Interview: Sleepy Wonder
Before Sleepy Wonder became a staple in the Thievery Corporation clan and produced hits for Thievery and other artists, for nearly two decades, the Jamaican born and raised producer-artist worked to make a name for himself in the realm of dancehall and reggae music. Now with 30 years in the business and his fourth studio album, “Geometric Echoes,” to be released on August 14th, Sleepy Wonder conversed with Inity Weekly to reflect on his music career’s past, his hopes for the future, and the necessary growth that he experienced in-between.
IW: Being in the game since the 80’s, how do you feel your music has evolved?
SW: It started off in the regular dancehall, yunno? I started off in 1982 as a child entertainer in Jamaica with Youthman Promotions with Sugar Minott. Then I migrated to the States in ’84.
Growing up, you actually see a lot and learn a lot. What’s happening now is I’m more educated about what’s going on in the world, and I’m more conscious about what I say and what I record. Even touring with Thievery Corporation and recording with Thievery Corporation, I’m more conscious of what I write and what I record. So I am more into the social consciousness stuff at this point - it’s a more mature recording.
IW: That’s great because that’s definitely what Inity Weekly stands for – highlighting music that focuses on social consciousness. Jumping into that, are there particular issues you’re concerned or passionate about?
SW: We’re always concerned about the liberty in the communities, even though we don’t dwell on certain politics and political issues. But I traveled the world with Thievery and I see how certain issues need to be addressed; and without getting too deep I will scheme about the topic and try to bring it out in a recording and present it to the world. But, there’s a lot of issues out there I would like to address, but just because I am not that type of person that dwells too much on politics, I just keep it light instead of going too heavy.
IW: We definitely appreciate you for that. It keeps music real, and at the end of the day, we feel that’s what’s going to last, rather than current mainstream music that has no message.
IW: Going back into your past in the music industry, as a deejay, who were your biggest influences?
SW: My influences have to be Peter Metro, Yellowman, Sugar Minott, Shinehead, Shabba Ranks, Beenie Man – I have quite a few, and it’s very wide-scale because I also have influences in other genres of music that helped mold Sleepy into the artist that he is. I’m a faithful Jackson 5 fan, yunno, so all those come together and mold Sleepy as an artist.
IW: Elaborate more on some of the artists outside of reggae and dancehall that have had an influence in your work.
SW: Yeah, sure! Michael Jackson, Al Green – the soulful voice of Al Green, The Staple Singers – Mavis Staple - I grew up on that sound. Into other genres again like Calypso, King Sparrow – The Mighty Sparrow. You know, there’s so much different music that I used to listen to as a child, and my mom used to just play different types of music. So, growing up hearing different genres, different accents, and different cultures of music, I definitely own a wide scope of music in my catalog.
IW:Nice! Now, you’ve received numerous awards for your work, such as a Grammy nomination and from the Virginia Reggae Awards, including “Reggae Ambassador of the Year” in 2010. What does this recognition mean to you, and how has it had an impact in your life?
SW: At first I was kind of surprised that here, locally in Virginia, that I was being acknowledged because the Thievery Corporation sound is not really of the dancehall feel, so to speak. It’s a different character, mostly overseas, we have a different listenership. So, it was uplifting to find out that Virginia Reggae was actually following and they wanted to acknowledge that Sleepy’s been doing big work overseas and even locally. It made me feel good as an artist. I really respect the fact that what I am doing is impacting people locally - just to know that I am still in the business after all this time, and still doing it on a level to be recognized.
IW: Speaking of your relationship with Thievery Corporation, how did your relationship with Thievery or Rob Garza and Eric Hilton come about?
SW: In 1998, they hired Shinehead to do a recording with them, and while negotiating on the phone, Shinehead said to them - Shinehead is a good friend of mine, a brother of mine - he said to them, “I will come and do the recording only if you send a ticket for my good friend, Sleepy Wonder in Virginia to come along also. So they did that, and we flew to D.C., to the ESL studio and started working.
At first it was very hard to find out what they were looking for. We’re trying to read them, they’re trying to read us, and for like three days there was nothing accomplished until it just clicked in me. I went into the booth and that’s how the song “The State of the Union” came about. I just freestyled it: (sings)“The people live in misery/ Government a work/ But government them is a mockery/ Respect to the youths/ Whether in front and all dem back a me/ Why you don't treat them like the way you should?” and Eric jumped up and said, “that’s it!” and they signed me to an exclusive deal probably days right after that. It was humbling the way I met them because it was actually Shinehead’s thing and you know, I just came about and they gave me a deal and I’ve been with them for 13 years now and counting, and lovin’ it!
IW: The rest is history, right?
SW: Yes. Yes, definitely.
IW: How did the chance to produce and host the radio show, “The Vibe with Sleepy Wonder” happen?
SW: I have a good friend, Rob Connelly, he’s the owner of WXGR FM in Boston, and he is also the partner of ESL Radio Live now. But before the ESL Radio Live came about, Rob and I were talking on a tour bus one day and he was like, “Sleepy, I mean, you have all these fans across the world. What if you could capture their attention for two hours every Sunday… how would you feel?” I said, “I would like to do it, I would like to try.” Then we spoke about the commitment, yunno, it’s something you have to do every Sunday, even if you’re on the tour bus, even another country – you have to do it. So I started it and off the BAT the ratings started jumping with WXGR. He started telling me that yeah, “they want this, you gotta give them more, gotta give them more.” Then I introduced that same Rob Connelly to ESL which is Eric Hilton and Phil Hawkins - at ESL the label - and they worked out a deal and they started ESLRadioLive.com, and this is where we’re at today. Now we’re live, simulcast on ESLRadioLive.com and on WXGR every Sunday, 6 to 8, and I’m lovin’ it.
