top of page

His Name Is Ricky Blaze


I.

Understanding the Caribbean solely as a sandy playground within which one escapes

everyday drudgery or the mid-winter blues obscures the crucial impact the region has had

and continues to have on global culture. And from the moment Columbus et al first set their

musty colonial feet on its shores, subsequently kicking off the transatlantic slave trade

and genocide of indigenous populations, the Caribbean has been the site of much social,

political and cultural upheaval. Yet, a defining feature–perhaps the single most defining

feature–of the region and its peoples is an ability to transform tough circumstances into

beautiful things. As the late Michael ‘Ibo’ Cooper notes, “Caribbean culture and innovation

has been, is and will always be alive. It has turned adversity to beauty and survived the most

traumatic history to date.”1 Indeed, much of what is understood as Caribbean culture–the

way people talk, the food, the music, not to mention the racial and ethnic hybridity–are all

testaments to a people’s capacity to turn syrup into suck-suck (or lemons into lemonade).


II.

What is often missed when folks speak about Caribbean culture’s global impact is the reality

that they are also speaking about the Caribbean diaspora’s influence; they are speaking

about Caribbean folks adapting their sensibilities to newfound and often hostile realities.

Whether it’s Toronto and London slangs, the global reach (and commercialization) of

Caribbean Carnival, or Hip-Hop’s roots in Jamaican soundsystem culture, to speak of the

Caribbean’s influence without speaking specifically about those in the Diaspora is missing a

significant part of the picture. Further still, few people spend as much time thinking about the

ways that cultural movements in the Caribbean’s Diasporas influence movements “back

home”, the ways in which the shape and contours of the modern Caribbean are also formed

by its Diasporas. And when it comes to the sound of contemporary Caribbean music, for my

money, very few figures in the Caribbean's Diasporas are more influential than Ricky Blaze.


III.

Quick digression….As a dude who came of age in Scarborough during the 80s and 90s, with

a bagga friends from all over the Caribbean, I am used to navigating the dynamics of intra-

island rivalries. It was, unfortunately though often entertainingly, second nature. I’m

accustomed to arguments over whose black cake or curry or rum or…whatever, is best. I’ve

witnessed and been involved in many a Dancehall versus Soca debate in my time with each

genre’s devotees seemingly ready to go to war to defend “their side”. But nothing annoys

either constituency more than some neophyte saying “aren’t they the same thing” or “they

sound the same”. I was confused the first time I heard someone make that latter claim; for a

man of my vintage, Soca sounded like ‘Lorraine’ or ‘Doh Rock it So’ while Dancehall

sounded like ‘Mud Up and ‘Punanny’. Claiming they sounded the same was as illogical as

saying all Black people look alike.


 

1 Cooper, Michael. “CRNM Workshop on The Impact of Trade and Technology on Caribbean Creative Industries .” Caribbean Culture and the World Market: Reflections on the Past and the Future – an Industry View .



IV.

Allow me to paint with really broad strokes for a moment. Historically, in Toronto and the

GTA where I live, given the influx of peoples from the English speaking Caribbean, there are three types of Caribbean party experiences one could have: 1) a Soca fete 2) Dancehall/Reggae session 3) Some mixture of one and two. If you were stepping out to a Soca fete and wanted to hear the latest Dancehall you better listen to it in the car on the way there. Attending a bashment and wanting a bit of Machel? You better hope the selecta plays the Unda Wata riddim. There is very little musical overlap; setting aside tastes and petty grievances, very few songs could meet the sonic expectations of both Soca lovers and Dancehall devotees.


And then Ricky Blaze and Gyptian created ‘Hold Yuh


V.

I had a friendly Soca versus Dancehall conversation with a friend of a friend of a friend, at an

end of summer birthday party I recently attended. While discussing the vagaries of each

genre and which upcoming fete or boat ride looked appealing our convo turned, perhaps

inevitably, to the subject of our favourite tunes. In the midst of this discussion, the DJ

dropped ‘Hold Yuh’, and the entire…party…went…mad…


For the uninitiated, ‘Hold Yuh’, released in 2010, is a simply sublime slice of sonic goodness.

