I am very proud of this interview that I conducted with Tippy in 2021. Over the past decade I have forged a friendship with Tippy that allowed him to be open and honest about his life and experiences, especially his close kinship with Vaughn Benjamin. I give thanks to Tippy for the interview and to Danny at World-A-Reggae for allowing me to share it on his platform.
Polarities‘ is the 13th and final full album of new material from Vaughn Benjamin and I Grade Records along with Zion I Kings, the culmination of a 20 year working relationship that began with 2001’s ‘Nemozian Rasta’ album, which was Midnite’s 4th album released to date at that time.
‘Polarities’ was produced jointly by the Zion I Kings production team, with Tippy I of I Grade at the production helm, alongside Vaughn Benjamin himself. Zion I Kings is a family of producers and labels that include Jah David of Zion High Productions, Tippy of I Grade Records and Andrew “Moon” Bain of Lustre Kings Productions. Tippy and Vaughn have been producing songs together since 2001, and this ‘Polarities’ album was a return to their roots of sharing album production. The sound reflects this collaboration as it weaves deep roots basslines with intricate melodies and instrumentation.
So who is Tippy? He is a former Olympian, representing the Virgin Islands as an accomplished swimmer at the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona. He is a 1996 graduate of the prestigious Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is also a 2003 graduate of Yale Law School. However, his true passion is music and his story is inextricably linked to the rise of Midnite and the Virgin Islands reggae movement.
So obviously the tracks included on the ‘Polarities’ album were voiced before Vaughn’s transition in November 2019. Why did it take two years for the album to reach the fans?
“The songs on ‘Polarities’ were mostly recorded between 2016 and 2019. Many of the songs were recorded on the road when I was working as Akae Beka manager and FOH engineer: some in Kingston, some in Chile, one in Vermont, some in France, and a few in Florida. We were steadily working on this album at the time of Vaughn’s passing and were just starting to select the songs for the release. It definitely took some time to come to adjust to new realities without Vaughn, and I was not in a rush to release the album soon after.
Feeling the urgency of the songs in the age of pandemic, I tried to have the album ready in the second half of 2020, and did release the first two singles that year, but timing with the album artwork and spacing other Akae Beka releases pushed the ‘Polarities’ release into this present time. It’s Jah who rules the time. Things are finally in place to share the album, so giving thanks for that.”
More than any other producer, you have been inextricably linked to Vaughn Benjamin’s projects since your very first collaboration on the song “If I Betray,” which appeared on the 2001 album ‘Nemozian Rasta.’ Talk about how you initially linked up with Vaughn Benjamin and the nature of your relationship throughout the past 20 years.
“Well it has been an amazing journey working alongside Vaughn for so many years. Working with him definitely changed my life’s trajectory. St. Croix is a small island, and we knew of each other growing up, but musically we first linked with the song you mentioned. In late 2000, while I was in my first year of law school and back home on a break, my bredrin Danny Dread and I created the beat, and Vaughn later voiced it after I had gone back up to the US.
At the time I was doing music strictly for the love of it, and had no designs of a record label or music production as a life path. When I returned to St. Croix on my next trip home, Vaughn wanted to record more with me and my partner Kenyatta Itola. We steadily recorded anywhere and anytime we could: on a digital 8-track recorder and a 2-mic drum set up in bedrooms and abandoned houses, creating some heavy tunes that I would return to the states with to mix and master.
I Grade Records was formed to release the ‘Nemozian Rasta’ album in 2001. We released two more albums the same year: ‘Assini’ and Dezarie’s first album, ‘Fya.’ Vaughn produced those albums with us: some tracks he built in-studio with us, others we would bring to the studio, and others we would create together live. By the time I finished law school in 2003, we had released 6 albums together.
I moved back home in 2005 and continued to work with Vaughn and many other artists from the VI, steadily releasing albums on I Grade Records, and helping to produce and record many other Midnite albums for other labels: Lustre Kings, Andrew Bassie, Zion High, Higher Bound, Rastar and others.”
Vaughn had an amazing work ethic as you can see by the amount of songs he recorded. No one producer could keep up with him, and he would usually have several albums bubbling at once with different studios. His life was fully in service to his life’s mission and to decoding and revealing mysteries and truths and life lessons through music. I went to some top schools, but I’ve never met an intellectual mind like Vaughn’s. He has memory recall, sharpness of wit, and wordsmith skills like no other.
Vaughn would spend hours every day reading all types of books and texts, often while watching the news in the background. His songwriting would weave in and out of what he was reading at the time. In the studio, he wrote through reasonings. The things he spoke about, holding court so to speak with his one-of-a-kind charisma, would end up in the songs. I learned a tremendous amount about music, life, history, current events, science, politics and people from Vaughn – both from song and from studio session reasonings.
Naturally, my relationship with Vaughn evolved over the 20 years. Being five years younger and new to music and to the path of Rastafari, I was mostly in student mode for the early years. But we ended up doing so much work together that things matured and intertwined over time. Vaughn entrusted me with planning and business counsel in the two years after he transitioned from Midnite to Akae Beka, which was a turbulent and difficult time in some ways. Traveling with Vaughn regularly was a whole new layer of life experience.”
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