Big Mountain lead singer Joaquin “Quino” McWhinney has weathered some rough turbulence–from struggling reggae musician to pop star back to struggling reggae musician–a rags to riches to rags story of sorts. But Quino is determined to shed the trappings of pop music and get his band back into a conscious groove with its political, yet–to quote Quino–“commercially applicable” blend of reggae.
Fronted by the bilingual Quino, an American of Irish and Mexican descent, the band was formed in the early 90s and has had numerous personnel changes over the years. While Quino, who is the only original member still on board, and his younger brother James McWhinney, are the most high profile members of the current ensemble, hardcore Jamaican session musicians including drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis and guitarist Tony Chin were featured in the group’s mid-90s lineups.
The southern California based group’s 1992 debut CD “Wake Up” included the West Coast hit “Touch My Light,” and its equally catchy Spanish version “Llena Mi Vida,” as well as the more rootsy “Peaceful Revolution” and the herb advocating “Lick It Up.”
But, by far, the band landed its hugest hit on the charts with its reggae cover of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way.” The song thrust the band, albeit briefly, into the limelight, but the experience eventually soured Quino on the pop music scene. Recorded for the “Reality Bites” movie soundtrack, the track was also included on Big Mountain’s 1994 “Unity” release on Giant Records. The “Unity” album was the first of three the band recorded for Giant, a subsidiary of Warner Bros Records, and marked the beginning of a relationship marred by the group’s disdain for the big label’s commercialism.
Although the Giant releases (the aforementioned “Unity,” 1995’s “Resistance,” and 1997’s “Free Up”) garnered mixed success in the U.S., Big Mountain became quite popular in Japan and still remains, in Quino’s estimation, the number two reggae act in Japan behind Maxi Priest. (This is excluding one Bob Marley, of course.)
Frustrated by mandates from record executives to put out pop oriented songs, the group left Warner, and, with the financial backing of a Japanese record label, formed its own Rebel Ink label. The 1999 CD “Things to Come” was the label’s first release.
While Big Mountain’s second Rebel Ink release, “Cool Breeze” (2001), was a solid yet polished effort aimed squarely at the Japanese market, Big Mountain’s third release on the label, “New Day” (street date 1/28/03), shows the group returning to a more rootsy mode, exploring themes varying from the plight of the indigenous peoples of the Americas to globalization to love.
Quino spoke candidly about his life and career in the reggae music business via telephone in November 2002 from the Rebel Ink offices in San Diego.
Steve Serpiente (SS): Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood? Your family, where you were raised, etc.?
Quino (Q): Well, I was born in the southern California area–Newport Beach to be exact. My mother is Mexican. And my father actually passed away when I was seven-years-old, but he was like Scott-Irish. So I’m an Irish Mexican. I was blessed with the birth of my brother when I was seven-years-old. My dad went to college to study entomology, which is the study of insects. But he was applying it to agriculture. He was a farmer, more or less. When I was about five-years-old, he got a contract with Dole Bananas. So we went down to Honduras and lived down there for a couple of years. That’s where my brother James, who is also a member of Big Mountain, was also born. My dad actually ended up passing away down there. We picked up and came back. It was just me, my mom and my little brother for a few years.
I think that whole experience–being down in Central America and getting a taste of what different culture and different music was all about–it really opened me up. It gave me a whole different perspective, because right away I realized that there was something different about the United States and about the other countries like Honduras. You know, even back then I realized that there was a big economic difference–that we were treated differently down in Honduras, that there was something that had to do with having money or privilege attached to the idea of how people are treated in this world. So I just continued to grow, got back into the southern California thing, and just kinda became a southern California boy. But I always held onto my Spanish. As I started to grow, I started to get more and more into music.
