J Boog is a rising star in the international reggae scene, most recently lauded with a Grammy nomination of “Best Reggae Album” for his EP, Rose Petals. Born in Compton, California and currently residing in Hawaii, J Boog is a child of a rich trans-Pacific Polynesian reggae scene. Raised in a family rooted in their Samoan identity and filled with reggae music, he found his own powerful voice in the music form, collaborating with reggae legends from Jamaica and the Pacific. His sound is sun-drenched, lush and a bit retro, paying homage to old-school, full-bodied roots reggae in a similar vein to that of young Jamaican star Chronixx. J Boog is signed with the California-based label Wash House, on which he released his remarkable Wash House Ting album last year. Afropop’s Sebastian Bouknight caught up with J Boog on the phone just before he stepped into a rehearsal in California:
Sebastian Bouknight: First of all, big up on your Grammy nomination!
J Boog: Thank you, man, thank you very much.
How are you feeling about it?
Well, I’m really excited about it, man. We didn’t even know anything about it, you know what I mean? Then, when we got nominated, we were just in awe – excited, happy and all those crazy feelings running through your mind, you know?
So how long were working on that album? Though it was the Rose Petals EP that was nominated, right?
Yeah the EP was nominated, but, the album [Wash House Ting], we were working on for about five years.
Oh wow, long time coming!
Yeah man, we’ve been trying to put a lot of stuff together, meeting a lot of people, a lot of producers, and trying to make sure that what we put out was the right thing for us, you know what I mean? Hopefully everybody dug it the same way we did.
Yeah man, I’ve been listening to it on repeat, its really excellent. It’s got a really good sound.
[Laughs] Thank you so much, man.
Yeah. So can you introduce yourself? Who you are and what you do?
Yeah, my name is Jerry Afemata, also known as J Boog, and I’m coming from Compton, California by way of Samoa, Hawaii and all the great South Pacific islands, and I love reggae! [Laughs]
Cool! So, going on that, when you were coming up in Compton, can you tell us a little bit about how reggae found you–or how you found reggae, however you think about it.
Man…I guess I found reggae, you know what I mean? My older sister had a lot of mixtapes–didn’t have any names on them, and we’d always listen to reggae throughout the house–reggae’s huge in Polynesia you know? We’d listen to that stuff growing up in Compton. When I started listening to the lyrics and understanding them, you know, it made me escape, you know? It means that there’s a better thing than the negativity that we were going through. It was an escape. From then on, I was hooked. One of the main artists we were listening to back in the day was Bob Marley, of course. It didn’t hit me though until my sister came home with one sheet of music from [Bob Marley’s] Legend album. She plays piano for church, you know, and she was playing “Jamming” and I came running out of the room like, “what the hell?” I didn’t know that could be done! [Laughs] I was a kid, you know what I mean? I was a kid. It was amazing to me.
So, that was a powerful experience for you. What other kind of music was surrounding you at the time? What else did you grow up with?
Man, everything! I grew up in the G-funk era, which is my favorite era…lot of Dogg Pound, a lot of Snoop [Dogg], lot of DJ Quik, lot of Warren G, Nate Dogg…a lot of stuff was popping through the house at that time. You know what I mean? My older brothers used to listen to a lot of rock too, you know? Lot of Guns and Roses, Megadeath, Metallica…as kids there was a big old mixed plate of music in the house, a lot of oldies, a lot of funk a lot of soul.
I was reading a bit about you–you said that you grew up in a family with a strong cultural identity, a strong Samoan identity. Did music from that identity factor into your youth and into the music you make now?
I guess so. [Laughs]
At least, you were saying that reggae is huge in the Pacific.
Definitely, yeah. I think that was one of the genres that we could hold on to with ease, not knowing that it was coming from a different island. That’s the connection, I guess.
Absolutely. So, you came up in Compton with reggae and then you find yourself on another island, Hawaii. What moves you about living there now? I know you moved out there partly because of [Polynesian reggae star] George “Fiji” Veikoso, but what keeps you living and making music there?
Everything, you know? The weather, the food, the vibe, my band’s out there…I mean, that’s the hub of Polynesia, where everybody goes to. In Hawaii, and New Zealand is another hub. So we just go and chill and kick back…we used to go to Hawaii all the time cause we had so much family out there and it was easy. It wasn’t the easiest transition though for me, because I came from the city and it was kinda slow. But I got used to the flippers and shorts and kicking my feet up [Laughs]. But yeah man, it’s a lovely place to be at, just everything about it wants you to stay there.
You’ve ended up working with many of the elders of Jamaican reggae. Not only that, but some of your other idols too, like Snoop Dogg, Chaka Demus, Buju Banton, Gramps Morgan and them. How has that been for you, to go from being just a fan to a collaborator?
I’m still a fan, you know what I mean? I’m a huge fan of everybody that I work with, and I still will be. Those were like, the people who set the foundation and gave me inspiration to write what I write today. I think a big part of that too was Peetah Morgan and Gramps [Morgan] and Fiji – they are probably the best mentors that I can ask for. I’m just blessed to have them on my side and pointing me in the right direction. It’s been a great experience to get to collab with such artists as Chaka Demus and them, you know what I mean? I can learn from them in the studio and their lyrics – it puts me on a different high, you know?
Absolutely. Other than those folks, who would you say has been a bright, guiding light in your life, other than those musicians that you admire?
Hmmmm [sings] this little light of mine…[Laughs]
[Laughs] A deeper question…
I think it’d have to be my parents, man, my family. My older brothers, my brothers, man–I have seven brothers and one sister, and I’m the youngest. They helped me growing up, showing me the rights and wrongs about everything and letting me go in there and figure out what the right and wrong was. [Laughs] Yeah, you know the stuff that they said in my life when I was a kid stuck with me now. It helped me pursue my career, through all the trials and tribulations that we go through in this music business, you know? Yeah, my family, for sure.
