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Berserk dancehall: How Equiknoxx caught the world's attention

We head to Kingston to meet the Jamaican production powerhouse releasing their debut LP

  • Words: Eóin MacManus | Photography: Neirin Jones
  • 7 August 2019

It’s almost 4:00am in an outdoor car park in Kingston, Jamaica and a woman in an orange lycra one-piece is attempting a headstand/leg-splits combo on a makeshift DJ booth. “GO PON YUH HEAD MI GAL! GO PON YUH HEAAAD!” roars the occupant of the booth. A crowd of around 200 people throw money in appreciation. Our flexible friend has challengers stepping up. Bodies fly. No one seems particularly concerned about health and safety. Welcome to Topless Thursdays, a dancehall queen Royal Rumble. There’s no ring; instead, a huge soundsystem beating out heavy synth basslines is stacked in four corners of the car park. Just a regular Friday morning in the Jamaican capital.

Mixmag is in town to hang out with Equiknoxx ahead of the release of their new album ‘Eternal Children’. It’s a record rooted in dancehall but with striking stylistic range. Eerie surrealism runs into soulful electronics and rough dancehall into melodic pop with playful fluidity. “Jamaicans were probably the first samplers. We’re able to take from somewhere and turn it into something totally different,” says Bobby Blackbird of Equiknoxx. An enigmatic figure in a wide-brimmed hat, Bobby also finds time to race 600cc sport-bikes.

A few hours earlier, we were sitting in the bar that hosts Vinyl Thursdays: an altogether more relaxed party. Seventies roots and 80s rub-a-dub sounds float around a crowd of locals, plus a smattering of Japanese tourists eating ital soup, their hair in dreads. Equiknoxx smile politely when we make the suggestion of heading out to rave. They don’t want to come. Shanique is happy to sit and talk about her love of elephants and Manchester’s WiFi-enabled tram system. Time Cow – stoic and deadpan until provoked – is enjoying a shouting match in the car park with a stranger. Gavsborg’s plans seem to amount to eating soup and sleeping. Out of step with dancehall’s wild party image? Yes, but this much is already clear: Equiknoxx aren’t your average dancehall act.

With over a decade of dancehall hits under their collective belts, Equiknoxx are now in a unique place. The five-piece (vocalist Shanique Marie, producer and vocalist Bobby Blackbird, producer Gavsborg, vocalist Kemikal Splash and producer Time Cow) have all worked together before, but the new album is a debut in terms of them working as an actual group. First known in their native Jamaica and among its global diaspora, in recent years they have built an audience in wider electronic music circles. Luminaries like techno don Mark Ernestus, Major Lazer and UK bass music aficionado Toddla T are all fans. “What I love is the way they manage to stay true to the Jamaican dancehall tradition but have an openness,” says Toddla. “That’s why I fell in love with dancehall in the first place: casual experimentalism that’s just berserk. Equiknoxx have that. It’s real art!”

Dancehall is a singles-focused genre. A producer builds a ‘riddim’ (instrumental), then they record numerous vocalists on it. There could be small tweaks made to fit the vocalist’s delivery, but often it stays the same for everyone. A popular release could see five, 10 or 20 different vocal singles being released at once, on the same riddim.

In 2006, Gavsborg and Bobby Blackbird were producing riddims as Equiknoxx via this conventional model, hanging out in Kingston’s studios and seeking appreciative ears. A chance encounter with a then-unknown MC resulted in their first big success, ‘Step Out’. Full of stuttering, off-kilter energy, and unusually fast for the time, it was dancehall superstar Busy Signal’s first smash hit. Over the next decade, Equiknoxx followed up with a string of celebrated riddims featuring Beenie Man, Spice, TOK and Aidonia.

Today, as Mixmag drives through downtown Kingston, we spot Busy Signal on billboards advertising peanuts. It’s fair to say he’s a household name locally. The same is not really true for Equiknoxx. “Well, y’know, I was just a kid when I made ‘Step Out’; it took a while for people to take me seriously,” reasons Gavsborg, his black beret sitting over hair worn in twists. “Even Busy didn’t really take me seriously then.” We’re on our way to Gavborg’s home studio in Vineyard Town, a residential area in St. Andrews parish on the borders of Kingston proper.

The rolling green shapes of the Blue Mountains are visible through a hazy sky, not far away geographically but juxtaposed with the concrete sprawl of the city they seem a million miles distant. Not that Kingston’s streets aren’t colourful in their own way. Hand-painted wall murals honour musical icons, politicians and notorious badman alike, while DIY signage advertises the next dance or rum bar. Street vendors, or ‘higglers’, sell everything from chewing gum to ganja from wooden carts as well stocked as many corner shops.

