It was Dre Island’s 2014 single “Live Forever” that really turned me on to this production crew from Half-Way Tree. Jordan “Tallman” Armond emailed me the pre-release single just to get my thoughts on it. The tune had an infectious, organic sound and a heavy roots vibration, a diverse and eclectic sound that has become characteristic to productions created in their home lab (The Bungalow) in Kington, Jamaica.
Natural High Music is an independent record label and sound system established in 2013 by musicians Jordan “Tallman” Armond and Blaise “Binghi” Davis. Determined to use their love of music and recording skills to create cutting-edge productions on Jamaica’s reggae music scene, the duo combined their gear to build signature riddims using electronic sounds, hip hop grooves and traditional techniques from reggae’s ‘Golden Era’.
Natural High Music has since claimed their position as one of the most sought after production teams in reggae music. A body of their work was recently released on their debut album ‘Urban Roots.’ The album highlights prominent singles from global reggae artists, including: Lutan Fyah’s ‘Royal Empress,’ Dre Island’s ‘Live Forever,’ Keznamdi’s ’10 Pound,’ Kelissa’s ‘Best Kept Secret,’ and Jovi Rockwell x Jesse Royal’s ‘Mash Me Up,” all produced by Natural High Music. The duo is also responsible for production on Keida’s ‘Ebb and Flow’ album and more contemporary reggae records.
Armed with a robust catalog of music, Natural High Music shares their contemporary sound from the studio to the streets. The duo has graced several stages with their sound-system of the same name, performing live sets in Mexico City, Canada, Jamaica and more. Using the melodica, as well as a slew of SFX on their favorite records, Natural High Music’s live performances prove to be a one of a kind experience that has garnered international attention. Support for the indie label has grown even further following exclusive vinyl releases in Japan and features in outlets such as, Pitchfork, Reggaeville, Complex and Fader. Currently working on several new releases, Natural High Music continues to produce music that resonates with reggae music lovers all over the globe.
Tell the folks a bit about Natural High. When and how did you guys get started?
Natural High Music is a record label and sound system officially founded in 2013 by Jordan ‘TallMan’ Armond and Blaise ‘Binghi’ Davis. It was always our vision to have our own record label since we were in high school in Kingston, Jamaica. Blaise and I met in 9th grade and connected over our love of hip-hop, reggae and dancehall music. Just like in America how most high school friends would start a band, in Jamaica most kids would come together to start a sound system. After going through many different crews and phases of sound systems a mutual friend (Dj Crooks) brought to school a little known software at the time called Fruity Loops. After a while we realized that our greatest joy came from making beats and really enjoying the creative process of composing tracks. We first started off by making beats just for our own entertainment but the passion grew to a level where we wanted to do this as a career. To be honest we didn’t even think of getting artist involved at that time. It was just all about making riddims.
After high school, we ended up at different colleges in the States but made a vow that we would return to Jamaica after our studies to start our record label which would become Natural High Music. We are happy that both of us were able to maintain the vision through all those years and here we are still holding true to that same vibe today.
Who were some of the first artists you worked with?
The first set of artists we worked with were mainly our friends from school. If you know Jamaica, you know that everybody on the street has a song or a melody that they want to share, so finding people to vibe with was never difficult. We would hang around studios, take in the energy, learn the protocol and try to meet more people who shared our vision. A lot of our early teachings came when we started visiting our friend Makonnen Blake Hannah’s studio. It was a hot spot for popular artist at the time. Makonnen was always interested in fostering talented youths and brought us in to his world.
After returning in 2012 from college we connected with a producer named Khabir Bonner of ‘Grillaras Productions’ who was in the middle of producing a Lutan Fyah album. Khabir really digged our sound and our energy. We ended up producing 5 tracks off of what would become Lutan Fyah’s ‘Life of a King’ album, including the title track. That was our first official release with proper credits as producers. We owe a lot to Khabir for showing us the back end of the music business as well, things like publishing and distribution etc.
What was the very first Natural High-produced release?
The very first release off the label was a riddim compilation called ‘Muddy Road Riddim’. That whole process was a big learning experience for us. It was actually the first time we set out to call artists to our home studio, record them, mix the songs, master the songs, do the artwork and then find distribution for the project all on our own. We got some great features on that riddim including: Lutan Fyah, Jesse Royal, Kelissa and Dax Lion.
After Muddy Road, we had somewhat of an epiphany. We realized that instead of having one riddim for all these artist, we way further enjoyed creating individual singles for each artist that we worked with. We didn’t realize it then but that was kind of the premonition to the Urban Roots album. We enjoyed making riddims so why not make more riddims and let the artist have their own sound and vibe instead of sharing one track.
