It's Not Just Reggae, Says Chronixx: Call It 'Black Experimental Music'

Aug 21, 2017
Originally published on August 22, 2017 7:48 am

The artist Chronixx, born Jamar McNaughton, is 24 years old. But he's already been hailed as the leader of Jamaica's roots revival moment: an island-wide return to old-school reggae.

He's not so sure, though, that what he plays should be considered purely reggae. His debut album, Chronology, released this past July, is a project of what he calls "black experimental music" — a label that reflects his different influences, which range from gospel and funk to ska and electronic music.

"Remember that black people in the Western world, our last names are 'Smith' and 'Brown' and 'McIntosh,'" he says. "So we literally had to experiment with our soul to create music." This, he says, is in contrast to musicians in West Africa, "who grew up with thousands and thousands of years of musical practices, and the freedom to practice those ancient cultural music."

And, he says, Jamaican music — which has been hugely influential on popular music worldwide — has itself long been influenced by music elsewhere. Ska was shaped by New Orleans jazz; reggae by American soul, blues and funk; dancehall by hip-hop and vice versa. His music taps into all of these traditions, which he sees as "all part of the same family tree."

"I personally can't see the difference sometimes," he remarks. "You know, it's just the cultures and the language that is different. But the beat — the heartbeat — remain the same."

Chronixx's own music displays that cross-pollination of genres. The track "Majesty" on Chronology, for example, adapts an instrumental from Jamaican reggae artist Otis Gayle's cover of The Spinners' R&B track "I'll Be Around."

Given Chronixx's many talents, it's no surprise he knows his musical history, says DJ Max Glazer of New York reggae duo Federation Sound. Glazer has toured with Chronixx, and he co-produced a mixtape with him last year.

"He's someone that listens to a lot of music," Glazer says of Chronixx. "He's not only a singer: He's a producer and an engineer, so he's really interested in technology. He likes learning about things and just trying different things."

It's Chronixx's wide-ranging approach to music that has attracted a diverse range of listeners, says Glazer.

"A Chronixx show brings out the hardest of hardcore reggae fans. It brings out college kids. It brings out, racially, a very mixed crowd: white people, black people," he says. "I've watched everything from small children with their parents to grandparents there."

Chronixx's own family has a lot to do with his approach to music: His father is dancehall artist Chronicle, who had a string of hits in the early 1990s.

Chronicle's fame helped define his son. As Chronicle explains: "Everywhere he go: 'Chronicle's son!' In the street, 'Chronicle's son.' Church, 'Chronicle's son.' He goes to the studio and him said, 'I'm Chronicle's son.' All doors are open." Eventually, his friends started calling him "Chronixx."

Chronixx began writing music when he was 6 years old — songs, he says about "justice and equity" and "upliftment" — and he was producing and mixing at 15. His father turned his home into a kind of Jamaican Partridge Family, giving his kids props as instruments and telling them to imagine palm trees were the audience.

"My kids, them always singing," Chronicle remembers. "And sometimes I said, 'Jamar,'"— that's Chronixx —"'you do the lead, and Stacy and Kenisha and Che, you do the harmony.' So I gave Jamar a Guinness bottle."

"Guinness bottles to use as mics," Chronixx adds. "My sister and them had to use the mop stick as the backup mic and build them choreography. And you know we had to perform — he taught us how to perform and how to dance on stage, and --"

"-- how to talk to the audience," Chronicle chimes in.

"Learning our father's music brought us closer to our authentic culture, as Spanish Town people, people who born and grew in the inner city of Jamaica, in the ghetto," Chronixx says. It's his duty now, he says, to "give you a sense of what that feels like and how to express that through music."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to meet a young Jamaican musician now named Jamar McNaughton who goes by the name Chronixx. He's 24, and he's done a lot without releasing a full-length album. He's performed twice on Jimmy Fallon's show and at big events like Coachella, Glastonbury and Central Park Summerstage. Now he has finally come out with his first album. Baz Dreisinger reports.

BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: He's been dubbed the leader of Jamaica's roots revival movement...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRONIXX SONG, "CHRISTINA")

DREISINGER: ...An island-wide return to old-school reggae. But does this sound like reggae?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTINA")

CHRONIXX: (Singing) Oh, Christina, I still believe in me. And I'm a dreamer. But now I'm walking in my dream. Oh, yeah, Christine. Tell me, who do you see when you turn on your TV?

