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A Hawk's Eye View

After years of flying under the radar, Garrison Hawk is ready for his close-up

By Bill Murphy

Garrison Hawk

What's the famous line from Hunter S. Thompson? Something about the music business being a wanton cesspool where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs? Maybe it was the TV industry - I forget. Nevertheless, for all the horror stories you hear these days about Wall Street, Main Street or Easy Street, there's always the exception - the one person who has worked patiently and diligently to transcend all the turmoil, all the strife, all the corruption, in the name of creating something positive.

Garrison Hawk is just such an artist. Survive, his long-awaited solo debut, caps more than a decade of hard work in the trenches. As one of the brashest, most versatile and heretofore slept-on young voices to come out of Jamaica in a generation, Hawk has lent his radical talent on the mic to the likes of Armand Van Helden, Tricky, Sly & Robbie and the Method Of Defiance collective, but has yet to claim his rightful share of the spotlight. All that's about to change.

Musically, Survive is a futuristic hybrid of styles covering hardcore dancehall, reggaeton, hip-hop and even country & western - all a reflection of Hawk's wide-ranging tastes and his multi-culti upbringing. A native of Mandeville, Jamaica, he moved to the Bronx as a teenager and soon made his mark as a singer, rapper and deejay of exceptional promise; after rocking the mic at a local show with Shabba Ranks (one of his boyhood idols), Hawk started popping up on underground singles like "3 the Yard Way" (with DJ Excel) and "Addicted" (the flip side to Smoothe Da Hustler's "An It Don't Stop"), which got him airplay on New York's Hot 97 radio and top spots on the European charts.

"I never really think of music like there's a limit to it," Hawk says, explaining the multiple sources that feed into Survive. "for my ears, I hear sounds, and whatever inspire me, I'm captured by it. That could be Toots and the Maytals, Peter Tosh, Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen - for me it was always open." Produced by Bill Laswell and featuring the matchless rhythm section of Sly & Robbie, Survive is as much a triumph of will over adversity - really mind over matter - as it is a musical breakthrough. "It's just like they say: the older you get, the wiser you get, you know? I learn so much over the years and I can see it so clear now. When I was much younger, I probably put out a lot of immature and rushed stuff. I went into this with the idea that I need to do something meaningful."

Looking back, there are instances when even in the youthful rush of events, Hawk was reaching for something new and different. A chance meeting with Tricky, who had made his mark with Massive Attack and his own trip-hop classic Maxinquaye, led to an unusual partnership that really showcased Hawk to a larger audience for the first time. Tricky's 2001 album Blowback marked a complete retooling of his sound, and on cuts like "Evolution Revolution Love," "Bury the Evidence" and the ominous "The Hawkman Is Coming," Hawk asserted his presence with a vengeance to anyone with an ear for hip-hop's jagged, ragga-laced edges.

In the years since, Hawk has honed a style that's more nuanced and sleek, merging singing and rhyming into a soulful mix that comes through on Survive in the dancehall chants of "Wild," the throaty growls of "Murderer," and the downright sanctified balladry of the title track (featuring Ethiopian songstress Gigi on co-lead vocals). For sheer versatility, it's reminiscent of Hawk's recent work with Sly & Robbie (on 2004's Version Born), as well as his vocal step-outs on Method Of Defiance's Jahbulon, released in 2010. But more than anything else, this is the sound of someone who has finally found a groove that he can latch onto. It's beyond mere boasting or toasting; Hawk is taking reggae and dancehall into new territory, where music and message intertwine in a bass-heavy, polyrhythmic, damn-near existential listening experience. Now that's saying something.

* * *

How did you first hook up with Sly & Robbie?

I met Sly and Robbie through my old manager [Eric Eger]. I'd done work with them before when I was with Tricky. When I was signed with Palm Pictures, Chris Blackwell suggested that I should do some stuff on Sly and Robbie's record, so that's where I ended up working with Bill Laswell. That was the first time we all worked together.

But I first got introduced to Sly and Robbie when I was working with Eric, through Warner Records. The agreement was that the company wanted them to produce my record with another guy in London. That's when I actually met them up in the studio, in the city. Basically I tell Robbie, when I meet up with him, we was hanging out and it was a really cool vibe, and I just tell him, "Listen, I need you to put your best into this record, because it's my first solo record, and I want to make sure it's gonna get out there the right way." And he was like, "Don't worry - I'll take care of you and make sure everything is cool." That's the first time we met, and we start working. I went back to Jamaica to work with them to finish the record, and that was it.

Which studio was that in Jamaica?

It was Anchor Studios. They use their whole - they have their own people, like the Jamaican dream team, you know what I mean? They brought in Sticky Thompson and Bongo Herman and all the top musicians for the foundation.

Sly and Robbie have always had this laid-back vibe as a production team - but man, they get a lot of work done.

