While the Jamaican group made waves with previous collections of instrumentals, addressing a different, international audience than earlier productions aimed at Kingston’s dance halls, Equiknoxx’s latest finds the whole crew producing a set of songs that aim to bring together, and hold in productive tension, reggae groundings and open-eared experiments in post-diasporic Jamaican music. In merging earthy dancehall with out-there excursions, Eternal Children frequently delivers vocals that brim with sound design and abstraction that goes for the gut.
On 2016’s Bird Sound Power and 2017’s Colón Man, both released via Manchester electronic duo Demdike Stare’s DDS label, Equiknoxx distinguished themselves as whimsical, precise producers steeped in Jamaica’s musical wellsprings but inspired by reggae’s transformations in the wider world. On Eternal Children, the quirky riddims of Gavin “Gavsborg” Blair, Jordan “Time Cow” Chung, and Nick “Bobby Blackbird” Deane not only stand on their own but support a range of vocalists and genres. Rounding out the group, dedicated vocalists Shanique Marie and Kemikal ride the tracks with aplomb, speaking in tongues at once global and Kingstonian. Less a return to roots than it may seem, Eternal Children reveals that, like dancehall itself, the Equiknoxx sound is as outernational as ever.
Dancehall has always been cosmopolitan even as its artists, soundsystems, and producers prioritize downtown Kingston sensibilities. This commitment to local aesthetics has, ironically, allowed Jamaican music to flourish beyond the island, often taking forms that respond to new contexts and audiences. The Equiknoxx sound embodies their own practice of listening intently back to the echoes of diaspora—to the shifting shapes Jamaican music takes in such sites as Brooklyn, Berlin, Atlanta, and Manchester. That was already true of their instrumental work, and with the addition of vocals and lyrics on Eternal Children, the reference points multiply.
Consider “Manchester,” an ode to the city where Equiknoxx spends time working with the Swing Ting collective: The song triangulates a specific locale by sounding like several places at once. Over attenuated horn samples and chugging bass that more closely resembles the sludgy techno-dub of Stefan Betke than anything to come out recently from Jamaica, Shanique Marie recites a litany of grimey British mates while Swing Ting’s MC Fox brings UK soundsystem style to the proceedings, eagerly sending shoutouts back to the island. The chorus offers trademark Equiknoxx humor by referencing the quotidian, “Went on a tram inna Manchester,” paired with some stylish nonsense, “Ta-ta-ta-ta ta-ta ta-ta-ta-ta”—a nod to Missy Elliott’s scat-like patter on “Work It.”
Equiknoxx’s instrumentals still enjoy a certain pride of place on Eternal Children. Songs come into shape and recede again as the instrumentals accrue and reveal their strata. The group’s experimentalism is still very much on display, now grounded by verses and choruses, with their penchant for off-kilter rhythms, spacey textures, and crisp, foley-like timbres. Their attention to sculpting every element in the mix remains exacting, giving them control over the stereo field. While the number of ideas can seem dense, Equiknoxx also exercise a restraint that keeps things tense, texturally spacious, and unhurried. Jamaican rhythms and bass are a constant presence, but here they seem unmoored from any current vogues. They’re often slower, weirder, ripped from time, timeless. No doubt the album could have been released as a third collection of instrumentals (and perhaps should be), but the addition of voices adds a whole heap, as they say in Jamaica.
Eternal Children revels in Jamaican archetypes, including the rude and vulgar, an approach that no doubt will seduce some listeners and repel others. On “Grave,” for instance, Kemikal and Alozade work to channel Lee “Scratch” Perry’s inspired incantations, the absurdist stylings of Eek-a-Mouse, and the meta-dancehall Jamaican comedy duo Twin of Twins: explicit sex talk, scatological references aplenty, and disrespect for the dead are punctuated by cartoonish jungle sounds, including a cliched monkey’s “ooh ooh ahh ahh” in the middle of the chorus. The thunderous, clacking beat looming beneath them sounds as likely to have been cooked up by London’s Kevin “The Bug” Martin or to support a verse from late Hyperdub vocalist Spaceape. This is not your daddy’s dub, or his dancehall for that matter.
The vocals on Eternal Children may be a jarring and puzzling presence, especially those unfamiliar with dancehall mores and Jamaican mythologies. But several standout performances, especially by Shanique Marie, carry the album and give it a sound rooted in a history of Jamaican women getting fierce and funny on the mic. Marie pays sly tribute to this lineage while nodding to its wider influence on “Move Along” by teasing a cherished reggae melody from Deborahe Glasgow’s “Don’t Test Me,” a song made famous by a re-take with Shabba Ranks and, perhaps more so, by the Notorious B.I.G.’s interpolation of the tune on the remix of Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Get Money.” Incidentally, Equiknoxx recorded much of the new album at the Kingston studio of Gussie Clarke, who produced “Don’t Test Me.”
Eternal Children stands as a showcase for the formidable skills of Shanique Marie, who outshines her fellows here and deserves the wider acclaim this album may bring. But Bobby Blackbird turns in some strong takes too, especially on “Brooklyn,” a strikingly anthemic offering from the group, if one that seems to celebrate a borough frozen in time. “Ain’t no shook hands in Brooklyn” is a great line but in 2019 seems like a pre-gentrification sentiment, a throwback to the 1980s and ’90s when Jamaican culture imbued the borough with cool and deadly style. When Marie jumps into the chorus with distorted and chopped vocals, she insists that the international music and culture inspired by Jamaica over the last few decades lives and breathes and reigns, especially in places where Jamaican icons like Biggie Smalls adorn murals as local royalty. Whether Equiknoxx can reach the sizeable audience that remains in thrall to the sounds of Jamaica and its vast musical diaspora is something Eternal Children seems keen to test.
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