Interview with Jeff "King Django" Baker

Jeff Baker has been involved in the New York ska scene since the mid 1980's with bands like The Boilers, Murphys Law, Skinnerbox and the Stubborn All-Stars as well as doing his own solo songs and working with other bands like The Radiation Kings, The Slackers, The Toasters and so on. He also runs his Stubborn Records label and Version City studio which records all of hius bands as well as all the other ska/reggae groups in New York City. This is an interview with him, the head of the New York City Ska Mob.

KYLE- Whats been going on with you lately?

DJANGO- My brother Doug recently left the label so I've been digging back in and re-familiarizing myself witht he day-to-day opertations. We recently hooked up with BIB Records for distrobution, so hopefully our stuff will be more readily available now. I am looking for a new place to live so I can have a proper office and my studio all under one roof. We put a bunch of records out on Stubborn this year, a lot for us: Roots Branch and Stem Volume 2; Victor Rice at Version City; Stubborn All-Stars Nex Music; Radiation Kings Early years. We also liscensed the NYC Ska Mob compilation to Triple Crown Records and Version City Rockers Version City Dub Clash to Jumpstart Records. Grover Records in Germany have been releasing some of our stuff over in Europe lately as well so we toured over there twice in the last year, that was cool. We are expanding the Black and White 'zine to 32 pages and will be having reviews and stuff, and just alot more different stuff in it. Apart from all that, we've been doing as many Stubborn All-Stars shows as possible, and I just started rehearsals for a new "solo" album.

KYLE- Are you ever going to bring the Ska Mob down to Cali?

DJANGO- I would totally love to come back to Cali, I havent really gotten a chance to spend as much time there as I'd like. I probobly will come out there with my solo project just cause it will probobly be easier that way. As far as one of those giant Ska Mob tours, it's very difficult to mount something that size, and alot of peoples heads have really inflated to the point where they are very difficult to deal with so I dont really see that happening until some folks get over themselves.

KYLE- Whats up with Skinnerbox? Is Skinnerbox still a top priority for you?

DJANGO- Right now Skinnerbox is on indefinite hiatus. If it starts up again, I don't know who will be in it, but I do have alot of ideas that are not really suited to Stubborn All-Stars or my solo thing so only time will tell.

KYLE- Who plays on the "Nex Music" album?

DJANGO- It's the same rhythm section: good Vic, bad Vic, Headdie and Jay. Theres less big horn stuff on this one but we got Rolf Lansjoen (Skinnerbox) and Sledge (ex Toasters) on trumpets, John Chapman (SkoiDats)and Ramon Fleysher (who has since joined the Bosstones) on sax...theres a bunch of others in the mix too.

KYLE- Does "Nex Music" follow the paths of reggae and versions and all that like "Back With a New batch" did or will it be more ska like "Open Season"?

DJANGO- It does both, it reaches back further into earlier ska styles than "Open Season" did and forward into later reggae styles as well.

KYLE- Will you be putting out another solo album anytime soon?

DJANGO- I don't know when it's coming out but I should be in the studio in December.

KYLE- It seems that New York musicians have the tighest ska scene in the country, and probobly the world. What do you think caused this? The Ska Mob thing or Version City or what?

DJANGO- I think at this point it's kind of illusory. As I said earlier, certian people really started to think they were rock stars and it's very hard to be around them now. In the last year or two I have to say it's got pretty ugly and some people have been really selfish and forgotten who their friends are and stuff like that. I'm personally very disillusioned with the whole thing, so my crew has become smaller but more stable.

KYLE- What do you think of the state of todays ska scene?

DJANGO- I dont like most new music, especially most new ska. There's not a lot going on that I can appreciate. I have been listening to this music for so long that it's very hard for me to be impressed with some band who just rips off a load of songs that I've heard for years. I'm more looking for substance than style, I look for good, creative, original writing and strong, meaningful lyrics. There are still good ska records being made, but theyre few and far between. I'm also tired of the narrowminded pigeon-holing attitude of alot of people, but thats just across the board on the planet, not just int he ska scene. It seems like people want you to just freeze in time and keep repeating yourselves, doing the same thing over and over. They expect you to decide what you are one day and just stay that way. I could never do that. I need to grow and change and learn all the time and my music will always reflect that.

