Each Saturday morning from 8 a.m. to noon, Carter Van Pelt and Vaughn "Allstar" host the foundation reggae show "Eastern Standard Time" on Columbia University's radio station WKCR 89.9. (It also streams live online.) The program, which takes its name from Jamaican trombonist Don Drummond's signature instrumental, showcases Van Pelt and Allstar's encyclopedic knowledge and love of Jamaican music (not to mention their talent for getting the weekend started on a high note). We recently visited the duo at WKCR's Morningside Heights studio to chat about, among other things, the current state of Jamaican music, the "Reggae on the Boardwalk" series on Coney Island as well as the sound system culture of the '80s and '90s.
Can you each tell me a little about your background?
Carter Van Pelt: I'd start, but Vaughn's is more interesting.
Vaughn: Alright, I'm Vaughn. We do the show here every Saturday morning, me and Carter. I was born in Brooklyn but I was raised in Jamaica. I was raised around my uncle. He had a very hot sound system in late-70s into the early-80s. So I accumulated all my knowledge of the music from around him.
Carter: Just give him credit where credit is due: Tikka Music [sound system from Montego Bay, Jamaica] right?
Vaughn: Yeah, Tikka Music. Yeah. So being around him, I was around people like Little Jon, Rankin Toyan, Papa Richie, just to name a few, Frankie Jones, Michael Prophet, you know people like that. And that's how I came to love the music. And then I came back to New York at the age of 12 years old and I started doing this show here. My mother was actually was a very big fan of [WKCR]. She was the only person that I ever known that knew about this station. I'm talking like from the '80s when they actually had one Thursday slot. She was the only one that I knew that knew about it. Nobody else. She influenced me to come up here and be a part of it. Also this guy right here.
Carter: I came along a lot later on the scene. I came to New York for graduate school at Columbia and I popped over to WKCR - this is 10 years ago. I had done community radio and college radio in Nebraska, where I'm from, so I had some broadcasting experience. I had been immersed in reggae from when I was a teenager - albeit totally at a distance from Jamaican culture. Vaughn was born in it and I was born a million miles away from it, in a sense. But, you know, you have to understand the influence that reggae had by the end of the '70s. So when I was a young kid starting to find out what's on the radio and you could hear reggae. It wasn't Jamaicans playing it but it was Elvis Costello and the Clash and the Police and Blondie and all of that - and the Musical Youth came along. So that's when it hit me. I didn't know what it was, but I investigated it and that's how I got into it.
Can you remember the first record that you heard that really pushed you into loving Jamaican music?
Carter: I remember seeing Bob Marley on television performing 'Get Up, Stand Up' and it was so different. There was this guy with dreadlocks singing "Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights," and it was just this element of truth and that was the thing. You know? That kind of stuck with me, but at that time I was too young to know where to go to buy a record. How do I go get Bob Marley record when I'm 8 years old? I remembered it, but I didn't know how to get it. Then that was sort of lingering there and so when I heard the Police and the reggae influence in them, that kind of led me to Steel Pulse. Steel Pulse was the first reggae that really got me going. And then I started just buying tons of records. I was a record buying kid. Any spare change i could put together, my allowance or whatever, I was buying records: Steel Pulse, Augustus Pablo, Dennis Brown, Bob Marley and what have you.
Carter: It was in the '90s that I first had the chance to go to Jamaica and that's when I started to understand that the whole way that the music... Vaughn's talking about his uncle having a sound system. The whole sound system culture? It's a different way of hearing and understanding music. And when I started to figure that out, that's when I really started to truly get it. Even though I loved it way before that. I loved it. It was a deep part of my musical passion.
I didn't really understand it until I saw it from the Jamaican side. And also that comes back to records and singles you know, because sound systems are all about playing singles, one song at a time. They're not really about listening to whole albums. There's a place for that, but to think of this music you have to think of it as singles sound system music. That's what I'm in to.
So would you say that on Saturday mornings during Eastern Standard Time, whenever you guys play at, you're looking to re-create that sound system vibe?
Carter: To an extent.
Vaughn: Yeah, to an extent...
Carter: But it is still radio. If you did the full-on sound system experience on the radio you would turn off a lot of people; I know because we do it a little bit. You can hear it a little bit when the listeners call in and ask us to pull up a song and we spin it back or draw it back and play it over again. The pulling back of a song is an element of the sound system thing. When Vaughn used to do the show in the other studio like 10, 15 years ago, they had a sound effects - a digital sound effects box - so they used to run stuff that made it sound more sound system like.
But that thing kind of broke down or was moved out of here, so its kind of a tricky thing to bridge. The presentation between the sound system style and what any average person who's never heard this show when they tune in... [Our intention] is not to just shock them out and make them like "Aahh, why are they doing that? Why are they playing that way?" You have to be sensitive to the difference.