Natural High released its debut album in 2015. ‘Urban Roots’ was a tremendous album featuring the likes of Lutan Fyah, Dre Island, Kelissa, Jesse Royal, and a whole host of new and emerging Jamaican artists. Is ‘Urban Roots’ simply an album title or does it describe Natural High’s sound?
The Urban Roots album has a really special place in our hearts. More than the music, it represents a time and place for us. We started building tracks for the album in 2014 and we were in the middle of what many call ‘The Reggae Revival’ movement. Alot of attention was being focused on the roots reggae sound and initially we were playing our role producing roots reggae tracks and trying to get features.
During this time we started watching a lot of music documentaries. Things like ‘The Gorillaz’ making their first album and ‘Lee Scratch Perry’ studio footage, it was great! Somewhere along the lines we were influenced to say hey, these guys didn’t play by the rules and we love all these different dimensions of music, why not create an album of our own which represents what we truly love and listen to. Stop playing to the business of the music and go boldly to the field of just being creative and seeing where we end up. The result ending up being the Urban Roots sound. We went for a more direct approach and started building the riddims with the artist in the studio, helping them write material, adding elements and sounds that we really connected with on a personal level.
The name Urban Roots came from us just brain storming for days. It started as ‘Fruits and Roots’ then ‘Herb and Roots’ then ‘Urban Roots’. I think we surprised ourselves with that one because of how perfect it represented our style and sound.
Describe the process by which you guys produce a riddim. What instruments do you guys play? Do you bring in other musicians?
TallMan’s main focus is keyboards and Binghi loves the drums. Riddims mainly start with either one of us having a concept idea like a sample or simply coming up with a good initial sound or set of chords from the keyboard. We both have a basic understanding of music theory so we know how to technically express our ideas which helps a lot.
The most interesting thing is how well we work together as a team in the studio. We both have worked with many different people in the studio but some how the chemistry we have as Natural High is something that can’t be bought or found easily. It truly comes from the years spent together doing this process. Its almost telepathic at this point. We share the same vision for a track 90% of the time.
Once we reach as far as we can by ourselves we make decisions on bringing in live instruments or adding whatever live textures we can to fill out the track. Another fun fact. 99% of our guitar tracks have been played by Wayne Armond (Jordan’s Uncle) from the reggae band Chalice. He is our neighbor and always comes over to share words of wisdom and lay some amazing guitar tracks on the fly. In return we perform mixing and production duties for his projects. Its really a great relationship.
How do you go about approaching an artist with a riddim to voice? Do they usually come to you or vice versa? Who are some of your favorite artists to work with?
In our early days, the main approach was for us to build a catalog of riddims on our own and then begin the process of shopping them to artist. Whether it was by email saying ‘hey! thought you might dig this’ or going to a studio to meet them or maybe even seeing them out at an event in the night and offer them to come by the studio and hold a joy. Any way that we could get them to hear the track but also feel our energy and passion for creating music. I think alot of artist respond to our open love for music which gets them excited.
Now a days we are most comfortable coming together with an artist in the studio and having a blank slate. There is a certain energy that comes to the room when everyone is involved in this fresh new idea, overall it truly shows you what is absolutely necessary to a song instead of having an artist try and fit their concept to your previously made track. Usually once we have a good foundation we can take the track anywhere.
We still build riddims on our own and send them out and that does have great results but our best works I feel comes from the blank slate.
Favorite artist in the studio has to be our bredren Jesse Royal. He has such a strong creative energy and is one of the few artist that makes us feel that we are all still in high school making tracks in our bedrooms. He draws inspiration from absolutely anything. Butterfly on a leaf, blue skies, anything at all.
Natural High has been an integral part of the “reggae revival” movement in Jamaica. Are we now in a “post-revival” era or does the revival describe a more permanent movement that will live in perpetuity? It just seems that Jamaica took back its music with the revival but now there are foreign acts who are also making great music and evolving the genre (Zion I Kings comes to mind of course). Do you agree with this statement? As Jamaican producers do you see it as a problem for Jamaica that authentic reggae sound is finally being produced outside of Jamaica or do you see it as a positive thing? Sort of like Iron Sharpen Iron…
The Reggae Revival movement in Jamaica we feel represents a specific set of artist more than a sign of the times. Reggae never disapeared but what did happen is that a set of young and creative individuals drew influence from a place where the rest of Jamaica almost overlooked. Instead of continuing to advance reggae into a more contemporary sound they took it back to the roots which at the time was a fresh approach given that Jamaican reggae was beginning to sound more like a Don Corleone ‘Drop Leaf’ Riddim instead of a RootsMan Riddim style which pays homage to Ini Kamoze.
