Artist Feature: Equiknoxx
Click here to listen to the Carhartt WIP Radio Show featuring Equiknoxx.
This month’s Carhartt WIP Radio show ventures to Jamaica, as we play host to the fascinating contemporary recording and performance collective Equiknoxx. Since 2015 Shanique Marie, Gavsborg, Time Cow, Bobby Blackbird, and Kemikal Splash have reinvented dancehall music, working in elements of field recordings, hip hop, glitch and dub, while also releasing music on their namesake label.
Fundamental to their rise as artists was the late J.O.E. (previously known as Lil Joe), who passed in 2011 in Kingston. The Jamaican reggae singer was a crucial part of Equiknoxx’s story, helping them to hone their songwriting and production skills, while also bringing the majority of its members together. To this day, the collective say he was the main inspiration behind their shift, from out of the studio and onto the stage.
As a production duo, Gavsborg and Bobby Blackbird first caused a stir with irresistible riddims for famed dancehall stars like Beenie Man, Busy Signal, and T.O.K., but surprisingly to some, their next move saw them shift into more experimental terrain, full of gummy bass power, camp digital synth sounds, and staggering grooves. With their debut album Bird Sound Power, released on the Demdike Stare label DDS in 2016, they became known for their cutting edge, parallel universe of bass music, which expanded far beyond typical Jamaican reggae and dub traditions. Since then, they have released three more dizzying albums, countless EPs, and remixes for indie stars like Thom Yorke and Arcade Fire.
For Carhartt WIP Radio, Equiknoxx conducted a mix that displays their entire creative palette, featuring esoteric, experimental tunes, ska-driven dub, stripped-down dancehall, as well as compelling pop and hip hop voyages. In addition, Equiknoxx were kind enough to give us a deeper insight into their very own musical tastes, their production set-up and what influences them to make music. Read the interview in full below and enjoy almost one hour of Equiknoxx music, featuring unheard tracks as well as memorable favorites like Elephant Man by Time Cow, RTKAL, and Gavsborg. Enjoy.
What was your musical intake when you were younger and when did you know that you wanted to have a career in music?
Kemikal: Tiger, Burning Spear, Toots & Maytals, Big L, Big Pun, Alchemist, Professor Nuts, Lovindeer, Bob Marley & The Wailers. I wanted to do music from as early as age 13, through practicing from favorite artists to moving on to writing my own lyrics.
Gavsborg: Madhouse Records, Innocent Kru, Ward 21, Vybz Kartel, Wu-Tang Clan, Curtis Mayfield, Stone Love Sound System, Digital B Records, Mobb Deep & Third World. I started doing music from age 13, mostly editing and looping, then moved on to rapping and at age 15. Around then, I started beatmaking and beat clashing other kids at my local school, Excelsior Community College.
Time Cow: Hymns from church, Dancehall tapes and daytime radio. I started doing music at age 16, putting my early recordings out on community radio.
Bobby Blackbird: 70s soul, hip hop, jazz and rock. I started doing music as a teenager, selling lyrics to rap songs and DJing.
What are you doing when you aren’t making music?
Bobby Blackbird: I’m always making things: I draw, sometimes paint. I love thinking about conceptual building and design… I’m also a product developer for cannabis companies, so I have learned to make different things. If I’m not doing any of that I like to ride my bike. That's my other big passion.
Kemikal: Playing football and riding my motorcycle.
Time Cow: Listening to music or trying to find new things to make out of wood I find lying around.
Gavsborg: Chilling with my family (friends, mom, dad, brother, partner, son) collecting pieces for graphic designs, travelling, cooking, sharing my design ideas with my tailor, going to the fabric store, and working on DIY home projects.
Shanique Marie: When I don’t do music I’m running a business, doing book reviews, junk journaling, exercising, doing philanthropic work and doing my best to lift people’s spirits in this stressful thing called life.
If you could describe Equiknoxx music in one sentence, what would it be?
Kemikal: Equiknoxx music is a portal.
What does your production environment look like? You work a lot with software, but is there any hardware or other equipment you can’t do without?
Equiknoxx: We all have individual pieces at our individual home set ups but in our shared studio space we all benefit from Midi Controllers, Akai 2500, Digidesign Digi003, Roland RE 800, DBX 266xs compressor and Rupert Neve Portico 5016 Mic Pree with various microphones.
Individually our go-to pieces are:
Shanique Marie: Helicon – Voice live touch 3
Gavsborg: Bug Brand PT delay
Kemikal: Shure SM58 Microphone
Time Cow: Native Instruments Komplete S49/61
Bobby Blackbird: Roland BOSS ME-80
What’s something you’ve learned through music that has helped you in life, or vice-versa?
Kemikal: My mother encouraged me to read poetry and did recitals with me from an early age, this helped me to write my own lyrics and served as a tool for self-expression through words that I use in my everyday life.
Gavsborg: Music has taught me how to dance my own dance.
Bobby Blackbird: Music has taught me to keep going.
Time Cow: Coming from rural Jamaica there’s lots that music has afforded me, to learn about the world and about the business of music which has been guided by Gavin and translates very well to interpersonal relationships. There’s not one specific thing I can pinpoint, since most of my personal life is tied to music so my growth in life has a lot to do with my growth in music.