What's the percentage of vinyl you play here?
Carter: 99%. Which is maybe... let's admit that might be slightly too high for what we should be doing because it makes it tough to play newer artists. We love vinyl, we like the format, we like the way it sounds, the way it feels. That's what we both are used to. But at the same time there are new artists today who have new material that is only available digitally or on CD. We don't expect that they're gonna press everything they do on vinyl. That's economic suicide.
So how do you guys see the current state of reggae in New York City and to a greater extent in the US?
Carter: It's hard to assess. I think that looking back on reggae there was so much Jamaican music and reggae that is being produced at any given point in time, a lot of it is recorded and sort of gets lost because it doesn't get promoted at the time and therefore is ripe for rediscovery years later. Vaughn's been in this music his whole life, and a fair amount of time I can play things for Vaughn that he may have never heard before. He's very experienced in this music and that just goes to show you the quantity of music that's out there. I think that continues to this day and I think there's a lot of stuff out there that I don't know about and that we don't know about.
Unfortunately, the stuff that I do know about and I hear I don't like, with the exception of Tarrus Riley. He's like a shining light of reggae today. That being said, a lot of the stuff that's coming out I'm not crazy about, but I know that people are making good music. It's just a matter of it may not be getting into my hands. I want Vaughn to add to the same question. He might say it differently.
Vaughn: Yeah, the state of reggae is looking very good right now. Because there's a lot of positive youths coming up as we speak right now in Jamaica. For instance, right now you have Chronixx, you have Stone Love and Jah9. There's some very, very good positive youth and the good part about it is a lot of the youths coming up are kids of people that was in the business already. You know? Chronixx, his father is Chronicle and Jah9's father was actually one of the members of Roots Radics. So that's what's really going go on right now in Jamaica. There's a lot of youths coming up and they're all the children of people that was out already. You also have Addis Pablo, who is the son of Augustus Pablo.
Carter: And one of the greatest young producers in Jamaica is Freddy McGregor's son Stephen, although maybe we're not as crazy about some of the stuff of his. But to his credit he's in the business.
Vaughn: He definitely has a very bright future in the business. And his brother Chino is definitely good.
Carter: Way to keep it positive, Vaughn.
What other cities outside of NYC have a strong Jamaican music community? I've heard Carter talk about the Bay Area during the show a few times—specifically the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival—and I remember Club Dread as a great party when I lived in San Francisco. Are there any other American cities when you guys go to that you're like, alright these guys are kind of getting it?
Vaughn: Boston has a very good scene. And what I like about Boston is the fact that it's a lot of college radios down there. So the music is definitely getting pumped, non-commercially, so you can really hear it. Philadelphia has a very strong college scene too, so the music is definitely getting pushed. Oh, and most definitely DC. You have Paddy Boom Boom down there one of the big clubs down there. They bring in everybody from like Brooklyn's Dub Is A Weapon to Lee Perry to you name - everybody's been there. There's some good strong reggae scenes in the states. Definitely.
So bringing it back here to New York, what are the big parties and events here?
Carter: It's hard in New York for reggae. It's really difficult. The rent - it starts with the rent. Rent is so high here that in order to stay in business the venues have to charge a lot of money for the use of the space. So you have to charge a lot at the door. The whole thing is difficult for a promoter to make money doing a reggae show. Straight up. And so what you find here I think the best part of New York is the smaller parties. If you call them underground, whatever. You know, they're weekly, monthly parties the kind of thing that Vaughn and I have been involved in. The kind of things that's always been going on here, but they're usually sound system parties, not live environments.
And you know, as far as Coney Island goes, Coney Island's Reggae on the Boardwalk came about from me going out and seeing the little pavilions that they have where they'd have these guys set up there little portable discotheques and playing a lot of house music and salsa and whatnot and I thought, "Wow, can we do this with reggae." And I talked with some people and got the permits. It was not too difficult to do. And have been running a sound system out there 3, 4 times a summer since 2010. We're doing it 4 times this summer.
Do you have the dates set yet?
Carter: May 26th, which is the day before Memorial Day and then June 30th, July 27th, and August 25th. Three of those are Sundays and one of those is a Saturday. They go from noon, if we get the thing rolling on time, from to 8 p.m., roughly.
So who do you think it is that listens to Eastern Standard Time on Saturdays?
Carter: Well, because WKCR doesn't have any marketing budget - I mean, we're a radio station, so we're kind of self-promoted. You can just tune in. But as far as new listeners, first of all you have to be tuning on the dial; you have to be looking. We probably get more new listeners by people who catch us driving through the area in their car.
Vaughn: Most people catch us by coincidence.
Carter: We get a lot of love from taxi drivers, people who own small businesses in the community who play us in their bakery or bodega or whatever. That's really valuable: people who just turn it up and blast it out.