KYLE- How do you compare it to the ska scene when you first got into it? What was the scene like in the 80's?

DJANGO- When I first got into it, it was alot more mysterious, nobody knew who Prince Buster or The Skatalites or Laurel Aitken were, nobody. I had some punk rock friends who were kind of into it but for the most part, at first, I was into it almost all alone. When the scene really started happening here in NY with local bands there was a lot more reggae vibe still in the music, a lot more conscious vibe. I've seen it go through alot of phases and changes and I'm sure it will keep changing. I think I'm not in a great position to talk about it because I am seeing it from such a different perspective now. I don't really know how it is to participate from the audiences point of view.

KYLE- How did you get into ska? I heard you used to be a deejay before you got some bands together.

DJANGO- I heard the Specials one day and I just dug the hell out of it, it was so different from anything I knew. After that I heard all the British bands, and from there I learned all about the Jamaican ska. After that I learned about the rock steady, and the reggae and the dub and what at that time was called dancehall. Dancehall now is very different than it was in the 80's. I did used to DJ at school dances and throw a lot of ska and reggae parties in Manhattan.

KYLE- When did you start Stubborn Records? Was "Tales of the Red" the first thing released on it?

DJANGO- I started the label around 1993 and yeah, Tales of the Red was the first one

KYLE- How did you start producing?

DJANGO- My first exposure was a guy called Oliver who was the singer and producer for The Boilers. I was into listening to dub at that time, but he was my first exposure to creating it. At that time I didn't know anything at all about it. I had been in a studio once before that. We used to hang out and smoke herb and play with his 8-track machine. After that, when we first started recording Skinnerbox sstuff I was still pretty green, but I knew some basics. We used to record most of our stuff with a guy called Jay Wacko. He recorded tons of bands who were playing in NY at that time, alot of punk rock and noise and stuff. The whole time that we were working with him, I just learned alot from being around him that I wasn't even conscious of. At first, I used to just let him do his thing. The more time I spent in the studio, the more I started to know what I wanted things to sound like. By the time I had enough cash to get some equiptment of my own and set up Version City I was actually surprised at how much I ha dpicked up from these guys. I remember the feeling of amazement when I took the stuff all out of the boxes and hooked it all up and it worked! I didn't really even know that I had any idea what I was doing. Since then, it's always a learning experience. I like working with young bands too because I always learn alot from them. They are not yet set in their ways so sometimes they have alot of crazy ideas which turn out good. They also tend to be more enthusiastic because it's new to them. Young bands always remind me of techniques and ideas I have forgotten all about, as well. When a band is trying to explain what they want but they don't know how to technically get there, it's very exciting when you can figure it out and make it work for them.

KYLE- Whats the story behind the Stubborn All-Stars?

DJANGO- The story? Boy loves ska, reggae and R&B. Boy starts band. Band plays avant garde experimental fusion which includes these elements and more. Boy wants roots music. Boy assembles one-time studio project. Boy releases 7" single. Label signs boy. Roots music haunts boy for years.

KYLE- Is the line-up that plays on "Olds Cool" the same as the one who plays on "Open Season"?

DJANGO- Some of the tracks on Open Season are just remixes of the same tracks from Olds Cool. With Open Season, Vic Ruggiero switched to keyboards from guitar, and Agent Jay took over on guitar. The original keyboard player, Taks, didn't want to make the album. Other than that, it's pretty much the same folks.

KYLE- Where does the name King Django come from?

