There is no doubt that the US has made significant contributions to the reggae lexicon over the past two decades. Just consider the fact that US reggae acts have taken the Itunes Reggae Album of the Year award six of the past seven years. And while US reggae acts such as SOJA, Rebelution, Stick Figure, and Tribal Seeds continue to command large crowds the world over, it is the US-based production houses that are truly redefining the sound of modern roots reggae. Production teams like Easy Star, Zion I Kings, and Fifth Son are revolutionizing the whole sound and vibe of roots reggae.
However, it is a small studio in Washington DC that is catching ears and turning heads of late. Honest Music DC, run by Darryl “D-Trane” Burke and Christos DC (Chris Vrenios), is one of the most dynamic and innovative production houses in reggae. The studio behind Kenyatta Hill’s critically-acclaimed 2014 album ‘Riddim of Life,’ Puma Ptah’s ‘In One Accord,’ and Christos DC’s ‘The Long Road’ is poised to become one of the premier production houses in reggae.
Both Burke and Christos have been making movements in the DC reggae and club scene for decades now. Burke cut his teeth working with Bebo Philips and Clive Jarrett at Grapevine Records, backing such artists as Carlton Livingston, Gregory Isaacs, and Lone Ranger, to name a few. From there, it was stints with reggae legend Carl Malcolm, Moja Nya, Joseph Hill and Culture, Abyssinians and Eek-A-Mouse. He was also the founder of The Archives, a reggae project that was the brainchild of Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton.
However, it was a phone call from Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation in 2010 that would set Burke upon the path that would lead him to Honest Music. Burke was tapped to form the Archives – a roots reggae project that was the idea of Thievery’s Hilton. The group’s critically-acclaimed 2012 self-titled LP just might be the best reggae album ever released by a DC reggae outfit.
Artist/producer Christos DC was born and raised in Washington, D.C. by parents who sang opera and taught voice professionally. Christos’ career began in the early 90s producing hip-hop and R&B tracks with indie artists from DC, but it was his deep appreciation for the sounds coming out of Kingston, Jamaica that led him to record with legendary reggae artists Sly and Robbie as well as the Firehouse Crew. He spent several years on the road as guitarist and backing vocalist for Don Carlos and The Itals. He has produced and recorded with artists such as the legendary Augustus Pablo, Sugar Minott, Roots Radics, and Meditations. He has also done session work with DC’s own Thievery Corporation.
Midnight Raver sat down recently with Burke who is now label manager for Honest Music DC.
MR: You’ve been making movements on the reggae scene here in DC for decades. Talk a little bit about your background and your involvement in reggae as a player, promoter, producer over the years.
DB: “I got involved in reggae music in the late ’80s, working with Grapevine Records – a reggae label based in DC. I was mainly a session musician, working with people like Carlton Livingston, Gregory Isaacs, and Lone Ranger, to name a few. From there, I started to perform live with reggae legend Carl Malcolm (“Fatty Boom Boom”) and other groups in the DC area. That’s how I met the leader of the band Moja Nya, Desi Hyson, in 1993. Desi asked me to join the group and co-produce their album “Moment In Meditation.” That was the first time I had been involved in production on a reggae project. Moja Nya had a successful run for the next few years; the lead single from the album, “Paradise,” was in regular rotation on BET and major radio stations worldwide. In late 1997, we linked with the band Culture. At the time, they were looking for a new backing band for tours. They recruited me, and that was my introduction to touring internationally with a “name brand” act. I left Moja Nya in 2000, and started to freelance, touring with and road-managing for artists such as the Abyssinians and Eek-A-Mouse. In 2007, I joined an up-and-coming Jamaican band based in DC, S.T.O.R.M. I co-produced their self-titled album, which was recorded and mixed in Anchor Studios in Kingston. In 2010, I got a call from Thievery Corporation about a reggae project that Eric Hilton wanted to produce, which later became the Archives. I selected the musicians and singers for the project, and arranged and co-wrote most of the songs. The album was released in 2012 and received rave reviews across the globe. From there, I met Christos DC, and started working with his label, Honest Music, as a producer and label manager.”
