Chezidek - Interview in Oracabessa, Jamaica
11/08/2017 by Gardy Stein
Hailing from a farmer's family in the lush hills of St. Ann's Bay, Desbert Johnson still prefers a calm, modest life on Jamaica's north coast to the hustle and bustle of Kingston. He has reached local renown early in his career with the song Leave De Trees, a hit that earned him a deal with VP Records and, subsequently, enabled him to tour the world. Reggaeville has met the artist Chezidek on the picturesque cliffs of Oracabessa to the backdrop of rolling waves and chirping crickets to talk about his journey and, most of all, about his new album Irie Day:
Where do you come from musically? Maybe you can give us a short introduction how you got involved in the business…
Well, the music business… we were always recording, since a few years now, but the business part is like… I don't even know if I am in the music business (laughs). But yeah, we were always in the music and maybe we are just getting in the business now. The music was always in us and that's the main thing. But we survive off the music too, so maybe that's what you call the business. The music is our main focus, the other things come after.
Did you take formal training when you were younger?
When I was a youth, I was in the St. Anns Bay marching band, I used to blow the trumpet, the bugle, the drum, those things. But when I was a little child, I was always singing and making songs, even at school, I always wrote songs. Some of them I even recorded when I became an adult. Music was always a part of me!
Who encouraged you to start recording?
Recording started from early, because… one bredrin had a little tape recorder and him press the red button (laughs) we recorded on a cassette, I would sing and he played it back. So I recorded from them days, cassette days, til it reach some likkle makeshift thing we could call studio. Then eventually, gradually we got more into professional recording. Ages man, I've been doing this thing for ages.
Did you ever work with a band?
Other than the marching band as a youth, it's more like Soundsystems that we actually got involved with at an early stage in the community. We started to go to Jack Ruby Sound in Ocho Rios. That time we used to jump on a truck, one of these big trucks with the big speaker boxes, we jumped on them sometimes and come back home late and go to school the next day. We always went out to where the music was, to the Soundsystems. That was a good vibes. Cause I always wanted to sing! When the Soundsystem played and the big singers a sing, I would always say "I want to sing!" and most times they said no, but sometimes they let me have a track or two until they realized that we have some potential, you know. So I started working…
Who were the first producers you worked with?
Well, you know, in the community, when a youth is talented in singing, rapping, playing football or instruments or whatever, some other people in the community will acknowledge your talent and try to help. Sometimes they don't know what they are doing, they are no producers, but they have love in their heart and they want to. Those were the people who came first, and they try to make an effort, it's just another experience along the journey. Til we get to know some people who were more serious in the music, like in the 90ies, Roof Records, but that time I wasn't Chezidek, and I wasn't singing like this, I was DJing.
What was your name back then?
It was Chilla Rinch! We used to do songs, but those weren't so good, so please don't go google them (laughs). But still, when I started to record for Roof Records and Courtney Cole, one day Burro Banton came to Ocho Rios to record with them. Roof Records was a popular label at that time. One time at a studio session, I was there doing a song, Raggamuffin style, and Burro Banton came to record and he heard me doing this song and he loved my talent. His producer from New York, Bobby Konders from Massive B, he wanted young talents, so Burro came back one evening and said his producer wants a Dub Plate from me. So I did it and I collected a likkle money, so that was a nice evening. It seems like the Dub Plate was to test me, so I did a few songs and I ended up recording a lot of songs for Bobby Konders… as I told you, I was always writing, so I had a lot of books full of songs. He was putting them out, but some of them weren't ready when I look back pon them, I was like practicing, you know. I mean, I'm still practicing now!
