A report by Patricia Meschino for Billboard.
Los Angeles based indie Delicious Vinyl, founded by Mike Ross and the late Matt Dike in 1987, built its reputation through platinum selling hip-hop acts including Tone Loc (“Wild Thing,” “Funky Cold Medina”) and Young MC (“Bust A Move”) and the visionary production of the late J Dilla. However, the label’s A&R Leslie Cooney also signed several Caribbean acts in the early ’90s, including Jamaican-American dancehall/hip-hop duo Born Jamericans, Jamaican dancehall star Mr. Vegas and future Trinidadian soca superstar Machel Montano.
In 2018, Ross, Cooney and industry veteran Adrian Miller (former manager of Grammy-winning singer/rapper Anderson .Paak who now manages Grammy-nominated Panamanian-American hip-hop/reggaeton duo Los Rakas) joined forces to create a tropically focused imprint, Delicious Vinyl Island, whose releases will span music from the Caribbean, Central and South America and beyond. “I had released so much Caribbean music on Delicious Vinyl proper for over 20 years, I thought that music needed its own home, that’s how Delicious Vinyl Island came about,” explains Leslie Cooney, whose career began as a Delicious Vinyl intern in 1991. “Mike Ross was my boss for years, he provided whatever resources I needed to develop the Caribbean artists. Adrian was straight hip-hop but has always had an interest in reggae and he brings in a different demographic. Adrian and Mike are both executives with many platinum records to their credit and they’ve negotiated deals for several crossover acts. On a daily basis, the three of us knock heads, we all have to like a project to work with it and we are equally responsible in making the decisions, creative and otherwise.”
Delicious Vinyl Island has adopted a model similar to that of its parent company, which Ross says was patterned on the label founded by his mentor, Chris Blackwell. “When I started Delicious Vinyl, it was all about finding great talent, developing it and trying to give artists a great platform to take their music to the next level,” Ross told Billboard. “My first distribution deal was through Chris Blackwell/Island Records so when Leslie and Adrian came to me with the idea for Delicious Vinyl Island, I said yeah, let’s do it, and use the Island Records template, which is very A&R driven, focusing primarily on reggae and Afro-Caribbean artists; there’s a hot new scene now for that music, so it felt like the right time.” Adds Miller: “We all got on the same page after looking at what didn’t exist in Los Angeles, or on the west coast for that matter, and that’s a real entity that understands the music business and the music coming out of the African diaspora. Our collective desire is to give artists asset building tools to make their dreams happen.”
The label commenced its release schedule in April 2018 with the dub-influenced “Reap What You Sow” featuring the upcoming Jamaican singer/rapper Royal Blu, which is the lead single from production duo Natural High Music’s Urban Roots II, a 12-track compilation that drops on June 14. Urban Roots II features several vibrant young Jamaican vocalists, including Keznamdi on “Smile (Hey You),” Eesah on “Wonder,” Makonnen and veteran chanter Capleton on “Revolution” and Jesse Royal alongside late singer Dennis Brown updating Brown’s classic “Run Run Run” (Natural High obtained Brown’s vocals from the song’s original producer Clive Hunt).
While in high school, circa 2003, Natural High’s Jordan Armond and Blaise Davis began making music for their sound system. “American kids form bands, Jamaican kids form sound systems,” quipped Armond on the phone with Billboard from Natural High’s Kingston studio, The Bungalow, where Urban Roots II was recorded, mixed and mastered. “We started doing remixes for the sound, then started making original beats and became more interested in that.”
Both studied music in the U.S.; Armond divides his time between Kingston and Chicago, Davis lives in Kingston and runs the day to day operations at The Bungalow. Their resume includes production on Kelissa’s album Spellbound; Chronixx’s “Black is Beautiful” from his 2017 Grammy nominated album Chronology and secular singer Wayne Marshall’s somewhat surprising 2018 gospel hit “Glory To God” (featuring Marshall’s sister-in-law Tessanne Chin and pastor Ryan Mark). Marshall, who contributes two outstanding tracks on Urban Roots II (“Study People” and “Cane Fields” with Jesse Royal and Kabaka Pyramid), was so impressed with Natural High’s abilities he suggested the pair do further productions with Chin, who garnered international adulation as the season 5 winner of NBC’s The Voice.
“We were really excited about working with Tessanne because she is an amazing singer,” said Blaise Davis. “She came over and she had many ideas but ‘Be the One’ stood out, so we built up the production. It fit really well with our project and she’s been really supportive of it.”
In a statement sent to Billboard, Chin, who is also based in Kingston, said that when she first heard Natural High, “I thought they were a breath of fresh air and from the get-go I wanted to work with them. Our first creation is ‘Be The One’ and I couldn’t be more pleased. I look forward to collaborating more with them in the future; they’re awesome!” A gorgeous lover’s rock tune with Chin’s impeccable vocals caressing Natural High’s burnished one drop rhythm, “Be The One” debuts here:
Before the formation of Delicious Vinyl Island, Cooney had worked with Natural High on a few singles and was awed by their talents; when she introduced their music to her label partners, they were equally excited. “When I heard Natural High’s story, I was attracted to it but when I heard their music I was like, game over! It’s rare to find producers who can build from a song’s structure, but they really know how to find their moments within a tune,” enthused Miller. “They are now a staple for us, artists that I want to represent and be a part of their career.”
Delicious Vinyl Island releases, thus far, include singles by popular Jamaican selector/artist Yaadcore (“Fenke Fenke”), dynamic singer Lila Iké’s “Second Chance,” Puerto Rican artist Brbn’s “Yo Soy” and albums by London based DJ collective Orange Hill The Carnival and Los Rakas’ (cousins Raka Rich and Raka Dun) Manes de Negocio. “Los Rakas were a part of the California roots (reggae) scene as it came up, now they’re doing a Spanish/Latin sound. You don’t see many reggae labels looking at the reggaeton, Spanish reggae or Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries so that’s something we are really concentrating on,” notes Cooney. Albums from Royal Blu, Jamaican reggae artist Runkus and an EP from Mr. Vegas are due later this year.
Delicious Vinyl Island operates out of the same Los Angeles headquarters as its parent company (downstairs from their offices, Mike and his brother Rick Ross opened Delicious Pizza, a pizzeria/coffee shop and event space). All Delicious Vinyl Island releases will be available on vinyl as well as digital, CD and even cassette formats (with distribution handled by Empire), each rolled out with multi-pronged promotional strategies to reach as wide an audience as possible. “You have to get in front of people with your art and turn them on, so it’s YouTube, it’s Spotify playlists, it’s taking artists on the road; it’s throwing parties at Boom Yard (another Delicious Vinyl event space) and parties in other cities,” Mike Ross explains. “With a producer driven album like Urban Roots II, you shoot videos, you get the support of artists who are in those videos and tap into their audiences. You get the music to DJs who play Caribbean music, and forward-thinking DJs who love reggae. If you want to be in it for the long haul, you put out good music, you connect people and you stay diligent, that’s something that never changes.”