Shanique Marie: Music has taught me that authenticity is the most important part of making your best music.
The role of an artist is always subject to change. What's your view on the social or political tasks of artists today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
Gavsborg: I believe that this is different per artist. One’s personal and community history, geographic location and other factors may change the role that one has politically, socially and creatively. Performing as a Jamaican collective, our careers are built on these things rather than opting to do them. Regardless of skin color, having a Jamaican passport puts a touring musician at a unique disadvantage. Learning how to navigate through borders, which are often not present to other colleagues from the English-speaking Caribbean, offers us the opportunity to have first-hand knowledge that we are able to offer back to the community. To give one example, while a Trinidadian or a Bajan can visit Europe or the U.K on their passport, Jamaica is one of the only countries in the English-speaking Caribbean whose people need a visa to just visit – not even to work – in these countries. I spend a great deal of time offering consultation on a community level to other people who want to make a similar commute.
It’s also important for peeps on the receiving end – especially in Europe, the UK and North America – to understand that every time we as Equiknoxx members are present in these spaces, it took a series of painful application processes and interviews – sometimes involving a lawyer – to get there.
Your music stays true to Jamaican music traditions but at the same time is very open to new influences. How do you keep this casual, experimental formula balanced and alive?
Gavsborg: Jamaican music traditions are often synonymous with the music of Africa – from people on the continent and displaced. So, even though I grew up in Jamaica with a narrow understanding of other music outside of my bubble, I was able to find similar rhythms and energy in other cultures and connect with them not as something totally new but as things that feel very similar and have similar foundations.
How do you feel space and time through music? Why is ambience or a sense of ‘the ambient’ important to what you do?
Gavsborg: Coming from a culture with traditions in dub techniques, longform dub poetry, Nyabinghi and Kumina… ambience, time and space feel like second nature.
Based on the seven inch format, popular Jamaican music is often condensed into two to four minutes per piece, but I remember managing my first live drum and bass guitar session at Anchor studios and noticed that the musicians did not stop at four minutes but played for over six. This felt familiar to me growing up with an understanding that one can chant Nyabinghi with a single song or feeling for hours with varying microtonality. Riddim and toasting culture also, in its own way, serve as a testament to time and space vibration. A single record is only played for 1-2 minutes long, it is complemented by 5-6 other songs on the same instrumental, moving the playing time to six to 12 minutes per Riddim with different twists and turns of EQ + sound FX and microphone.
My work output via Equiknoxx Music was/is not largely popular on the radio or dance but in people’s personal spaces via mobile phones, records and CDs etc. This always allowed for less pressure to comply with traditional format. However, being socially conditioned to the three to four minute format, the idea of releasing long playing pieces with focus on ambience felt largely foreign to me – though it shouldn’t. But in recent times, I have developed the confidence to release long players with playing times upwards of five minutes, going back to the community feeling of Nyabinghi and Kumina.
Is your music still influenced by the sound of your environment? Do you still use field recordings to trigger that depth?
Time Cow: Always, but also my environment is not a constant, especially if you add any particular emotional state or state of mind to the equation, so it keeps things real when you’re influenced by all. I don’t use that many field recordings but that might change soon.
And how does living in Kingston shape the work of Equiknoxx ?
Shanique Marie: Living in Kingston allows us to make music with an authority and nuance that is the foundation for our unique sound and productions. With Kingston being a bonafide music hub, the inspirations we have here are priceless through our people, the culture, our food, landscape and so on.
Equiknoxx music always comes with a visual identity that stands out. How important are the non-musical components of your releases, ie. packaging and album art?
Gavsborg: This is really important to me. Working in the Equiknoxx Music label full time, I organize the art components. There used to be a time when all our graphics were done via graphic artists and was mostly limited to computer technology. However, since 2019, our album art has been mostly done by hand. This is a connection that is very special to me, and was born out of wanting to share more of our vision and community. I am not proficient in graphic design software and I wanted to share images and objects that are personal. Currently we use custom stamps, pencils, paint, sewing machines, window tint, metal, fabric and other things to create album art. My mom, partner, Equiknoxx members and different people in our local and international community have all participated in coming up with Equiknoxx Music album art.
Are you cautious about being put into a certain box and do you consider yourself as part of a scene?
Time Cow: Not at all cautious; I make what I want and continuously try to push myself to do more, whether that’s adding a new influence or a new way to create which often results in some interesting sounding music. I would say I am part of multiple scenes, which I think is healthy for the music, but also just running in the background mostly.
Do you try to stay up-to-date with current music trends? How much does that influence you, if at all?
Gavsborg: Keeping up with current music trends for me is taking a stroll on the fringes of West Kingston and experiencing what people are playing in a free space, without payola, DJs, tastemakers or intellectual opinion. The same can be translated in other spaces, I get similar vibrations coming off the last stop of 5 Train at Flatbush Ave. and Brooklyn College or the same train at the first stop at Eastchester Dyre Ave in the Bronx. Or taking a stroll through Wedding or Görlitzer Park in Berlin and connecting with Ghanian and Gambian kindred also gives me this opportunity. This is the point when I am most vulnerable to new sounds.
