Going for a higher grade
St Croix record producer wants stronger links with Jamaica
LAURENT 'Tippy' Alfred was only six years old when reggae superstar Bob Marley died in May 1981. Despite his youth, he grasped the occasion's magnitude and developed an enduring passion for reggae music.
Tippy is founder and principal of I Grade Records, located in St Croix, one of the territories that comprise the United States Virgin Islands. The company is one of the leading sources for reggae in that region.
The 39-year-old producer started the company in 2001 and has worked with a number of acts from St Croix, including the Midnite band, and singer Danny I.
I Grade has also produced songs and albums by artistes from neighbouring St Thomas, the best known being singers Pressure Buss Pipe and Niyorah.
While soca and hip hop are popular on his island, Tippy says "roots-reggae has always been a big part of our culture". The sound that Marley made universally appealing during the 1970s is also the focus of I Grade's 47-album catalogue.
Midnite, a quintet led by Antiguan brothers Vaughn and Ron Benjamin, is the label's flagship act with nine albums. Their latest production, Beauty For Ashes, is scheduled to be released in February.
Tippy speaks highly of Vaughn Benjamin, the younger of the brothers.
"He's probably the most prolific songwriter in reggae. He's got so much to say."
Though not many Jamaican acts performed in St Croix when he was a boy, Tippy says that never stopped him from discovering militant bands like Steel Pulse and cutting-edge productions of Jamaican roots luminaries, including Augustus Pablo, Yabby You and King Tubby.
The St Croix reggae scene has grown considerably in the last 10 years, thanks to the emergence of domestic acts like Midnite and WSTX FM 100, a 24-hour reggae radio station.
For all that progress, Tippy hopes I Grade will spread its wings beyond the US Virgin Islands.
"We are never satisfied. One of the things we are looking for is stronger links to the Jamaican market," he said.
I Grade has attempted to do just that. Tippy visited the Jamaican capital Kingston this year and recorded at the Marley family's Tuff Gong studio with neo roots-reggae singer Jah9 and drummer Style Scott of the famed Roots Radics band.
There is no let-up for Laurent 'Tippy' Alfred and I Grade Records in 2014. In addition to Beauty For Ashes, albums by Pressure Buss Pipe and Jamaican singer Lutan Fyah are expected to be released in the first quarter of the year.