Chronixx is playing with his two-year-old daughter in Los Angeles when he picks up the phone for an extended chat with Rolling Stone. “All right, come, let me lift you up,” the Jamaican singer, 29, says to the bubbly toddler when she cries out for daddy. “Do you want something to do?”
“I want my Play-Doh,” she declares.
“Can I answer this last question?” Chronixx asks in response.
“No!” she states emphatically, and so adorably, who could deny her?
“OK, let me give you your Play-Doh,” the reggae star concedes, and his daughter goes on to play contentedly for the next hour of our conversation.
Chronixx has spent the past two years adapting to changing circumstances. At one point, he was planning to release his second album, Dela Splash, in the summer of 2020. In early March of that year, just two weeks before New York City went into lockdown, he held a listening session in midtown Manhattan and shared the first single, “Dela Move,” where he sings over a melancholic trap-dancehall beat.
As 2021 comes to a close, fans are still waiting for Dela Splash — but Chronixx says the pandemic had little to do with the delay. “Really, why I didn’t release the album was because of where I was in the journey of being a father to my daughter,” he says. “It wasn’t what I was expecting, but really, there was nothing I could expect. It was a new feeling, and I was not ready to leave her to do anything. The pandemic was the perfect time for a father to be beside his daughter and also a good time to create.”
Chronixx has become one of the biggest names in reggae by doing things his own way. He releases music on his own imprint — Soul Circle Music, which he co-founded with two of his managers, London-based Pierre Bost and Kingston’s Brendon “Daddi Barnz” Sharpe — instead of working with a major label or an established independent. This approach has led him to some of the biggest festival stages in the world, including both Glastonbury and Coachella.
With much of the music industry scaling back during the pandemic, Chronixx’s extended period at home in Jamaica allowed him time to focus on another task: Signing the first artist other than himself to Soul Circle. Hector “Roots Percussionist” Lewis, the 31-year-old son of the late Jamaican reggae/gospel singer Barbara Jones, has played in Chronixx’s band, Zincfence Redemption, since 2013. His vibrant percussion playing and animated backing vocals, not to mention his energetic dance moves, add texture to the band’s sound, which is anchored in classic one-drop reggae grooves but incorporates contemporary influences into a more progressive blend. “I don’t think of it as signing my first artist,” explains Chronixx. “I think of it as if I have a car and someone needs a lift, I am going to give it to them.”
Lewis recorded his forthcoming debut EP, due out in spring or summer 2022, at Skyline Levels, a recording studio and cultural complex in the Jack’s Hill neighborhood, overlooking Kingston, where Chronixx also often works. “Many people are talented but are not at music’s beck and call,” Chronixx reflects. “Hector belongs to music. Sometimes you have to tell him, ‘Bro, it’s too much music.’” He laughs and goes on: “When I was growing up, my mother would tell me that every day, so for me to tell someone else, ‘Bro, too much music, can you stop beating out the scales?’ It’s amazing.”
Lewis crafted the EP’s five songs under the direction of Jamaican producer J.L.L. (Jean-Andre Lowell Lawrence), who recently had one of his beats sampled on Drake’s “Champagne Poetry.”
The first single, “Ups and Downs,” is a funky reggae jam on which Lewis chants simple yet inspirational lyrics like a jazzy mantra: “You can never rise if you never yet fall down.” The video for the song, shot in downtown Kingston and at Skyline Levels, is premiering here.
“In a business that is so cold, so hard to navigate, I give thanks that I met Chronixx. He has always encouraged me, so I thought why wait to record?” Lewis says. “As I was finishing up the project, I knew I could go to Chronixx with it and he would listen to me on a deeper level than just as his band member. I told him, ‘I want you to help me bring the project to the world.’ It is a step I wanted to take, and I know he respects things that show that you are trying to better yourself.”
The son of dancehall singer Chronicle, known for such hits as 1995’s “My God,” Chronixx — born Jamar Rolando McNaughton in Spanish Town, about a 30-minute drive from Kingston — learned from his father how to hold a microphone and perform before an audience. As a high school student and aspiring producer, he reached out via Facebook to Jamaican sing-jay Protoje, 11 years his senior. The confident teenager told Protoje he wanted to work with him, and Protoje invited Chronixx to his house. “I always listen to people, because you never know who you are talking to, so he came over and started to play some songs; then casually, out of nowhere, he started to sing, and I said, ‘You are an artist, bro, not just a producer,’” Protoje told me in a 2018 interview. “He was singing songs like ‘Behind Curtain’ and ‘Warrior,’ which became his earliest hits… I was blown away from that very first day.” In the same interview, Protoje unequivocally stated: “Chronixx is the greatest musical talent I have ever had the opportunity to witness work, and I just hope people appreciate the gift to music that he is.”