DJANGO- I started using the name Django as my deejay (toasting) name around 1985. I took it from the Upsetters tune "Return of Django". I just dug the hell out of that tune. In 1986 I was going to change it because believe it or not, alot of deejays in Brooklyn were using that name in different variations and combinations. At that time, Rocker T told me to keep it and I did. While I always used it on the mic, it didnt really stick as a name people acctually called me until I was in Murphys Law. The King part got added on as a joke when we made "Olds Cool", in reference to Prince Buster, Duke Reid, King Tubby, Prince Jammy, Sir Lord Comic, Lord Creator, etc. It seemed to get a big rise out of some people and it stuck, so I stuck with it.

KYLE- You, and all the other bands you work with, seem like you record constantly. Would you say that you play live more or record more or do you try to even it out?

DJANGO- This year it feels like I haven't done enough of either. I do enjoy being home and writing and in the studio and making records, but I really love to be out on the road playing shows every night. I love seeing all the people happy and dancing and having a good time. It's also the only time I feel I have the space and time to really work on my horn playing and my singing in a steady context. I am never better than after a month on he road. The sacrifice on the road is that you reallyhave no stability in your life. It can get extremly lonely and it's hard to get bigger things accomplished.

KYLE- What else do you like besides Jamaican music?

DJANGO- Ben and Jerrys Phish Phood, lots of different styles of music, hanging out with good people, spiritual people, inspirational/uplifting music and people, jamming and singing, reading, learning, feeling comfortable and confident (rare), dancing, vegetables, fruits, good movies, good artists, hugs and snuggles.

KYLE- Who are your biggest musical influences?

DJANGO- At this point there are so many that i couldnt really cite any one in particular. I love lots of different kinds of music and there are so many great and inspiring musicians past and present.

KYLE- Is there any new ska bands that you think are really doing great right now?

DJANGO- I am not too aware of too many new ska bands. There is a whole new crop of traditional ska bands out there, I know but most of them are shabby and derivitive. I like the Radiation kings alot, which is why I am working witht hem. Rathskeller is pretty cool, they could slow down a bit and be more original. Vic Ruggieros new Skandalous All-Stars record is his best work. Victor Rice is writing great stuff. Pressure Cooker from Boston sounds good. Some stuff on Simmerdown label is cool, and stuff coming from Dr. Echos place in Cali.

KYLE- Did you hear about the whole Brian Keyo/Skatalites vs The Toasters/Moon Ska conflict? If so what are your feelings about this?

DJANGO- In a way I don't really want to say anything at al because I dont want tog et involved. I won't talk about what theyre arguing about but I think it's stupid and Keyo should speak for himself or keep his mouth shut. If he wants to say stuff aout Moon, he has the right to, but he shouldnt hide behind Tommy McCooks ghost. Thats downright cowardly. He also dosent seem to display much depth or intelligence when confronted.

KYLE- Is there any bands that you would like to play or record with but havent had the oppertunity yet?

DJANGO- I would love to be around Vin Gordon and Rico Rodrigues for a while, or the remaining Skatalites, and I would love to hang out with Derrick Morgan and Laurel Aitken some more. I like Q-Maxx from the Slackers alot, we are gonna get together and so some stuff. I am very into the idea of doinf some more stuff with Rocker T as well. We have been around each other alot but we havent combined enough. Same for Dr Ring Ding and jack Ruby Jr. I would be into touring with The Pietasters, The Bosstones, Amazing Crowns, some other folks that I like but havent got the chance to spend enough time with. I would really like to work with Sean Muttaqi too.

KYLE- Who is your favorite band or performer to work with?

DJANGO- The guys currently in Stubborn All Stars are pretty much all my favorites on their respective instruments. As far as other bands to tour with, I always have a good time with the Skavoovie guys, the Slackers, alot of the folks I mentionedc in the last question.

KYLE- What would be your dream show to play?

DJANGO- Hmmm, a huge concert carried on satellite celebrating the end of war and hunger and hatred and violence on the Earth.

KYLE- Do you have any words of wisdom to those who are just starting up bands or just starting to play an instrument?

DJANGO- Take is serious. It's dread as a heart attack. Learn your instrument, but learn as much as you can aboout music in general. Learn the business too because it is full of pitfalls.

Django at the "Open Season" record release party. This pic from the Stubborn Records webpage.

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