There was one song especially called Leave The Trees which became a big hit in Jamaica…
Ok, yes, that came out a few years after. After a few years I stopped recording for Bobby and I caught the Rastafari vibes. The early days I wasn't a Rasta artist, I was just a youth, then after now me start putting things together and becoming more conscious about certain things. There was a bredrin who always used to sit up pon him house, and when he see me pass he used to call me Melchezidek!, even when I was a baldhead as Chilla Rinch. And eventually I took up that name and start grow locks and ting. That song now, it came after, because I was recording for Xterminator Records with Fatis Burrell, I went to Kingston because after a while I really wanted to get out there. So I went to Kingston to check out the producers, Bobby Digital and Penthouse and dem, and Fatis welcomed me, so I signed with him and we started to record, hundreds of songs. They had a lot of songs, a lot of riddims, and I was just writing, writing like a fool. But they weren't putting out a lot. I had a friend in Ocho Rios who is also an artist, he loves to produce, and he had a riddim… now, that time I was going through a lot of struggle, too. And me wanted to get out there as an artist, so me said to Jah one day "Jah, me need a hit song, give me a hit song, Father!" So the next day I was by the river side and my bredrin played me this riddim, and when the riddim play I realized this is the song that Jah give I'n'I, because as soon as I heard it, Leave Di Trees was on my mind. I started out making a Ganja song, a herb song telling the police to leave it alone. But there was a guy cutting down the bushes and a tree, so I was singing loud and he heard me, so him stop and was listening too. I heard him stop and I started wondering, you know se this is also an environmental song! So right away I realized this is the song that could give me a break in Jamaica. So I just sing the song, and it just go to number one.
Did it help you to break through internationally as well?
Not really, only in Jamaica. It is known, but it is not a big song. But it started to make people recognize me and get me some publicity, so I started recording other songs that became hits in other places, like Dem A Fight We, Inna Di Road and those songs, they were the songs that made me get started. Xterminator started an album with VP, so I started getting a few shows. So yeah, some people love our vibes, so we ended up going a lot of places.
Yes, on Facebook I see that people from all over the world comment on your posts.
Simple people! They are really into my vibes, original vibes.
One comment said "You made me plant a hundred trees and now it's a forest." Did you tell people at any concert to plant trees?
(laughs) I have a lot of songs telling people to plant a tree… It's a good thing because it's the trees we live by. And I love the trees! Especially the Marihuana Tree (laughs). I am good at planting this one.
Does your family own farm land?
Well, you know, in Jamaica poor people are usually farmers. When people are poor, they just turn to the earth because there is no other way. Small farmers though, not big like in Europe with tractors and thing, just people who plant some vegetables, some banana, some cabbage and corn and dem ting de. My mother used to sell that in the market and send us to school most times, she try. But I love the earth and I understand how to cultivate and make things grow, I'm good at that, but I don't do a lot, just very little, I plant a likkle Ganja and sell it to send mi pickney dem go a school and get some food. Not like a big farmer. People think I have acres of Ganja! (laughs) I just have a few trees and take good care of them, organic and natural.
I heard you were running a place called Rub-a-dub Camp?
Yes, it was running for a year and a half but not anymore, we lost the place. It was in St. Ann's Bay on the highway. After I was on tour and I went to Kenya for the first time in 2015, I said to myself me naa go tour for a while, just chill out a little bit. But in the meantime, my kids have to eat and go to school, you know, I am not a rich man. So I had a likkle money and I was trying to rent a place and do something that can bring the people dem together with cultural vibes, clean vibes, you know, Rasta music, Roots music, Rub-a-dub and so on. People don't really know Roots artists in Jamaica, you know, sometimes we are strangers here, because the youths only hear Dancehall all over. So I thought we have to establish a place to bring in artists, one every week, and sell a little natural food and drinks and hold a likkle vibe, so I rent this place and it was going on. It was working, the people loved it, but then some politicians came in and fight me out, or maybe it was the owner who got mad when he found out it was me running the place. I tried to stay in until the contract was up, but they cancelled the lease, so it's closed now. But that didn't stop you from making music.
Your album Irie Day has just been released. How many albums do you have so far?
Well… I'm not sure to be honest. Like, when I was telling you I was recording for Xterminator, I was recording hundreds of songs! Three days in every week I was in the studio, writing and singing, so after I left, they started putting out some songs that didn't sound so good, some parts wanted to fix… but they just put it out and also some other albums that come out from me I didn't even know about. But I think it should be ten out there and this is the eleventh.
When did you start to get the inspiration for this one?