Are any of them musicians these days?
Uhh, they try to be! [Laughs] My older brother, he’s a singer now but nah, nah…[Laughs]. He’s actually a great singer, man, and I didn’t know that until we did karaoke one time and I was like “what?” [Laughs] But yeah man, he’s a really dope singer. My sister plays the piano and my mom and them, they hop on the ukulele from time to time. But other than that, I’ve got an older brother who’s a DJ too, spinning his tunes here and there. It was just something that we loved to do!
Great! Its great to have an entire family into music like that, it’s a beautiful thing. O.K., here at Afropop, we sometimes do a thing we call Four Tracks–when we’re talking to an artist, we ask them to talk about four of their tracks–where they came from, what they mean to you…somethings that a listener might not know. So let’s talk about “Rose Petals.” Could you talk about where this song came from creatively and what that song means to you?
“Rose Petals” is a song that’s about this dude trying to build up his courage to go talk to this girl. He wants to get involved with her but he doesn’t know if she’s putting him in the “friendzone” [Laughs]. He’s trying to figure out what the hell’s going on, he really likes this girl and is like “she loves me or she loves me not?” I couldn’t have made this happen without my bro Rob, man. He’s the main writer for that one too.
Oh, O.K. Are you the lyricist?
Yep, me and him.
Cool. The other track that I have been listening to a lot is “I Got You.”
“I Got You” with Aaradhna? Yeah! She’s another artist down from New Zealand.
That’s a great track. I found it different from the rest of the album, with a different, poppier feel.
It was the feeling that came out when I heard the beat. We were at my boy’s studio and he just put on a beat, and that’s kinda what came out. Pretty much just talking shit [laughs]. Talking shit in the bedroom, you know what I mean?
[Laughs] Right. Creatively, how do you often work? Someone produces instrumentals then lyrics come from that, or does it work the other way around?
I write more of the instrumentals, you know what I mean? I love to write the instrumentals. But it has to be a beat that catches my attention, ‘cause if its not I just can’t get a vibe to it. I know when the beat’s right ‘cause when I start writing, the lyrics come out like water and it’s the perfect one for me, you know? I can write something great to it. That’s what happens most of the time, you know?
Cool. “Good Cry” with Chaka Demus. Loving that song. What was that experience like, working with Chaka?
I was nervous as heck [laughs]. I wasn’t in the studio with him but I was still nervous. Peetah Morgan sent him the song and then in the next couple hours we got it right back with a dope verse from him. And it wasn’t one verse, you know? He went in with all of them. It’s what he does, you know? He was who we had in mind when we were writing that song. It was a trip–when we went down to Jamaica and he came to the studio just to say what’s up and show some love. That was amazing, man. Getting to meet him in person and see how he was, it was a dope experience. [As for] the song itself, we had this idea for the longest time. You know, we were watching something on social media, some girl who was crying about something for no reason and we were like let’s come up with a song about tears of joy or something. [Laughs] It was a dumb idea but it came out with a great song! [Laughs]
I’m glad it worked out, man! Thinking about Chaka, it brings up something else I’ve been thinking about. When listening to your music, and to reggae in general, I’ve noticed that most people who make reggae music, whether they are Jamaican or not, often bring Jamaican patois into the vocals. Do you feel like patois is part and parcel with reggae? Is reggae the same thing without it?
I think…I don’t know actually, I think it’s a very important part of reggae music. It does come from Jamaica and that’s the foundation. I’m trying to show love to that and do it the current way–I’m just trying to do it the way I heard it and the way I love it. Not saying that people who do it without patois, that it’s wrong. There’s a lot of great reggae songs out there coming from a lot of other people that aren’t Jamaican as well–it doesn’t have to be hardcore patois–it’s just the vibe you get from reggae, how you feel. I guess people have different takes on it, but as long as it makes you feel good and makes you happy, then it’s done its job.
Interesting. I was thinking about it because, obviously, reggae has become such a universal language across the world. On the other hand, I hear objections from some people, like in response to a white singer of a local reggae group who sang in patois–“What are you doing, you’re white, you shouldn’t be singing patois.”
I mean, if its done correctly, then I don’t see what the problem is. I mean, it’s from the person, man. I think what people shouldn’t forget is that it comes from Jamaica. Jamaica’s been putting out music nonstop and you know, we’re just trying to pay homage.
Respect. Thanks for your take on that. O.K., now a song like “Sweet Love,” also a beautiful song. I’ve been noticing that a lot of your songs are love songs. You seem to love love songs…
Of course, man! It’s all about love.
[Laughs] I read that you’re a big fan of Beres Hammond and his crooning abilities.
[Laughs] Beres is the best, man. He’s one of the greatest. Any Beres Hammond song in the dance, it will go off, you know. He has that capability, man. The vibe just makes you feel like it’s going to be a great night.
Totally. Would you say that’s your message behind you music? Love?
Pretty much! Love, consciousness, being aware of your surroundings, that there is a brighter day after that tunnel of negativity…of shittiness [laughs].
I feel like that message is much needed these days. “Brighter Days” is a good example of that. O.K. man, I’ll let you get back to rehearsal. I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you so much!
All right man, thank you! See you at the show.
J Boog will be in town on Feb. 1 at Brooklyn Bowl with Jo Mersa Marley and others. Get your tix here. For a chance to win a pair of tickets, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and put “J Boog Giveaway” in the subject line. Also, get your hands on J Boog’s excellent record Wash House Ting here and keep your eyes and ears out during the Grammy Awards on Feb. 12!