A Roundtable on Jamaican Hip Hop with the Council

Son Raw speaks to Nomad Carlos, Five Steez, and The Sickest Drama about the origin of the Council and being a rap group in scene dominated by dancehall and reggae.
By    August 13, 2020

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Son Raw slayed MC’s back in the rec room era.

I’ve been following Jamaica’s The Council for a little while now, impressed by the quality of their releases and intrigued by their First Coast concept – a movement to reconnect Hip Hop’s earliest expressions to the Jamaican sound system parties and traditions that provided the stylistic building blocks for innovators like DJ Kool Herc and Africa Bambaataa. Moreover, with the Jamaican music landscape dominated by various strains of reggae and dancehall, I was interested in learning how a crew of lyrically inclined, post Boom Bap artists in Kingston came to be, catching 3 of the group’s 4 members on Zoom for an oral history of their come up in the 2000s, meeting Kool Herc, academic efforts to reclaim Hip Hop’s origins as Jamaican, and future plans for their own work.

How did you guys start rhyming and how’d you connect? What was it like rhyming from a Hip Hop perspective in a country best known for Dancehall and Reggae?

Nomad Carlos: The first rapper I ever knew was Five Steez when I was around 13 years old, that was the first person I saw writing rhymes word for word. My cousin KJohn from Wallstreet, which is a group from a different generation in Jamaican Hip Hop, used to always encourage me to write as well, but his friends were much older than we were. The joke is I didn’t actually start rhyming until he moved out of my house, he was always trying to get me to write but I just wouldn’t do it. But when I was 15 or 16, that’s when I started.

Five Steez: I think very early on, I would have written my first rhyme in grade 5 or 6. I just wrote some words that’d rhyme, 4-5 bars. But it was in what we call second form [8th grade], by then I was actively writing rhymes at school on a notepad, I’d write down punchlines. That’s when I was actively considering myself an emcee. I’d even post rhymes on messageboards. I’d come home and record on my family’s computer using N-Track and Cool Edit Pro. But I eventually stopped and took a break because I was alone and there was no one else rapping, until Nomad and his friend Shermon started rapping. When I found out, I got excited because it wasn’t just me alone and putting stuff on the Internet, I had actual friends doing it. That’s when we founded our first crew with me, Nomad and 3 other guys. The Council in a way is the merger between that original crew with me and Nomad, and TS [The Sickest Drama] and [producer] Instinkz from a different high school, and a different crew. That was the genesis of us coming together.

The Sickest Drama: I started in high school and it’s a pretty typical story, but my first exposure with Hip Hop was earlier because I was going back and forth between Jamaica and abroad. So my first exposure was Yo MTV Raps when Fight the Power came on. I thought it was the illest thing I ever saw as a young kid with the marches and the Black Power message. As a young kid at 5 years old, it blew my mind but I don’t think I ever thought I’d be doing raps until high school. It was a situation in the lunch room and you’d beat on the desk, and most at the time people came in with dancehall verses but I didn’t come in with say, a Beenie Man verse because people knew me as a youth from foreign, so I’d come in with a Busta Rhymes verse: “Put your hands where your eyes can see.” That was running, that was an ill tune in Jamaica, that’s when Jamaicans really started locking on to Hip Hop. I actually didn’t realize Busta was Jamaican either, so there’s some synergy there. So I was always coming with that verse and after a while I realized… “I need to stop saying this nigga’s verse! I need my own shit!” That’s really the genesis of it, but I never took it seriously until I left [Jamaica] again. [Council producer] Instinkz was older, so someone would have brought me to him and he was rapping and making beats. That’s when I realized that people were making actual records and shit like that, but I had to leave again, this time to Ottawa, but Instinkz said he fucked with my skills and kept sending me joints. But this was on [antiquated music format] Real Audio, the joints were 3 Megabytes and it’d take 2 hours to get 1 beat!

That’s when I started to take it serious. Learning verses off of OHLA.com and posting “keystyles,” whatever it took. So when I came back to Jamaica, we all linked up at studio owned by Nomad’s cousin, which was called Gambling House circa 05, in Kingston. That’s when I made Hiroshima with Instinkz [recently re-released to Bandcamp], he produced the whole thing. I was asking him about the Hip Hop community in Kingston and how I could link up with other rappers and he said he knew a place… That’s when we started making our own little wave, our own opportunities, but it was few and far between because we were dependent on other people to give us space. Nomad was the one who said we needed to put on our own shows, and our own shit. That’s when The Council really started coming together. We did a show series called Pay Attention, putting on for ourselves, expanding the Jamaican Hip Hop community further. It was spearheaded by Carlos and Steez, I hosted the show, Instinkz would DJ. That was a 3 year run that really put it down for the scene, starting the First Coast movement and really showing what hip hop could do for Yard.

