Walshy Fire on Life, Death and Reggae

Walshy Fire on Life, Death and Reggae

Walshy Fire thinks of himself as a unicorn — meaning that he does things a little bit differently than most DJ-producers. For one thing, he’s not afraid to stop the music in the middle of a high-energy set, grab the mic, and command everybody in the crowd to look at the person they came with, say “I love you,” and give them a big hug. Who does that?

“I feel like I’m one of the last,” he says. And he may be right.

Born Leighton Paul Walsh, Walshy grew up going to Jamaican sound system dances in the bustling Halfway Tree section of Kingston before moving to America at age 11. After quitting a job working for IBM, he bluffed his way into a successful DJ career in Miami.

A chance meeting with Supa Dups — who now produces smash hits for the likes of Rihanna and Drake — led to a spot on the influential sound system Black Chiney. Their innovative dubplate production style would influence Diplo and Switch to launch Major Lazer, which recruited Walshy as a member in 2011. The group’s bewildering blend of dancehall, EDM, and diverse musical subgenres from all over the world racked up billions of streams, helping to change the definition of pop music.

Last September, Diplo was quoted as saying that Major Lazer’s fifth album, due later this year, may be the group’s last. Walshy, for his part, seems more than ready for a reset. His solo debut Abeng, released on Mad Decent Records, brings together African and Caribbean artists, blending dancehall, soca and Afrobeats in a ground-breaking diasporic jam session. More than just a sonic experiment, the album is a musical mission based on the mantra “positive vibes only.”

Although he’s doing more and more producing these days — including work on Koffee’s recent breakout single “Toast” — Walshy still DJs at his popular Rum & Bass party, which touched down in Brooklyn this past June 22. As usual, he stopped the music mid-set because, as he explains, tomorrow is not promised to anyone.

That particular Rum & Bass session turned out to be the last time Walshy would ever see the beloved New York City MC Microdon. One day after enjoying himself at the Saturday night party, Microdon tragically passed away, leaving NYC’s reggae scene in a state of shock and mourning.

No wonder Walshy was in a thoughtful mood when he stopped by the TIDAL offices the following Monday. He spoke about his respect for Microdon, losing loved ones and the passion that drives him to level up creatively on Abeng, fulfilling his vision of “curating experiences that will change people’s lives.”

Sorry to miss Rum & Bass yesterday.

Yah mon. [Jamaican patois] OK, wah gwan? [cockney accent] What you saying?

Which one is it? Patois or cockney?

Yeah, you know me!

I keep apologizing because something came up and I couldn’t make it to the party. Then I found out about Microdon passing the next day. I’m still in shock, honestly. R.I.P.

Yeah, it’s crazy when you think about it. You hug somebody and that’ll be the last time you hug them. I’ve had plenty of friends die before, but my father dying was the first time that I really started to grasp how short of a time we’re here.

A lot of the other deaths I experienced were super sudden, out the blue. But my father was in a coma. They asked me to pull the plug. I watched him take his last breath. And then two days after my birthday this year my sister drowned. Then right after that, a friend of mine from college was murdered. They found her body like two weeks ago.

Where was that?

In Miami. She was murdered and then this with Microdon. It’s wild. Some people be like, ‘Wow, you’re always posting Rest in Peace somebody.’ And I’m like, ‘Man, I know a lot of people.’

Microdon was one of the last great MCs. I think MCing in a party is a dying art, if not almost dead. He was one of the last guys in New York City keeping it alive, so he’ll be missed.

I’m so sorry to hear about all these people you’ve lost… My condolences.

Yeah, trust me. It’s just one of those things where you start to really wonder, how do you maximize your time?

Is that why you stop the music in your parties and tell everyone to look at the person next to you?

Always. Always. And it’s so awkward because again, it’s the art of MCing. Most people haven’t experienced someone stopping the party — and not in a joking way. Most MCs will say stuff like, ‘Yo, all my single ladies who don’t need a man!’

What you do is totally different. 

So here I come in a party with people who’ve been drinking, who are acting dumb — because the truth is nightlife is a shitty quality of people. It’s where the shitty people go. It’s a room completely filled with people doing horrible things. And you’ll speckle a few amazing people…

What do you mean “shitty”?

Shitty. Think about it. Name something: Fighting. Grabbing a girl’s ass. Taking off your shoes and stepping on glass. Vomiting.

Bad behavior.

There’s literally no other space where all of that happens.

So you’re stopping a party with all this going on?

All of this. A girl is vomiting. Another girl is getting her arm grabbed or her butt grabbed. Another guy’s fighting in the corner. You know, there’s tons of incredibly insane things that people don’t do in the regular day that for some reason this room is OK with. What is the music saying? ‘Bitch,’ ‘Ho,’ ‘Nigga kill nigga.’ So what do you expect? Fights. It’s the only space for this kind of energy. And it’s the space I live in.