Well, I wanted to do this for a long time, I wanted to start producing my own music. So, in 2014 I said it's time fi me start doing my own music, you know. That's when me start think bout it and start putting together some songs weh me like fi do. I make a lot of songs! But it is like last year that I decided yes, I'm going to make this album now. I have a musician bredrin in Portland, Devon Bradshaw, a bass player, and I have me guitarist bredrin Ian Coleman, and then me have some engineer bredrin like Barry O'Hare, and those are my friends! So I thought I have enough friends to assist me if I want to make my album. So I link my bassie bredrin and my guitarist bredrin and I work out a few songs with them that I made on my likkle guitar. I have a lot of songs now that's made, written, voiced, some of them not yet mixed or mastered but… a lot of songs. So then I chose saying, all right, I'm going to do this album with these songs. I was thinking this is like a rebirth, like I'm just starting now as an artist, like a restart. So I want to start out on an Irie vibration, meaning I want to start on a nice, feel-good, easy-going vibes, nothing too religious or too deep, nothing that you will have to pray about or that you have to plan to listen… just some nice likkle songs so that you can be doing what you're doing and they're still playing. Just a likkle album, it's not a big album, I just do some Irie songs that's not too deep, nothing to indoctrinate you.
Where was it recorded?
Some of them I recorded in World A Music Studio that's in Ocho Rios, the great Barry O'Hare, and I recorded some at Anchor and at Tuff Gong and some at my own likkle studio. My eldest son, I just train him to be an engineer, he's 23 years old now. Actually I have a lot of albums to come out, to be released, but this one now is Irie Day.
The single which is out already, Journey, it's from a German producer, right?
Yes, the riddim is from Oneness Records. Two songs on the album are with European producers, No Blame with Irie Ites Records from France and Journey. I wrote about 4 songs on the riddim and I thought to keep this song for myelf and put another one on the riddim, but I put Journey on it and it was nice and they loved it. They came to shoot the video for the song and promoted it and I really respect that. Because people hadn't heard from Chezidek in a likkle while, so that song Journey was a nice pleasant vibes, and I kind of based the album on that vibes, too. The Journey song, you know, the pattern of the song kinda mek an easy vibe, that's how I made this song.
How did you link up with Capleton for the feature?
I had this song for a long time, but I hadn't released it yet. Capleton is a very good friend of mine, you know, I don't do a lot of collaborations, but he… yeah. It was an irie likkle vibration.
I also like Rainbow…
Thank you! That song… I wrote it on the way to Africa, a long plane flight, so I just thought alright, let me use the time and write this song. But I made it originally in an acoustic style and changed it, because Irie Day is more acoustic, so… I changed it and gave it a different vibes.
Speaking of Irie Day… most songs on the album are more or less traditionally Reggae, but the title track stands out a bit.
Yes, that's a little different. It's just natural, it's just how it came out! It wasn't planned that way. I was just playing on my guitar like that, when I sing the song it sounded like that, so that's how I played it. And I went to the musicians and played them the idea and they just played along and it come out that way and we said mek it stay so! That song was called Bright Day first when I was making it (sings), but then I realized it sounded like someone else's song, and I always try to not sound like other people, so I changed it to Irie Day.
And you mentioned that you already have plans for a next project?
Yes, soon I'll come with another album called Chezi Berry, because that's the name of my weed, my herb, you know. Sometimes they call me Puppa Chezi, so this is another name that's added, seen? So I'll be coming with a different vibe again, with all kind of different beats, Roots, mixed vibes. I sing about some Ganja and love songs because me don't sing a lot of love songs, so maybe I will put in one or two. After that I'm coming with another album that's gonna be deep, political, spiritual. I'll be burning the politicians on the third album that's coming and I'll be singing some deep spiritual songs, some uplifting songs also for the people and that will be a more intense album.
But the tour planned for next year is for Irie Day, right?
I will sing a few songs from the album, not too much because the people still want to hear the old songs, but I'll tell them about the album so they can get to know it.
You even have a few gigs in Israel. Have you been there before?
No! There are always some people out there… most of the shows I do it's just fans, and maybe they saw that I'm coming on tour and thought this might be a good opportunity to bring me there. I'm curious! I've been hearing about that place for so long and it's good that the music can bring us there. I'm looking forward to going there!
Thank you for these insights, Chezidek. Any final message to the massive?
Reggae music is alive! Roots music is alive and the message is strong, and Chezidek is here still doing music. I would like all people who love Reggae music to give it a try, give it a listen, support the artist and maybe you will love it. It's just Irie Vibes. Irie Day!