1000 Sides of Spragga Benz - The Chiliagon Interview
10/16/2019 by Gardy Stein
Carlton Errington Grant might not ring a bell instantly, but Spragga Benz certainly does. His name rose to fame in the mid-nineties, when Dancehall took a firm hold on audiences worldwide. With hits like Girls Hooray and Things A Gwaan, his debut album Jack It Up assured him an ever-growing fan base, which is now, 25 years later, bound to increase yet again with the release of Chiliagon.
Going straight to #1 of the Billboard Reggae Charts, its 15 tracks will astonish everyone who expected an ordinary Dancehall-Reggae-contribution, but, actually, Spragga Benz is a man full of surprises, as our interview with him reveals. Reggaeville caught up with the multi-faceted artist while he was on a promo-tour for his new album in New York:
Greetings! When did you reach the Big Apple?
Yesterday. We had a listening party for the new album last night, held in Queens. It was a good vibe!
We are going to talk about the album in detail later, but since this is your first interview with Reggaeville, let's start with the beginnings. When did your career begin, what were your first steps into the music business?
My career started in late 1991, '92 around that time. It's been a good journey so far!
You started out with a Soundsystem called LaBenz, right? The sound that provided your name...
Yes, I linked up with them through a friend of mine called David Dennis, we went to school together. He was from Duhaney Park and he was good friends with Ricky Villa, who was one of the owners of LaBenz Sound. On a weekend or after school we go over to David's house and that's where I got introduced to Ricky and to the Sound and everything, that's where it all started from.
By that time, have you already been singing or writing lyrics?
No, I wasn't an artist at that time. It's just being around the Sound and the influence from them that really pushed me into the music. I always loved music, but I had no desire to be a part of the music industry.
Who was the first one to say 'You have a good voice, you should be a singer!' or whatever?
Ricky Villa did, from LaBenz. One day, Buju Banton was there, they took him to LaBenz to do four Dubplates, and he was saying no, he's not in the mood to do four right now, he's going to do two, and I would have to do the other two if they want four. They knew that I wasn't a DJ at that time, so it was like a joke, but I started to freestyle some stuff and afterwards they were like 'Yo, that was good!', and Ricky Villa encouraged me after that saying, you know, 'You really should write that song!', and that's how I started.
Did you link up with Buju since he's back?
Yes! We also... we did one of the concerts with him in Barbados, during the Long Walk To Freedom Tour.
Around the turn of the millennium you established some links to the HipHop and Rap scene in the US. What was your motivation to work with this genre?
It's music! They do music and I do music, so it's good that we can collaborate along the way! We are from different genres, but it's all the same, 'cause it all derive from Reggae music. Kool DJ Herc is one of the founders of HipHop, and he is a Jamaican from my community. It's really no difference to me! So, the first HipHop-artist I officially worked with was KRS-One. And that was way back when we did the remix for Good Day, when I was signed to Capital Records.
Did you also live in New York for some time?
Kinda (laughs). You know, everybody in their lifetime have to spend some time in New York!
Is HipHop and Rap something that you listen to privately?
Well, not so much nowadays, but before, like back in the days I used to listen a lot. Like, Slick Rick and Too Short and them, these were my people. Now, the new age is not really my thing.
Then there was also your acting debut. What made you decide to do a movie, was there a casting you went to or how did that happen?
I didn't do no casting, they brought it to me! The first appearance that I have in a movie was the one called Brookly Babylon, and it's not really acting, I was just doing Spragga Benz, performing at a stage show. Then the next one I did was Shottas, and there was no casting for it. They brought the script to me and told me that this was my role. And then I did another guest appearance in a comedy-type movie, a drama called Green Card. It's not really officially released, but it's out there on YouTube, another Jamaican project. We just did it for the love.
Wow, sounds interesting. Is acting something that you would like to intensify?
I wouldn't be against it (laughs).
Now, not only are you a performer and actor and singer and songwriter and all that, but you also founded both a label and an organisation. Can you talk about these projects?