I was about 14 years old when I first heard Bob. So that must have been about ’79 or ’80. I never got to see Bob, but there were a few different influences. For some reason or another, I got really radical politically early on. There was no doubt that I was a left-winger, and I was more inclined to side with movements or struggles that included a fight for justice and trying to make this world better. I became a progressive early on, and by the time I was a teenager, I was already reading books about Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. I was really into socialist movements, and I was reading books about Mao Tse Tung and all that. And when I came across Bob, it struck me right away that he was singing about different things and that he wasn’t like all the other artists that I was listening to–which at that time was mostly Earth, Wind & Fire, the Commodores, Ohio Players and black R&B, soul, and funk. But Bob–there was something about him. I remember telling somebody, “Yeah, he’s like Che Guevara with a guitar in his hand.” It struck me the way he was singing–it was full of conviction. I just knew that he really believed in the things he said. It wasn’t like a lot of people. There’s a lot of people that sing with passion, but I got the sense that he was singing. So that hit me heavily, man, and to tell you the truth, I never looked back. I’ve always been into all kinds of music, but I recognized that reggae was a way that people were using to spread more of a controversial message. And I decided that’s that what I wanted to be about so I decided that reggae music was gonna be my media. I just love the whole physical part of putting reggae music together – just the love of the music and the appreciation for simplicity and meditation rather than gimmicks.
SS: Well, you answered my next question which was about your musical influences.
Q: I also really got into salsa music. For a while I also decided that I was gonna become a salsa musician. So salsa and reggae were neck and neck for a minute there because I was really into reggae, and I was really into salsa. But I recognized that salsa was just… people that listen to salsa and appreciate salsa weren’t going in the same direction as the reggae people were. It was more of a superficial, materialistic kind of message that was being put out in salsa–a lot of sex, a lot of macho, machismo and shit like that. So I wasn’t really down with that.
I always told myself I was going to be the first revolutionary salsa artist. Like Ruben Blades – he has that vibe. I guess you would call it salsa protesta, you know, protest stuff. I’d love to change one of these days…
SS: Do a salsa album?
Q: Yeah, I intend to. I mean, I almost got started on it about a year ago and then I got sidetracked. I already know who I want to produce it. There’s a guy in town that I want to produce the record. But it’s something that I would have to finance out of my own pocket, which is going to take awhile.
SS: Big Mountain’s debut album, “Wake Up,” was released in 1992. How long had the group been together at that point and how did the members come together?
Q: It sort of evolved out of another band by the name of Shiloh. And we couldn’t keep the name Shiloh because there was somebody who owned the license to the name–the trademark. So we changed the name. At that point, Big Mountain was very different. I’m the only person that’s around from that very first album. And a lot of the musicians were just basically people that I had been playing with for a lot of years in the San Diego area. Things happened really fast. Actually, Shiloh recorded a record that got some small notoriety, and we got a little bit of airplay. Reggae was not real fresh at that point, but it was still very foreign to a lot of people. God, when you’re young like that and just starting out, I’m not sure how the songs came about. The song “Tough My Light” was probably the only song I’ve written to date that’s actually gotten some pretty good airplay. [laughs] And I think, “Shit, man, I wrote that in 1992.” I was 24 years old. And it’s funny because I don’t think I’ve really been able to write a love song as good as that song.
You think, “Aw shit, man. It’s got four little chords–it doesn’t change through the whole song. There’s no breaks, you can’t top that, Quino.” It’s just funny.
Back then we were already starting to get involved in the Big Mountain struggle with Shiloh. The Big Mountain struggle is the struggle of Native Americans–Navajo people, the real name is actually Dine. Navajo is the name that was given to them by the Spanish. They were being relocated all throughout the late 80s and the early 90s so it was a real big struggle among progressive people. A lot of people knew about it. And we started doing benefits for them. Then when we had to change the name from Shiloh, we chose Big Mountain cause we had become close to the struggle. So some of the stuff has Native American, or I should say indigenous, themes.
To tell you the truth we were just shooting in the dark. I mean I was really listening to Frankie Paul back then. I didn’t really know how to sing or write a love song until I heard “Sara” by Frankie Paul. And then I really got into Frankie, man, and he gave me a whole different perspective as to how to sing a love song. Because before I was taking the Bob Marley approach, and I really wasn’t getting anywhere because it seems like only Bob can write a song from his approach. It’s like you got Bob, he does his thing, and then everybody else tries to sound like R&B American guys. It went from Frankie to Luciano to all of the guys who kinda got that timbre in their voice. So yeah man, it really happened quick. I just know that we were hard back then, and we were excited. And we had already decided that we wanted to play music based on a message.
SS: Through most of the 90s, Big Mountain was signed to Warner or Giant, which is a subsidiary of Warner. Your last couple of releases are on your own Rebel Ink label. What are the advantages and disadvantages of your own label?
