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Interview: Skunga Kong and the Tabernacle Posse

Interview: Skunga Kong and the Tabernacle Posse

Interview: Skunga Kong and the Tabernacle Posse

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"I started to find out my last name had some meaning across the water"

Sampler

Shaquille “Skunga” Kong is the son of veteran roots reggae singer I Kong. He is also the grand-nephew of legendary 1960s producer Leslie Kong.

Shaquille produces and arranges for his label Skunga Records, based at the Tabernacle Studio, on his father’s property in rural St Elizabeth, Jamaica. The Skunga Records/Tabernacle Posse is a collective including Skunga, pianist/multi-instrumentalist “Jah Keyz” Marshall, singer Phe-Nom, and deejay Natty Knox.

Their first rhythm release, The Hashoil, attracted attention from sharp-eared international selectors and radio presenters. Roots Rocking, their single collab with Raging Fyah, and follow up Cha La Laa, introduced them to the wider public.

Shaquille_Kong_1

Angus Taylor visited the Tabernacle in February of this year. He sat down with Skunga, Phe-Nom, Natty Knox and Jah Keyz to find out about their music – and how the Kong family legacy is alive and well in the younger generation…

How did you all start making music?

SKUNGA: This is a long story but I’ll get to the point! I got my first computer in about 2006 from Kenrick Brevett. We call him Django - Lloyd Brevett from the Skatalites’ nephew. Django gave me my first computer and he put a lot of programs on it - recording software like Cakewalk, Fruity Loops, Reason. I just got fascinated with the Fruity Loops and started to play around with the sounds. When I used to go to high school I had a music teacher named Miss Neil so the first instrument I played was a recorder, playing Bob Marley One Love and knowing the basic chords and those things. So that helped from 2006 until now.

JAH KEYZ: My music career started in church. It’s a family tradition. My father is a guitarist. My brother is a bassie. I grew up starting playing the drums first and then moved along. It’s a good amount of years since I started doing music. I just started to develop my thing and getting into it more. My main instrument is keyboard but I do bass and drums as well.

Lloyd Brevett from the Skatalites' nephew gave me my first computer

PHE-NOM: I first started doing music when I was young. I don’t remember the age but from when I started to listen to and love music. My first recording of a song was a single at Hands and Hearts studio in Kingston Barbican for producer Scarie.

NATTY KNOX: For me music was always my passion. In high school we used to compete with one another in a friends’ clash. If you lost on Monday you’d know that Tuesday you’d have to come with a better tune to win. So we always had the passion and the desire and urge to do music. I recorded my first demo in 2007. Me and my brother saved up and we decided we would go to voice a track called Go Through The Struggles And We Face The Tribulation. And from then on we linked with Skunga and the other part of it is history.

Shaquille_Kong_2How did you all come together?

PHE-NOM: Well how we met with Skunga was - we were in the street and they kept saying to me “There is a studio up the road”. They gave me the information and so I found myself here. But when I reached here Skunga already knew me. I came to meet I Kong because I heard about the studio so I introduced myself to I Kong and he told me “Shaquille”! (Laughs) So he knew me from coming here and he remembered me from the moment for real! So I came here and I liked the movements. This is a spiritual place and I like the mood.

JAH KEYZ: I knew Shaquille since school days from far. From primary school we come up. Basically he saw me one day on the street and he told me that he was doing a thing. So from there we started to link up and get into the music thing.

SKUNGA: Jah Keyz he used to work the thing… like you know back in the day they used to have the hotel circuit? He played for the Duppy them! (Laughs) You know how in Jamaica we have a Nine Night? Jah Keyz played with a whole heap of bands so he worked the Nine Night circuit and he was good on the keys. My grandmother always wanted to buy me a keyboard but she dropped out in 2010. So the bit first big money I held I just bought a keyboard and just called in Jah Keyz and we just started the work.

Music was always my passion

How did the studio get built?

SKUNGA: I always did my thing in my room and tried to mix a rhythm and bounce it out and get it in stereo. Initially this place was like a garage but I turned it into a room. I got some money for Christmas and I bought up some blocking. I started to block out the place and I just left school and I was about to go to the local Heart Institute where you train and get a skill. I started but I stalled!