MR: Christos, you have an interesting background and a long history as a player and performer in the DC music scene. Can you introduce yourself to the people?
Christos: “I claim my Greek heritage from my grandparents Who emigrated from Greece in the 1920s. Growing up the son of parents who were opera singers and voice teachers had me surrounded with music throughout my childhood. I became quite accustomed to the sounds of people learning to sing in my home. Growing up in Washington DC exposed me to reggae at a very young age. I remember quite well labels like RAS Records as well as Live and Learn and greatly respect the works they did to pave the way. DC was a hub for many international artists. I would often be that kid waiting after a show with a record in hand for a signature. In fact, this is how I initially met Don Carlos.”
MR: Yeah, you have some history with Don Carlos don’t you?
Christos: “Touring and recording with Don Carlos was an amazing experience. I remember many nights going into the studio around 8:00 PM and leaving early in the morning as people were on their way to work. I’ve known Don for more than 20 years. As a matter of fact, the song “Righteous Chant” is a song I did with Don Carlos many years ago. It had never been properly released so I decided to revisit the song this past year. This involved quite a bit of work in the studio laying new parts over the original tracks. He agreed to let me sing a verse on the song and the lyrics seemed to come quite naturally.”
MR: That tune is really something special. It hits me on a whole different level. The writing is just brilliant. It is a very classic sounding production…it has a real familiar vibe almost like one of those classic roots tunes that just stay with you forever…but it’s a brand new tune, which is what makes it so great! I could rave on forever about how great this tune is. Funny, I played it for Roger Steffens, Doctor Dread, Doug Wendt, Dermot Hussey…you know some of the old-timers who really appreciate a brand of reggae that is serious and authentic, and each of them loved it. That is a huge compliment coming from guys like this…guys who have a finely-tuned and discerning ear for reggae…all of whom were reggae radio jocks who really brought the music to the airwaves and represented it when no one else was willing to do it.
Christos: “Give thanks!”
MR: So what was your first exposure to reggae? Do you recall what or who it was that really got you into listening to the music?
Christos: “My first exposure to reggae was actually from a radio show on WPFW 89.3 fm called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DREAD. My brother would tape the shows off the radio. Also my mother bought me a copy of BMW – Survival at the age of 12 and I was instantly hooked. Shows on the radio played a big role however such as Shockwaves with Papa WaBe.
I’ve been playing music since a very young age. My mother was the first to put me on a stage as a little kid. They both insisted on my brother and I learning at least one instrument. Hearing vocal lessons at home gave me a very good understanding of the human voice.”
MR: What instruments do you play?
Christos: “Violin was actually my first instrument but I chose to move on to guitar at the age of 10. I can play many different instruments but choose mainly guitar and bass.”
MR: How old were you when you first started composing your own music?
Christos: “I first started composing music around the age of 19 and soon bought a four track recorder and drum machine. I would spend many nights layering parts on top of a beat with bass and guitar and an occasional keyboard when I could borrow one.”
MR: For people who have never heard you before I think they would first be impressed by your vocal abilities. You are a tremendous singer with a very soulful voice. Is this something you worked at? Were you professionally trained?
Christos: “I never really considered myself a singer. It was Keith Porter from the Itals who first pushed me to sing on stage. It was after Ronnie Davis had left the group when he heard me singing harmony with an album called ‘Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors’ by Dennis Brown. At sound check later that day he put a microphone in front of me and informed me that I would be singing the top harmony. My good friend David Isaacs would help me by often dancing his way to my side of the stage with an occasional correction. Singing harmony feels natural to me and I am thankful for what I have learned from my parents and so many others along the way. I truly did not want to be a singer but feel as if it chose me.”
MR: Regarding the local music scene here in DC, talk about your involvement on the local scene from way back. Who are the local artists who really influenced you or helped forward you as an artist?
Christos: “I have worked with many people here in the DC area over the years but was mainly influenced by the sound coming from Jamaica. Peter Broggs brought me out on the road first. I later went on to tour with groups like the Itals and Don Carlos..they all had a tremendous influence on me and my musical development.”