Yes, sure! The Redsquare Rebel Nation, that's where I'm from. The community that I'm from is called Dunkirk, and in each community you have like different segments. And the section that I'm from we call it Red Square, so that's where we grow in the ghetto. Growing from there and getting involved in music and other different areas of the entertainment industry, I decided to keep the name of where I'm from to represent for the youths that are still there! So, you know, we make Redsquare from a corner or a posse as you might put it to become a legitimate organisation, so that was the whole plan to grow it like that, so that's for the label. And we use a lot of the youths from the corner to teach them how to be managers, to be road managers, to be producers, songwriters, artists, selectors, whatever it is that they have in them, we try to bring that out of them!
Do you do workshops or classes on a regular basis for them to learn that?
No, we put them in the field! We just put them in the field, like: 'You are that artist's road manager. You write songs for him now because you talk a lot...' so we just put them there, no seminars or nothing, we just tell them that they to be prepared to do what they have to do. The label came about because... you know, we have worked with a lot of artists along the way, and now the current kids are Xyclone, Bittah So Sicka, Briggy Benz, Amlak Redsquare, Rob Diesel, Kemmikal and others... a whole lot of promising artists.
Now, apart from the label there, we have the charity organisation called Carlyle Foundation which tries to help students basically. Like, when we see that the parents are having a little difficulty to finance the further education of their children. You know, students that excel, not just any, students that we know will put in the work to achieve, and we basically help their parents to make them go further, we don't want them to go astray. So we try to find those students, send them on to University or to sixth form or fifth form or whatever it is that they need to get.
We also have the Work Connect Initiative, IDSS, this is Immigration, Documentation and Special Services that we provide to help people who are in problems with immigration issues, you know. People who might be illegal, people who... they are right, but they just don't know how to apply, you know, stuff like that. We are no immigration lawyers, we are people who assist them. And then with the Work Connect Initiative, we do different charities. Like, we mostly center in the Brooklyn area for now, there we have seminars and we bring in professionals to speak to the communities about kidney disease awareness and risk cancer issues, even issues like feeding the homeless for Thanksgiving, we have coat drives for them in winter time, we have all kind of different projects for them, that's just a thing we do.
Wow, respect, that's great! Is this based in the US or in Jamaica?
Both in US and Jamaica. Like, the IDSS is based in the US, the Carlyle Foundation is based here in Jamaica, but we work in conjuncture with each other. So, IDSS might be sending stuff to Jamaica, and it goes to Carlyle Foundation to issue to the schools. Books, computers, whatever. So we work in conjunction.
Do you have government funds to support you in that or do you look for sponsors? How do you finance these things?
No, we fund it from our pockets, from the shows that we do... because, some of the times, when you involve these people, they try to dictate what your program should be. Or they try to break your program and say that you are misallocating funds or whatever... so we will misallocate our own funds to the places that we see necessary! (laughs) Because a lot of the places that we go, we don't really take a feedback, we don't keep records and all those things, it's just for us to keep going. We don't need to tell the world that, we don't need to highlight 'Hey, look, we help!' No.
Speaking about your musical journey, you have of course been performing on different stages on your own, but you were also on tour with Damian and Stephen Marley for some time. What did you take from that experience, is it different from touring on your own?
Definitely! The demographics is way different. And the professional level that they work is different as well. You see, most of my shows is like Dancehall, club scenes and so on, so it's different to perform with Stephen in big amphitheatres, you know, and real theatres and real stadiums and doing real full soundchecks and rehearsing for weeks and months. That wasn't really my style. As a Dancehall artist, just give me the mic and I get up on stage and I do what I do. But Stephen! You have to rehearse, everything has to be... you have to practice until it becomes perfect. That's a great difference with them that I learned along the way, that I have to appreciate.
It seems that all you have learned so far flowed into your new album Chiliagon, of which the name already is impressive. I have to admit that I had to look up what it means, and I now know that it stands for a thousand-sided polygon. How did the name come up?
