Friday, February 4, 2011

'Born For This': A Review of "Live On: Tribute To Culture" by Kenyatta Hill

It’s almost become a cliché these days - Hearing an artist saying something along the lines of “I was born to make this music” or my personal favourite, “I never choose the music, the music chose me”. I can even distinctly remember Reggae oddity I Wayne, when he first arrived on the big stage of Reggae music crediting the wind as his greatest source of inspiration. Seemingly it is the allure to the word ‘natural’ and ‘nature’ which drives such statements as, perhaps there exists some mythical artist who does nothing but make music night and day because to him, it is as ‘natural’ as breathing. The absurdity of most of those situations understood, certainly there are some situations where almost LITERALLY music was something which became less of a profession or a thing to do for someone and was actually more of a LIFESTYLE or a culture of sorts. In Reggae, of course we look at people like the Marleys and the Morgans - These big families of Reggae musicians who come from this ever extending line of blood related predecessors. In their case, there’s never a surprise of what or who, more importantly, is next to take up the music because (particularly with the Marleys) doing so is just what is expected of you and perhaps not by your family, but YOU, Reggae fan, if you ever met someone with a dread or a just Caribbean accent named Marley, what is the first thing that would come into your mind? Exactly. Also, going around the actual family setting we can think about certain artists coming up in various places around the world who came up in situations where music was maybe not the ONLY way out of poor conditions, but it was the most obvious. I look at someone such as Beenie Man or Bounty Killer or even Elephant Man who grew up in the very violent ghettos in Kingston and looked at music IMMEDIATELY as something which could change the course of their lives and the lives of their families and all of these years later, we see how successful they managed to become. But, with all of those things being said, those are, admittedly more obvious examples. My name isn’t Marley, I didn’t grow up in a ghetto (I grew up in a Garden) and you can obviously see what I spend my time doing, Jamaica is just a very musical place - One could argue that it is a NATURALLY musical place. Still, even with that being the case, perhaps it is an even greater source of nature which would allow a man to SUDDENLY become the lead voice of one of the greatest Reggae groups of all time.

'Daddy' [Not on this album]

I don’t know Kenyatta Hill, but seriously out of the MANY stories we deal with each and every week, his is one of the most remarkable of them all as a man of . . . I don’t know, I’d guess Hill is in his 30’s and he would have been in his late 20’s or so when his career began. It was August of 2006 when his Father, the legendary Joseph Hill of Culture, passed away and immediately after his death, the career of his son began and IN HIS PLACE! Having been a lead ENGINEER for his Father, Kenyatta didn’t get the opportunity to perform at some show in some obscure corner of the world in front of 100 people. He didn’t sing songs on some elevated piece of wood in a yard in Kingston. He dove in head first singing his Father’s music which just happened to be some of the greatest and most well recognized that our genre has to offer. Kenyatta Hill, most impossibly, was looked at to REPLACE his Father. And he has done excellently! In only four and a half years, his career now comes ‘full-circle’ as he releases an album of him singing some of Culture’s greatest work, ”Live On: Tribute To Culture”. Previously, he had done a similar thing on an album from 2007, ”Pass The Torch” which featured him singing tunes alongside his Father (and included a song certain to make you cry, the HUGE tune, ‘Daddy’ and you can guess what that one is about), but just as was the case when Joseph Hill died, this time, Kenyatta is all on his own (technically). Just last month, we saw what could happen when such a thing goes on in the scope of modern Reggae as the (normally) STERLING Bushman served up what was pretty much a dud in ”Bushman Sings The Bush Doctor”, an album featuring him singing the songs of another Reggae great, Peter Tosh. I almost had to compare these two, because I didn’t get very far at all through ”Live On” without asking myself the question I found myself asking myself somewhere in the middle of Bushman’s album: ‘Where in the hell is passion?’ Fortunately, Hill had a proper response because he brings the passion and the intensity where it is supposed to exist on every song, so while it isn’t Joseph Hill singing Joseph Hill’s songs and it never will be again for us, it is another individual seemingly BORN to sing this music. He didn’t hatch this idea a few years ago, it was kind of given to him, but surely Kenyatta Hill has grown up with this music apart of his life and he was, actually, BORN into it, so who better to carry the mantle? Of course, he doesn’t have to do it alone. At the production helm of ”Live On”, shockingly and fittingly, is one of the greatest producers of Reggae music in the world - Who happens to not be very active in terms of Jamaican Reggae music, Dean Pond and his Rymshot Productions imprint. The brilliant Pond is best known for his work with Virgin Islands Reggae music and has produced and played for just about EVERYONE, but as of late, he’s been most associated with superstar Pressure Busspipe, for whom he has produced two of three albums - both 2009’s solid ”Coming Back For You” and the opus debut album, ”Pressure Is On”. Pond also did manage to run out a very nice album, ”Closure” for the Jamaican born Maurice - But certainly his wouldn’t be a name thought of to manage this project - But very few are more capable. The album comes off absolutely without a hitch or a glitch as Kenyatta Hill does his Father more than proud.