Jamaica has a few things to work out when it comes to its musical history. For instance, there is no radio station that provides 24/7 vintage Jamaican music like ska, rocksteady, dub ect. I think if they embraced small ventures like that, Jamaicans will become more aware of their own history instead of looking over seas for influence.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
Damon Albarn (Gorillaz) , Gabe Roth (owner, producer and engineer at Daptone Records), Marley family, Salaam Remi, Lee Scratch Perry, King Tubby, MIA
Is there an artist or artists that you would like to work with but have not had the opportunity as of yet?
So many, it would be great to link with Buju Banton when he gets out, we also want to work with artist outside the reggae circles, maybe produce a track with Flying Lotus, We definitely appreciate the creation of music in all aspects so the more experiences the better. Maybe a song with Lee Fields too.
More and more Jamaican artists are looking outside of Jamaica for assistance in evolving their careers. Protoje recently toured the US with Rebelution. Jesse Royal is getting ready to release an album on the Easy Star label. Why is this necessary? Why can’t these artists find the support they need within Jamaica?
I think its a positive vibe that artist and labels from overseas collaborate with Jamaican artist. It gives the chance for people creating and curating reggae music worldwide to link with artist straight from the country that brought them this joyful culture. and it also grants Jamaican artist access to a whole new platform to share their music and experiences with. I think the support for the music industry can be greater in Jamaica, theres alot of gatekeepers in Jamaican music industry that control the outcome plus the government could do better in supporting music endeavors such as sponsoring music videos or albums.
More than any other time in history, reggae is now truly an international music. There are great and talented producers in Europe and the US who are making legit music. As Jamaican producers who have primarily worked with Jamaican artists would you consider working with a US or European artist?
Definitely, we are in an age where we can access music from all over the world in an instant so we come across alot of great talent from all sorts of places. The talent in the USA and UK is immense but the cool thing is that we all have something unique to bring to the table because we were all raised on music differently.
The music industry has changed profoundly over the past twenty years. Artists now cannot make a living off of album sales or royalties so they tour incessantly in order to make those ends meet. As producers how do you make a living off of this music?
The music industry has changed drastically, even when we started making music the whole business approach was different. The only way to survive is to evolve with the industry and producers can survive. Certain elements of the business maybe going down but new avenues that were never their before also appear.
Do you see any changes on the horizon that will further affect the industry?
I think the greatest changes have slowly started to become the norm now, things like social media, youtube streams, smart phones are now all necessary in working in the music industry. As far as the horizon i think having a radio program/playlist seems to be a growing trend for artist and labels. Stay tuned for Urban Roots Radio 😉
How big of a problem is payola in Jamaica? What is the greatest barrier to getting your music played on the radio?
Payola is a big deal in Jamaica. If you don’t know any DJs or media personalities then its the quickest way to get your song on the airwaves. We’ve never done that form of business. We believe that if you are a DJ it is your responsibility to curate good songs for your program and the people will decide the hits.
When I’m in Jamaica I listen to the radio and watch music video shows to get a handle on what is popping on the island. I’ve noticed that it is all garbage. No production, weak lyrics, just “throw away music” basically. How is this stuff getting played?
Does Natural High tour at all doing live DJ shows or backing artists on the road?
We’ve done DJ sets around Jamaica, Mexico and the States but never a major tour. Its a goal that we have set out for this year and beyond.
What are you guys currently working on and what can we expect from Natural High in 2017/2018?
We got a lot of new works in the pipeline. Most recently we did Kelissa’s Spellbound album, 2 tracks from Keznamdi’s Skyline Levels Vol 1 EP and produced Black Is Beautiful from Chronixx’s new Chronology album. We are steadily working on Urban Roots 2 and we got a live dub project with Stevie Lightning, lead singer of the band Rootz Underground coming out this year.
Who are some of the artists you guys are fans of right now? Who is making the best music out there?
We mainly listen to a lot of old material but their are a handful of artist and producers doing their thing in a major way. I just watched this sound system and label from Brooklyn called Dub-Stuy do a DJ set, they got some really cool stuff, also we are major fans of producer Ticklah from Brooklyn. I-Grade is doing amazing work, love their mixes, Expanders from Cali write great songs too. Too much good stuff to pinpoint.
Summer is heating up and our good friends at the Natural High label got the right remix to set it off!
Reviving a classic in a true dub style, we take the ‘man on the moon’ through a spiral of echos, reverb and outer space fx to land him safely in Kingston, Jamaica. We bring you the official reggae remix of “Day ‘N’ Nite.”
Feel free to share the joy with your followers and friends but please, make sure you turn the volume way waay waaaaay up!