Easy Star Records helps U.S. reggae step out of Jamaican shadow

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The Green (L to R: Zion Thompson, Jordan Espinoza, Caleb Keolanui, JP Kennedy, Ikaika Antone, Brad “BW” Watanabe) is leading the way for a U.S. reggae breakthrough, thanks to the stalwarts at Easy Star Records. The Green (L to R: Zion Thompson, Jordan Espinoza, Caleb Keolanui, JP Kennedy, Ikaika Antone, Brad “BW” Watanabe) is leading the way for a U.S. reggae breakthrough, thanks to the stalwarts at Easy Star Records.

If Lem Oppenheimer is at all worried about perpetuating the stereotypes that come with being in the reggae business, he didn’t show it when he walked into a Belmont coffee shop for an interview on October 18.

Tall and lanky with close-cropped hair, Oppenheimer clutched a handful of CDs produced by his record label, Easy Star Records, and took off light-tinted aviator style sunglasses as he stepped across the La Taza dining room. On his shirt was the name of a popular indie reggae band: 10Ft. Ganja Plant.

It’s easy to disregard the reggae industry as some dope-smoking college kid’s passing interest—the musical equivalent of black light posters and lava lamps. But best believe: Oppenheimer and Easy Star take the music very seriously. After more than 15 years in the business, the Charlottesville and New York-based label has become one of the major players in a rapidly growing genre.

“U.S. reggae is kind of at a tipping point,” said Oppenheimer, who co-founded Easy Star in New York shortly before moving to Charlottesville in December 1997. “For the first time, U.S. reggae artists are using their own voice rather than imitating someone else.”

The U.S. reggae movement arguably got to jammin’ about a decade ago on the strength of an Easy Star release, Dub Side of the Moon, a rearrangement of the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon, which has sold about 200,000 copies worldwide since its release in 2003. The record, performed by the label’s house band the Easy Star All-Stars, was the first big hit for Easy Star, and it tipped off a whole new audience that there was more to reggae than old Bob Marley tunes.

Today, Easy Star produces records for about a half dozen acts that fall under the vague heading of “progressive reggae.” There’s Passafire, a rock-reggae outfit with a decidedly 311-like sound. There’s John Brown’s Body, which manages to feel both traditional and futuristic by infusing classic reggae rhythms with plenty of keyboards and guitar pedals. There’s Cas Haley, roughly resembling Sublime’s Bradley Nowell, and adding an indie singer-songwriter vibe to the modern reggae movement.

Then there is the one that got away.

“We actually turned down Soja’s first demo,” Oppenheimer said of the Virginia-based reggae band that recently played the nTelos Wireless Pavilion. “It is what it is. At the time, if I had know they would become as popular as they are, would I have wanted to be involved with that? Sure.”

The most popular act produced by Easy Star at the moment is The Green, a quintet from Hawaii that’ll skank into the Southern on November 6 with a smooth, radio-ready sound. Indeed, by debuting at number one on the Billboard reggae chart and hitting number 77 on the top 200 chart with its latest LP Hawai’i ‘13, The Green has delivered Easy Star its biggest opening week for an album ever.

“They’re kind of like a reggae boy band,” Oppenheimer said. “They’re on the pop end of the spectrum, and they have these five guys with different personalities all blending voices.”

“Boy band” may capture The Green’s wide appeal, but Oppenheimer admitted it is probably selling the group short. Sure, there are tracks that sound like sappy teenage love songs ( “Never Before”), but there’s a dark edginess to other tunes (“Good Vibe Killah”), and Marley’s influence is never far away.

“Gonna make it real nice for the people upstairs/make it real nice for people everywhere,” they rap in “Something About It.” “The young man said, never give up the fight/never give up the fight, and you know it’s true.”

Reggae probably won’t—and shouldn’t—ever get too far from its roots in the Caribbean. But Oppenheimer said the genre is as popular in the U.S. now as it’s ever been, and that’s a sentiment echoed by Charlottesville-based Red Light Management’s Elliott Harrington who manages Soja and has worked with Easy Star over the years.

“In the past decade or so, it has been growing, and I think different walks of life are starting to appreciate this somewhat young genre,” Harrington said. “It is becoming less and less of a niche genre and more and more of a genre, just like hip-hop, rock, and folk.”

What’s the ceiling for reggae’s popularity? The “sky,” according to Harrington. If that’s so, Easy Star Records and Oppenheimer certainly stand to be among those pushing the ascent. According to The Green’s co-manager Seth Herman, the label has always done things the right way, with a combination of high profile releases and interesting independent artists that give them credibility.

“When you see artists returning to a label again and again, it’s a good show of strength,” said Herman, who also operates Rootfire, a collective of music industry professionals dedicated to growing reggae. “I think you can look at the history of record labels and draw the conclusion that not every label is good on its word. Easy Star saw the bigger picture and never tried to make a quick buck.”

Justin Pietro, a Charlottesville-based reggae producer who goes by the name of Dub Architect and oversees Easy Star’s online presence, said one of the things that sets the label apart is its commitment to producing physical albums and pressing vinyl. As Oppenheimer stood up to leave La Taza after an hour of chatting about reggae, presumably headed home to his wife and two daughters in Woolen Mills, he started to pass along his stack of CDs to spread his love of reggae. Then he stopped himself.

“Do you have any way to listen to these?” he asked. He shook his head. Better not to take chances. “I’ll just put them on SoundCloud.”

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