Bunji Garlin Breaks Out: On the Road With America's First Soca Pop Star

Trinidad's hero takes us aboard his float in New York's West Indian Day Parade and tells us the long story behind his massive success

Credit: Dana Distortion

New York's West Indian Day Parade has marked the city's Labor Day weekend for decades, and this year, the festivities begin at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night. "They say this is the last weekend of summer!" yells local radio celeb DJ Prostyle, doing his best to make everyone aboard the VP Records' "Carnival Gold" yacht party forget that Thursday and Friday are technically still work days.

Sailing down the Hudson River, Prostyle and his 105.1 colleagues DJ Self and DJ Norie spin 2014's biggest Caribbean hits: springy dancehall from Jamaica and uptempo soca from Trinidad. Under normal circumstances, this music would create a frenzy. Tonight, however, the boat's main hall is nearly empty. After all, who wants to listen to soca when one of the genre's biggest stars — Bunji Garlin, the man who intends to spread this music all the way across the globe — is outside shaking hands and posing for pictures?

An hour later, however, he and his fans are back inside, and the whirlwind begins. Bunji gets behind the mic and plays his latest smash, "Truck on D Road," changing the words to refer to a "boat on the sea." He enters into a genuine freestyle that describes the vessel and raises the room's energy level. He drops "Differentology," the breakthrough track that has appeared everywhere from sporting events to Grey's Anatomy, from Port of Spain fêtes to global EDM festivals, and when he reaches the song's chorus, a resounding "We ready for the road," the sing-along is so loud that it can almost be heard back on shore.

Born in 1978, Garlin (government name: Ian Alvarez) grew up in Arima, one of Trinidad's larger towns and the birthplace of calypso legend Lord Kitchener. In the decade before Garlin entered this world, another calypso legend, the six-foot-four-inch Lord Shorty, created soca by making the older genre even more danceable, adding Indian rhythms and instruments, a little bit of Haitian cadence and – depending on whom you ask – some American R&B. Over time, the music became faster and harder, and its lyrics began to incorporate more party-starting call-and-response. It now rules the island – especially during its pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations – and tracks like Arrow's "Hot, Hot, Hot," Kevin Lyttle's "Turn Me On" and, yes, the Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out" (originally a hit for Anselm Douglas) have reached the American mainstream.

Garlin, though, like almost all Trinidadians, has long listened to much more than just soca. Sitting in a Midtown Manhattan office, taking care of a little work before returning to Labor Day celebrations, the singer cites a list of early influences that includes – but somehow is not limited to – "latin, zouk, reggae, soca, calypso, pop, drum-and-bass, techno and house."

"Because of where we are situated in the chain of islands, and because the way our society is built, I was exposed to all kinds of music," he says. "At that time, American Top 40 was a big part of Trinidad and Tobago society, so I gravitated to anything that was on Casey Kasem's show."

Soon, dancehall replaced American Top 40, and Garlin ditched Kasem for artists like Yellowman and Wayne Smith. "Every day going to school was like a party on the bus," he remembers. "In Trinidad we called them Maxi-taxis, and the drivers would have soundsystems in their vehicles, as loud as if they were going to a car show. Because of the way dancehall was engineered, the sound quality was more suitable for a soundsystem like that — especially opposed to soca."

When Garlin finally made it to school, he and his friends would freestyle back and forth, reworking the Jamaican themes and flows that they had heard on the Maxis. After graduation, he kept clashing, engaging in what he describes as "lyrical exchanges of war" and developing his skills against artists who were doing more than killing time between class. After producer Daryl Braxton suggested that he add a little soca back to his style, he made his first professional recording, scoring his professional hit with the frenetic, Aaliyah-interpolating "Send Dem Riddim Crazy."

The record has become a classic, holding its own on many of the compilations that define the era, and it was received the way classics are so often received: "The initial reaction was close to blasphemy," says Garlin. The singer had brought his style closer to soca, but many felt it still wasn't close enough – even though his intense lyricism was a throwback to Lord Shorty's original vision for the genre and Sixties bands like Byron Lee and the Dragonaires had previously canonized Jamaican-Trini fusion, the new wave of so-called "ragga soca" was said to be tainting the country's music.

"It took some hip-hop elements, it took dancehall, it even took some EDM – whatever songs were hot at the time, they'd just take the melody and flip it," explains Walshy Fire, a Jamaican DJ whose Miami radio show helped Garlin's early music reach America. "Jamaica was the most dominant island in the region, and dancehall and reggae were the most dominant sound. The people who would have been not happy with ragga soca would have thought soca should stay pure or authentic."

Garlin, however, offers his own interpretation of soca authenticity – and a cutting defense of the open-mindedness that has central to his career: "Soca was itself not an original music, it was a merge of the two cultural backgrounds from the indentured laborers and the slaves. So ragga soca was just doing what soca had already done."