From the first keyboard stabs (are you sure that’s not a steel pan???) that come in from the

cold to hook you like a snapper fish, and the bassline that skips right up to you and hugs you

like a longtime lover, this tune evokes, for me at least, a very specific Caribbean party vibe.

It’s the sight of waistlines moving in unison to a pulsating riddim and sweet melody. It is

bredrens and sistrens forgetting troubles in the remembrance of sweet jokes and the smiles

on each other’s faces. It is the subtle scent of sensi in the air. It is the taste of corn soup

replenishing body and soul when party done.


But close your eyes for me. Imagine ‘Hold Yuh’ is playing right now. Imagine all of Gyptian’s

vocals are removed and all you can hear is the instrumental. It’s sweet, don’t? Now imagine

Bunji Garlin vocals sprinkled all over the track. What do you hear now? It’s sweet still right?


But what would you call it, Soca or Dancehall?


Your answer is almost irrelevant.


What this thought experiment gestures toward is the increased usage within Caribbean

musical circles of a sonic palette that borrows elements from many musical traditions, but

also of the increased line blurring of what constitutes Soca and what constitutes Dancehall.

There have always been sounds and artists that have played in this pond a little (see

Bashment Soca) but more and more artists across the Soca and Dancehall divide are

creating music that doesn’t fit snugly into the conventional genre boxes. Prolific Soca

Producers like Stadic + Jonny Blaze (Candy Shack, Freestyle, Coasin’ Riddims), and

Problem Child (Mailbox, Street Vice Riddims) and Dancehall Producers like DJ Frass (Jelly

Wata Riddim), Troyton Rami/Black Shadow (Perfect Time, Happy Days, Tattoo Flava

Riddims) and the GoodGood Productions team (Carni Afro Jam, Money Mix Riddims) are

creating work that, sonically speaking, would fit seamlessly into any contemporary DJ’s Soca

or Dancehall set. (And I didn’t even mention Kurt Riley’s Jambe An Riddim, which features Charley Black’s ‘Gyal You A Party Animal’, a genre straddling floor filler.)


Now, it would be foolish and myopic of me to claim that Caribbean artists couldn’t or wouldn’t

have arrived at this genre bending point on their own or that the lines separating the majority

of what passes for Soca or Dancehall aren’t still clear for regular listeners of either genre.

But I am arguing that Ricky Blaze’s catalogue in general and ‘Hold Yuh’ specifically, helped

create space for and further legitimize a sound and a vibe that changed the way Caribbean

folks themselves hear, experience and conceptualize their musics.


VI.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that Ricky Blaze is responsible for producing Badman

Forward, Badman Pullup’, one of the seminal dancehall tracks of the past 20 years, and the tune elevated current dancing king Ding Dong into the upper echelon of Dancehall’s ranks. Produced when Ricky was still a teenager, BFBP has a frenetic, pulsating energy and is legendary in Dancehall circles. With this track alone I would be able to argue for Ricky Blaze’s enduring influence.


VII.

Born Ricardo Lloyd Johnson Jr. in 1988, to Jamaican parents in Flatbush, New York, singer,

songwriter and producer Ricky Blaze’s music performs the trick of sounding recognizable and familiar while defying simple categorization. Blaze’s catalogue is one of alchemy; he combines sonic indicators from myriad popular and underground musical traditions and genres, transforming them into a unified whole that is compelling, sometimes cinematic, but always dance floor worthy.


An early Fader review referred to Blaze’s music as “techno-fast and built out of icy synth and

auto-croon hooks”; “trance with off-beat reggae drums.”2 A 2016 Largeup article claims

“Ricky’s sound has always leaned beyond dancehall and into pop, R&B and EDM"3, while a

later Fader feature mentions Blaze “expertly merging genres, from humid dancehall and

reggae to stone-faced New York rap.” saying of ‘Take Ya Money’, a then recent Blaze

production that it “typifies the kind of melting-pot sound design he's been honing since he

was a teen.” And when questioned about the “soca friendly tempo” of a production, Blaze

replied “ It has that soca vibe to it because of the uptempo-ness but my music is techno pop

reggae. A lot of people confuse it with dancehall but it’s techno pop reggae…or I actually

would say reggae techno pop.”4


These reviews and Blaze’s own comments highlight the difficulty categorizing his sound.