Q: Well, I guess we could start with the disadvantages. The main disadvantage is that you have to do it yourself. You don’t have anybody calling you up saying you gotta get in the studio. You gotta do it yourself. You gotta hustle and you gotta convince people. We started this label by signing a deal with a Japanese label.
The Japanese label gives us a budget to record a record. They own the rights to the records in Japan, and we keep the rights worldwide. Big Mountain has eight members all throughout the western hemisphere: Jamaica, New York, Hawaii, LA and San Diego, so we need a budget to record. Giant Records was spending $250,000 to $300,000 just to record. So now we’re dealing with a fifth of that money and we want to maintain that quality consistency, and we have get everybody to one place–usually San Diego where we all record–pay for their lodging and their food and their transportation airline. And then we gotta try to shave a good 10 grand to 15 grand for a good mix because for a real quality mix, you need real money.
First, I think that one of the disadvantages is that I gotta play both sides of the street: I gotta be the artist and maintain that real groovy type of artist mentality and be spontaneous and unpredictable and all that. But at the same time, with the help of some really key people (like Big Moutain manager Donna Vader), I have to maintain some kind of consistency because these people are depending on us. When they give us 50 grand to record a record, they want a record back. They don’t want us to say, “Oh well, man, you know, we ran into a coke dealer when we were in the studio, man.” You know Japanese businessmen are just very… they don’t like surprises. They don’t like anything to happen except for the plan. Learning to be a businessman for a musician who’s talking about mashing down the system and mashing down Babylon is tough. You feel a little hypocrital sometimes. But we all realize it’s for the big picture. Unfortunately you just gotta tell your brothers sometimes, “Nah, man, that’s all. That’s all you’re getting. We don’t have anything else, and we can’t give you anything more. And that’s just reality.”
The advantages: We have a tremendous amount of freedom on the album. We maintain tight control over how we’re put out to the public–the image that’s displayed, which is important to us. We feel that’s one of the reasons why Big Mountain had so much trouble back in the day really solidifying their fan base because we had a record company that was putting shit that would just offend people–offend reggae people. I mean just stupid, stupid things. Instead of really paying attention to image, really paying attention to integrity and trying to put out a product that was very solid in terms of integrity, they, of course, wanted to just capitalize on me and James as being the handsome white guys. What do you expect from a major label that doesn’t have any sensitivity? All they’re thinking about is money. They’re not thinking about longevity or anything.
SS: Was the record deal born out of your popularity in Japan? I heard you had done some shows over there headlining over Steel Pulse.
Q: Yes, Japan is strong for us. Of course, Bob is number one forever, but in terms of reggae, it would be between Maxi and ourselves in Japan. Bob Marley is still the only person that can sell out a reggae concert even in 2002! He’s been dead how long? And he’s still the only one who sells out Bob Marley Day every year, man.
There’s just not a big enough crowd to support the roots music. They have their really rootsy core, but it’s small. You’re talking about selling 5,000 units. Usually we can depend on selling about 20,000 records. That’s average from our records in Japan.
We’re trying to steer away from the whole pop thing. In Japan, it’s really tough to do because these guys are saying, “Hey man, this is what we want on the record, and if you guys don’t give it to us, we don’t give you the money.” And it’s like, “OK, well…” So what we usually do is we try to record as much music as we can for the record. And then we’ll put out more of a glossy album to Japan and then take some of the glossy tracks off it and then put more roots stuff and release it to the U.S. That’s why “Cool Breeze,” for instance, is being released to Hawaii, but not on the mainland right now. I know reggae radio and “Cool Breeze” would have been way too poppy for them. We recorded that in early 2001 and “Cool Breeze” actually did really well in Japan. We sold around 25,000 copies.
We wrote “Cool Breeze” around the time we left Giant, and I still had a chip on my shoulder that they never really accepted any of the songs that we wrote. We would kill ourselves trying to write hits for them. And they’d basically say, “Well, you know, I think we’d just better go with a cover or maybe we’ll bring in a producer, and here’s a couple songs by this songwriter.” So it was after that, I would say, ” I know we can write a fuckin’ hit!” So “Cool Breeze” was our attempt at trying to be as commercial as we possibly could, with a few little rootsy exceptions. And it did well in Japan.