Ragga soca, it turned out, wouldn't survive past the early-Aughts, but 15 years after releasing his first single, Bunji Garlin continues to get bigger and bigger. On the Friday after the yacht party, he performs alongside Beenie Man and Shabba Ranks at Hot 97's annual On Da Reggae Tip concert. From there, he flies to Texas, joining artists like Skrillex, Diplo and Dillon Francis for two dates with the EDM-centric Mad Decent Block Party; and on Sunday night, he returns to join his wife, a fellow soca star named Fay Ann Lyons, at Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee's annual 5 Alarm Blaze. The West Indian Day Parade, the weekend's main event, starts early the following morning.

As ragga soca began to wane in the early-to-mid 2000s, Garlin continued to move his style closer to the genre's mainstream, winning the annual Soca Monarch competition – a three-round attempt to determine Trinidad's hottest star – four times in a seven years. Where tunes like "Soca Bhangra" experimented with more Indian elements (a style now known as "chutney soca"), "Warrior Cry" and "Blaze De Fire" became global anthems, the singer's aggression and lyricism setting him apart from other artists.

"That's where the production started to get really good and the topics started to vary," says Walshy. "'Warrior Cry,' that could be a political song, it could be a rally song for a team, it could be something that you listened to during carnival time – it was one of the most amazing songs I'd ever heard."

Still, the hit that defined Garlin's career wouldn't come until 2012. Titled "Differentology," the song begins as j'ouvert – the overnight celebration that precedes carnival – ends: The sun is raising up, the crowd is waking up and the party still goes on. While the verses describe the scene, minor chords, hand claps and flamenco guitar build a tension that won't be released until the song's massive hook, that simple, sustained "We ready for the road" bellowed over rave-suited synth stabs.

"Those minor keys are what carnival is based on," says Lazabeam, the Trini half of trans-Atlantic production duo (and frequent Bunji collaborators) Jus Now, discussing the track's greatness. "What makes our carnival different from the Roman-style carnival, it was brought out of an uprising: The streets of Port of Spain were burning, and out of that came j'ouvert. It's a very euphoric kind of time, but to be frank the music is darker at the time, and it tends to have a realer edge to it."

"I've been working in this business for 20 years, and this is one of the most unique records I've ever come across"

Not coincidentally, those minor keys also bring "Differentology" in line with the sort of global dance anthems heard on the main stage of festivals like Tomorrowland and Electric Daisy Carnival. From the disco hi-hats of Eighties hits like Ras Isley's "Spring Garden on Fire" through Machel Montano's 1995 Chicago house-influenced "Come Dig It" and the club mix of Nigel & Marvin's crossover "Follow da Leader," soca has always rubbed shoulders with outside dance music, but now, that influence is stronger than ever.

Garlin, ever at the forefront, explains it thusly: "Some of the soca songs started borrowing synths from EDM. At the same time EDM was borrowing some bass lines and stuff from dancehall. Then hip-hop was borrowing synths from EDM, and dancehall was borrowing from hip-hop. So everyone basically kind of started mirroring each other, so the whole world of music started to become a more palatable place."

In this new, more palatable world, "Differentology" was an almost immediate hit. "That song was dropped on November 7th, 2012," recalls Garlin, "Three days later, it was playing on every radio station throughout the country. Four days later, I was performing the song, and people were singing it word-for-word."

After dominating the Caribbean, the record got its U.S. break when aforementioned Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee entered it into the station's "Battle of the Beats," where it defeated competition by artists like Eminem and DJ Khaled five nights in a row, earning a slot in regular rotation. With that story, VP was able to push the record north through Hartford and Boston and down the coast to Atlanta and Miami.

"I've been working in this business for 20 years, and this is one of the most unique records I've ever come across," says Brian Greenspoon, VP's senior director of marketing.

"Normally when a soca song comes out, the West Indian community kind of leaves the song on its own strength and lets it die out on its own," says Garlin. "Here you had people from all over the West Indies, and it seems as though they were proud of the song. It seemed like it represented them in a different way, and they were not ashamed to sing it."

The song's tense build-up, heightened by a repetition of the phrase "we ready," helped make it a staple at several pro sports arenas and the New York Golden Gloves tournament. Eventually it got the ultimate American seal of approval: A group of Long Island teenagers used it as the soundtrack to their airport flash mob.

Meanwhile, Major Lazer, an open-eared DJ trio that includes Jillionaire (a native Trinidadian who has known Garlin for over a decade), Diplo (the head of taste-making indie label Mad Decent) and Walshy Fire, had taken to playing "Differentology" in their live sets, and eventually, they decided to put together a remix. "One of the guys involved with it, Jarrod Faria, he hit me up a long way out and was like, 'We've got this song that's doing really well in Trinidad right now, and it's really different,'" remembers Jillionaire. "Around the same time I played it for Wes [Diplo] and he was like 'We should definitely do something with this.'"

After changing the drums, removing the guitar and adding the sort of wooshes and drops that play well at large EDM festivals, the group introduced their edit during a set at Coachella, not only bringing Garlin to a new American audience but endearing their own project to previously hesitant Caribbeans.