So I started to link with some people from over in Europe on Facebook. God bless Facebook because I started to find out my last name had some meaning across the water. They asked about Leslie Kong - if I was family and thing - and think I’d better use some codename for these people because I probably better not loud out their name! I’ll start with Rocksteady Baby she came from the US, Florida. I don’t know, you really have angels - God upon the Earth - but she sent out a portion of money. A whole heap of money. I just took it and bought up the rest of the materials.

And next we got it from France I think Toulouse. Miss Sonia - she sent some money too. Actually one of them flew out here for just the weekend because she wanted to know what I was up to and see what was going on. She flew over and said “Wha gwaan?“ and gave me a next big sum of money again! Right when I needed it. I took it and the last money finished up the thing. And in between that time I did some construction work and juggled and built up the studio. So that’s how it came. I got most help from overseas people who I’ve never met yet. Big respect to them.

Shaquille_Kong_3Why did you call the studio Tabernacle?

SKUNGA: Boy I don’t know I just got that… I think I did research and watched too much Lee Scratch Perry. Like the Ark and you see what goes on? (Laughs) So big up Scratch!

Your father had some cautionary experiences in the business. Did that make you wary or more determined?

SKUNGA: Boy, I would say on the determined side. Because from when I started in this time I never gave up. I was in my room until I reached down here so that I had a place. I got enough encouragement along the way. I have to big up men like Robbie Lyn. Sly Dunbar. Fil [Callender]. Jah Mikes. All of these people there. Max Romeo. Max Romeo actually gave me some towards the studio too - so big up Max Romeo.

It does seem like a lot of artists from your father generation have been very supportive.

SKUNGA: Yes, for real. Because I don’t know - it was one of those vibes like I knew them before I even met them. So when I met them it was like bam! - I was deh deh long time.

A lot of pitfalls and obstacles from your father’s time are gone because of the internet. But the internet presents its own challenges. You don’t have to fight to get a break from the industry gatekeepers. But it’s very hard to not get lost in cyberspace and recorded music is not generating the income it used to. How do you face that challenge?

SKUNGA: Well right now it is a challenge but we have to deal with it. Give thanks to Mr Melody - Delroy Melody. From the last quarter of last year coming into this year it has gone good. Mr Melody had some people who did some works so it generated a steady income so we could even invest to shoot a video. But we find mostly we depend on farming to prop up the thing. The studio has its up and down days. So mostly from the farming and the work we do for people, like composition, myself and Jah Keyz.

PHE-NOM: Yes, myself hustling same speed. Because I know the music doesn’t really return much still. But we still give thanks. Hustling, farming and I see if we can make some more positive way once I’m going in the right way.

Shaquille_Kong_4NATTY KNOX: Yeah, definitely the farming thing to get on the finance level. And as Skunga said, give thanks to Melody for enough little energy so certain ones can play the music on the radio. But financially we are hardworking people. We learnt to sacrifice and invest in ourselves so it all starts from there. We can’t wait for somebody to come invest in us because nobody is coming to look for the studio with money saying “Alright Skunga mix off them rhythm”. We always have to work and we believe in the music so we’re going to invest in the music.

JAH KEYZ: Same for me – farming, alongside my band work. I just depend on my income in band work and farming and otherwise put in the work in the studio. Skunga Records is a young label and we believe better must come still. You have to get a start so that we can reach. So we still just put in the work and we expect better to come.

How did you create the Hashoil rhythm?

SKUNGA: (Laughs) History! Hashoil rhythm I built it for a little I-dren whose name is I Martel. We had him in the studio and we were going to press a single for him. But I don’t know what happened. He was there singing and Jah Keyz found the chords and played. But when the actual time came for him to record the song - he couldn’t record the song. I don’t know if he lost the chords or the scale was too heavy and pop off or something. So I said to Jah Keyz “The riddim - it have a groove – it tough. Come with the Sly and Robbie thing deh“. So we just said “Hashoil - let’s come and get a marijuana theme song on it” because most of us burn herb! (Laughs)

We have to big up Doctor T out of Switzerland. He has the band the White Belly Rats who tour with Scratch. He is the engineer. And Med Dread he blew the melodica on it. And we have to big up Jah Keyz too - because Jah Keyz played the riff - and the artists. Natty Knox and the other artist named IJah Reece who voiced the lyrics to the song called Eye Of A Storm. Big shout out to Judah Roger who highlighted the megamix and Francky from Partytime radio - big up. And all of the ones like Dub Defenders – Charlie big up. We give much love to all the people who show us respect.

Raging Fyah keep themselves grounded

Tell me about your tune Roots Rocking with Raging Fyah.