In terms of the audience reception, from the outside we all know Jamaican from Dancehall and Reggae, how were you received?

Five Steez: It’s something that evolved over time. Initially everyone who does Hip Hop in Jamaica can tell you stories about how Jamaicans don’t like Hip Hop and don’t support it. We all have these experiences. I think it’s something where people don’t have a lot of knowledge about Hip Hop or feel a sense of attachment to it. They see it as something foreign and Jamaicans aren’t supposed to rap because we have a strong culture already with dancehall and reggae. So people would see it as strange when we were growing up. Some of our first experiences going to studios, we got that. But it evolved over time. I think it’s different now, things are more connected with the Internet and a lot of things are happening musically. The younger kids think less about genre and are more connected. In my personal experience, over time, I was able to gain a certain amount of respect, first for the grind and the hustle and now they’re starting to watch our moves. The climate is different from 10 years ago or even 5 years ago. Even when you look at the Reggae revival, there’s a lot of Hip Hop influence. Even someone like Koffee, one of the biggest artists out of Jamaica, there’s a UK influence from Grime in the production. Jamaica’s making all sorts of stuff, it’s just going to take a while for everyone to adjust and embrace it.

Nomad Carlos: From the artist perspective, when people first start seeing themselves as rappers, most in Jamaica feel like they’re the only ones doing it. I know I felt that way. I never knew there were other people in Kingston that genuinely loved Hip Hop like I did and who were inspired enough to do the art form. It was only at Gambling House that I started seeing that there’s enough people in this thing to form a community out of it. When we started doing shows, there weren’t many opportunities, but there were definitely many rappers before us, I just don’t have insights on it because I wasn’t around. I remember one time, Steez and I heard about an event called “Up On the Roof” in New Kingston in a prime location, so we decided to check it out, and there were actual rappers performing! Which was rare because usually whatever we’d go to, it was dancehall, either a party or a show. That’s where we first performed, and from that show, other rappers started getting on. At first, it was just our friends in the audience, but it grew from that. There’s a DJ on Jamaican radio, DJ Boyd and he wanted to do shows, so we built on that and we even started meeting rappers from other parishes, who I’d never heard of before. By my last show in Kingston [before Nomad moved to the US East Coast], the crowd was actually much younger than us, and that was the best reception I’d had.

The Sickest Drama: Starting in ’09-’10 is when I really saw a turning point. It was a mix of the social media era with Myspace and then Lil Wayne and Kanye being really big. I started to see kids wearing Kanye’s shutter shades. I think Vybz Kartel had a lot to do with it as well, because he was rocking the fitted and had the tatted up image like Weezy. Plus he flooded the market like Wayne as well. That changed Jamaica’s attitude and Hip Hop and Dancehall became closer. Pre-2010, a lot of old heads were trying to block us, but post-2010 kids YOUNGER than us didn’t have any hang ups and were boosting us, saying Jamaican Hip Hop was hot.

Nomad Carlos: And those were the kids that were coming to our events.

That’s an interesting time period from the other side as well because Kanye was sampling Super Beagle on Mercy, Drake was leaning into Dancehall with Popcaan, Kendrick was featuring [dancehall artist] Assassin, Ferg had Shabba… there was a lot of crossover on that end as well. It was the first time I saw American music open up towards Jamaican influences. Since then, you guys have been pushing the First Coast movement and you even met up with Kool Herc…

Five Steez: That was an event called the Jamaican Music Conference. It was an industry event with local and international guests. Kool Herc was a guest of honor, and we performed at the welcoming ceremony.

The Sickest Drama: Even the industry recognizing Kool Herc is a great turning point showing the changing attitudes. Because we’d been talking about Kool Herc [‘s Jamaican origin] from time! So it was very eyebrow raising for us to see the industry finally embracing a lot of the things we’ve been saying about what Kool Herc means in terms of that bridge between Jamaica and Hip Hop, and how we can find our place in Hip Hop’s story. Now it doesn’t seem so weird.

Five Steez: Even on International Reggae Day [July 1st] they’re celebrating DJ Kool Herc. So he was here for the conference, now they’re honoring him for Reggae Day, and there’s going to be an academic conference in October studying him and his connection to Jamaican Hip Hop – all in the same year, and all developed on their own independently. I think it’s telling of where minds are right now, and it’s a great time for our term, First Coast. I even wrote a paper about the First Coast movement for [the conference].

