Los Angeles possesses an intimate dancehall and reggae scene that is unique when compared to other major Caribbean hubs such as Miami, New York City and Toronto. The intimacy of the LA scene allows for certain artists and promoters to become the "royalty" of their niche. One such king and queen in the Los Angeles community is '80s dancehall superstar Shinehead and his lady comrade DJ Papalotl.
Shinehead and DJ Papalotl are unique in and of themselves. Shinehead is a veteran ambassador of the culture and DJ Papalotl charms you with her extensive knowledge of underground Jamaican music. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with as they hold down the classic vibes in LA’s small melting pot.
KingstonToLA recently caught up with the pair at their rehearsal space in downtown Los Angeles. We were treated to a raw, uncut set and a just-for-fun sound clash from the Kingston 12 HiFi sound, which includes Shinehead and DJ Papalotl.
The crew's soundclashes are not about the typical artist drop. It differs from your common DJ battle in numerous ways, but one thing that stands out is their collective respect for the music. It's really about how deep your music knowledge can go and whether or not you can keep up with some of the best crate diggers on the West coast.
Their record collection is vast and historic, with one third of the collection originally belonging to Ras "King Richard" O'Brien, a beloved, local reggae pioneer in the City of Angels. King Richard passed away in 2014, entrusting his entire collection to Shinehead and the Kingston 12 family. What has become of this gift, in addition to Shinehead and DJ Papalotl's own extensive collection, is a reinvigoration of Shinehead’s career through his and the crew's ability to bring old school, rare vinyl and mix it with today's dancehall sound. "Once King Richard died, Shinehead wanted to honor Richard's life and the records that he had bequeathed, so he asked Richard's family for permission to name our sound system KIngston 12 HiFi after the first reggae venue that King Richard started, in not only Los Angeles, but on the West coast," says DJ Papalotl.
As Shinehead prepares to spread his own message, he has also made sure the equipment in which he is doing so is top notch and connected to Jamaica’s original dancehall culture. The original movement had one thing in common. Whether it was being played in Jamaica or the streets of New York, it was about the sound systems. They were built with one thing in mind: people need to feel the music, not just hear it.
This dedication to classic sound is just one piece of the mystique that Kingston 12 HIFi brings. Shinehead’s vibes are filled with witty charm as he pulls the vinyl from the stacks. The two banter back and forth as they try to outdo one another with rare songs and big moments. DJ Papalotl is always right there alongside the guys, challenging them with every record drop. The camaraderie is a sight to see.
We asked DJ Papalotl where she began her love affair with the dancehall and how she found her passion for DJing. "My passion for reggae started with dancehall in the late '80s living in south central LA amongst Belizeans. My exposure to reggae dancehall were mix tapes from New York that got passed around or jacked among friends. So, I wouldn't say that there was a specific song that got me hooked. It was more the vibes from the cassettes with the FX and rooster samples and, most definitely, the dancehall riddims. The more I listened to cassettes, the more curious I got, to the point of buying tapes at record shops from my high school years into college," says DJ Papalotl.
So, how did this love affair continue? We wanted to know. In her junior year of college, DJ Papalotl found a study-abroad program in Kingston, Jamaica, which she happily embarked on. "While a student during the day, I would go to dancehalls and reggae stage shows at night. When I returned to finish my senior year in college, my best friend, who was an aspiring hip-hop DJ from the Bay area, taught me how to use Technics 1200's and a DJ Mixer with a CD Walkman. My career as a DJ began at The Claremont Colleges doing dances and parties. I also played dancehall music on KSPC 88.7 FM at Pomona College with a partner that played reggae music the first hour," says DJ Papalotl.
Armed with legit experience with Jamaican music and culture, DJ Papalotl would later meet and combine forces with veteran Jamaican artist Shinehead. "We met during the summer of 2012 when I invited him to be a guest on 'Buttahfly FX', back then on Husky Radio. He played that set and has played every Tuesday since. In the summer of 2013, one year after I invited him to be my radio guest, Shinehead invited me to come to Rototom, Europe's Reggae Sunsplash. He told me that I had to get my plane ticket, but if I got there, I'd have an opportunity to spin. So I bought my ticket online while partying at Reggae Love on a Sunday night. Shinehead had flown ahead and was in France when he gave me the news to get to Spain for the festival. I got there and had a chance to play at Europe's largest reggae venue for a diverse crowd from all over the world. Since then, I haven't had to pay for a single plane ticket (or reggae show or festival). That was Shinehead's way of showing everybody that I had the skills to 'hang with the big boys and play with the big toys.' That's Shinehead lingo."
Since then, the collaboration has led to exclusive sets on platforms such as the Welcome to Jamrock cruise, where Papalotl and Shinehead create a truly magical set. So much so that it has become one of the fan favorites on the five-day cruise. "Everybody has a Shinehead story," says DJ Papalotl, referring to the outpouring of love they receive as they explore the ship. "Sometimes, we are planning to do our thing, on our way to dinner, and someone stops us with another Shinehead story," she says. "One woman even went as far as sharing that her sobriety was due to Shinehead's music."
We then inquired further about the speakers -- the speakers that make the duo's dancehalls not only a throwback, but also a legendary experience.
"The sound system was custom built by Shinehead. He took about two months to study specs online. He watched YouTube videos studiously, and spoke to sound people and friends from all over like Legal Shot in France, Tony Screw from Downbeat The Ruler (whose sound was also built by the same person who built Jack Ruby's sound) and General Jah Mikey. Our sound has four double scoops, meaning each bass speaker has two, 18-inch speaker drivers each. That means that our four bass speakers are four feet high and roughly three feet wide, and made out of baltic birch wood that has to have a certain count of thickness that allows the deep resonance that you hear thundering. That kind of wood you don't even get at Home Depot. Shinehead had to get that wood from a specialized lumber yard. Above each bass speaker is a top composed of mid-range and high-frequency driver speakers. I'm not allowed to give specific numerical frequency ranges or name brands of speaker drivers, but just know we are running thousands and thousands and thousands of watts," says DJ Papalotl.
The connection fans feel to Shinehead is mainly due to his love of the music and his dedication to the culture. The artiste is known to promote his own events on foot, in the classic one-man street team way, placing flyers on vehicles and in the hands of the people. When asked about this he said, "If we nah eat, we gonna starve, so we haffi eat."
Shinehead and DJ Papalotl have been able to combine forces with many of LA's reggae kings and queens with this very principle in mind. The more people they build with and do for, the more everyone will shine. One such case in point is the duo's weekly radio show, which has hosted several local acts on their Tuesday night spot called "Buttahfly FX" on DigginDaily.com. DJs and artists that have shared the airways include Rankin Joe, Tippa Irie, Mad Lion, Mr. Vegas, Jovi Rockwell, King Ras Pedro, The Delirians, Sista Q and more. Make sure to tune in for a superset each Tuesday evening on DigginDaily.com and every Sunday for their "#SundayReggaeSchool" show on IrishandChin.com -- one that catches the je ne sais quoi of the Kingston 12 HiFi team and, at the same time, brings you the definition of LA reggae love, one record at a time.
Images courtesy of Parker Bartlett. All rights reserved.