Midtown Memphis’ massive Railgarten complex is one of several elaborate, trendy live music venues that have opened here recently, many of them that resemble something from Austin or New Orleans more than Memphis. But as summertime venues go, Railgarten is probably the best, with something for everyone, including outdoor volleyball and an large outdoor yard and stage area, as well as a diner, ice cream parlor, ping pong lounge and upstairs deck overlooking the back yard and stage area. It’s not exactly like a beach, but it has a beachy sort of vibe to it. Even so, while lots of local and regional artists have performed at Railgarten, hip-hop is rare there, so when I saw that Al Kapone was sponsoring a cook-out and show to kick off the July 4th holiday, I wanted to make sure to be there. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful, if hot, and when I arrived the place was already crowded indeed. The event was a free show, so there were already a hundred or more people in the back outdoor stage area, with more coming all the time. The opening act was a spectacular local reggae band called Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, which has been wowing crowds in Memphis for several years now. They were followed by several local rappers, including Tune C, Memphis rap veteran Tom Skeemask and Uriah Mitchell. Then Al Kapone came on stage, performing with a live band, the singer Ashton Riker, a dancer or two, some fire-twirlers, and the rapper Frayser Boy, with a show that combined some of his newer material with classic anthems like “Whoop That Trick” and “lyrical Drive-By.” As Al wrapped himself in an American-flag-themed blanket, I looked at the crowd around me and thought about how appropriate his show was for the holiday. Surrounding me was a crowd of many different races, backgrounds and cultures, all united by their love of Al Kapone, Memphis and hip-hop, and there was not one fight or argument to mar the good vibes.
The Mid-South Coliseum was built and completed in 1964, during the administration of Memphis Mayor William B. Ingram, and for many years was an important fixture in Memphis for sports and entertainment, hosting Tiger and Memphis Tams basketball, minor league hockey, concerts and pro wrestling. For many high school seniors, it was also the location of graduation. Unfortunately, after the building of the Pyramid downtown, the Coliseum fell on hard times and was eventually closed. A master plan for Fairgrounds reuse proposed tearing it down, like so many other Memphis landmarks. But the Coliseum means so many good times and historic occasions in Memphis, and as a result, a large number of Memphis citizens have come together in an effort to rally support for preserving the historic structure. They have sponsored events called Roundhouse Revivals, in which pro wrestling, vendors, food and live music are used to call attention to the efforts to save the Coliseum, and the at the second of these on November 4, Memphis’ superb reggae band the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy performed, followed by rap godfather Al Kapone and his hype man Tune C, who were unexpectedly backed by the CCDE as well. Although the weather was chilly, a decent crowd came out to enjoy the music and food, as well as pro wrestling demonstrations by Jerry “The King” Lawler himself, and of course the obligatory visits from political candidates.
Memphis has almsot no Caribbean expatriate community at all, and as a result, little Caribbean music either. What Jamaican music comes through the city is largely due to the efforts of one band, the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, who not only perform and promote their own music around Memphis, but who also arrange for out of town ska and reggae bands to come to the city and perform, such as Nashville’s Roots Of A Rebellion, who opened up for them at the Hi-Tone in Midtown in early June. CCDE has developed something of a cult following in the Memphis area, and their authentic approach to dub and reggae is refreshing in an era where computerized digital styles are all the rage.
Reggae and other Jamaican music styles are not particularly common in Memphis, so when there are occasions to see reggae bands, I usually jump at the opportunity, such as last Thursday’s concert at the Hi-Tone in Crosstown. Of course, I was already familiar with our superb local dub band the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, but the other band on the bill, The Slackers, was a complete unknown to me. The CCDE usually perform mostly dub, but somewhat surprised me during their set on this particular night by doing two songs from the rock steady/early reggae era, Toots Hibbert’s “54-46 Was My Number”, and Desmond Dekker’s “Shanty Town”. The Slackers are based in New York City, and proved to be an excellent ska band with live horns. They have released numerous albums since 2000, and the songs they performed were almost strictly originals taken from across their discography. The one exception was the Skatalites cover “Christine keeler”, whose title references a 1962 go-go girl who figured prominently in a British political scandal. When the band tried to end their set, the crowd demanded more, and the Slackers obliged with not one, but about four songs, and it was nearly 1 AM when things broke up.
