Sunday, November 11, 2012

Duff Interview: Chuck Wren of Jump Up Records on the Jamaican Oldies Weekend Concert Series

Editor's note: Chuck Wren's essential Jump Up Records is celebrating its 20th anniversary year (wow!) with the kick-off of the Jamaican Oldies Weekend, which is coming up on November 16 and 17th and will feature original JA musicians/stars Pat Kelly and Stranger Cole! So, you'd be best served to take our advice: if you are anywhere near Chicago, you have to do anything and everything you can to attend these concerts and experience live music made by some of the greatest Jamaican musicians still around! You can purchase your two-day pass to the Jamaican Oldies Weekend here.

Thanks to Chuck for doing this interview with us--and for keeping the ska faith throughout the good times and bad for the past two decades.

The Duff Guide to Ska: What inspired you to launch the Jamaican Oldies Weekend concert series—and why did you start with Pat Kelly and Stranger Cole?

Chuck Wren: I wanted to really celebrate the 20th anniversary year of Jump Up in style, not just with one showcase, but for an entire year of shows and releases. And also I have been insanely jealous of the amazing shows the Los Angeles scene has been putting together! There are many people like me in the Midwest that live and breathe this music, but are not at a place in our lives where we can fly somewhere to see a concert. So, I pounded the pavement and made an arrangement with the beautiful Mayne Stage here in Chicago. They believed in my vision to duplicate these shows, with Chicago being the mecca for the Midwest vintage Jamaican music fans. I was also very lucky to assemble a team that includes CHema Skandal, Darren Reggae, Edith Vel, and their Feel the Rhythm DJs. We’re all running around town promoting like madmen.

Jamaican Oldies Productions is determined to highlight the careers of Jamaican performers who never quite got the success of a Toots or Cliff, but who have had significant contributions to the history of Jamaican music. I am constantly reminding people that they know songs of Pat Kelly and Stranger Cole, they just forget that they know them! For example, when you tell someone “Artibella” or “Rough and Tough,” people often say, “Wow….that was Stranger Cole?”

DGTS: No judgment here, but why did you decide to go with 60s-era Jamaican artists instead of, say, some of the top ska bands of the 1990s?

CW: I have never been one to take the easy road! Hell, we’re the only label that has stayed active in its 20 years, releasing albums consistently every few months since 1993. We could have easily done that and book 90s acts, but we feel that going back to the roots and celebrating the original music – while these artists are still vibrant and performing – is so much more important.

DGTS: Green Room Rockers are backing Pat Kelly and The Prizefighters are playing with Stranger Cole—is this series also a means to promote and big up local, Midwest ska talent to new/larger crowds?

CW: You nailed it right on the head. These bands have earned their right to play with their idols, and these Jamaican Oldies shows will be the springboard for this to happen.

DGTS: How many people are you hoping to attract over this weekend?

CW: We have modest goals, the club holds 300+ (and is truly a fantastic space!) and we are hoping to pack the place to the gills. We have DJs spinning all night and during the show, plus there will be an afterparty there to keep it going all night. This show is basically a litmus test – it must succeed for me to be able to continue in the future! Do not miss this one, there might not be a next!

DGTS: Which other old school JA artists are you planning to feature in subsequent weekends?

CW: The list is crazy long. Eric Monty Morris, Big Youth, Max Romeo, Roy Ellis, Dennis Alcapone, Dave Barker, Ken Boothe, John Holt, and Derrick Morgan are all in our sights! Then after the solo acts work we can concentrate on vocal trios!

DGTS: The Jamaican Oldies Weekend is part of Jump Up Records 20th anniversary celebration. What other anniversary-related events/releases do you have planned for the coming months?

CW: We will be going back in the catalog and re-releasing some titles on vinyl, with input from our current fans and customers.

New albums from Soul Radics (in two weeks!), Crabs Corporation, King Pepe, and many more! There is an exciting new “mash up” in the works that digs into the classic alternative of the 80s. And there’s a project that’s focusing on 90s Rhythm and Blues and New Jack Swing. After their amazing performance on Halloween night, The Drastics have agreed to perform MJ A Rocker once again! Working on a tour to bring Tommy Tornado, Mr T Bone, and other European Jump Up acts over as one package, probably backed by Eastern Standard Time.

DGTS: Lastly, are there any current or upcoming Jump Up releases that ska fans should be aware of?

CW: Every year I look back at all the stuff we have put out, and I am most proud when we have been able to help new bands get to a new level of exposure. That’s why we started Jump Up in 1993 – we were insanely proud of the Midwest’s caliber of bands and I felt starting Jump Up to release the American Skathic series was the only way to combat the West and East Coast scenes that dominated the press! Looking back, I’d like to say it worked! So with that mindset, we are extremely proud of a couple key titles we released in 2012: The Fundamentals Get Alright! vinyl LP and the Count Kutu and The Balmers 10” LP in our calypso series!

The Fundamentals have that perfect balance of modern third-wave influenced ska, yet still firmly holding on to the traditions of 60s Jamaican ska and American soul. Their interchange between male/female vocals gets me every time. It’s that same type of forward thinking, yet old skool sound that attracted me to Green Room Rockers a few years ago, and also our upcoming Soul Radics release. And what can I say about Count Kutu? Many people thought I was mad (including the band) when I wanted to release a rural mento album from a band from the Philippines – and mostly sung in their native tongue! This band is so authentic that I knew language was not a deal-breaker, in fact it made them unique and exciting. Every time we find a new fan for this band, we sit back and just glow with pride. And we get so much feedback from customers on that release – they can’t believe their ears – they think its Jamaican patois – but it’s Tagalog!

Honestly, we are proud of all our releases. I’ve never stopped doing this because it still excites me, I still have the same insane drive for new music I did years ago. That’s why I am still on the radio, too! The only way this music will survive is if new bands carry on the torch. We need to support these new bands and labels. I don’t understand these so called "fans” that refuse to listen to music after a certain year. They are not keeping the music alive, they are slowly ensuring its eventual death. Not that I will be around then, but I hope my daughter is able to celebrate with pride the Jamaica 100 independence!

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For a taste of what you're in for if you go to the Jamaican Oldies Weekend, check out these two videos I shot of Stranger Cole when he performed at the Bell House in Brooklyn, NY in 2011 ("More life!").

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