The emboldened word on this weekly 18th Street Lounge flyer, “ROCKERS”, attracted me like moths to light. I immediately envisioned the 20 foot tall speakers that used to sit on the sides of the rum bar across from my auntie’s house on the unnamed part of Gordontown Road in Industry Village, St. Andrew, Jamaica. Every Friday evening starting at 7 p.m. until the peak hours of Saturday morning, the deejay played music that was loud enough to permeate the entire town. Light sleepers didn’t stand a chance. Those were the early 1980s and the kids from Gaylemount, Cooper’s Ridge and Cottage Hill Road used to hang out, drink and play dominoes at this lively bar while I peeked out curiously from behind the jalousie blinds. I was too young then to know that I was listening to vinyls of the original Rockers musicians who inspired the music of today’s artists including the group I would interview today.
When I finally got the chance, I went to see the D.C. band that carried the Rockers International acclaim. I expected to do a lot of slow-swaying to some hardcore downbeat dub sound but what I heard made my feet and hips move. I found myself uncharacteristically cheering the band and smiling and laughing with fellow audience members in a standing-room only crowd. You don’t have to listen too hard to hear the distinct funk peppered into the reggae Dutch pot sound. However, don’t think for one minute that the musical interplay took something away from the reggae. It just added a dimension of unadulterated fun, the kind of fun that keeps a fan base loyal even if it is snowing outside.
Today is February 5, 2013 and I have the honor of sitting with Zeebo, the very straightforward and press-ready half of See-I.
Me: Thanks for meeting with me today! I am so glad to meet you.
Zeebo: Yeah, I saw you before…
Me: Yes, at your January 23rd show at 18th Street Lounge, I spoke with your brother during one of your intermissions and asked for this interview!
Zeebo: Okay! Well, nice to meet you too.
Me: So who is See-I? I saw a big band on stage that night.
Zeebo: Well, See-I is me and my brother, Rootz along with members of the Thievery Corporation Live Band.
Me: Tell me how you got your start as See-I.
Zeebo: I got introduced to reggae when we were living in North Carolina.
Me: North Carolina? [A record scratch sound went off in my head. My face must have shown the confusion.] I thought you were Jamaican.
Zeebo: I was actually born in D.C. but when me and Rootz were kids, we moved back to my mom’s home town in North Carolina. She sent us to a private school there and we met a lot of Caribbean kids.
Me: [My mouth fell open. Then I remembered I was conducting an interview.] You have to be pretty bold to play reggae music and not be of Caribbean descent.
Zeebo: [Zeebo laughs.] Yeah, you’re right. You know we were recently nominated for a WAMMIE award and I take issue with that because we were nominated as reggae artists and I don’t feel it’s fair because we are not Jamaicans.
Me: I know you were nominated but you shouldn’t feel like you are accepting something you don’t deserve because you pay justice to the art of reggae. A lot of bands claim to know and play reggae but they sound awful. I went to see you and loved every minute of it and I am well-versed in reggae music. It’s a sound I grew up on. It’s the first music my ears ever heard.
Zeebo: That makes me feel good.
Me: Also, organizations like the Washington Area Music Association want to acknowledge good work but in order for them to issue an award, they would have to categorize you some kind of way.
Zeebo: I never looked at it that way but you’re right.
Me: Mm-hmm, so tell me about your introduction to reggae as kids.
Zeebo: Oh okay. We had friends, Will Peterson and O’Malley (I forget what O’Malley’s last name is) who came to our house after school and shared their piles of reggae albums with us. [He lifts his hand about a foot above the table to demonstrate the amount of albums they listened to.] We were forced to listen for like a whole year.
Me: Wow, lol
Zeebo: Yeah, lol…They passed the culture down and we fell in love. The syncopation of reggae music frees the spirit. Something in it, when you hear it, you can’t put words on it.
Me: [I nodded my head in agreement.] And where were they from?
Zeebo: St. Thomas
Me: How did you end up migrating to D.C. from North Carolina?
Zeebo: We went to North Carolina A&T and after college, this was “coming home.” We wanted to do music and we thought it was too slow in North Carolina.
Me: And you started out doing reggae music?
Zeebo: Yes. Ever since I started playing to live audiences, it was reggae music.
Me: Okay, so how did you get introduced to Thievery Corporation? That band is amazing! The horn player was something to behold.
Zeebo: When we first returned to D.C., Eric Hilton was a deejay at a place we were performing. We combined forces with him. My brother and I were the singers and Eric and Rob Garza made up the original Thievery Corporation. But I’m a big P. Funk fan and when we first started Thievery I mentioned having a band. Over time, Rob Myers, the acoustic guitar and sitar player, came on board and we slowly added a congo player, bass player, horn player…
[I could barely see his eyes behind his shades but I could imagine them going glassy as he began to reminisce about an old friend…]
We had a female singer too.
Me: Oh, was that the short lady I saw open for you that night?
Zeebo: No. [Then his tone became somber.] This lady is no longer living. Her name was Pam Bricker. She was one of the best singers in the area. She originated the song “Lebanese Blonde”. That was one of Thievery’s classic songs. She was a cover queen because she would go on tour with us and she could take over the mic and sing anything. She had so much soul. That’s how I garnished so much respect for her.
Me: Respect. I understand we meet some great people throughout the course of our lives and sometimes we can just be grateful that we had the chance.