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I really was not familiar with the Memphis rapper Crisis 901 who was putting on an event called Dope On Arrival at the House of Mtenzi in Midtown Memphis on a Friday night in January. But I did of course know the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy band that was providing the musical backdrop for the MC’s, and my homeboy Otis Logan was playing drums with them on the gig in place of Donnon Johnson, so I decided to go down and support the event, and I enjoyed myself. Most of the artists were young new artists from Memphis, and I wasn’t familiar with them, but they were all decent MC’s. Crisis, who was celebrating his birthday, closed out the set, and I learned was not only a rapper but also an R & B singer as well. He refers to himself as “The Dark Knight” and uses a considerable amount of Batman references. Apparently the Dope on Arrival events are regularly-scheduled recurring concerts that happen about every three months or so.
Every Monday night, musicians, singers and poets head down to a Latin club and restaurant in Memphis’ South Main Arts District for a weekly open mic event called The Word. Hosted by Memphis singer Tonya Dyson, The Word usually features a live band which backs up the singers, rappers and poets, and on the particular Monday night I was there, the band in question was Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, Memphis’ best local reggae and dub band. The main drummer for CCDE is Donnon Johnson, but on this particular night, he traded out with my homeboy Otis Logan on certain tunes, and Otis was featured on an amazing drum solo over a keyboard vamp. Several singers and poets performed, including Tonya Dyson herself, who had an incredible reading of the Jamaican festival classic “What A Bam Bam”.
On Friday, November 14, 2014, the good folks at Brister Street Productions (the people that bring us BristerFest each year) sponsored a Memphis Music Industry Mixer at Juicy Jim’s on the Highland Strip near the University of Memphis campus. It was originally scheduled to be held at Newby’s, but had to be moved after the latter institution was padlocked. The event featured information and sales tables from a number of local music and clothing firms and organizations, as well as great live music from the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, backing a number of rap artists, including C Beyohn, Quentin “Rico” Fields, Preauxx and Suavo J. Throwing a cloud over the evening was the unexpected death of Memphis rapper Fathom 9 AKA Avenging Wind, who was repeatedly commemorated during the event. But for the most part, everyone had a good time.
The final act to appear on the River Arts Fest’s Webster Avenue Stage was Memphis’ only local dub band, the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, or CCDE. Like 4 Soul, the CCDE has occasionally backed up local rappers, but for the most part, these musicians have chosen the harder path of upholding the banner for dub music and reggae music in a city where these style are not particularly popular. Nevertheless, they are always a crowd-pleaser, whether calling out oppressors on songs like “Tyrant” or spreading the feel-good vibes on their single “Heavy Meditation.” Perhaps the band’s most unique attribute is their ability to see the reggae potential in the most unlikely of songs, such as Norwegian band A-Ha’s “Take Me On.” The Chinese Connection Dub Embassy closed out Saturday’s River Arts Fest on a high note.
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There’s not a great deal of reggae activity in Memphis (perhaps because our city has very few Caribbean residents), but we do have one really good reggae and dub band known as the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, so when I saw that they were playing on the outdoor stage at Handy Park downtown on August 15th, I called my homeboy Otis Logan and he and I went down to check them out. Early in their show, they provided the backing for former American Idol participant Lil Rounds and for the rapper C Beyohn, but it was on their own set of songs that I was most impressed. After an original opening, they launched into a reading of the Dramatics classic “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get’, followed by a ska classic instrumental known as “Rockfort Rock”, and finally with the timely political original “Tyrant”, which the lead singer skillfully connected to the recent police shooting of Michael Brown and the militarized police response to peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Despite that somewhat grim reminder, the vibe of the evening was good times and good fun.
Bristerfest is a Memphis festival of music, art and film that raises money for Grow Memphis, a worthwhile organization that encourages neighborhood gardens in the inner city of Memphis. Formerly held at the Levitt Shell, Bristerfest moved this year to the former church-turned-performance loft called The Abbey at Cooper and Walker in the Cooper-Young neighborhood of Midtown, and featured two indoor stages and an outdoor stage over three days in May the weekend after Beale Street Music Fest. I was especially impressed by the rap and hip-hop line-up on Saturday night May 10, where C-Beyohn performed with the excellent reggae band known as the Chinese Connection Dub Embassy. They were followed by up-and-coming Memphis rap artist Tyke T backed by drummer Otis Logan and trombonist Suavo J of the band 4 Soul, and the young hip-hop duo S.O.U.L. that has been getting some attention locally over the last year. I must add that attendance seemed very good indeed for this year’s Bristerfest, and hopefully a lot of money was raised for Grow Memphis.