SKUNGA: So right now we have the Roots Rocking coming out as a joint production with Skunga records and Island Paradise, which is the whole Raging Fyah. Kumar doesn’t really live too far from us - maybe 10 minutes down the road. So when he is not on tour or in Kingston he is right here with us. Much respect to Kumar. Kumar is a youth who comes in simple, with a lot of info, and makes us know the life out there.

NATTY KNOX: They keep themselves grounded. As we would say they – they don’t get swell headed.

SKUNGA: Not to stray too far from the question you asked, but on the swell headed thing - one of the first times I got WhatsApp on my phone I linked Sly like “Yo, wha gwaan Papa?”. He replied, and I was like “Sly really replied?” One of the first questions I asked him was, after all these years and the accolades how does he stay so... they say Gregory is the Cool Ruler but Sly is cool until he’s chilled. When you shake his hand it’s like his hand is fragile. And his reply was “The meek shall inherit the Earth and the humblest calf suck the most milk”. They really influence me. Musically and upon the whole of life itself. Same thing with Mr Melody.

So on the Raging Fyah thing, we have some singles right now we’re working upon. The next rhythm is a juggling - Scales Of Love featuring Mr Delroy Melody, Natty, Phe-Nom, and a youth who came third in the local talent show Rising Stars named Ramian Williams.

NATTY KNOX: And we’re working on an EP. We’re not sure when we’re going to set a release date. But we’ve already laid down the tracks – Natty Knox, the lyrical axe, the orthodox. It’s a wonderful EP with some lovely rhythms produced by Skunga and Keysey Marshall.

PHE-NOM: I have a song on my EP named Speak Along.

SKUNGA: And we have a thing with me and Jah Keyz. We have a new project we’re doing with I Kong and it features all of the Tabernacle Posse - you know like Junjo in the Volcano Posse? Skunga and the Tabernacle Posse. So there is a new project - Skunga Records Presents Out Of The Tabernacle featuring I Kong. So we’re going to get some veterans like Jah D, Flabba upon the bass and a few other musicians. And then we have a dub album - Med Dread Meets Jah Servant In The Tabernacle - due out sometime in September. Jah Keyz is upon the rhythm, Jah Servant upon the mix out of Canada and Med Dread out of the UK.

They say Gregory is the Cool Ruler but Sly is cool until he's chilled

Who are your influences musically, culturally and spiritually?

SKUNGA: Natty, you have to take that…

NATTY KNOX: To be honest with you, in my awakening when I sighted up Rastafari, in that period I listened to a lot of Sizzla Kalonji. Before I was listening to Bob Marley. But I am the Peter Tosh type of person. I have the rebellious spirit. I also like Alton Ellis where it touches upon the rocksteady, so I will listen to the groups like Heptones. But in the period of time where I sighted up Rastafari I listened to Sizzla Kalonji. So you know, cultural good music, clean music, righteous music, up-full music. Music where are you see bumps upon you when you hear it!

PHE-NOM: Garnett, I would say still. I really took in his songs from young and I love them for real. I love Garnett Silk even though he’s dead and gone.

Shaquille_Kong_5JAH KEYZ: Alright for me personally my thing is Christianity from ever since.

SKUNGA: But his name is Jah Keyz! So maybe he should change the name! (Laughter)

JAH KEYZ: Culturally for me - my vocabulary is really big still. Musically I listen to a lot of people so if I was to choose somebody specific it would be hard. My whole cultural thing is just to listen to music and trying to get better like that and overstand doing it culturally. All genres, reggae, gospel, ska, all types. But specifically I don’t really have anybody. My thing is just far and wide.

SKUNGA: I think on a spiritual level Rastafari is the thing but there are different aspects when it comes to the whole earthly vibes. Because you have different people - maybe some names that you would call but other people would not agree with you - but there is a thing that I really like right now where I would like to shake that brother’s hand. The Havana meets Kingston thing.

I'm just caught up in the whole music

Mr Savona.

SKUNGA: Right now he’s got me singing in Spanish with a tune Carnival featuring Solis and Randy Valentine. I’m just caught up in the whole music. Sometimes I’m not really too caught up in the whole lyrics. I really love a whole heap of dub music, instrumentals. We have a track where the brother blows the melodica and it just has your mind in a way. So big up the brother with the Havana meets Kingston thing - he does it big. Big him up and Sly same way.

Shaquille_Kong_6

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