Andrew Oury is the one that suggested the name, co-producer of the album. I felt it fits perfectly to what I was thinking about... because, the music I was trying to make is nothing that I could explain. I can tell you that it's going to be music, I can tell you it's going to be nice music, but if I was supposed to tell you what Chiliagon was going to sound like, I couldn't do it with words, you just have to hear it. So that's why the name fits so perfect, because a chiliagon is an image that you can't... you know what it is, but you can't really imagine what it looks like! Or, in this case, what it should sound like. You'd imagine a Spragga album to be hardcore Dancehall, but... no! This was the music that I wanted to make, and not just a Dancehall thing because I am in the Dancehall industry. Dancehall to me encompasses all different genres of music, so I just wanted to make something that was musical.
A big part of it was recorded in London, or in the UK...
Yes, like 99% (laughs),
... when did you go there?
I went there in November 2017 and we stayed for a month and we recorded the whole album. Actually we recorded more than that, but we just used the 15 that we liked most for the album now. We did about 30 tracks, like, every day one track or two.
What was the initial spark that made you go to London?
An invitation from my friend Andy! We've been talking about it for years, about whenever I had a few weeks time, I should come to London to make some songs with them. But what happened wasn't really what he was thinking. He probably thought we'd come over and write a few songs with a band and, you know, but we ended up making a whole album for me!
And it's an impressive display of talent too, like a whole lot of different producers. Did you know them before?
No! Not at all. Some of the featured artists, I didn't know them either, but I wanted to venture into something new, I was really open-minded about all the suggestions that Andrew had. So, all of his suggestions made it onto the release, and some of my own. And this is what came out! We stayed at Andrew's house and made up a makeshift studio and invited everybody to come along if they could, and who couldn't come, we went to them.
There are a lot of different genres on the album, can you introduce us to some of them?
Yeah, it's like some British genres, like Garage, Grime, Jungle, Drum'n'Bass, UK HipHop of course, that's some of the genres represented on the album.
Were you familiar with these sounds?
To me, a beat is a beat, regardless of the genre, it's just a beat. Music is music, I heard it all before, there's nothing new under the sun.
Well, some of the tracks were very new to me. One of the most impressive tracks in my opinion is Found Me. Mad beats!
(laughs) I'm glad that you like it. I can brag about that to some people who didn't like Found Me! It's different. When I first heard the beat I thought 'Wow, this is weird!' And then this frequency that came in (imitates the sound), that's almost annoying. But it just sounded exciting to me! And then, what Anna Blue did with her vocals on it, that little sultry thing that she has...
Where is she from, Anna Blue?
She is British. Her voice kind of hypnotized me (laughs), like a trance.
Can you say something about the lyrics too?
The lyrics describe different ways of finding yourself or finding what was hidden, something that you are searching for or whatever. She is singing 'Deep in the night you found me!', so my thing was... at first, to describe the confusion that we are in, because in the world nowadays it seems like nobody knows who we are, we don't know ourselves, we don't know our origins, we don't know a lot of our history, because by design from those in power, they are deliberately keeping us in darkness to certain facts. So, the first verse was addressing things that we discovered for ourselves, like Archeology or historical facts that don't mesh with what we are taught. The first verse is 'Lost in a world of confusion and illusion, misinformation, religious deception, while the Vatikan they look and they laugh, they think they have it all because they're taking our half...', and it goes on to talk about the Old and New Testament, it says we know that what they present to us as truths is an allegory. Like, the story of the black people moving across the earth, they try to let us think that we came here under slavery portfolio. But we know that we weren't slaves and we know that a lot of the things that you're telling us are in Africa are not there but in South America where a lot of the history took place. We've been travelling back and forth for hundreds and thousands of years! Our forefathers travelled months, sometimes years across the great seas, to get to different parts of the world.
The next verse is addressing my self, 'Hey self, what a gwaan? It's about time you come around to reality and realize the time for all the idling is gone!' No time for idling and playing around! So, I'm telling myself that I'm glad that I didn't fall in the trap of chasing after the materialistic things, after the Gucci and Prada and Lamborghini and all of that, and losing focus of life and the purpose that we are here for. Babylon is harvesting souls, because you are selling your soul for wanting to be part of the in-crowd. I'm telling myself that I'm glad I didn't get lost on that big wide road, the easy road, but that I stayed on the narrow road that truth paved. That's what Found Me is all about really, about the different aspects of life and existence.
