Tony Culture on Studio One, Keeping His Music Clean, and Being a 'Rasta Witness'

In this week's music feature, New Times takes a look at the music and history of Valley DJ/reggae performer Tony Culture. Culture acts as sort of an elder statesman of reggae in Phoenix, and our interview covered much more ground than I had room to include in the paper.

Culture is scheduled to perform Saturday, July 30, at The Sail Inn in Tempe. Read on to see what Culture has to say about his Jamaican roots, keeping his music family friendly, and his unique religious beliefs.

Up on the Sun: What's planned for the Summer Night's Reggae Fest?

Tony Culture: The lineup is Kindread, Walt Richardson, D-Dread, and DJ Jahmeek. For my set, I'm going to pay some tribute to Bob Marley, pay tribute to Dennis Brown and Jacob Miller, as well as a few originals.

What albums do you have available?

My CD Chant is available through CD Baby -- my personal website, Livity Music will be online soon. The new one should be coming out soon. It was supposed to come out awhile ago, but I pushed it back to do some tweaking.

How did you get started in reggae?

I'm from Jamaica, and 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. We didn't have someone who, like, who 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.

I worked with a lot of groups out there. Culture Sound, which was a Sound System at the time. Termination Band, Jah Works...so I have a few sounds out there, on compilations with different people out there.

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, mix tapes, and give them out to people to get the music going.

When inspired you to come out to Arizona?

I got kind of tired of the snow. I thought it was about time to go. [I looked all over the South West] and I looked at Arizona.

Tell me about Sound System style performing.

There's three of us, a selector, an engineer, and me on the mic. One guy picking out the songs to play, one guy who be tweaking the sounds, and I would be on the mic, hyping up the people, DJing 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 MC over the version side, freestyle, as, you know.

Those are my roots, I love it, and I can still go there. 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.

What's your favorite style of reggae?

Oh man. I love it all, but I have to say I have a special affinity for Studio One. The music of the Studio One era really really moves me. Studio One, roots, reggae, lovers rock, definitely.

What current reggae are you into?

A few of them, the current guys, like the last five years? I like Sizzla, Spice, Luciano, Queen Afrika...I like their stuff. Groups like Heritage...I listen to a lot of underground stuff, artists who have no name, haven't made it, I listen to some reggeaton, R&B, soul stuff, rock 'n' roll. One of my favorites of all time is Janis Joplin. Bob Dylan, is an awesome, awesome writer. My love of music is wide...

What are you impressions of the reggae scene in Arizona?

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 it's good...[overall]

You said in a previous interview that you don't play vulgar music when you perform or DJ. Why is that? It it because you are a family man?

It's from being a family man, but I am a spiritual man, and I believe that certain things should be thought out - I'm not going to say, stifle creativity and don't make those certain sounds, but I don't believe it should be played for kids to hear. They are so susceptible to influences, and they are not able to discern what's being said as fun in the music and what's literal. So when I play, I don't do play too many things that have things like that...

I'm not a card carrying member of [any church]. I believe in Selassie, and Rastafari, the history of it. The morality of it. I believe in Jesus Christ, so I'm Bible based. I'm a serious Bible reader. Studied a few world religions, from my personal point of view, the only people who have been able to answer questions I ask, verbatim, from the bible, is the Witnesses. So if you had to pin me down to exactly what I am, I would say I am a Rasta Witness. [laughs]

West Word Ho! by Tony Culture