A report by Brian Howe for Indy Week.
Rohan Da Great grew up in a Caribbean part of Brooklyn, in a first-generation-American family with deep roots in Jamaica and reggae. But he didn’t start getting serious about his own music until he moved to North Carolina as a teenager almost 20 years ago.
Over that time, he’s shifted between hip-hop, reggae, and dancehall projects—even a popular EDM single—while teaching himself everything about the music business, from recording and engineering to publishing contracts.
On April 24, he released a new EP, anchored by his 2019 single “Crazy,” that seems like the summation of all he’s learned and the fulfilment of his musical promise. 6 Love is a super-catchy dancehall record with a strong pop-and-R&B sensibility, and even during the coronavirus crisis, it’s earning Rohan more attention, from the U.S. to Jamaica, than he’s ever had before. He bought custom beats from producers as far away as Colombia and Croatia, and had some engineering help from Artem Smirnov, but otherwise, he did everything from songwriting to recording to promotion himself from his home in Clayton and nearby studios.
Between interviews with big Jamaican outlets like Irie FM, Rohan worked in the time to tell us his story—how moving to the South changed his life and shaped his music; how he went from being a “student of the game” to someone who’s ready to teach it to others; how he gauges the state of the reggae scene in Raleigh; and how he’s keeping the coronavirus crisis from stopping his momentum. Rohan Da Great is working hard to live up to his name, and you’re going to be hearing a lot more from him; Instagram’sthe best place to keep up.
INDY: You grew up in Brooklyn, right?
ROHAN DA GREAT: Yeah, that’s correct, I grew up in East Flatbush. I’m one of the first generation of my family to be born in the United States, so it was like living in Jamaica, honestly, a lot of Caribbean population. My dad was legendary, so I had a lot of respect coming up, and he taught me a lot of things. My mom’s a twin, and my aunt moved down here to start a business, and they just can’t be apart [laughs]. So I came down here with my mom. It’s probably one of the better things in my life. When you’re in the New York, you act a certain way, and you don’t realize until you get out of the jungle, like, wow. It gave me a chance to find myself more.
That’s correct. I don’t remember personally, but I’ve heard stories that as early as three years old, he had me singing songs. In New York we have huge block parties, and my dad would bring me on the stage, barely able to talk, and I’d rip the crowd.
How did you start making your own music?
My father always trained me, but my mom always wanted me to be more in the books, focusing on school, not caught up in the lifestyle. When I moved here, I didn’t have anything to do [laughs]. It was like, OK, I play basketball, but what else am I going to do to balance out that fast pace I was used to in New York? My uncle went to a seminar at the Jacob Javits Center and came back with a bunch of software, so he gave me some programs, and I just started teaching myself and recording myself.
Do you feel like being in the South instead of New York had an influence on how your take on reggae and dancehall developed?
Yeah, I would say because I had more time to myself, I figured out what was true to me. I understood myself more, so it cleared up the message I wanted to send in my music. New York is really flashy, and it’s easy to get caught up in the bravado of it. If I wasn’t here, I don’t think I would have slowed down, and I’d be a different artist. I might not even be an artist! In New York, music was a bonding thing with my dad, but I wasn’t taking it seriously. I was more into girls and basketball and having fly clothes. I came here and said, OK, life is different, people say hi to each other here when they see each other.
You mentioned having space here to get clear on your message—is that message easy to sum up?
It’s just my reality, different facets and parts of my life. If I make a song about something, it’s something that happened, 100 percent. It’s my experiences, whether it’s dancehall like this EP, 6 Love, where it’s love songs about a girl—it’s all things that happened and the lessons I learned. It’s not a particular sound, but it’s always authentic. That authenticity is what I feel I bring to the table.
“I studied how Jermaine Dupri and Bryan Michael Cox worked on [Usher’s] Confessions, and I realized what really made something stick out was the song structure.”
You seem to lean toward good vibes rather than the aggressive side of things.
Yeah, because I believe what you put out comes back to you. I do have songs like that, but it’s more of a venting thing, and a lot of times I don’t feel comfortable putting that out there because you attract that energy. I feel like I have a really promising career and don’t want to jeopardize it. More importantly, I have three kids. Rap can be a very bravado-driven, and I’m not about to have no rap beef with nobody and risk my freedom. And there’s enough negative out there, so let’s put the positive!
There’s a lot of pop and other influences in your dancehall on this EP.
I’ve always been eclectic. In the first part of my life, all I knew was reggae. But my uncle’s a DJ, so he always brought different types of music. And New York is a melting pot. It also comes back to being [in North Carolina]: I didn’t have much to do, so when I got albums, I read all the liner notes and figured out who wrote and did what. I studied how Jermaine Dupri and Bryan Michael Cox worked on [Usher’s] Confessions, and I realized what really made something stick out was the song structure. In traditional dancehall, it’s really catchy, but they don’t approach the songwriting in that way. I inherited that from studying and noticed I began to create these songs in an R&B format, so it’s dancehall, but it has that R&B and pop catchiness. So that just goes to me being a student of the game and having time.