Chronixx’s 2011 debut EP, Hooked on Chronixx, featured the dancehall-inflected singles “Behind Curtain,” and “Odd Ras,” the chant-down-Babylon fury of “Warrior” and the exquisite love song “Rain Music.” The EP demonstrated Chronixx’s versatility as a singer and a writer and brought him to the attention of music fans across Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean Diaspora. “Each of these songs did its own thing in its own little way,” Chronixx reflects. His listenership expanded with his late-2012 release Major Lazer Presents: Chronixx & Walshy Fire — Start a Fyah Mixtape, and around this time famed Island Records founder Chris Blackwell proclaimed him “reggae’s next big artist.”
In 2014, Chronixx, then 21, issued his second EP, The Dread and Terrible Project, propelled by the contemporary Rasta reggae anthems “Here Comes Trouble” and “Captured Land.” His appealing blend of roots reggae’s substantial lyrics and dancehall’s rapid-fire rhymes generated stateside interest that exploded with his American television debut on The Tonight Show. Four days after their Fallon performance, Chronixx and Zincfence Redemption pulled a capacity crowd of 5,500 to New York City’s Central Park SummerStage, with Mick Jagger and his daughters in attendance. In July 2017, Chronixx released his debut album, the Grammy-nominated Chronology, whose wide-ranging styles — from the country and gospel underpinnings on the stirring “Legend” to the retro-soul flavored “Black is Beautiful” to the celestial dance influences on the empowering “I Can” — again showed his willingness to experiment and his increasing proficiency as a producer.
Expanding Soul Circle’s roster could be the next step in that evolution. When asked if he looks to any established label as a template, Chronixx chuckles: “I am not big into the music industry to even know. Soul Circle was set up because I was unsigned…. Chris Blackwell has told me inspirational stories about Island Records’ transition from jazz to reggae to hip hop, but Soul Circle is not like Island Records.” He sees his label as more of a family affair: “I have a younger brother, Universal, who is a producer. My wife [singer/songwriter/musician Kelissa McDonald] is an artist. And the talented group of bredren in Zincfence Redemption, if any of them want to make an album, that’s what Soul Circle is for — an initiative to uplift people who are within the circle already.”
Throughout the pandemic, Chronixx worked on an abundance of new music, including an album with his band (although he hasn’t set a release date, and won’t disclose further details) and an instrumental project with Universal and Kelissa. The long-delayed Dela Splash may never be released, but the songs he recorded for it will make their way out to the world, Chronixx promises. He’s already released two more songs from that project in the past year: In March, he dropped “Safe N Sound,” which blasts Jamaica’s political corruption, especially “the guns that are given out to break communities down.” In late August, he released “Freedom Fighter,” a consciousness-raising one-drop reggae track with gorgeous soul influences, which he co-produced with Pantha. On that song, Chronixx shifts from chanted to passionately sung vocals, celebrating his Rastafari way of life and renouncing societal trappings: “Trod to the mountain and hear when Haile I call yuh name/‘Cause dem will trap you in the city, get you hooked on the pain/Give yuh the money, all the girls, and all the guns, and the fame.”
Rastafari teachings are a major influence on Chronixx’s music, and he often quotes Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I in song lyrics and in conversation. While he hasn’t yet announced any concert dates for 2022, Ethiopia is among the places where he wants to perform when that becomes possible. “I have been wanting to do shows,” he says. “I tried to do one in Brooklyn in September, and the parts just shifted. Trust me, I would love to do a show in New York City, the U.K., Trinidad, and Antigua, and I can’t wait to go back to Kenya.” He adds that Ethiopia holds a special place for him: “I would love to do a peace concert in Ethiopia, with all the Ethiopian Rastafari artists in the world. Ethiopia needs our music right now, they need our creative people who can show them a blueprint of peace, non-aggression, non-violence. That is one of the things as Rastafari that we know about because of His Majesty.”
When he looks back on his evolution from a self-described teenaged dancehall head to a neo-roots reggae star to making complex, often genre-defying Jamaican music grounded in Rastafari principles, Chronixx sees a path of deepening understanding. “The earlier songs are very caught up in the individual — who he is, who he is not,” he says. “Dancehall artists have to be tough, larger than life, superheroes. They can’t be the same as a country & western type of man or the R&B type of man.”
He laughs as he continues this train of thought: “I would say now I am more on the Willie Nelson side of the spectrum, or more like a Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, Burning Spear. Reflective and bringing to the forefront the things that people are ashamed to talk about. Like, how are we doing, instead of the escapism mentality for your fans to exit reality.”