It's a Tuesday night at The Lost Leaf in downtown Phoenix. The bar's small dance floor is packed with dancers; one girl in a flowery dress does the typical hippie dance, arms flailing in the air, while one guy emphatically skanks about the room.
DJ Smite is on the turntables, pulling platters from a stack of 45s, and DJ One Peso is manipulating the soundboard. On the mic is Tony Culture, whose dreads bounce as his voice echoes through the reverb and delay that Peso is dialing up. Culture is imposingly tall, and only the soft touches of gray in his beard betray his age.
Several months later, sitting at a table in Carly's Bistro, next to Afida's Hair Culture, the salon his wife runs, Culture says that this is called "Sound System."
"[There's] three of us," he says sipping a Session Red. "A selector, an engineer, and me on the mic. One guy is picking out the songs to play, one guy who be tweaking the sounds, and I would be on the mic, hyping up the people, MCing between songs.
"You would play the original record — using 45s — then flip it over to the version side, because most songs had alternate versions. Then I would DJ over the version side, freestyle, you know?
"It's kind of a lost part of the art, because very few of us are doing it that way," Culture says. At least once a month, The Hot Plate, hosted bi-weekly at The Lost Leaf by DJ Smite, features Culture and other DJs, including Organic, One Peso, and Johnny D spinning reggae in all its many forms, including dancehall, roots, rocksteady, and dub (the crew calls this night "The Ital Plate" — Ital being a Rastafari term for "spiritually sustaining food.")
"Those are my roots, I love it, and I can still go there," says Culture of Sound System-style performing. "I guess that's what makes me a little bit different than, say, your average singer/performer. They have to have a band, but I could come in, and just drop it like I've been doing."
Growing up in Jamaica, Culture first experienced live reggae this way. Makeshift Sound Systems were popular in rural areas, offering a chance for young people like Culture to hear roots sounds firsthand, where performers weren't reliant on drums, guitars, keyboards, and amplifiers to create spontaneous music.
Culture came of age loving a diverse range of styles — not limiting himself to the Studio 1 and "lovers rock" that he describes as his favorite. "One of my favorites of all time is Janis Joplin. Bob Dylan is an awesome, awesome writer," he says, listing R&B, rock 'n' roll, and soul as styles he loves.
Growing up, Culture didn't distinguish between those genres and reggae, and he says that the reggae artists of the time borrowed from American music they heard on Miami radio in the 1960s.
"They were influenced by artists that were coming through, James Brown [and artists like that]. It rubbed off; it's natural that it would come out through their music. Same goes for me, as well. Growing up, you get that kind of music in Jamaica on the radio station all the time, especially on Sundays. In my early youth, I thought it was all from Jamaica — I didn't know any different," he says, laughing.
Culture has been performing reggae and DJing for more than 30 years, but he didn't start actually creating music until after he left Jamaica.
"I would have liked to have started [working on music] in Jamaica, but at that time, it wasn't easy to get to the studio or get recording," he says. "We didn't have someone who, like, could get in. It freed up more in '78; but I missed that boat because I left in '77. I went to the East Coast, so the bulk of my early music was on the East Coast, in Baltimore. So in Baltimore, if you say Tony Culture, everybody knows me," he says.
(Sure enough, as this interview concluded, a patron of the bar came over and introduced himself as being from Maryland, and informed Culture that he had seen him perform with the group Jah Works, a group Culture collaborates with several times a year on the East Coast.)
"The East Coast has a big Caribbean infusion of people. The East Coast American people were exposed to it, because so many shows were coming through there, and radio stations, and all the Sound Systems. I used to make cassettes and give them out to people to get the music going," he says of his mixtape guerrilla marketing.
"I got kind of tired of the snow," he says with a smile, about coming to Arizona "10-plus years ago."
"Well, the wife that came with me at the time, unfortunately, we divorced," he says with a self-deprecating grin. "But a couple of years later, I met my [current] wife, Afida — and a few years ago, she decided to open Afida's Hair Culture."
The downtown salon has offered Culture something unique, a specific venue to spin reggae each First Friday. Anyone who has ever walked Roosevelt Row has no doubt seen and heard him, spinning tracks and chatting with passersby, but Culture is hardly stationary. He performs at Valley clubs like The Lost Leaf and The Sail Inn, both as an MC and DJ and with a live band.
His 2003 album, Chant, showcases his live sound, a mix of dancehall bangers with a distinct hip-hop edge, similar to Yellowman and Buju Banton. "West Word Ho!" is digital reggae at its best, with dub accents in the verses, "Fresh Girls Dem" features a more pop-oriented approach, and "Meaning of Life" is a traditional slow jam. He says his next album will be available soon ("just doing some tweaks on it") through Livity Music, the website he is launching.
According to Culture, reggae in Phoenix has always been a hodgepodge community.
"It has gone through some upheavals. At the moment, the people are here for it, but they are spread out. And it's hard to get to them a lot of times. One of the main factors lacking is that we don't have a radio station. We need that to reach a lot more people, but [overall] it's good."
But for Culture, the music serves a specific purpose regardless of who does, or doesn't, hear it. "I'm a spiritual person," he says, describing himself as a "Rasta witness."
"It's one of those things where, if you talk to many artists about [targeting their music to a mainstream audience], there are few who have been able to resist the temptation to do that. I have had opportunities in my earlier days, where I didn't want to do that, because of that fact," he says.
"You can find some artists who are talented and are professional, but they are not mainstream. At the end of the day, when I don't have to cringe when I hear my song played, that's enough."