MR: You’ve been to Jamaica to record. Talk about your first time going to Jamaica and the work you’ve done down there since your first trip.
Christos: “My first experience recording in Jamaica was for a label called Two Tough Records.. We did some tracking with Sly and Robbie as well as the Firehouse Crew. I later would return to record my own music and was fortunate enough to work with people like Augustus Pablo and Errol “Flabba” Holt as well as many others. It was quite surreal at times to be working with people who had influenced me so greatly.”
MR: So getting back to D-Trane, one of the best reggae albums of 2012 was The Archives self-titled project. Probably the best single reggae album ever to come from DC. People may not know but you were instrumental in bringing that project together, both as founder of the group and as a player in the band. Talk about how that whole thing came together.
DB: “The Archives came to life as a result of Thievery Corporation’s bass player, Ashish “Hash” Vyas, calling me up about a reggae project that Eric Hilton was interested in producing. Hash and I had been freelancing with the DC group SEE-I at the Eighteen Street Lounge at the time (one of Eric’s spots in DC). After I met Eric, I hand-picked musicians from the DC area that I had worked with during my years on tour. The original vision was to record an album of Studio One cover songs – but then Eric asked if we made original music, as well. We decided at that point to go a different route and write original songs which reflected the timeline of reggae history, from the birth of roots reggae in the early ’70s into the ’80s. Basically, we were just going to the studio every day and jamming on different ideas inspired by foundational roots reggae artists. Eric has a vast knowledge of reggae music, and would often play snippets from records in the studio to set a particular vibe for a song. There were a lot of improvised moments that later morphed into great songs. Lenny Kurlou was the first singer we brought in, a local Jamaican singer from Cockburn Pen, West Kingston (Home of Josey Wales, Supert Cat). We met Puma Ptah of St. Thomas, VI (“Ras Puma” at the time) about four months into the project, which was a blessing in disguise as he ended up moving to DC from the Virginia Beach area and singing and co-writing most of the songs on the album.”
MR: What is the story behind Honest Music DC?
DB: “Christos founded Honest Music in 2008, mainly to produce and release his own music. I started working with the label as a producer and label manager in 2013, at which point the label began working with more artists whom I had recruited to put the label on the map in reggae.”
Christos: “Yeah, I first launched Honest Music back in 2008 but it was when I began to work with Darryl that things started to really come together.”
MR: How did you guys link up initially?
DB: “I met Christos just as we were finishing mixing the Archives album in 2011. He often played at a club not far from Thievery’s studio where we were working on the project, and as he was loading his equipment into the club one night, he was playing demos from his yet-to-be-released album “Long Road.” I was very impressed with what I heard. From there, we talked about our different journeys in the business over the years, and found out that we had a lot of common tastes in music and directions we were interested in exploring.”
Christos: “Darryl and I very quickly realized we share a similar vision. He brings a lot to the table both as a musician and producer but also has a very good understanding of the music business. It was as if the stars had lined up. I feel we have accomplished a great deal in the amount of time we have worked together.”
MR: So you guys must have complementary talents which work to strengthen the works? Its like they say…your collaborative efforts are more than the sum of your individual talents. Is that how the vibe works here?
DB: “Yeah, I would say that is fairly accurate. First of all, we’re a month apart in age. We both grew up in the DC area, and were both exposed to a lot of reggae and hip-hop in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which really informed our tastes. Producing is a very personal thing, and our first attempt at co-production was like magic. We really respected each others’ ideas, and the compromises that we made to finish the project ultimately improved it.”
MR: In my opinion, Honest Music is one of the very few production houses that comes with unique and innovative sounds every time. I mean in the U.S. you have Zion I Kings, Easy Star, maybe Fifth Son, and you guys. I don’t even think I’ve heard a weak track come from your studio, much less an album! Talk about the projects you’ve released on the Honest Music DC label.