As I mentioned when we dealt with the Bushman album, when you embark upon a project like such, you really have a nice opportunity to give a new life to your songs. As popular as Culture was, I was never their biggest fan (I wasn’t the biggest fan of Peter Tosh’s either actually but, like in this situation, you’re almost inherently familiar with their music) and listening through this album it definitely gave me a few reasons to go back and question my choices of my favourite Culture songs - Offering up a few more possibilities. The prime example of this on ”Live On: Tribute To Culture” by Kenyatta Hill, is the opening track, ‘Behold’ which is a song I knew and respected, but hearing it here? I LOVE IT! It’s not my favourite song from Culture, but it is my favourite tune on this album. TEARS! The song is nearly paralyzingly beautiful and when I first dropped in on it, I was so surprised because like I said, I remember the song, but I don’t remember it sounding this good, but going back and vibing the original now - I have a new found respect and love for it and I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say that. MASSIVE start. Next up is a tune which didn’t need much of a boost in my eyes, one of Culture’s biggest tunes ever in my opinion, ‘Iron Sharpen Iron’. This tune is pretty near impossible to screw up and Kenyatta doesn’t even come close to making it dip much at all. And finally from the opening lot is another tune in ‘Armagiddion War’ which I haven’t paid a great deal of attention to in its original state and although not a standout for me on this album, it sent me back to have more than a couple of listens to the big version and you can well bet, again, that I’m not the only one thinking such a thing - So when you sing a song proper and give it a life and give it an emotion, this is what can and usually does happen.

I can remember when everyone really first got a listen to Kenyatta Hill’s voice, how much it was said that he sound so much like his Father and their voices are very similar, but I think the slight difference (the younger Hill’s voice isn’t as consistently high and he also seems to have a slight more EDGE as well) is what ‘helps’ because it turns out that several of my favourite tunes on ”Live On” aren’t really my favourite Culture songs. A song like ‘Land Where We Belong’ is another strong example. I barely even remembered this one and got well into the second minute of the tune before I caught on, but it is GORGEOUS! ‘How Did I Stray’, although entirely more familiar, is another tune which really shines on this album and is one of the best lyrical performances as well.

“21,000 miles away from home and you bring I here and treat I like a brute
Tell I, how did I stray
If you were the stranger and I were the host, I would not dare treat you like this
Tell I, how did I stray
Where’s the justice and where’s the freedom?
And see how you treat I in apartheid system
Tell I how did I stray”

Easily ‘Lion Rock’ is another tune which would fall into this category and maybe even embarrassingly so. The song was the title track for a Culture album (which I own), but I just . . . Never thought too much of it. Here it is exceptional and, again, going back and spinning the original and so is it. I mean the tune is just so strong that you wonder how I wouldn’t have noticed it (the answer is called ‘getting old(er), of course). And finally on this note would be ‘Fussing & Fighting’, which would be another tune that I was well familiar with prior to ”Live On”, but was one which I didn’t think much of, these days, however, it’s sounding much much better. In my own personal case, it comes to just changing. As I’ve spoken on considerably over the past few years, as I get older I find my tastes changing and while my collection of Culture tunes and albums is fairly large, I just wouldn’t have felt the onus to go back and have somewhat of a random listen to tunes which I didn’t recall so much, were it not for this excellent release.

Now, when you can get my attention and make me go drifting back through the archives for tunes which I was previously somewhat lukewarm to - That’s one thing - Giving me a nice dosage of some of my favourite songs is another still and there’s a nice sampling of such songs on ”Live On” as well. I’ve always loved ‘International Herb’ and it’s always made me smile as well. Joseph Hill had a way with words and tones which just kind of made certain songs, to me at least, seem kind of funny because he made them seem ‘casually important’ and ‘International Herb’ was such a song definitely. Kenyatta doesn’t quite capture his Father’s unique quality on the song, but he does give it a style of its own and I love it here as well. ‘See Dem Come’ is probably my second favourite tune on the entire album and it’s also one of my favourites from Culture.

“Jah Jah see dem ah come
But I & I ah conqueror
Jah Jah see dem ah come
But I & I ah conqueror

I’m not afraid my God of the terror by night
Nor by the pestilence that waiteth at noon
To capture Jah children and take them away”

There’s the somewhat funny ‘Money Girl’ which Kenyatta NAILS completely and he does the same for ‘Wings Of A Dove’ which I think is one of the m ore underrated selections from Culture. That song (which had an album named after it) is another one which has always made me smile and this may be a case where Kenyatta actually takes it up a notch from the wonderful song his Father left us with because it is outstanding. ‘Two Sevens Clash’ is somewhat obligatory and I’m almost embarrassed to call it my favourite Culture song ever, but it is (‘Mr. Sluggard’ is up there as well). The tune contains what has to be regarded as one of the most popular (and best) choruses in the history of Reggae music and, again, Kenyatta Hill makes it sound so nice. This song is so popular that I doubt he’s going to gain many NEW fans with it, but doesn’t it just sound so nice to hear someone who CLEARLY loves and respects this music singing it with a passion. ”Live On: Tribute To Culture” reaches its end with another couple of big and well known efforts, ‘I’m Not Ashamed’ and ‘Natty Never Get Weary’. Both have always been special for me, the latter in particular, and Hill sends things out with excellent renditions a couple of his Father’s greatest hits.

Overall, it got to the point somewhere in the middle of this album where you really feel Kenyatta Hill coming into his own as an artist, but maybe he didn't have very far to come. What I mean is that not only is there the passion that I was seeking, but there’s also a rather large bit of confidence as well and for someone who’s been singing professionally for less than five years - That just doesn’t seem very normal. Surely it helped him that, by the time of this recording (at least presumably), he would’ve had some nice experience singing these songs, but with this material, as the premise of this review would suggest, I think Hill had some help in the fact that he was singing material that he may’ve LITERALLY been born to sing and, at the very least, he’s been around for his entire life. When you size up something like that then ”Live On” definitely becomes a little less surprising although not at all less powerful. Excellent.

Rated: 4.5/5
Rymshot Productions

Kenyatta Hill @ Myspace

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