks, keep up the great work!

  13. Derrick Parker says:

    The first show in DC with Midnite was at the Roxy, they called me from Texas and asked to play so I added them to the ROXY reggae awards (video proof of this) at this point we added them to the rotation since they decided to stay in the area. The next time they played Dera met them and helped them get more familiar with DC. She did a good job of making contacts and promoting them. The 3rd time they played the Roxy I hired fox to work because I couldn’t work the show (I worked for him at Lion and Fox and he worked for me at the Roxy)

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