But with that type of record if you’re gonna go after radio in the U.S., you need a lot of money. We would have to go after mainstream radio, and that’s just not my desire. After that record, it was funny because we got all that major label type of shit out of our system. After that, I said, “You know what? I don’t need to fuckin’ be recording this shit.” And, of course, things were hurting then too. We owed so much money, and we were in such dire straights that I wanted a payday. I was thinking, “There’s no way we’re gonna get out of this shit that we’re in without having a hit.” Well, we ended up getting out of it anyway. It took three years of just paying attention, living like a pauper and paying attention to bills. “New Day” was a completely different experience, man. “New Day” was “Hey, man, you know we’re actually starting to get our head above water.” We don’t need to be putting together music for the radio. We just pay attention to how much money we’re spending and be smart about our investment. So hence, “New Day” I think is a sign of what’s gonna be coming in the future with Big Mountain with little exceptions here and there, because I’m not saying I don’t like to sing pop music. It’s just that major labels, once they peg you, they’re really not interested in anything else. Once a major label says, “Well, you can sing a hit. That’s what you should be singing. Why are you fuckin’ trying to be Bob Marley? Sing a hit. Sell records.”
SS: Dancehall style reggae acts like El General out of Panama have been popular with Spanish audiences throughout the 90’s. With the Rastafarian-oriented group Gondwana emerging from Chile and Jamaican artists like Tony Rebel and Junior Reid voicing songs in Spanish, it seems Latin America is fertile ground for more conscious reggae. Most of your albums include a song or two en español. What kind of feedback or vibe do you get from Latin fans?
Q: You know, it’s always really positive. I think that, like you said, it’s a really emerging market. And it brings on its own set of interesting relations because reggae and Rastafarianism and all that plays everybody differently. The experience that Americans get from reggae music could very well be very different from the experience that Jamaicans get, of course. Well, the experience that Latin Americans get is very different from ours.
I really take the time to ask people in Latin America when we’re down there what they expect reggae music to fulfill in their lives. And I like to take advantage of the opportunity to see how reggae music affects other people because I’ve always been fascinated by that. Maybe I was looking for it to fulfill things that it really doesn’t fulfill. I was this revolutionary guy, and I said, “Ooh man, this guy’s singing revolutionary music. This is the key to revolution.” Where other people are going, “Well, I don’t have any idea what the fuck you’re talking about. This music is about weed to me. I like to get stoned.” And other people say, “No, man, this is about God to me. It’s about spirituality.” And I think Latin America is going to add its own take.
This new album “New Day” is the first time we’ve put a Spanish song on there that was written in Spanish. Usually, it’s translations–no, actually, I’m sorry, on “Cool Breeze” we did “Cosas Naturales.” But this is the first one that was written in Spanish, and it was a political message oriented song. So it should be interesting to see the type of response because we’ve always gotten, “How come it’s always love songs that you do in Spanish?” And, basically, it’s because although I can speak Spanish relatively well and my accent is excellent, my grammar is horrible. So it’s like just me being insecure about writing in Spanish.
I would love to write more in Spanish, but I would have to get together with people. When you’re writing political stuff, it’s almost like you have to find somebody who shares similar beliefs as you. If it’s a love song, it’s no problem. You can get together and write love songs with other people. But for me to write a political song in Spanish with somebody to help me like a fluent Spanish speaker or a Spanish lyricist, it’s a little bit more personal. You’re sitting here talking about, “Well, fuckin’ let’s burn down the factory.” And they’re looking at me going, “God damn, dude.” So, yeah man, we plan on doing a lot more of that in the future. It’s just a matter of getting all our ducks in order.
SS: The band has done some diverse cover tunes over the years: of course, Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver,” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” and “Girl from Ipanema” to name a few. How does the band select the covers?
Q: Back in the Giant days, a lot of times the record executives were pitching us covers. Sometimes we pick them because they’re songs that we really liked in the past. Sometimes somebody in the band-it’s their idea. Lately, it’s been because we find them a bit of a challenge. Like “Girl from Ipanema”–how do you make a samba into reggae? I know they’ve got this thing called samba reggae over in Brazil, but it really is a tricky thing to do. And that’s like, “Aw shit, this is what we do. We know how to do this type of thing. So let’s do it.” I mean we know it’s not gonna be the easiest thing to do in the world. We don’t have a lot of claims to fame, but I think Big Mountain’s claim to fame is our balance between being able to be roots, conscious, revolutionary, and at the same time, high quality and commercially applicable. I think that that’s what we do a little better than what most people do. That’s what I would say. We know how to do some conversions–maybe not as good as UB40.