Arriving at the studio we start off by listening to snippets of new Equiknoxx tunes, surrounded by the drum machines, mics and keyboards that birthed them. A picture of friend Lil Joe, a vocalist and early creative influence, hangs on the wall. Sadly, Joe passed away before his time, but his energy and guidance – or the memory of it – still plays its part. “In Kingston you have to have a fighting spirit. Time Cow has that fighting spirit – I love that,” says Gavsborg. Time Cow is younger than Gavsborg, and a fan of Equiknoxx’s early productions before he was part of the crew. In 2008 he approached Gavsborg with his own work. Gavsborg, not shy of getting weird himself, remembers these tunes as “challenging”. We sense he is being diplomatic. “At the end of the day we’re doing music. Even in jazz drumming you have to find a particular rhythm,” he tells us. Whatever the dynamic of this initial meeting, over time they developed a way of working together, of complementing each other. The resulting co-productions were the tough but kaleidoscopic dancehall that would define the second incarnation of Equiknoxx, and take them further away from the Kingston establishment.

As far away as Manchester, in fact. The city and its surrounding area has a track record of adopting sounds from elsewhere and championing them: Northern soul in the 60s, Chicago house and Detroit techno in the late 80s. In 2015, Manchester-based party-starters and producers Swing Ting remixed Busy Signal’s ‘Tamara’, originally an Equiknoxx production. The Manchester-based DJ Jon K also took an interest in Equiknoxx. “Jon encouraged us, made us feel confident about the idea of releasing Equiknoxx instrumentals as an album,” says Gavsborg. The result was 2016’s ‘Bird Sound Power’ released on Demdike Stare’s DDS label. Music that had been a bashment-head’s best-kept secret was now making waves with people of all musical stripes. “It was never our intention for that music to be released as a full album without vocals,” says Gavsborg. The tradition of a dub mix (with its emphasis on drums, bass, small snatches of vocals and trippy effects) originated in Jamaica, but is considered a niche there. As influential as dub production techniques are, vocal tracks are the focus on the island. Fittingly, in Equiknoxx’s next chapter there’s a blazing fire in the booth.

One day later and all five members of Equiknoxx are at Anchor Studios in central Kingston, where a good portion of ‘Eternal Children’ was recorded. Kemikal (yellow T-shirt, round glasses and Basquiat-esque hair) and Time Cow are having an argument about how stand-up comedy may or may not compare with dancehall. They trade jokes and lyrical quotations, bursting into fits of laughter between each impromptu performance.

Shanique Marie doesn’t have time for their “fuckery”, perhaps because she’s almost an hour late for today’s interview. The diminutive vocalist is dressed in an oversized purple shirt with a pineapple print. While Shanique may roll her eyes at her adopted brothers one minute, the next she’s ordering them food and fixing their hair. Shanique is also prone to bold vocal statements, in both songs and interviews. “I’m actually a bit anxious to see how this album is received in Europe as I don’t really think vocals are a big thing there,” she says. This provokes a “Woah” and a ripple of laughter from the room, although it’s true that the group have primarily won fans for their instrumental work in Europe so far.

‘Eternal Children’ is full of killer vocals, though. Shanique switches between sweet soulful song and cheeky ragga chat with Kemikal spitting complex patterns of wordplay. On two album tracks Bobby Blackbird steps away from the synthesizers to provide cool understated sing-raps – if you can imagine for a moment that Drake’s faux-Jamaican accent was better than it is, you wouldn’t be far off. “Full up of stylee” is how Kemikal describes it. When it comes to chatting influences, everything from Ward 21 to country and western is cited. For Gavsborg, the sampling genius of RZA from Wu-Tang Clan is an obvious touch-stone, but he sees more than just production techniques in the NYC natives. The importance of community and fraternity to music, the group being stronger than the individual – this isn’t lost on him. ‘Eternal Children’ is not a record that could have been made by one individual artist. On more than one occasion Gavsborg conducts on-the-spot pop quizzes challenging fellow crew-members to list members of The Wu-Tang Clan. He’s disappointed when they can’t name the lesser-known members of the nine-piece rap super-group.

How will this eclectic and endearingly odd record be received in Jamaica? It’s a place of eccentric musical innovation yet often, paradoxically, conservative. “You never really know what to expect with Jamaicans and what they’re going to love or what they’ll reject,” muses Shanique. “Things start out strange then become the norm. Over time we might not be the avant-garde any more. We might just be normal, you know? And then it’s time to switch it up again”.

‘Eternal Children’ is out now on Equiknoxx Music

Eóin MacManus is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter

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