Saturday, March 16, 2013

Deciphering Midnite

"Open Jah door and enter"
-Vaughn Benjamin 

Is it possible to be one of the most celebrated and simultaneously one of the most underrated? Recently, we began a stretch of taking a look back at several albums within the well stocked catalog of, arguably, the fervently supported entity in Reggae music today, the legendary Vaughn Benjamin & Midnite. And, of so many different things that have been revealed to and have stuck with me, it is this interesting and somewhat clashing duality to their music which has lingered. On one side, obviously, I would suggest that you simply COULD NOT find someone in modern Reggae music whose fans are clearly more passionate for their artist. That person/persons does not exist. But it is in that large amount of reverence where I think the possibility of them also being underappreciated is born.

'Mongst I & I'

It's become almost a cliché, when referring to Benjamin to attach to his name "genius", "brilliant" and other like words which, in his case, are most fitting. He writes songs unlike anyone I have ever heard and he makes so many of them that these words and any other you can think of, which maybe even greater actually, fit him completely comfortably. However, if you put yourself in the mindset of a newer fan who has just began to discover the music of Midnite, you can kind of see how so much of this is already 'built-in' for you. So much of the even semi-formal material available on Midnite are of this type (and as someone who has written about them significantly in recent times, I am not at all absolving myself from providing it), so when you begin your studies, it is what you will find - already neatly composed and presented to you - and without very much at all in the negative. This happens before you have a chance to make up your own mind and I think that it has become this kind of floating identification of Benjamin which may inhibit others from taking a deeper look. Now, that can be a good thing. I wouldn't mind if people just regarded me as this unquestionable genius (even though it would be… I don't even have the vocabulary to tell you how wrong that would be), but in this case when you leap to that conclusion, or accept the one which has been provided for you without hearing it for yourself, you miss out on one spectacular musical journey.

Specifically from Vaughn Benjamin, the attraction is his lyrics. You'll probably find hundreds of more melodically gifted Reggae artists (literally, hundreds), that isn’t what he is best at, but when it comes to what he says and how he is capable of delivering it, he has no peers. That was something which really stood out for me in going back and taking a reviewer's ear to some of his older work - just how wonderful some of these songs are, even when you don't necessarily want to sit there and hear a particular piece, because it isn't something which is immediately gratifying to your ears (it isn't terribly entertaining), he has something to offer and THAT is what is brilliant about his music. I'd heard some of those songs several times completely through, but when you go back and really ingest what he actually says, it's like buying a new album (that you've had for a few years). And, again, when you take the presupposed 'role', that's a level on which you may never really arrive. And generally speaking, I don't think that Benjamin gets credit for how amazing he is lyrically. And I think part of that is because listening to his work can be somewhat tedious. He mumbles sometimes. He isn't always fond of staying on the track behind him and you can listen to quite a few Midnite tunes before hearing a single thing even remotely resembling a chorus. It can be work! As someone who likes a musical challenge, I've well enjoyed the looks back and look forward to doing more and it was surprising at times. When did 'Ever Was So' get THAT good??! It couldn't have been always! There, is where you (and I, specifically), begin to unwrap this HUGE designation of intelligence and ask the very answerable question of, 'why is this man so well regarded?' Because he is amazing and you can hear it for yourself.

'Children Of Jah'

And taking the next step: While Vaughn Benjamin is seemingly so lauded and respected for his words (yet underrated for the same trait), when you think of Midnite, what else comes to mind? You won't get too far before you mention a word like 'prolific' or 'active'. 'They' make albums, as Mutabaruka says, “every week"… but I don't think that 'they' get enough credit for that either. There're currently forty-six of them. There will (reportedly) be forty-nine of them in a minute or so and with the first having reached in 1997 - that's an average (according to my almost humourously atrocious calculations) of more than three a year, every year, in that time. If you recall from a few years ago, the likes of Sizzla Kalonji, Turbulence, Anthony B and Luciano were keeping similar schedules - they've all stopped that for the most part (and I'm not complaining, though if Luciano and Sizzla wanted to re-start the trend, I don't think that would be horrible), but Benjamin has not only persisted, he's thrived. He's continued to push quality material constantly, which has certainly made it difficult to keep up, which is why I find myself mentioning so many times that a particular album went overlooked in its time. I don't know that we'll ever see something like this again as Reggae fans in our lifetime and, although it well requires perhaps most of your musical patience. It is worth it. It is so worth it!
So, while Vaughn Benjamin & Midnite are certainly amongst the most popular of acts this genre has ever seen, and likely ever will see, I think if more people actually paid a greater amount of attention to what made them reach that point - it would hit and even higher level of respect. You can take what you hear and regard them as "brilliant" and "genius". Or you can go deeper and see that, although well lofty, words like that only scratch the surface of just how powerful the music of Midnite really is. 

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