SS: You scored a huge hit on the pop charts with “Baby, I Love Your Way,” which was part of the “Reality Bites” soundtrack. How was it that you became involved with that project? Did the success of that cover affect your standing in the reggae community for better or for worse?
Q: Yeah, those are some good questions. It was actually RCA who hooked that up with us. They were doing the soundtrack to “Reality Bites,” and the original version of “Baby, I Love Your Way” was in the movie. Ron Fair, the producer, who’s now the president over at A&M, came up with the idea that he wanted a reggae version in the movie. So he gave the assignment to a few different bands to bring in a demo. It was Big Mountain, Inner Circle, and one other band, I think. And “Touch My Light” had just done really well in southern California in particular. In ’92, you couldn’t escape “Touch My Light” in L.A. It was top 5 in LA that year, which was a fluke….
So anyway, we ended up getting the gig, and it was a great experience. Of course that just threw us into the whole whirlpool of LA and managers, accountants, lawyers, sharks. I mean things just got so complicated and so confusing so quickly for me. I mean those were horrible years for me personally. Just looking back and realizing the amount of confusion and just not feeling good about what we were doing. And then there was my natural resistance towards doing a song like “Baby, I Love Your Way” because it was like, ‘Baby, I Love Your Way?'” And then when the final came out, I was, “Oh my God, this sounds so fuckin’ produced and so pop.” And then finally I accepted it, and then I got into the swing of things. I started going out to dinner parties and hanging out with these creeps. And then it was a couple of years of hanging out in LA and doing that LA thing. And then it was like realizing, slowly but surely, that these people didn’t have my back because it seemed like every time I’d go in and say this is what I wanna do, they’d just entertain me until I got out of the fuckin’ office. And then it was like, “Yeah right, we’re gonna do that.” It’s just not a nice place, man.
As a result, we really weren’t able to maintain control over how they put us out there. Things got out of control. I mean once you get into that situation, there’s no way you’re gonna be able to keep a cap on things. There’s just so much shit going out all the time on you whether it’s interviews or ads or this or that, you can’t keep control of your image or how you’re portrayed. I think that in a lot of superficial ways, I’ve changed since then, but my core has always been the same. Like I got into Rastafarianism for a little while, and I considered myself a Rastafarian, an orthodox Rastafarian. And that’s changed, of course -and a few of my views. But for the most part, I’m the same person I was when I was 14 years old and first stumbled upon Bob Marley.
SS: Maybe not how you want them to know about you…
SS: It sounds like it was kind of an awakening experience where you realized you didn’t want to be a big star.
Q: It is, man. You realize that life gets very fast, man. I realized you can only have so many friends. In those days, I had so many friends–people that I don’t talk to now and would have no desire to talk to. Basically, all the money was lost and all of the fanfare and I came back to San Diego with a lot of things to think about. You know to just sit and think about, “OK, what did I just go through up there?”
For a while, I kept on going up there and trying to get record deals and knocking on doors asking favors of people I knew. To them, I was a “has been.” It was like, “Get a grip. Go get yourself a job at Prudential. You are a ‘has been,’ bro. Reggae was a fluke. Just give thanks that you had your 15 minutes of fame and get on with your life.” I thought, “This is what it’s really all about, huh? I’m a god damn 32-year-old ‘has been.'” So you got a lot of learning to do.
Fortunately, a woman named Donna Vader came by and she grabbed me and slapped me around a little bit, picked me up and said, “What the fuck you doin’? Come on, get yourself together. You still have a lot of music to put out, a lot of records.” And we just started one little check at a time, one little errand at a time. We started cleaning everything up, pulling my life together. I needed a lot of maintenance with my personal life at that point. Once we got that under control, we started working on Big Mountain again.
SS: On the “Cool Breeze” album there are collaborations with Yami Bolo and the up-and-coming singer Natural Black. What was it like working with them?
Q: You know what, man? I have to be honest. I never met the brethren. The drummer for Big Mountain and one of the chief producers, Paul Kastick, a big shot in the business, said, ” I’d love to get some guest people on this record–record a couple people, hook it up.” I was not aware of Natural Black, but I’ve always been a Yami Bolo fan so that was a given. I haven’t had the opportunity to meet the brother, but I’m sure that we’re gonna run into each other, God willing. But, yeah man, Yami is one of the brothers. He’s been sticking to it all these years, such a talented writer. I really love his lyrics; they are just fabulous. And Natural Black, I love his shit. He’s bad. I go for that brother.