IW:So overall, how would you say your relationship with Thievery Corporation and ESL impacted your career?
SW: I’ll be honest with you, I’ll tell you this: Artists that started out when I started out in my age group and in the genre of music that I used to do, they are struggling to keep their career alive. I think ESL and Thievery came about in just the right time to keep Sleepy Wonder afloat, and I think that if it wasn’t for them, the name “Sleepy Wonder” would be on a low-end scale. And so I’m very thankful. I think it was a God-sent thing, I think it was destiny and fate and all that good stuff. The universe and the stars were aligned when I met Eric and Rob and all those things happened. I recorded so many songs and every song that I recorded with them on separate albums, (including) my particular single “Always Shine,” it makes me think they came and saved Sleepy Wonder’s career. I’m not afraid to say that.
IW: Speaking of your career now, you are moving on to release your new album, Geometric Echoes. What is the concept behind Geometric Echoes? What does this title represent?
SW: Well, a "geometric echo" is a symbol of the same shape in a sequence, like the American flag is a geometric echo because of the stars and the stripes. So, when I was doing this album, it’s what you call in the business a “concept album,” everything is going to be somewhat socially conscious, everything is going to be within the genre of say… dub, a little bit of ambiance, you know what I’m saying? So everything was uniform… so I was like, “this album is going to be in a geometric sequence.” So I started thinking about the idea, “Geometric Echoes” I started playing with it. So I came in the studio, I started producing a track, and I was like, hmm... (sings)“Geometric Echoes in a rub-a-dub style.” Sounded real good to me and I ran with it, and here we are.
IW: How does “Geometric Echoes” compare to your earlier albums Vibes and Injustice, or the work you’ve done with Thievery Corporation?
SW: Well, Geometric Echoes will actually run in line with what I do with Thievery. Thievery’s type of music is always socially conscious, political, always fighting for justice in some form. But like the former Sleepy Wonder albums like Injustice and Vibes, they’re all over the place. Yunno, like reggae, hip-hop, talking about girls, talking about clubbin’. It was all over the place, it wasn’t uniform. So, like I said earlier in our conversation, I am growing as an artist and my style is more mature and has more substance to it. I have more to say. So the Geometric Echoes album has a message from beginning to end, and I think the audience, my listeners, and listeners that don’t even know of Sleepy Wonder will appreciate this project.
IW: Well, much of your work consists of collaborations with other artists though in Geometric Echoes, it is all Sleepy Wonder. Why did you choose to go this route?
SW: In the time when I was producing the album, all my friends or co-workers or colleagues were actually busy, yunno? Like Shinehead is one of my closest friends, Bobo General, Shelly Thunder, I have all produced sounds with these people, at this time they were all doing their own, individual stuff. So I was pretty much in the studio, day after day, knowing that I have to make this record and I was like, “I’m gonna do it,” and the collab is not that important. I’m gonna do it, I have a lot to say, and over a span of a year and a half, almost two years, I was comfortable (with) the package, and I presented it.
IW: So, from here on out, are you planning to tour by yourself or continue to tour with Thievery and other artists?
SW: Well the Thievery thing will continue for as long as it can. I will rock that until the wheels fall off! That is a beautiful thing - a sure thing (laughs), yunno for business, on a personal level. We got two mortgages, a kid in high school, a kid in kindergarten, and a kid in college. Yunno, so the Thievery thing on a business tip is a sure thing. Now aside from the business, I RESPECT what Thievery’s doing. So I wanna rock that until the wheels fall off.
Now, as far as Sleepy Wonder touring with other people, I’m open. I’m hoping that this project will jump off and I will get a tour bus and do city to city, country to country and probably take Shinehead with me, and probably take Ras Attitude, probably take Ras Puma - that is one of my protégés, that’s my dude right there - Ras Puma. He’s a newcomer to Thievery Corporation, and he’s a very bright lion and he’s getting ready to do his thing when given the chance. I would still grab a few friends and go on the road. The road is where it’s at.
IW: So it’s safe to say that your fans can expect more music from you, number one, as an individual artist, but also in other collaborations?
SW: Oh yeah! This music “thing” will never stop, as long as there’s Vibe and there is a message to be said. I have my own recording studio in my house. A very extensive production setup, so I wake up in the morning with ideas. I roll right out of bed and straight into my room and I’m coming up with ideas. So yes, you will always hear something coming from Sleepy Wonder. It may be on a solo tip, it might be a collab, but anywhere you take it, there will be stuff coming from Sleepy. I have my own independent record company, No Choice Music Group, which is distributed on a major scale, by BMG Chrysalis, so it will be in every nook and cranny of the world. Yes.
IW: You’ve produced numerous hits, have toured nearly two dozen countries, and have awards to show for your talents. So from here, is there anything in your career that you feel you have yet to accomplish?
SW: To be honest with you, I am still yet to find that hit Sleepy Wonder record. That big major record. I have had hits on a dancehall level, yunno? But on a dancehall level, you sell 15,000 copies and they call that a “hit.” But in the major game that is really nothing- that’s promotional giveaways. So, I have had major hits with Thievery. I know what the numbers should be. So that’s what I’m aiming towards. I have yet to find that Sleepy Wonder scale of sales across the world, that could say, instead of when I look at my plaques on the wall and say I’ve got this from Thievery, I got that from Thievery, a Grammy nomination from Thievery - I would like get those accomplishments by myself. Then I’ll say yes. Yes, Sleepy Wonder got it in.
Photo: DB Baxley
Check out Sleepy Wonder's fourth studio album, Geometric Echoes on August 14th!
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