They reflect the tastes of someone as interested in, say, Michael Jackson, Giorgio Moroder's synth soundscapes, and HipHop as they are in reggae or dancehall. But what they also reflect is his

tendency toward synthesis, his relentless capacity to tie multiple sonic strands together into

a mix that rises beyond genre pastiche into a sonically sublime stew that will coax even the

most petrified wallflower onto the dance floor.

 

2 “Fader 53: Ricky Blaze Feature.” The FADER, The FADER, 17 Nov. 2015,

.


4 McDermott, Patrick D. “Video: Ricky Blaze F. Chelley, ‘Take Ya Money.’” The FADER, The FADER, 24 Oct. 2017


VIII.


If God truly is in the details, then the “My Name is Ricky Blaze” tag, or ID, that kicks off many of Ricky Blaze’s productions, including the songs on the Uptown Julie Riddim, is part salutation, part self-canonization and part benediction.


Here, I want to note two things about the Uptown Julie Riddim. First, this offering might be the ultimate exemplar of the point I’m trying to make about Ricky Blaze’s impact on Caribbean popular music in general, and notions of what constitutes Soca or Dancehall specifically. Second, and I know this will sound overblown, but I feel I am receiving a blessing every time I hear any of the Uptown Julie tracks. The four songs on this riddim–by Kes, Zoelah, Gyptian and Ricky Blaze himself–are rightfully described in Boomshots as “pulse pounding” featuring “a gentle keyboard chord progression” that “sets bodies into motion, starting with a head nod and quickly spreading to shoulders and hips.”5 These songs are as irresistible as contemporary Caribbean music can be.


It’s also notable that the artists featured on the riddim are from Trinidad (Kes), St. Vincent and the Grenadines via Trinidad (Zoelah), Jamaica (Gyptian) and Brooklyn NY (Ricky Blaze); this an intra-island lineup that exemplifies an “all a we is one” vision of a unified Caribbean that is far-too-often a catch phrase rather than a reality.


In my estimation, Ricky Blaze’s Uptown Julie riddim is a masterwork; the songs on this riddim will forever be welcomed in any space that Caribbean people gather. And If you’re a fan of popular contemporary Caribbean music, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that even if you’re not familiar with Ricky Blaze's entire catalogue, you and your waistline have definitely felt his influence. Yes, his name is Ricky Blaze and–as Michael ‘Ibo’ Cooper might note–his music is, and always will be alive.


 

5 Boomshots. “Hear This: Ricky Blaze’s ‘Uptown Julie’ Riddim • Boomshots.” Boomshots, 10 June 2014, www.boomshots.com/2014/05/hear-this-ricky-blazes-uptown-julie-riddim/



PRESS PLAY for Gangalee’s Ricky Blaze Playlist.



 

WORKS CITED

Boomshots. “Hear This: Ricky Blaze’s ‘Uptown Julie’ Riddim • Boomshots.” Boomshots, 10 June 2014, www.boomshots.com/2014/05/hear-this-ricky-blazes-uptown-julie-riddim/.


Cooper, Michael. “CRNM Workshop on The Impact of Trade and Technology on Caribbean Creative Industries .” Caribbean Culture and the World Market: Reflections on the Past and the Future – an Industry View .


“Fader 53: Ricky Blaze Feature.” The FADER, The FADER, 17 Nov. 2015, www.thefader.com/2008/07/28/fader-53-ricky-blaze-feature.


McDermott, Patrick D. “Video: Ricky Blaze F. Chelley, ‘Take Ya Money.’” The FADER, The FADER, 24 Oct. 2017, www.thefader.com/2014/03/07/video-ricky-blaze-f-chelley-take-ya-money.


“Run Tune: Stream Ricky Blaze’s ‘Conquer the Moment’ LP.” LargeUp, 25 Jan. 2016, www.largeup.com/2016/01/25/run-tune-stream-ricky-blazes-conquer-the-moment-lp/.





Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page