SS: If you were to make up a list of artists with whom you’d like to perform, who would be some of the names at the top of that list?
Q: Wow. I know Frankie [Paul] has a lot of controversy around him, of which I don’t really give a shit. Frankie has always been one of my biggest, biggest influences. And I’ve met him, and I actually hung out with him for a day. And we just sang songs and had a good old time. I’d love to do some work with him. I still think Scratch [Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry], man, he’s still got some shit goin’ on. You know, I don’t wanna say everybody else in the world-Beres [Hammond]. I mean Beres is something else, man. There are just really no other singers out there that are able to do what Beres does in reggae music. Of course, it’s the music he puts out, but I think it’s just the fact that it’s him. You know, everybody’s just go so much respect for Beres, where most of the singers in reggae music right now are just basically getting squeezed out. And it’s nice to see that Beres is holding on, and he’s drawing. I’m a Freddie McGregor fan. I love Freddie, and I respect him very much. I did a couple of big tours with him–Reggae Sunsplash tours–when I was a lot younger, and he really took me under his wing. I really credit him for just giving me a lot of strength and confidence because he’s a good brother and just he’s got a good level head on his shoulders.
SS: I really like the song “Tierra Indigena” you did with Los Alacranes on “New Day.” I was going to ask you for the benefit of non-Spanish speakers, if you could talk a little bit about that song–the message behind it.
Q: Yeah, “Tierra Indigena.” It’s about me asking my mother and saying, “I have so many questions–tengo preguntas, hay muchas preguntas, Mama. I have many, many questions about what happened. Cuantas memorias–how many memories and how many songs have we lost?” And then it goes, “I want to teach my children about their indigenous culture, Chichimeca culture. The Chichimecas are sort of the ancestral link of the Aztecs. There was a myth that the Aztecs, and it’s pretty much well documented that originally the Aztecs came from the Blythe, California area, which is east of Los Angeles in the desert on the way to Arizona. They were known as Chicanos-Chichimecos–which evolved into Chicanos, and they started to make their legendary migration down to Tenochtitlan, which is where Mexico City is now.
The song is about indigenous culture, many struggles, the struggle of African people, the struggles of the indigenous people of the Americas, about being able to interpret history correctly, being able to decipher between what you’re being taught–what’s being taught for your benefit and what’s being taught for your demise. You know, I’m a firm believer that the only way that we’re gonna be able to make it so there really is true equal rights and justice is for us to be able to really go back into history, understand the relationships that have caused us to go so far astray from how human beings should be treating each other. You know what I mean? You gotta go back, and you gotta heal, man. You gotta heal first before you can move on.
Documenting history and teaching history correctly affects our youth. Trying to get that across to the status quo of the U.S. is really difficult because, of course, they just want to move on. We’re saying, “Well, yeah, we need to go forward, but there are some things we need to fix up. There’s some revision that needs to happen before we’re gonna be able to go forward and actually function in this society. And it just gets difficult for minorities. It seems like every year we have less representation in universities–Chicanos especially. I know because I’m involved in a lot of Chicano organizations, and I see the statistics. I see the actual numbers. And it just doesn’t make sense. You gotta sit there and go, “What the fuck’s goin’ on? Why are we not achieving? Why do we have so much trouble keeping our young men out of jail? Why are our young women getting pregnant and getting stuck in this situation where they’re not able to live out their dreams because they’re having to feed and take care of a young mouth?” There has to be a better way than just saying, “Well, fuckin’ just deal with it, man. Grow up. You’re living in the best country in the fuckin’ world. What are you fuckin’ crying about?” We’ve already heard that for so long. So “Tierra Indigena” means indigenous land, reminding people that there was a civilization before.
SS: Where are Los Alacranes from?
Q: They’re from San Diego. They’re one of the founding members of Chicano Park here in San Diego, and they were just real integral parts in the Chicano movement, the farm workers movement. They were Cesar Chavez’ right hand band. When he needed some music, he asked for the Alacranes. So they’re folkloric, Chicano, Mexican, folkloric protest type music.