For me, it was a dream to work with them at that point, because I was always a fan of the stuff that they did. I just always believed that they're a major part of the creation of reggae music, and the backbone of that, you know what I mean? So when I get to work with them, basically it was, "Well, I'm getting the real deal here." And when I went into the studio with them, it was amazing. It's like, you're seeing these guys lay it down like nobody else can. Sly is the most amazing drummer I've ever seen, and the way they do their thing is so different and original. Garrison Hawk Robbie lays his stuff down, and it's like he makes sure everything is together. So they put time into it, and a lot of effort in getting the record sounding great. I mean, I remember Black Uhuru coming out, and from that time, right there that was the biggest shit in the '80s.

Usually in Jamaica, Sly and Robbie could pretty much pick anybody to do their stuff, and when they heard what I had, they started giving me tracks too. I guess to them, they figured it would be something different for the reggae market, and that's something they've always done.

What you're doing is completely different too. You're rhyming hard, but you're also singing too. Can you talk about your style and how you developed that?

You know what, for me man, I never really think of music like there's a limit to it. For my ears, I hear sounds, and whatever inspire me, I intend to - I'm captured by it. I just like to put my own twist to stuff. I usually like to stay off the backs of what everybody else do, so basically for me to do rapping, it seems to me like there's no limit to it. There's no definition. I can just get up and do it to sing, or I could just get up and do it for the hardcore reggae stuff, with no strings attached. For me, it just seems so natural and normal and easy, you know? It all has to do with what I hear and what I feel. I like to express myself according to how I hear it, so that's why all of this comes out.

How old were you when you first realized that this was what you were gonna do?

Oh man, I think I realized this when I was about 18 or 19. For me, it was just a hobby - I was just basically on the street, working out and playing around just for the fun of it, but other people have seen it on a bigger scale than I do. I was thinking that I'm gonna be ending up doing a 9 to 5 in computers, or go to school to be a doctor. I been there and I tried stuff, and I worked, but I just never seemed to be that kind of person. I couldn't fit in, in terms of getting a degree to go get this job or whatever. Just doing music for the fun of it, it seemed like the only thing where that make me feel free—which is what I should do, and I realized that ever since I start taking up this music thing, it's like I’m adventuring off to somewhere. This is the only thing I think I'm supposed to do, because I never feel comfortable doing anything else. So I stick to it and I put my time and effort into it.

When you first decided that you wanted to commit to music, were there any key artists who influenced you?

Oh, yeah. I used to love Toots and the Maytals, and Peter Tosh, and Shabba Ranks when he came out, and also the American and British artists like Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel. So it was always open, for the whole scenario. There was always something for me where - I used to be more into American music than even the Jamaicans. Back home I would listen to Motown - Marvin Gaye and the Temptations, real soul music. I think all of that is an influence. I never really limit the kind of music I listen to.

When was the first time you hooked up with Tricky?

Well, I hooked up with him probably around '99. I was working on my own record, for AV8 Records. I did a demo and I went there to shop it because I was doing some stuff with Roger Sanchez and Armand Van Helden and those guys. I figured I was just gonna finish up my demo and bring it to AV8 because they were over there. And my cousin was a close friend with Tricky - one of his best friends - and he let Tricky hear something I was working on, and Tricky was like, "Don't let this guy go to AV8 - let me meet him." He was blown away from some of the sounds that I was doing, and I guess he figured this could be his next shot in the business. So I said to my cousin, "Hey, let's meet him up and see what he's about." That's before I even know who he is. I don't know the guy, but I figure it's worth a try.

So he suggests and he begs me not to go to AV8 Records with this, and I should just have him deal with it, and he'll get us this deal at Hollywood Records. And I hang out with him a while and I was like, okay, let's see what happens. Then we got the deal and we did the record by his place - this was in Brooklyn. So Tricky opened me up to who he was and what he does and how big this can be, and I figured I was gonna try and see what happen, and it worked. I take my shot with him, and he brought me to Chris Blackwell, and he was blown away too, and right there he signed me to his company, to Palm Pictures. I actually signed to Tricky's label first, to Durban Poison, and then to Palm.

So we did the record, and I was surprised because it took off and did well, and we had a tour with Tool, you know? Those guys are amazing. The whole tour was amazing. I would never be able to tell that a record like that would get to that level.

Blowback was a pretty radical change for Tricky, I remember.

Yeah. It was really an adventure, man.

What's behind the title of your new album Survive?

I think the thing that stand out from naming the record Survive, basically where it's coming from is that for this record to get out there, it's been in recycle many times, for different reasons. It's been a while when this record shoulda been out, and it never got out, and it comes down to the time where Bill make it possible. So in a sense, for us, it's just survival to get this stuff out there.

And in another sense, for what we seen that's going on right now - we could make some sense out of it for what's going on in the world. The record is basically talking about survival in our time, you know? For people who is going through the struggles and who have the hardships, for the people in the ghettos, for the people in love and out of love - for all of that source, it's a survival. So it's really going out there for the people who survive all this terror and depression and the economic stress and all the shit we're going through right now.

What has it been like working in the studio with Bill Laswell?