The Sickest Drama: We got to chop it up with him as well, and he’s on board with our First Coast movement. If you’d have told me in high school that we could meet a founding pillar of the culture, it would have completely blown my mind. That was priceless.

Pivoting to to you as emcees individually, how would you define your styles?

Nomad Carlos: We all have different personalities and before we were a group, we were all solo artists. Out of the Jamaican hip-hop community, we were the most like-minded and we would chill the most. What we have in common is the Jamaican experience, you hear it in our lyrics from different perspectives obviously, but you’ll hear the same types of references because we’ll go to the same spots and we grew up in the same places. I think how we articulate the lifestyle is what we have in common, and fans of Hip Hop in Jamaica get that. It’s like say, Nas and Mobb Deep, the same way you can hear Queensbridge in their rhymes, we want people to hear Jamaica in ours.

The Sickest Drama: I think with me and Nomad Carlos, because we’re back and forth [between Jamaica and America] you can tell the familiarity of someone who knows America but then has a completely different view on America from an outside perspective. As opposed to someone who grew up there. It’s like a sample, we take the sample of an American perspective but flip it into a Jamaican type of archetype. For me with rhyming, that’s something I’ve grown more comfortable with, switching from a Yard slang to a quote-unquote “Yankee Slang” and I think as we’ve developed more in our careers, that’s something we’ve gone for. Personally, I when starting out, I was in more of a battle type situation with punchlines, but as I evolved and grew as a person, I wanted to bring in different perspectives. I think now, my worldview is the most important thing I’m trying to bring to my music. I want to paint a bigger picture.

Nomad Carlos: Individually, I’m into video games and shit like that, so lately I wanted to bring that out in my music. That’s just a personal aspect for what I want to bring to what I’m doing, in the mix of the Jamaican perspective I’m bringing.

Five Steez: Generally there’s an aesthetic. Beyond the Jamaican angle, we approach things from what might be called a Boom Bap perspective, in that we care deeply about lyricism. That always brings us together, all of us as individuals have that on our own. So there’s a 90s influence, a Jamaican perspective, but like TS, I also have my own worldview and different things come at different times. I find I never want to make the same project. I may go in one area, one sound on one project and something different on the next. There’s Love N Art and Heatrocks with the same producer but it’s not the same mood. It’s not always this topic, this theme or this sound. You get to know me as a regular person, who Five Steez is, and if you get down with what I express and how I express it, great. There have been times in the past it’s been more political and socially conscious and recently, I haven’t drawn on that as much. Moving forward I want to focus on more of a balance of all the elements I’ve drawn on over the years.

Building on that, if you had to recommend a starting point for someone coming to your music, what would it be?

The Sickest Drama: To really understand the council, check out Nothing Else Matters, if you want to know what time it is, for real. And then from there, you can go whichever way you want to go in our discographies.

Five Steez: I always say, start with the most recent stuff to hear where I’m at and if you’re committed, then delve deep and start at the beginning. My latest is Heatrocks 2.0 and Love N Art. Heatrocks 2.0 is a sequel to a project I did with Mordecai and it’s something I got to make over Easter Weekend during lockdown. It’s a Bandcamp exclusive until July 31st when it’s available on all streaming platforms.

Nomad Carlos: I’d agree. The most recent, which for me would be Blvck Dessert and the Scythe and then go back, which has definitely happened. I’ve made fans that way. The Scythe is fully produced by the Artivist. That kid is young as hell and I’ve never heard anyone that young making music like that. I connected with him on Soundcloud initially and we kept our relationship going for over a year now and that’s how we got this project done.

The Sickest Drama: I believe in that as well. It was weird because I was listening back to a lot of the stuff I rapped earlier on Hiroshima and I was surprised at how relevant it was to today – the more things change the more they stay the same. Even if I was a younger artist with flaws, I still liked a lot of the stuff I was saying. If you want to hear my new one Luxury Tax, which is coming out soon, to put it in context it’s a great companion piece with Hiroshima, my first project. Unintentionally, the two projects fit really well together. So I’d say Hiroshima with the caveat that I was a much younger artist. As for Luxury Tax, it’s coming soon – it’s been a longtime coming. The whole idea behind the project is that to build a team to build a championship, you have a salary cap and if you go beyond it, you have to pay a tax. So it’s about the price of winning and the tax of being an artist. People look at being an artist as one of perks, you look at that luxury but don’t think about the tax. So it’s personal, but it also has an element of triumph.

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