SS: My favorite track from “New Day” is the “The House.”
Q: All right! All right!
SS: I just wondered if there was a specific event or a series of events which put you in the frame of mind to write that song–or a lifetime?
Q: Well, you know, it’s funny because I didn’t really get to finish this album the way I wanted to, man. I mean there were supposed to be a few more songs that were going to tie in the whole message. And actually, the name of this album was supposed to be “The House,” believe it or not. I really tried to make the first six songs relate to each other. And I don’t wanna go too deep into it because through the lyrics, I let people understand exactly how they’re all related. But in my mind I had an image of a house, and I was trying to tell the story of the United States-about the different people coming here and their stories and exactly how we’re gonna deal with the fact that we’re all very unique. We’re not blending into this melting pot that everyone talked about in its inception. And there are a lot of problems and there is a lot of pain and misunderstanding going on–people not understanding themselves. And as Americans, you would think somebody’s black and somebody’s white in America. We’ve been here for how many hundreds of years now, and we still cannot seem to have a consensus about what America represents to us. If you can listen, it’s really just based on the indigenous’, the African-Americans’ and the European-Americans’ reality. The fact that basically at this point you can say that everybody in the world is working for the house. One way or another we’re all hooked up and we’re all connected and it doesn’t matter whether or not somebody in, say, Nigeria is getting dissed. I mean this world is so small and the more complicated it gets, the more we realize that the fate of all of us is the fate of each one of us. And it’s kind of a critique on global capitalism.
SS: It sounds like it’s your favorite tune too.
Q: It is, besides my brother’s tune, “Vibes Up Strong.” I love that tune. I’m so proud of him, man, because he’s really coming along. He’s been doing just mainly background vocals and rapping. But I’ve always loved his singing voice so much, and I think that he’s just getting going really. I mean he’s such a tremendous singer, but he’s always had to worry about singing background vocals for me. He hasn’t gotten a chance to really bust out. But, yeah man, I really love his tune. Besides his tune, “The House,” baby, because it has a little bit of that David Hinds vibe [of Steel Pulse], whom I forgot to mention, was a pretty big influence on me as well.
SS: If Big Mountain had a mission statement, what would it be?
Q: Our mission is to go where no man has gone before. [laughter] I would say our mission is to be controversial enough for people to listen, but loving enough for people not to be afraid of us. We say the things we say sometimes to get a reaction out of people, especially people that disagree with us. We want them to stand and say, “What the fuck are you talking about? This is crazy ass bullshit.” But I would never be in a situation where I couldn’t talk to anybody about this. I believe we gotta struggle with everybody. If you’re gonna be a revolutionary, you gotta be dedicated to struggle. You can’t just say, “Fuck you. We’re never gonna agree.” You have to be ready to struggle with people and to give them the impression that you really are trying to understand where they’re coming from. The only way people are gonna change is if you show them that you really do care about what they think, and I do care. I do care about what people think. It hurts me when I see so many reactionaries out there just ready to give up on mankind–people that I consider my brothers and sisters. I take it seriously, brother, that we are all related. I take it seriously that we all come from Africa. I take it real seriously that somewhere back there, we all have a common mother. And she wasn’t some Jewish lady that lived in Egypt 5,000 years ago. She was a little African lady that lived in equatorial Africa 80,000 years ago, and we all come from her. We are all cousins. Our DNA is just barely different. We are all one people.
(Toward the end of the conversation, this interviewer contrasts the accessibility of reggae musicians versus the inaccessibility of rock musicians, leading to the following comments.)
Q: You know, that whole scene–I don’t know how people deal with it, man. I really give thanks I’m a reggae musician. But we got our problems, and we got our bullshit–the reggae community does.
SS: Yeah, everybody does.
Q: It’s got its controversy and shit like that, but boy, I’m so proud of reggae people. I know that I’ve disappointed a lot of them, but my philosophy is that we all love this music, and this music means a lot to us. When I’ve been criticized in the past for doing this or doing that, I’ve never really been offended by it because I’m a reggae fan too. I realize that this music means a lot to a lot of people, and I can’t expect them to love it any less than I do or not be protective of it. We’re all worried about some asshole using reggae the wrong way, and I’m the same way, man. So it’s all love. It’s all love.
Steve Serpiente is a Chicago based freelance writer who contributes to various websites dedicated to reggae music. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org