So first of all, I curate a nightlife party that doesn’t have that energy. That’s unbelievably weird. Then second of all, I actually stop the party and say, ‘I need everyone to just look at the person they came with right now. Put your hand on their shoulders and say “I love you.” Give that person a hug.’ Like, really understand that this person is not guaranteed to be here when this party’s finished. And the last thing you wanna do is think, ‘Man, I wish I hugged that person. I wish I told him that I love him.’ So do it now.

That’s so crazy. And how do people react when you do that?

Minds are blown. You see people’s faces like, ‘Wow! I never really thought about that.’ And it’s only because of how many deaths I’ve had that makes me think of it. In that moment it’s a unanimous ‘I love you.’ It’s an unanimous hug. It’s an unanimous ‘This moment is for real and we need to act like tomorrow is not guaranteed.’

You’ve made a lot of statements about ‘positive vibes only.’ Is this what you’re talking about?

Yeah, I’ve been living that low frequency for too long. I’ve been doing this particular career for 27 years. I worked at IBM before that. You know, I’ve had tons of happy moments.

Hold on, you worked at IBM?!

As technical sales specialist. I quit that job.

Because you were DJing?

No, because I had to lie to people every day. My job was to lie. It’s kinda like when you go to Apple and they’re like, ‘Wow! iPhone 7? I don’t know. It’s pretty old…’ I did that for a living. I would lie to you and say, ‘Whoa — six months old? I don’t know if we can get parts for that. You’re gonna have to buy a new one.’ And I’m lying to you. I know that you don’t need a new one.

So that was my job, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I just felt horrible every day. And my boss would scold me if I actually helped somebody and didn’t get the sale.

So that’s when I quit my job and I was like, ‘I’m gonna hit reset on life.’ You can always go home to Mama, and that’s what I did. I left Atlanta and went home to Miami and started over. And that’s when the DJing thing started to roll.

Going back to Miami isn’t that bad, is it?

No, and I always tell anybody out there if you’re going through depression or going through some kind of ‘what the fuck’ in life, hopefully you have a home you can go back to. Thankfully, I’m one of those people. It don’t matter what the situation is, you always got a spot at Mom’s house.

And don’t forget that home cooking!

Yeah man. And that humor. ‘Cause humor is really the cure for anything.

So you feel like you were really depressed?

I don’t like to use that word, because I look at other people and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ I wasn’t nowhere near what some people are.

But you were sad?

My own sadness of feeling that lie I was telling people every day. That unaccomplished feeling. I didn’t want to lie to people for a living. So DJing just started to become something I could do. I was funny on the mic. I liked it. And I guess that passion just grew.

Congrats on the album you just put out. Why did you call it Abeng?

Well, it’s basically a Ghanaian word for a bull’s horn. It’s used to communicate long distances, which pretty much depicts what I wanted to do with the album. But the name came to me from a guy named Abeng Stewart who also passed away. When he passed I was like, ‘Nah, I got to call it Abeng.’

Speaking about communicating, isn’t that kind of similar to what sound systems do?

You know, it’s weird how this little rock in the water [Jamaica] has become such a force in the world. And it’s through reggae, through Rasta, through ganja, through Bob Marley. All of them have been ‘Abengs’ in their own way, because we find our global common threads with these things.

It’s so weird how I’m from this little rock that the entire world thinks is the coolest place on the planet. And so, yeah, this is absolutely what sound systems do.

How long did you stay in Jamaica?

I was there until like 11.

So you grew up there.

Yes. Sound system days. Halfway Tree. Go to Skateland, listen to Killamanjaro. In the Halfway Tree square you’d have Silverhawk and Super D and Traveler’s Sound and Jamrock. All these sound systems — huge influence on my life.

And of course you ended up meeting Supa Dups in Miami and joining Black Chiney.

Yeah, man.

Do you feel like Black Chiney influenced Major Lazer?

Black Chiney was the biggest sound in the world at the time, because it was doing things that no sound was doing, like the remix. Which I think is what influenced Diplo and Switch [who started Major Lazer].

We put dancehall with rock & roll. We put dancehall with hip-hop. That used to tear the place up, and that set us apart from everybody. So naturally, being as big as it was, that would have reached a lot of people as an influencer.

You guys were doing a lot of innovative things that other sound systems were not really doing at the time.

Yeah, we were doing all sorts of crazy things. Things that others were not able to do because Dups was already using software. This is when no one had a computer, in the mid to late ’90s. I don’t even know who told Dups about Acid and Soundforge. But he was on it and he was able to make those remixes.

So how did you two link?

I snuck into a party called Stages. It was the biggest party in Miami. And I was like, ‘I need to be at this party DJing.’ So I got there at nine. Nobody asked me any questions. The party started at 10. I DJ’d until about 12:30.

Were you booked to DJ?

Not at all. I walked in, no one was there. I just started DJing. All the DJs that night thought they were superstars, so no one got there before one o’clock. Black Chiney, Baby Blue from Toronto was on it, Renegade.

All the promoters thought, ‘Wow, what an impressive team I have! I didn’t book this guy, but somebody on my team did. My team is awesome!’ There would have had silence if I wasn’t there.