DREISINGER: Chronixx calls it black experimental music influenced by everything from gospel and funk to ska and electronic music.

CHRONIXX: Remember that black people in the Western world, our last names are Smith and Brown and McIntosh. So we literally had to experiment with our soul to create music because, you know, opposed to the people in West Africa who grew up with thousands and thousands of years of musical practice and the freedom to practice those ancient cultural music, we had to dig deep in our souls to find it.

DREISINGER: Jamaica is a place that Chronixx says has long been influenced by many sounds. Ska was shaped by New Orleans jazz, reggae by American soul, blues and funk, dancehall by hip-hop and vice versa. Chronixx taps into all of these traditions.

CHRONIXX: All part of the same family tree, trust me. I personally can't even see the difference sometimes. And it's just the cultures and the language that is different. But the beat, the heartbeat, remain the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKES")

CHRONIXX: (Singing) Give me a beat and a mic. Ready we go studio, go voice. But when me put that song here upon my timeline, no, me no do it for the likes. Let me tell them me do it for the love, me no do it for the likes (ph).

Jamaican music, you know, as much as it has shaped a lot of popular music from around the world, the same is vice versa, you know? So when Jamaican music was just evolving into reggae music, you have a lot of artists doing covers of R&B music. "Majesty," for instance, on the album, the original track is done by The Spinners. And that soulful, rock steady, lovers' rock kind of sound, it come from fusion of all different kind of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAJESTY")

CHRONIXX: (Singing) Before I hold you in my arms...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hold you close in my arms.

CHRONIXX: (Singing) ...I want to hold you in my heart.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hold you close in my heart.

CHRONIXX: (Singing) Before we share our love up on that bed...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Share the love. Share the love.

CHRONIXX: (Singing) ...I want to place this crown upon your head, woman. Girl, you're my queen, majesty.

DREISINGER: It's no surprise that Chronixx knows his musical history, says DJ Max Glazer of New York's Federation Sound System. He co-produced a mixtape with Chronixx last year and has toured with him a lot.

MAX GLAZER: He's someone that listens to a lot of music. He's not only a singer. He's a producer and an engineer. So he's really interested in technology. He likes learning about things and just trying different things.

DREISINGER: And Glazer says that approach is attracting a diverse crowd.

GLAZER: A Chronixx show brings out the hardest of hardcore reggae fans. It brings out college kids. It brings out racially a very mixed crowd - white people, black people. I've watched everything from small children with their parents to grandparents there.

DREISINGER: Chronixx's own family has a lot to do with his approach to music. His father is dancehall artist Chronicle, who had a string of hits in the early 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GOD")

CHRONICLE: (Singing) In the name of the Lord my God is, yes, is real. My God is real. Ooh, in the name of the Lord my God is, yes, is real. My God is real. Hey...

DREISINGER: Chronicle explains where his son got his stage name.

CHRONICLE: He go to school, they say that's Chronicle's son. So his friend just say Chronixx. Everywhere he go, Chronicle's son - in the street, Chronicle's son; church, Chronicle's son. He goes to the studio and him said, I'm Chronicle's son. All doors open.

DREISINGER: Chronicle's son began writing music at age 6 - songs, he says, about justice and equity and upliftment. And he was producing and mixing at 15. His father turned his home into a kind of Jamaican Partridge Family, giving his kids props as instruments and telling them to imagine palm trees were the audience.

CHRONICLE: My kids, them always singing. And sometimes I said, Jamar - that's Chronixx - you do the lead. Stacy and Kenisha and Che, you put on the harmony. So I gave Jamar a Guinness bottle...

CHRONIXX: Guinness bottles to use as mics.

CHRONICLE: ...And gave Stacey and Che and Kinesha the brooms and the mop.

CHRONIXX: My sister, them had to use the mop stick as a backup mic and build them choreography. And, you know, we had to perform. He taught us how to perform and how to dance on stage and...

CHRONICLE: How to talk to the audience.

CHRONIXX: Learning our father's music brought us closer to our authentic cultures as Spanish Town people, people who born and grew in the inner city of Jamaica, in the ghetto. And it give you a sense of what that feels like and what - how to express that through music.

DREISINGER: Chronixx says that's now his duty. He's come a long way from Guinness bottles and mop handles. For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SELASSIE CHILDREN")

CHRONIXX: (Singing) And when the truth hits painfully, that's when you know if you're really who you claim to be. For so long we've been denied, rejected and brutalized. But your children shall win the war. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.