By Patricia Meschino, New York
Dancehall artist I-Octane's sensitively fashioned love songs have made him a ladies' favorite while his outgoing personality is ideally suited to his role as Brand Ambassador for such products as Jamaican telecommunications company Digicel. But the sing-jay's chief contribution to dancehall reggae is his persuasive socially conscious voice denouncing violence and the lack of opportunities facing the island's poor.
Now, with a just-released EP, a full-length album due in February, and an experienced music industry team that includes Destine Media and VP Records, can the 27-year old sing-jay's distinctive dancehall brand break though to the mainstream market?
"Bob Marley and others already did social commentary about political fights, people getting shot, starting wars for their own benefit, so I have to make sure I do mine in the I-Octane way," reasoned the artist, born Byoime Muir in Clarendon, Jamaica.
Rather than glorifying the harshness of ghetto realities, I-Octane's grittily detailed expressions of rude boy runnings, delivered with a distinguishing, haunting guttural cry, offer cautionary messages regarding wanton gun use and redemptive sentiments rooted in Rastafarian teachings, an amalgamation that has made him one of Jamaican music's hottest commodities.
The artist's complex musical identity comes into sharper focus, especially for the international market, with two separate releases. The six-song EP "Straight From The Heart", the introductory project from his Conquer The Globe label, was released on Dec. 6 in association with New York City based Destine Media. His debut album "Crying To The Nation," due on Feb. 14, is a joint venture between Queens, New York-based independent reggae VP Records and Scikron Entertainment (based in Miami and Kingston); I-Octane isn't signed to either company.
"Straight From The Heart" is primarily a digital release, with distribution through TuneCore, although a limited run of physical copies will be available throughout the U.S. and Canada, according to Destine Media CEO Ronnie Tomlinson. Tomlinson handles I-Octane's management and bookings in the U.S; Ray Alexander, Kingston-based CEO of Khool International, handles those responsibilities in the Caribbean.
"We are concentrating on internet based marketing via major reggae websites, some hip-hop, R&B and festival websites, major publications in the US, Canada and Europe," Tomlinson says. "We have teamed up with an urban event team, Rebel NYC, for a series of EP release parties in the US, which will allow us to tap into additional markets," The initial "Straight From The Heart" release party was held at Drom in New York City on Dec. 12.
The EP includes three songs recorded in the US, a first for I-Octane, produced by Gary G" Galbraith of UniiQe Impact Productions and Dev Kutta of Livity Movements. The lead single "Burn Dem Bridge"--produced by Kingston's Stephen "Di Genius" McGregor and featuring a torrent of rhymes chiding his detractors--has reached the pinnacle position on charts in Jamaica, and has received spins on U.S. stations including New York City's WQHT FM (Hot 97).
"Crying To The Nation", meanwhile, offers a few previously released singles including the 2009 Jamaican chart topper "Lose A Friend," a somber tribute to a departed companion that was later adapted as an homage to the casualties of Kingston's Tivoli Gardens incursion in May 2010, as Jamaican authorities pursued wanted drug lord Christopher "Dudus" Coke.
The album's new selections replace the synthesized dancehall beats heard on the artist's earlier material with indestructible one-drop grooves, crafted by some of Kingston's finest musicians, an ideal complement to the simultaneous strength and vulnerability of I-Octane's vocals. His rock track "L.O.V.E. Y.O.U" will be the first single pushed at radio in the U.S. and beyond.
"We want I-Octane to get into places where dancehall can't carry him and cultural reggae has a wider market," says Dane Bogle Director of Radio Promotions/A&R Rep at VP Records. Another focus track, "Crying To The Nation," was also produced by Scikron Entertainment CEO Robert Livingston. Livingston, who managed dancehall superstar Shaggy for 19 years, envisions great success for I-Octane, provided he remains cognizant of contributing factors beyond music-making. "Artists have to understand that more than talent is needed to be successful," Livingston observes. "It's your mannerisms, personality, the team working around you, what incentives do they have? How do you treat your fans? That said, I-Octane is very easy to work with in the studio and "Crying To The Nation" is one of the best projects I have ever worked on."
I-Octane's initial renown commenced in 2008 with the deeply affecting commentaries "Stab Vampire," "Different Page" and "Poverty", all released on Kingston's Arrows Records, to which he was signed for four years. He topped the Jamaican charts in 2009 with the tender "Mama You Alone" (Arrows) and in mid 2010 with the contemplative "My Life" (DJ Frass Records).
The same year I-Octane was selected as the face of Digicel's Next Generation promotional campaign in conjunction with Reggae Sumfest, Jamaica's largest reggae festival. He reached dancehall's major league with a blistering performance at Sumfest 2010 his cultural lyrics, delivered with rude boy swag, eliciting an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from the crowd.
Now an in-demand act throughout the Caribbean and at reggae events in the US and Europe, I-Octane views the formation of his Conquer The Globe label and the release of his "Straight From The Heart" EP, as significant platforms for expanding his influence within the dancehall genre. "My plan is to bring out new artists, control the distribution and use that to build brand Octane," he explains. "I want the I-Octane brand to reach the highest levels so people will know what it stands for, so even if I pass off in flesh, like Bob Marley, the brand stays alive."