What do you find most challenging about the work you do?
Time Cow: Mixing vocals. It’s a mixture of challenging and annoying since the dynamics for each vocal on each riddim will almost always be unique so you must start from scratch for every song.
In a past interview, Time Cow spoke of the “by chance attitude” of your work. Is it still very much influenced by being in the moment?
Time Cow: It’s always mostly by chance, especially if you approach it through sampling, since the shift of a marker by 50 milliseconds can give you a whole different sound or experience that you’d never know unless you just moved it around. Sometimes it will be nothing but sometimes you’ll find what you’ve been searching for your whole life.
Bobby Blackbird: It’s just like any communication really. One must be able to digest what is given in order for it to be considered “communication” otherwise it’s just bombardment. As an artist, I leave the listener to make their own decisions and interpretations though and I realize that that is their part of ownership. So even if I had my own intentions with my message, ultimately, it’s their decision on how the song is consumed.
What kind of music would you make in a world without electricity?
Bobby Blackbird: Probably the same thing we make now but with acoustic guitar and drums. Only difference is I would need a lot of vocalists to make random sounds [laughs].
How do you think your generation is going to leave its mark on reggae music and all its sub genres?
Bobby Blackbird: Hard for me to really broad brush “my generation” as we’ve been around a long time. I think that work continues… it evolves constantly. What has definitely changed during our lifetime is the advent of technology, so I guess it’s easier to look at the different ways in which we are paid and do marketing – social media etc. Musically, I don’t see that much change in the generation as a group. You always have outliers in terms of creativity, but I don’t consider them to be representative of the “generation” so to speak. They’re always crowned in hindsight as revolutionary; in the present, they always just seem weird to the masses.
How much do you feel creative decisions are shaped by cultural differences – and equally, how much is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
Shanique Marie: Music is a reflection of who we are and who we are is heavily influenced by our surroundings. It is our cultural makeup as well as our surroundings and what we are exposed to that guides the music that we make, especially for persons who are making music based on what feels natural and is a true representation of self. Also, how people absorb your art is dependent on their lifestyle, socialization etc.
What's your view on the value of music today? In what way does the abundance of music change our perception of it?
Time Cow: I think if you view music as a commodity then the value is lowered by the fact that there’s more music than ears to listen to it, but the demand still never ends so it’s never not valuable. If you view music as an experience and something that’s a part of you or something that you need then I think this is a very exciting time since you can find almost exactly the kind of music you want and it’s right at your fingertips. I would add that because it’s right at our fingertips, everyday, it becomes a more casual experience than an intimate one and you can definitely pick that up in someone’s music, if they are making music as a commodity or as an outpouring of themselves.
What's your favourite reggae/dub/dancehall/ska/roots video of all times?
Gavsborg: There is a clip from a documentary entitled Deep Roots Music (1983) with then Prince Jammy and Bunny Lee jamming in the studio. Bunny Lee is doing a dance he called the “Number One Skank” replete with chalice man and Prince Jammy dubbing away at what sounds like Johnny Clarke None Shall Escape the Judgement. This clip makes me want to rewind in time and just be a fly on the wall in this legendary studio moment.
Can you tell us some things (places, people, happenings) that have inspired you to make music recently?
Gavsborg: Everyday life for me is very giving, I get especially charged up for music just being around family, friends and loved ones. Going to Ghana and the Ivory Coast in 2020 was big on my heart, also being introduced to people like Nicholas Allen from the Jamaican Kumina movement, together with Riddim Writer was very touching, and most importantly having my first child and sharing the beautiful first moments with my partner resonated well musically.
What can music do which all other art forms cannot?
Bobby Blackbird: I think its ease of access and mobility sets it apart from the other fine arts. You take your favorite songs with you everywhere and play them in different contexts or at different times and it can actually alter your perception of experience and time. That’s incredible to me.
With the recent passing of Lee "Scratch" Perry, reggae music has lost a historic figure who shaped the genre profoundly. How much did he influence your style? And how much is older, classic reggae and dub part of the Equiknoxx Music DNA?
Gavsborg: My generation weren’t as exposed to the music of Lee "Scratch" Perry as much as we should’ve been, however I remember reading about him in my late teens and was blown away by the freedom and honesty he had in answering questions. It sent me on a quest to instantly check his music and now he is a big inspiration to me. A touching moment for me was being approached with a sync opportunity and I asked the person how they heard about our music and they shared that it was Lee "Scratch" Perry who told them. That was a big moment.
Classic Reggae & Dub is always in our veins. The same songs from the 60s have been reworked over and over again creating hits to supply each generation. Thinking that my Mom, Grandma and I can each relate to different cuts on the Queen Majesty Riddim, specific to each of our generations, is amazing to me.
Studio One and Channel One mixtapes are always in circulation from any CD Vendor in Jamaica, and in my opinion, outside of gospel music, Classic Reggae & Dub is the choice music for Sunday listenership in most Jamaican homes, regardless of age.