Lyrically, that's the deepest song for me, respect! But there are a lot of other great songs that I also want to ask about, and to know more about the other features. What was the funniest recording session you had? Which artists did you klick with most?
All of them! Everybody, once they came into the room, it was just like we knew each other years ago! There was no introduction, just knowing each other instantly and ready to work. So, from the first artist that came through on the first day which was Rodney P, we did King On The Throne with him, it all went smooth. He went out and got other artists that he knew and was familiar with, and he brougt them to the project, so... it was fun for all of us, a lot of happy moments, making the videos and all of that... it was just crazy!
Talking about the videos, it looks like you had a lot of fun during the shooting of If Yuh Ready. How long did you take to shoot it and how did you choose the locations?
We did it in one day! It was shot during the Notting Hill Carnival in London last year. It was my second time there, and it was crazy! We drove around a bit, and then we just went on stage spontaneously. We had the riddim with us and Uncle P was on the beat, so he invited us to share the stage with him.
Which other songs will be out on video?
Spread Out, we have a nice video for this one, and we are thinking to make more videos too. I really want to do one for Wicked Love and Believe.
The love ballad! Tell us about Tanika who is featured on that one, I really like how your vocals harmonize with hers. Who is she and how did you link up with her?
She was born in Jamaica, originally from Waterhouse in Kingston, but now she resides in the UK. I met her when we went to the studio that same night in 2017. It was the second-last song that we did, almost at the end, the last song was the one with General Levy. We went to the studio in an underground type of vibe, and we met with the producer, Lenn, and he was playing me two tracks. Andy was telling me about Tanika from before, saying that she is a marvellous vocalist and that the producer is a great guy, so we went down there and listened to the beat. I was talking to Tanika for a while, we were vibing and feeling each other's energies. Then she said she had an idea for the chorus, she put it down, and while she was recording her vocals, I was writing my lyrics to the song. We did it right there! We sent out everybody because time was short and we wanted to focus on it, so they had to leave... but we got a great result, so everybody is happy now.
What about Hype & Fever, who are they?
They are producers, upcoming artists and produces. They produced the track Spread Out and they appear on it, and they also did one of the remixes of the General Levy track If Yuh Ready. Yeah, they are young guys from London with Jamaican and Indian parentage, so they brought the Indian side of their culture to the project with a beat called the Dandiya, which is like an Indian type of dance, and with the water drums and stuff like that. They were a good addition!
Did you get to go to any stage shows in the UK when you were there?
No, it wasn't about stage shows or parties or anything like that, it was just about working. We only had like 28 days, so we used it wisely. The first trip in 2017 was for the recording of the songs, and then the second trip last year was for making the videos. On the mission! (laughs)
You said If Yuh Ready was the last track you recorded - again, it's one of my favourites. How did that recording session go?
Well, General Levy heard that I was in the UK, but he didn't believe it at first. He wasn't seeing me anywhere out, to see that I was really in the UK, but he said that then he was getting so many calls, he had to see if there's really anything to it. So he came by the studio the last day and saw that I was really there, and it was just like magic after that.
Was any of the songs recorded with a band?
No. Well, we recorded one but it's not on the album. There is a track that's called Red Eye, the way we did it was we invited a bunch of different musicians to come and have like a jam session. Nobody knew what we were going to do. Somebody just start playing something, somebody played along with that, somebody started humming something... so that one was live, we created it right there. It didn't come on this album, but it's definitely going to be used on the other one!
Which other one?
The next album after Chiliagon! There's going to be a follow-up (laughs).
Nice! Do you have shows or tour planned for the album?
Well, we do spot dates, but we haven't anything planned as yet. But of course we are looking forward to do a tour in support of the album, so... maybe next summer.
You recently performed at Reggae Sumfest in Jamaica, right?
Yes, the Sumfest was a good vibe for me. It's been a few years I haven't been on the stage and fans haven't seen me perform for a while, so it was a good reunion.
Good to hear. Is there anything you wish to add?
Just to give thanks to the people who have been supporting the album! And for those who are still thinking about it - don't waste your time and get a copy. Let's do this!
Photos by Easy Star Records / ButterCuts / Red Square Productions