DB: “Our first project was to finish Christos’ album “Long Road.” From there, we co-produced and co-wrote Kenyatta Hill’s album “Riddim Of Life” (lead singer of Culture), Puma Ptah’s solo debut “In One Accord,” a single with Don Carlos (“Righteous Chant”), the latest Christos DC single “Heart Of Gold,” and a few remixes and dubs from those albums.”
MR: Was ‘Long Road’ Christos’ first full-length album?
Christos: “Actually my first solo LP was entitled ‘Time to Rise.’ This was an experimental project for me. There are only two reggae tracks on the album but you can still hear the influences throughout. After that I put out an album called ‘Under the Sun.'”
MR: Kenyatta Hill’s ‘Riddim of Life’ is an exceptional album. It made my Best of 2014 list and my Best Reggae Albums of the 2K list as well. Whats the story behind Kenyatta and Honest Music DC.
Christos: “I first met Kenyatta Hill when I was hired to go on the road with him as a guitarist. As I was recording my album ‘Long Road.’ Darryl suggested him as a guest artist for one of the tracks. We got together to do this and quickly realized we have a strong rapport in the studio. I think this is very apparent on his album ‘Riddim of Life.’ Kenyatta is like a brother to me and it was a great experience working with him.”
DB: “I’ve known Kenyatta since my days touring with his dad, Joseph Hill, founder and original lead singer of Culture. Kenyatta was the sound engineer for the group at the time. I was later contracted to tour with Culture featuring Kenyatta Hill on a tour in the Northeast region of the U.S. The guitar player had to back out last-minute, and I brought Christos in to fill the position. From there, driving from town to town, Christos started to play some of his music and Kenyatta was very impressed with the level of production. From there, he and Christos decided to collaborate on a song, which ended up being the lead single from Christos’ ‘Long Road’ album, “Just Talk To Me.” Kenyatta hadn’t recorded an album for over three years, and expressed interest in working on a full project. The second single from his album, “Jah Is My Friend” was recorded with Flabba Holt and Style Scott (Roots Radics), originally it was going to be a remix of a song “True Love” from Christos’s ‘Long Road’ album, but Kenyatta started to freestyle over the track and it was pure fiyah!! I think it’s the best song from his album. The rest is history.”
MR: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. That tune is incredibly honest and soulful…you can tell it comes from a place of meaning deep within Kenyatta. And Dub Architect’s mix of the track is so incredible as well. I really respect the subtlety of his mix. Too many engineers go over the top with effects, trying to put their own signature on the tune. Justin (Pietro) stepped back and just let Kenyatta’s vocal shine, only using effects to highlight Kenyatta’s performance.
Another outstanding album from Honest Music is Christos’ ‘The Long Road/Versions’ set, which also made my Best Reggae Albums of the 2K. This is a sleeper that many people may not know much about. How did that project come together?
Christos: “‘Long Road Versions’ seemed like a natural follow up as we all loved the instrumental versions of the songs so much. It really showcases the musicality of that project. It was a real blessing to work with people like Style Scott and Flabba Holt, but the majority of the album was done with a group of tremendously talented musicians here in the DC area. Guys like Leslie James and Earl Michelin (former members of Culture live band) as well as Darryl that all made this project truly shine.”
DB: “The album includes all of the instrumentals from “Long Road.” Everybody involved in the project really loved the songs and we received a lot of great feedback on the writing and production, so we decided to release the instrumental album to showcase the arrangements and musicianship.”
MR: Talk about some of the talented players that feature on Honest Music DC releases.
DB: “DC is blessed to have a lot of musicians that record and tour with name brand reggae acts. They have honed their craft and really understand the music. I met a few of the players we’ve worked with at Honest Music through touring with Culture. For example, the primary drummer for most of our projects is Leslie James, Jr. (“Blackseed”) from St. Croix, VI. In addition to Culture, he has also toured extensively with Eek-A-Mouse and Mishka, among other acts. Other players include Stephen “Big Yard” Samuels (Culture touring bass player), Paapa Nyarkoh (drummer for Junior Marvin), and Desi Hyson (Moja Nya), all of whom recently received Grammy nominations through their work with the Original Wailers. Our horn players come from the DC jazz scene, which I think adds to the uniqueness of the sounds we’re producing – Joe Brotherton on trumpet; Brian Fa….. and Herb Scott on sax; etc. Keys are played my Earl “Mitch” Michelin (Culture, Jr Marvin) and myself. Percussion by Matt “Swamp Guinea” Miller (Bambu Station drummer) from DC.”