"If you ask Diplo, he'll tell you: Nobody would come to the shows," says Walshy. "They'd be in little clubs with 10 fans, and everybody else would be like, 'What the hell is going on?' The last two years, maybe year-and-a-half, is when it all changed. Coachella was the first time I think that Caribbeans began to see what Major Lazer was doing, as far as representing the Caribbean and representing the music that came out of the Caribbean. Somebody from Trinidad watched and then sent it to everyone from Trinidad, and that's when it blew up."

Following this success, Garlin wanted to make an album that could play to all audiences. "The songs in themselves carry a blend of universal elements, so that anywhere it plays, it automatically could fit between any genre or two," says the singer, insisting on using the word "include" rather than the phrase "cross over." "As human beings, you kind of fear what you don’t understand – it may make you look this way, it may make you think this way, whatever. I believe this album breaks all those barriers."

Whether or not that proves to be true, Differentology embraces life like few LPs in recent memory. On one representative track, the euphoric, carefree "All O'Dem," the singer documents his plan to attend every party of the year, from uptown to downtown, mai tai to black tie. Even the one supposed bummer, "Carnival Tabanca," named for the depression that sets in after carnival ends, finds the party palimpsests that exist under the surface of normal life: "Every time I hear a police siren I'm thinking it's escort/Coming to take me to the next venue so my performance will not be short." There's even an EDM remix.

That EDM sound is never better integrated into Garlin's soca than on "Truck on D Road," his biggest hit of 2014. Produced by Jus Now, the song combines crisp drums that shift between four-on-the-floor house and syncopated dembow, heavily processed trombone blasts and a synth line that ingeniously mimics the sound of Trini steel pans.

"Bunji's an appreciator of all styles of music, but he understands why it's important to include the traditional elements of Trinidadian music," says Lazabeam, who outside of the music world is better known as Keshav Chandradath Singh. "We're in constant communication. We're always working on songs, sending ideas back and forth, utilizing the technology as much as possible. He sends us voicemails, and he'll mouth the whole beat."

"He has impeccable taste," says Greenspoon. "He is just on top of all music trends that are happening right now – not just in the Caribbean but in the world in general. He has an ability to see what's working best in all cultures and communicate that effectively through his music."

Mister Cee's 5 Alarm Blaze keeps Bunji up until nearly five in the morning. Three hours later, he wakes and heads East New York, where a team of a builders has been working overnight to prepare a flatbed truck that will carry him, A$AP Ferg, Kranium, "Rompin' Shop" dancehall singer Spice, local radio host DJ Norie and two dozen fans, DJs and assistants down Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway, the site of the weekend-closing West Indian Day Parade.

"He works harder than any artist I've ever seen," says Greenspoon, who's sitting with the singer behind the tinted windows of a black Suburban, attempting to get some rest before hitting the road. "When he's at Trinidad carnival, he'll do a dozen shows in a night – just location to location until the sun comes up."

When we finally board, the truck is so covered with speakers – the system's bass levels all the way up and treble all the way down – that many of those who aren't standing behind DJ equipment end up dancing on top of them, grabbing a two-by-four for occasional support. "You think there's gonna be a lot of people out there?" asks Ferg, a Harlem rapper who jumped on a "Truck on D Road" trap remix after visiting Trinidad earlier in the year.

Sure enough, every one of the route's 15 long blocks is filled with revelers: Even standing atop the tallest stack of speakers – the same ones where Spice will later attempt a daredevil, 20-feet-in-the-air toe-touch – the crowd stretches past the horizon. All down the road, people walk alongside the truck, grinding when DJ Norie plays dancehall and breaking out into a mass schmoney dance when he plays – at multiple points – local rapper Bobby Shmurda.

When Bunji performs the energy doubles. Standing on a giant generator and hanging out the side, he tries another freestyle, stringing together the names of the islands and a few bars about the size of his truck, but again, it's "Differentology" that makes the place go mad. This time, the "ready for the road" call is especially appropriate, and the crowd yells the words so loud that you wonder if they can be heard all the way back in the Hudson River.

Not long after he finishes this short set, however, the singer disappears, hopping off the truck due to a frustrating combination of technical issues and pure exhaustion. On the Parkway, he wades through the crowd and rides off to the Queens hotel room where he begins preparing for the eight-hour flight home.

And the next morning, when Bunji finally arrives back Trinidad, does the hardest working man in soca take a much-deserved day off? Relax in the mountains with Fay Ann and their one daughter? Open up his diary and reflect on the long journey from dancehall-pumping Maxi-taxis to soca-funded jumbo jets?

"As soon as we touched down, it was straight to work, straight to office," he says, later in the week. "The whole carnival momentum is already in the air here – promoters are already putting their bookings in place."

Come October, he'll begin working on the songs that will rule the 2015 season.

"I don't like to make music now for six months later," he admits. "What I do is I wait for that moment. Then I catch it and go."