So you just happened to go to this party?

I just decided to go. I had a friend named Roger and we borrowed my mom’s car. I put my records in some Home Depot tool boxes and I just walked in and started playing. That was the first time Black Chiney saw me play. They were like ‘Yo, that was really good, man. We got some other shows. We need some help. Do you wanna join?’ That was it.

It must have been fate. 

I guess so.

On Abeng you’re pairing African and Jamaican musicians together. Whenever I speak to African artists they talk about how Influential Jamaican music has been to them. Do you think that influence works both ways now?

One hundred percent. It’s crazy. Jamaica has had such an influence on the world, so naturally it has influenced Africa. Many of the biggest artists in Africa are doing reggae. Alpha Blondy is somebody you would have to say is one of the biggest artists ever — and he’s doing reggae. So the influence there. I can’t even measure it.

But now there’s definitely a co-share of influence. These guys in Jamaica hear Afrobeats now and they see success. They wanna diversify themselves, ‘cause they don’t wanna be stuck in one thing. Maybe sometimes it’s not genuine. Maybe they just say to themselves, ‘I need to get more shows. And if Afrobeat’s hot, I need to get into Afrobeat.’ Every artist now is doing it.

What is the actual distinction between the two genres?

There’s a sound, a kick that makes it different. Dancehall will always be boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom. But Afrobeat has some extra kick that makes it not dancehall.  Also the way that the songs are formatted vocally. Afrobeat artists are usually speaking in pidgin. The choruses go a certain way. The verses sound a certain way.

Seeing guys like [Jamaican artist-producer] Demarco do it — when you listen to one of Demarco’s Afrobeat songs, you’re like, ‘Wow. He really studied it.’ That’s a guy who does dancehall so good, but when he does Afrobeats he does it authentically. He gets all the distinctions just right.

You’ve traveled the world. You’ve been through Africa. You’ve been through Jamaica. There must be lots of similarities beside just the music.

That’s what really sparked Abeng — me visiting Kenya and seeing my aunt, seeing my Dad, seeing my uncle in everybody. The mannerisms, the language was so similar. The inflections of tone. It’s kind of like Trinidadian or Guyanese Indians. They’re genetically still Indian, so therefore the inflections of their vocal chords are Indian.

That’s us. We’re African. American, Caribbean, UK — we just cannot hide it. And so we form our own way of being African. When I went to Kenya the third time, that’s when I started to see that in bright colors.

And that experience influenced this project?

Yeah, that was the first spark. ‘Cause I felt this emotion, and I realized I couldn’t say it to enough people. I needed to do something that could give that emotion to a much broader audience. And dropping singles wouldn’t do it — singles just come and go. An album has the weight and the presence that I wanted.

Some of these songs I’ve had for two, three years. I could have dropped them a long time ago, especially with the artists pressuring me! Like, ‘Yooo, we did this song two years ago! Why hasn’t it come out yet?’ And I’m just like ‘Yo, it’s gotta come out the right way, in an album, so that it gets that weight.’ The presentation has to be right. So I’m glad they were all patient.

Sometimes the best work takes time to come together. What kind of issues does that lead to?

There are tons of issues but that’s definitely a big one — battling with the artists to not put it out early. If anyone knows anything about Caribbean artists, they make the music [claps hands] and it’s gotta come out. African artists are the same way. They make the music and it has to come out while they feel it. If they move on to another song, that song’s dead.

So how do you manage that?

You have to encourage them. You have to show them the bigger picture. Have a conversation with them. Also these are friends. This isn’t like strangers.

You have to have a real honest relationship with them.

Yeah, and you keep telling them, ‘Listen, this is going to be what you want it to be. If we put it out in America the way we should, you’ll be able to get the looks on this side of the world that you’ve been wanting. Also the Caribbean guys — this is the look that you’re gonna want. Just be patient.’

Ultimately, music is about vibing with someone.

When people hear a song where you and the artist weren’t vibing, you can’t hide it. People can sense it. You know when you hear a song where somebody just got paid to be on the verse and they didn’t really care.

I assume that happens all the time with technology. People are just throwing emails back and forth, like, ‘Jump on this riddim.’

And they never talked! That’s not the case with my album.

So you had a personal relationship with every artist on Abeng?

Everybody.

You vibed with them all in the studio?

Everybody. Not a single person took an advance from me. No one wanted money. They all understood the project and were excited to be a part of it.

So how long did that take you?

Three years.

Was there anyone you wanted to work with who you didn’t get to?

No, no. If I don’t know them, then I wouldn’t want to work with them. Every one of my friends in the industry, I worked with them. And I’d love to make more friends, but I’m totally fine with the friends I have. They are amazing artists.

And I have no problem making another album with the exact same artists. We could flip it and make something crazy. So that’s where I am with that. If I meet new artists and we work together, awesome. If I don’t, great. But we’ve gotta be friends first.

(Photo credit: Chad Andreo)

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