MR: Puma’s ‘In One Accord’ EP is another great album that you guys put out this year. Very strong vocals and dubs. For those who don’t know Puma was also with The Archives and currently tours with Thievery Corporation. He’s a fascinating individual and a talented singer with a very unique vocal style. Talk about how you guys linked up and what he brings to Honest Music.
DB: “Puma and I met through a referral by a friend of mine in 2010. It just so happened that the link came at a perfect time, because we were in the early stages of the Archives project. It really felt like the stars lined up – the project would not be what it is without his involvement. We continued to work together through the Archives, and talked often about him recording a solo album at some point. So after I got involved with Honest Music, Puma expressed interest in working with us. Puma brings great writing skills and vocal abilities, but he’s also a wicked instrumentalist and producer with a very distinct artistic identity. He co-produced his album with us.”
MR: Talk about the Thievery Corporation link..
DB: “In addition to my own link with Eric Hilton, Christos has been involved with Thievery Corporation as a session player and co-writer on their earlier records.”
MR: So Christos, your most recent single is a cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” That is a bold project to take on Neil Young. However, I haven’t talked to a single person who dislikes your version. Everyone thinks its great!
Christos: “Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’ is was a song I had learned to play at a very early age. I recorded the music for it about 4 years ago, it was just sitting in the hard drive we decided now is a good time to release it. I always felt would make a great candidate for a reggae cover..I am very happy with the results as well as the response it has received.”
MR: You guys feature dub mixes from the hottest, most talented dubmixologists in the world on your releases. Tippy-I from I-Grade, Dub Architect, Dub Africa, Mr. B, Dukes Productions…how do you go about selecting who will mix your tracks?
DB: “It’s important as a producer and label manager to keep your ear to the street. We’ve been able to connect with the right collaborators through the relationships we’ve built over the years in the industry. From hearing their work, I knew that each of these individuals would vibe with particular tracks in our catalogue.”
MR: So what is Honest Music going to bless the world with next?
Christos: “I am currently working on many new projects. We are currently recording many DC local artists over a track we co-produced with King Bebo that has Sly and Robbie playing on it. Our first “riddim album” at Honest Music. It has been a great experience to work with so much local talent. Also we have a single release with Kenyatta Hill and surprise guests that’s gonna shake up the game! I am also working on my next album and feel as if I am still growing tremendously. We have many big plans for the upcoming year and are very excited about the upcoming releases.”
DB: “Yeah for sure. The collaboration with Bebo Phillips AKA “King Bebo” is interesting. He was the co-founder of Grapevine Records along with Clive Jarrett, the first record label I ever worked with. Bebo is fortunate to have grown up with reggae legends Sly and Robbie and other great players. This riddim is one of the tracks that they played on for Bebo. We reached out to local Caribbean artists who have been on the DC scene for years, as well as a few name brand artists, to bless the track. Like Christos said we are also working on his next full album, as well as a new Don Carlos single from the “Righteous Chant” recordings and the Kenyatta Hill single will feature some real surprises.”
The Honest music label continues to release top quality roots music with key collaborations. Consider Kenyatta Hill’s cover of his late father’s “Police Man, ” which features Akae Beka and a wicked mix by Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred of Zion I Kings.
2017 will be another landmark year for the label as they ready the release of Christos DC’s full-length studio album. The first single from the forthcoming album, a vicious roots tune titled “Speak The Fire,” features vocals from Akae Beka and production work from Tippy-I. Christos DC will be touring with Don Carlos throughout 2017. Kenyatta Hill is slated to perform at the National Cannabis Festival in Washington, DC on April 22, 2017.