Zeebo: [Nods his head in agreement]
Me: Your music is like downbeat in reverse. I can hear the old time Studio One sound in songs like “How Could You…” …. But it still has an up-tempo funk addition. That seems to be your signature sound. Is that because the upbeat reflects your mood as a group or because you find it to be more appealing to your audience?
Zeebo: It’s the influences of the group.
Me: So you’re always happy and energetic?
Zeebo: When I’m doing music I’m in a place I love to be and the energy and openness are undeniable. I can’t explain it with words. You know when you’re doing something you really love, it brings a kind of joy you can’t explain. Sometimes I’m tired but once I get to the gig there is no other place I’d like to be.
Me: Yes, I can relate to that. It raises your endorphins.
Zeebo: [smiling] Yes! That’s it.
Me: I will tell you as an audience member that anyone that likes your recorded music will absolutely love you in person.
Now one thing I noticed when evaluating your videos is the difference in the crowd and I don’t mean a racial difference. Live bands that make good music can make people dance but what I noticed different about your crowd were not just the dancing but the smiles. Everyone in your audience is smiling while they’re dancing. I felt love and happiness around me when I was in the audience at your Jan. 23rd show at 18th Street Lounge.
It’s like the same endorphins you get on stage, transmit.
Zeebo: Music has always been a blessing to me so when I’m doing music I’m in one of the best places I can be. In the studio, it’s not the same. When I’m missing the audience, I can’t recreate the same sound. I get my feelings from the audience. The song might be perfect and in key but I don’t have the feeling without the audience connection.
Me: You should do an album of all live recordings and forget the studio.
Zeebo: That’s true and Rob Myers said the same thing. Everybody in the band would buy into it but deejays like studio recordings.
Me: Earlier we talked about your WAMMIE nomination but I also want to congratulate you on your feature on FotoWeek D.C.’s 2012 CD in November.
Zeebo: Oh really! I didn’t know about it until you told me just now.
Zeebo: I’m sure Rootz knew about it but I have no interest. I don’t want to get a big ego. If I start to think about what other people think of me, I start to do music for the wrong reason. I don’t want to believe the hype. I get that from my mom. She would always put everything in context. She would say, “Don’t buy a trailer house and get a Cadillac or Mercedes.” She was saying to keep my values in line with reality to avoid disappointment.
Me: Powerful and wise words indeed. Okay then, ego aside. Do you have a memorable career moment that you would like to share?
Zeebo: Rob Garza, myself and Rootz toured Greece together as Thievery Corporation in the early 80s when we first cut the song, “3845”. We didn’t have that many songs back then and had to improvise.
We ended up doing about 7 encores. We would run out of tunes and have to pull other musicians’ instrumentals to sing on. I remember after that show I thought I was going to have to go to the hospital. I was feeling sick from dehydration and couldn’t breathe.
Me: Wow, uggh
Zeebo: You know how you’re powered up on adrenaline and don’t realize what you’re doing until after the rush goes down? If I tried to do that now as an older man I would be dead.
Me: [I couldn’t help but laugh after that one.] How did that improvisation contribute to your current song compilations?
Zeebo: That’s how I make songs! We record every See-I performance in order not to lose a song. A lot of the songs are created by audience input and comfort level with the song.
Me: I see you’ve also worked with many premier live bands across the United States including Live Dubmarine and Pimps of Joy and Rob Paine…
Do you ever feel awkward when you have to go out of town and perform with other bands? Do you get to choose who you work with? How does that work?
Zeebo: Booking agents set us up. The other bands will open for us. I might play one song with them and ad lib but they don’t know our music. When I go out of town nowadays, I request that my band go with me. It wouldn’t be pleasing any other way because we would be making shit up on the spot.
Me: Lol, okay that makes sense.
Zeebo: One of the shows I was glad to be booked on was a show in Baltimore where we opened for Gregory Isaacs. I used to wear beaver hats back in the day and people used to say we looked alike. When I saw him in person, I saw it myself! He passed away not too long afterwards. I will never forget. We took some pictures with him. That was a defining moment for me career wise that was along the lines of meeting with Peter Tosh and the Wailers.
Me: I totally understand! I met Gregory Isaacs once before myself when my brother was opening for him. They were staying at a hotel in Silver Spring at the time.
Aren’t you all working on an album right now?
Zeebo: Yes, See-I #2. [He laughs.]
Me: What’s so funny?
Zeebo: Our albums don’t have names.
Me: Okay, I will look for them on Sound Cloud and see if I can include links to them here. [See-I on Sound Cloud]
Me: Aren’t you going on tour in Colorado next month? What happens to your Wednesday night shows then?
Zeebo: When I’m out of town, my son plays for me with parts of my band at 18th St. Lounge. My son, Salem, has so much music he could put out two albums. He is a keyboard player and my producer.
Me: How are you helping him with his career right now?
Zeebo: He plays with me so I am empowering him to be the next leader of Junior See-I and I put him in contact with people in the business so he can see how it operates. He needs to understand the business side so that he doesn’t jump wholeheartedly into situations without knowledge of the machinations.
Me: I agree, better that way than to learn haphazardly. Well, that’s all my questions. Thanks for meeting with me.
Zeebo: Thank you.
We ended with my birthday party being planned at 18th Street Lounge for Wednesday, February 13, 2013 with yours truly as special guest of the artists. Fun times!!!!