So you produce the music yourself?
Not on this project. My production is more rootsy, like Bob Marley-ish type things. I play the bass; I play keys as well. But I wanted to work the fan base into that, not just jump out there like, hey, he’s dancehall, he’s rapping, it’s Bob Marley—it’s kind of confusing [laughs].
The funny thing is, I don’t write the songs at all. Ever since my father used to train me to remember lyrics off the top of your head, for the most part what I do is get a beat, vibe out, and just sing. Obviously, I re-record it, but what you hear on that record, all the lyrics—90 percent of it is in the demo, and it’s basically me going on the fly.
“I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Shabba Ranks?”
6 Love came out strong on the iTunes reggae charts; it was number five the other day?
Yeah, it’s crazy, and a lot of the DJs at big stations in Jamaica have been reaching out. A lot of them are producers as well, and it’s hard to get on their tracks. I’ve been trying for years. Now that this is out, they’re all sending tracks, like, take what you want.
So you’re getting a lot of love in Jamaica.
Before this record was even done, I went to Jamaica and did some recording at Bob Marley’s studios, Tuff Gong. When I was with my family, I made an effort to go into the community and meet people. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Shabba Ranks? My family is good friends with his mother, so I met her and told her Shabba is one of my biggest inspirations. There’s another artist by the name of Dexta Daps, who’s huge—he’s, I guess, the sex symbol of dancehall—and she calls him, and I went to meet him that day. He gave me some great feedback and advice from when he was trying to break through in America. So I’m rooted in that community, and it made it easier to connect.
What about here in North Carolina?
The community is huge. Once a year they have the CaribMask carnival, a huge celebration of West Indian culture on Fayetteville Street, with a concert after. I’ve performed at that the past four years. I’ve headlined and built my following at my own shows. So the community is here, but in my opinion, it’s hard for artists who are from here. There’s big people who pass through, and a lot of local artists try to open for them.
I had it a little easier than most because, in 2015, I did a song with an EDM producer named Dani Deahl, and that did really well: charted on Beatport, got a write-up on Billboard. So I had a leg up on artists who didn’t have those opportunities yet and aren’t really versed in the business.
It’s artists here, but they don’t really have the opportunity to shine on their own. It’s not so much the market—it’s more a lot of promoters are afraid to take the risk, and the same thing is going on with hip-hop. Once a year they’re willing to take the risk when big artists come through, but as far as indie reggae-style showcases, it really doesn’t happen outside of big summer events and stuff.
Other than yourself, are there local reggae or dancehall artists we should have an eye on?
There’s a guy named Cayenne the Lion King, he’s a little older than me, great guy. He’s that traditional, more rough dancehall style. Like KRS-One when KRS-One does his reggae thing. There’s an artist by the name of African King; he does reggae music, and me and him carry the brunt of headlining local events and opening for big artists.
Has the coronavirus shaken things up for you?
Yep! It turned everything upside down. I had this crazy media run set up, so many things that were put on ice. But there’s always a silver lining in everything. I was like, well, I’m not pushing my album back, so I have to figure out how to get my marketing out there and try some different things. I actually did my first cover song, a video of “Murder She Wrote” by Chaka Demus & Pliers—it’s like the go-to anytime they play any bit of dancehall or reggae that everyone knows. I was just throwing it out there, but people liked it. So I made another video where a producer in Jamaica was having a competition for COVID inspired freestyle. It’s an amazing producer, so a lot of major artists in Jamaica jumped on it too.
I know it’s hard to see beyond this, but any idea what’s next?
I’m working on a full-length album I was gonna drop this summer—I think I’m still gonna drop it. What I’ve learned with what’s going on is that tomorrow’s not promised, so I don’t want to sit on these songs. I want to show versatility and start helping other artists grow, too. This whole album, it’s just me. I had a manager, but he got too busy, so I put the cape on and did the marketing myself. I’ve tried in the past to give that knowledge, but it was never really received. I’ve offered to register people’s stuff for SoundScan, ASCAP, BMI for free, just to show them, and they didn’t take me up on the offer. I think it was more of a “who are you to tell us this type of thing?” But now that I’ve done it myself, maybe they’ll listen.
That’s one thing I hate to see, because my father got robbed out of a lot as a musician in the ‘80s, and I made it my business to learn about publishing, about contracts, all that. I started my own label in 2010 because I never wanted to be signed to anyone. So my next thing is to start giving out that knowledge, and once this clears up, I plan on touring the world. This summer was going to be like my grand arrival.
But if things go on longer, I want to connect with my new fans, so I’m working on building an actual stage in my house so I can livestream shows, perform for my new fans and then get off my little stage and sit down and interact. Because everyone’s bored.