You know how it goes with Bill. I basically had to leave Bill to just do what he do. I take instruction from him because I know Bill is a genius who knows how things should be, and how everything should be in place, you know? So I just really take my instructions and go there - he'll never let me just rush in and do a song. Normally, I would probably rush in to do a lot of songs a certain way, and he'll direct me in a way, where he's saying, "Okay, you gotta be serious now about this. This is it - this is the shot. If you're gonna give a message, you have to be this way. You have to be sure and you gotta be positive about what you're doing."

It's the same with the voicing. If it's not in the right key range or the right sound, he'll suggest not to do it - not to rush it. For me, it's an amazing experience, man. I'm overwhelmed that I did this record with Bill.

When it came to writing the songs, did it all come to you very quickly? Did you go away to think about ideas and lyrics? How did that work?

You know, I try to take the time out to think for some time, but it would never come to me. So basically what happen - you know this is when we're in the studio - most of the time I can't even write a word down, you know what I mean? Most of the time it's just a vibe and energy, because when you're not pressing for time and you're not stressing on somebody rushing you at the studio, it's good to go in and just be free and let out your soul according to how you feel it. So it all had to do with expression, and how I got to express myself.

Garrison Hawk

How do you feel now that the record's finished?

Man, I'm excited, dude - you know what I mean? I seen that we've put a lot of work into it, and I seen we're on it day by day and everything is in place. I'm excited about it. I just wanna be out there to do some shows so people get some of the realness, you know, and be out there for the fans and just to be supportive of the whole thing. So that's why at this moment we're trying to set up this tour thing - just enough to do on our own to reach out to people so they can get a piece of what we're putting out.

Where do you feel like your sound is right now?

I think I'm on top of the game right now, because for all the years I've been in the business and doing so much work, it's been an experience. I can see now what people are interested in, and what is necessary to put out there, and what is not. Maybe it's a good thing that nothing happen before now, because needed that time to find myself, to find a message and a purpose. So I'm majorly into what I'm doing right now.

What inspired the song "Wild"?

I think that was a whole inspiration coming from the reggae scene in Jamaica - like a dancehall scene, and the movement of the dancers in the club, particularly how the girls get down [laughs]. It's just really a dancehall thing from being in Jamaica, to get loose and free themselves. And for real, I can picture it in the summer here too, where people are just driving around and bumping it in the car, and it just make you feel a summery vibe.

There's a song called "Country Games" that you left off the album.

I think we're saving that one. You know that track with the Police that Puffy did with Biggie Smalls? ["Every Breath You Take"] It was that kind of vibe - I get energy from that song because I grow up in the country. In Jamaica, I grow up with country music on the radio station, and I'm a big fan of it. I think basically what happen is that when you're used to something, and you listen to it so much, it just becomes you. It's just a part of me expressing myself - maybe unexpectedly, beca' it's something in me that maybe I wasn't even aware of. So I start writing and singing, and basically the song just came naturally from me. It was really unusual. There's times in life you never cease to amaze yourself by what you get up and do. You never know what you're supposed to do or if it's gonna work for you, but you just get in your comfort zone. Having my own studio, I'm free to do whatever I feel like, so I just start messing around with beats and playing stuff, and it started to sound like country, and it just started inspiring me to keep that energy and that feel. It just basically comes out of me more like a country and western song. Like I said, you got Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen - a lot of these guys. And honestly, Elton John is one of my all-time favorites. Vocally I think he has one of the most inspiring vibes in music, you know? It's unbelievable.

I feel myself venture off into a lot of alternative rock, too, and then with Jamaican music - for me it's not even about Bob as much as Peter Tosh. There was an intense situation with him there, from my whole view. He was just being fully outspoken in his time, and tried to express himself in a certain way - it was such a revolutionary time, and he went through a lot of shit. Especially in Jamaica back in the time, being a Rastaman, they never usually get much respect, you know what I mean? A Rastaman always been a back page guy - a person who's never a front-liner. They always considered the last in line. It's amazing to me that today it becomes more expressed and shows more an image of what our culture is, really.

Bunny Wailer had a song called "Blackheart Man" that talks about how Rastas were wrongly perceived back in the day.

Yeah, and you still have that in Jamaica. You still have a set of people who consider Rastaman the bad guy and a person who is not worthy, saying that their lifestyle is unclean and their lifestyle isn't called for. And I think a lot of people who fight against that back then - mostly you find that in the older generation. That generation wasn't open-minded enough to listen or learn something from another view, so basically they keep that. Already their brains were washed in a certain way, where whatever they were told in the beginning, from ancient days, they keep that. Even now that the younger generation is getting more into researching stuff, we can't even bring that to the older generation because they already believe what they believe, and they're still not gonna see.

 

Garrison Hawk can be found on these other releases from M.O.D. Technologies:

Method of Defiance: Jahbulon
Method of Defiance: Dub Arcanum Arcandrum
Praxis: Profanation - Preparation for a Coming Darkness
Lee 'Scratch' Perry: Rise Again