Jamaica is the home of dancehall. The fast paced rhythms, drum machines, and suggestive content have popularized the genre beyond island borders. Reggae, Jamaica’s original imprint in the music world, is now secondary to the dancehall bangers that run the club scene.
Protoje and his homies aren’t with that. They know that reggae music can be reborn, it just needs to be heard. Protoje has been working to do just that, making authentic roots and reggae music that the old heads would applaud. With his latest cross-over single “Who Knows,” featuring Chronixx, Protoje has begun the process of re-introducing reggae to America.
We sat down with him to talk about the stigmas of reggae music in the States, his early hip hop influences, and his love for Drake.
Mass Appeal: What was it like growing up in Jamaica?
Protoje: I grew up in the country. Wide open and free, able to run up and down everywhere I wanted to go. I got to spend a lot of time with myself. When you grow up in the country there’s not apartments or houses close so you have a lot of time for yourself. That gave me a lot of time to listen to music and write stories. That’s what childhood was like, lots of time by myself.
MA: Were you listening to a lot of traditional reggae music at a young age?
Protoje: In Jamaica everybody listens to music, but the thing is my mom and dad listened to a lot of music. So, I would hear things that a lot of people wouldn’t hear. My dad was a [musical] coach also. He coached a lot of people older than me and they turned me on to hip hop. That’s what I spent my young years listening to a lot. Even more so than Jamaican music, it was hip hop music.
MA: What hip hop artists were you fucking with?
Protoje: The first song that I knew I wanted to learn was Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story.” It was probably out long before, but that was the first song I heard. “Once upon a time not long ago, where people wore pajamas and lived life slow.” I still remember it man. I would be 10 years old, and every time somebody was knocking the desk at school, I would be rapping Slick Rick. Naturally Jay Z, Biggie, Pac, and that whole era. Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle was the first album I ever bought in my life. I just got immersed in hip hop.
MA: Do you listen to some of the dudes coming up now?
Protoje: I was listening to a lot of hip hop until about 2005-2006, when I dived into my own music and wanted to re-tap into my Jamaican culture. But then recently, in the last two years, I’ve been getting back into hip hop. You know, the whole Kendrick, Top Dawg stuff. Joey Bada$$ and the Pro Era, what’s going on with them. It’s just exciting. Right now I’m up on hip hop. I like Drake too. I really, really, really, like what he’s doing.
MA: Reggae has been super quiet as of late. Why hasn’t there been more noise coming down from Jamaica?
Protoje: There are many factors. First of all the perception of reggae music. I feel that Americans as a whole think that reggae music just lies within the ’80s and Bob Marley. Then there’s not a lot of music being pushed post 2000. You know, there’s not a lot of major label support. At the end of the day, me and my generation are making it current again. I don’t want say hip, but you know what I mean– fresh.
That’s why I think we need to have a presence here. We need to work with hip hop artists to bridge the gap. Hip hop and reggae music share the same background. Those are the challenges I think we face. We need to be spending time in America, do lots of shows here. Just how hip hop artists have made it. I’ve seen lots of them, without major deals, building their fan base little by little, doing shows then get to a point where a major can say, “Ok something’s happening here.” Cus right now in music, how I see it, it’s like you have to build your thing up to a level first before you get that major label push behind you. I think that’s what we’re trying to do now.
MA: Do American’s think reggae is just pot smoking music?
Protoje: I feel like there’s a lot of stigmas about reggae music for sure. That’s one of them. Another one of them is margaritas on the beach— island music stuff. For me, that’s the main thing we’re trying to do: change the perception of what you think reggae music is sonically, and what it is we speak about. I feel like what we speak about can connect on a global level. It’s not just segmented to Jamaica. We are worldly, we travel, we listen to hip hop, we listen to rock, and we are very well read. We speak about everything.
MA: You have a whole collective down in Jamaica too. Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, Raging Fyah– how did you all come together?
Protoje: Well, I was out first. My stuff was popping in Jamaica at the time, so they reached out. I produced Kabaka’s first EP, Rebel Music. Chronixx wanted to make beats for me and I invited him over to my place. I heard his stuff and realized it was dope too. I introduced Chronixx to Kabaka and just kind of tried to make a collective so everybody could see it’s not just about one person.
I know the music needs unity and a strong push. No one cares about one artist popping from Jamaica. That’s what always happens. You have Shaggy; he pops up, does his thing, and goes away. Sean Paul comes up, does his thing, and goes away. It’s not sustainable. If there’s a movement— six, seven, or eight artists— when one person is in the U.S. doing something it’s like all of us are here.
MA: When did you and Chronixx decide to do the track “Who Knows”?
Protoje: We wanted to work together from day one we met. His first thing came out, my album coming out, it just felt like the right moment. It felt like the right song to work on too because it’s a song about free spirit, unity, love, and having a fun time. His style and my style really blend together without clashing. It really complimented the style.
MA: Should we expect a Diplo remix of “Who Knows”?
Protoje: Hopefully. Diplo tweeted it out saying he loved it, but we haven’t spoken about a remix. Me and Walshy Fire are cool, and he’s part of Major Lazer. Diplo comes to Jamaica a lot, and he’s doing some big things. It would be cool to have that remixed.
MA: What will be the difference between your upcoming album and your previous one, The 8 Year Affair?
Protoje: Lots of differences. I’m a really different person right now. This one I’m co-executive producing so I have much more creative direction over what’s going on. My last album I didn’t have as much [creative control], so the songs I wanted to make, the songs I wanted to sing, the things I wanted to talk about, I didn’t have as much freedom to do that. Now I can do that.
I really was inspired by Drake a lot. He showed his imperfections. He says what he wants to say. It may make him look bad in certain situations, but he’s free about expressing himself. For me, I did not want to have this standard where all my messages are positive. I wanted to show different things that I go through as a person. It’s still message music, but it’s more personal. My ups and downs, my sadness, my happiness, and expressing all that.
MA: Should we expect collaborations with hip hop artists on this album?
Protoje: I want to. There’s lots of artists just in music in general that I want to work with. I’m a huge Lana Del Ray fan too. I just love music. I want to bridge that gap and I’m looking forward to doing that. And not just getting them to come on a reggae track. I can go in on a hip hop beat and show my skills doing sixteen bars. I’d love that challenge.