Album art from Geometric Echoes by Sleepy Wonder.
Sleepy Wonder’s no new kid on the block, yet his latest artistic endeavor casts an original spotlight onto his career and his music. Building off the provocative, high-energy dancehall reggae that got him attention worldwide, the musician has now opened up to the modern tendencies of electronica, adding dub, lyrical eclecticism, and heavy metal to his trademark conceptions. Innovating, but never duplicating, Sleepy finds himself fresher than ever.
“In the business we call it a concept album,” he tells BTR about his new album, Geometric Echoes, which was partly inspired by his current roadmates, Thievery Corporation. “They’re heavy into dub… I worked with these guys in the studio and they’re pretty much geniuses. They’ll take a regular track, snare it, dice it up in three different ways… In my view they created this genre they’re in right now and it’s working for them.”
Sleepy started out in the dancehalls of Jamaica, shedding blood, sweat and tears in true musician’s rite of passage to splash into the ‘80s scene and keep it moving through the ‘90s. Times have changed, of course, music has evolved, but the artist with the so-called “droopy eyes” remains at the top of his game. Now based in the U.S., he will release his new project on Tuesday, the next edition to a career spanning two decades, and a better example, he feels, of the way reggae should be heading. Like many other veterans of the genre, he says he is unimpressed by some of the hybrids as of late.
“I’m a dancehall artist and if I tell you that it’s turning me off then something must be wrong,” Sleepy comments about the newest incarnation of reggae’s most popularized form. “They kind of took it to a level where, you know, people want to kill each other in the dance hall and guys are disrespecting girls, going on top of speakers and grinding on them, and it’s no longer fun to even be there. It makes you feel uncomfortable.”
For Sleepy, legit dancehall style faded off before the millennium. Much like its cousin hip hop, reggae got gangsterized and commercialized, moving beyond the voice of a revolution into something ostentatious and destructive.
“I’m not knocking anybody’s hustle – if that’s what you wanna do to make it now, it’s cool – but you have to be aware that you’re killing the business,” he says.
The challenge to the origins of the culture has had larger effects than just shifting musical countenance. As Sleepy points out; it prevents hard-working Jamaican musicians from harvesting their craft worldwide. Singing about shootings, rape and violence drives others to associate stereotypes with reggae culture, thus even artists refraining from such ideology can’t get booked and are denied work visas for travel. He describes the problem as “damaging,” and believes reggae’s resistance movement remains, but the sphere of its influence has altered significantly.
Sleepy breaks it down.
“It’s pretty much the same movement but on a different level,” he remarks. “The youth are struggling – when Bob [Marley] was singing about the kids – those kids are grown up now. The site of the problem is still near but different… What you take for life and death in Jamaica, people laugh at [in the U.S.]. When elections come up, people lose their lives on both sides. People kill off people so you can have less voters. In this country, in the election coming up, it’s cool and there’s no violence.”
He continues, “All they know [in Jamaica] is the violence. If they ever get an opportunity to travel – as soon as they get up here and they see life in a different light, they start telling their friends, ‘Yo, what you’re doing is foolishness.’”
For Sleepy, life has thankfully refrained from such ravages. Not only has he maintained his presence as an international recording artist, and stuck by his principles, he also runs his own record label – No Choice Music Group – where he leads every call about his business. Additionally, he recently began touring the world with Thievery Corporation, an experience he describes as the best of his life. From Lollapalooza to Austin City Limits, the musical extraordinaire estimates that, because of the partnership, his show crowds have grown from a thousand to 40,000, an exponential rate of change.
Such exposure is perfect for a man who shies away from corporate governance in favor of grassroots marketing and fan-driven social connections. It’s a lesson he learned from his early days in the industry, that he holds true to now.
“When they signed the legends back then… what they did, in my opinion, I think they went out and signed the threats, anyone who could outshine this guy they said, ‘We’ll sign him just to say we have him under our umbrella,’” Sleepy recalls. “But they wouldn’t spend the attention on you that they spent on Shabba [Ranks]. They wouldn’t spend the money on me that they would spend on Super Cat. I quickly saw what was happening and I got out of my contract and I said, “I can do this.’”
And he did.