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Driving through the South Grove looking for food, past his childhood home on Douglas Road, I asked him about his reggae record label, Kulcha Shok Musik. He smiled when he talked about the throngs of people dancing while he spun roots reggae classics at his last monthly reggae and surf party, Third Thursdays at Bayside Hut on Key Biscayne.
"I'm just trying to bring people together, you know?" he said. "This city needs a little something different."
After eating some vegetarian cuisine at The Last Carrot, he took me back to the gas station and drove away. Over the next year, I watched as O'Brien used Kulcha Shok to spearhead movements in Miami's then-dwindling reggae and surfing scenes, then seamlessly merge them together.
This year is probably the busiest and most lucrative for O'Brien since he formed Kulcha Shok in 1996. Third Thursdays has evolved into Jah Surf, a weekly reggae/surf theme party he holds on Thursdays at The Corner Bar. He's also hosting "the Dirty South" surf contest from November 24 through 29 on South Beach between First Street and Collins Avenue. A new album by Kulcha Shok recording artist Wookie J is in the works, as is a signature line of clothing and surfboards.
Most important, though, the 38-year-old O'Brien, popularly known as Lance-O, has given reggae music a healthy push on the airwaves through his Sunday night reggae radio show, Dancehall Nice Again, on Miami's most popular station, Power 96 (WPOW-FM 96.5). O'Brien has been infusing what would normally be a journey into Top 40 hell with fringe roots and dancehall hits. He plays cutting edge tracks with crossover appeal such as I-Wayne's "Can't Satisfy Her" and Tanya Stephens's "It's a Pity" during his 10:00 p.m. to midnight slot .
Thanks to the 30,000 listeners that tune in every week to Dancehall Nice Again, Stephens's hit was Power 96's fifth most requested song during the last week in October.
"Lance-O's time slot is normally unimportant with most radio stations in general," said Power 96's program director Kid Curry. "But he knows so much about this genre, and he's done so well with breaking fringe dancehall hits, that he's been able to really capture a growing audience."
"Miami has really stepped it up with its reggae scene," said O'Brien from his South Beach apartment, where he single-handedly runs Kulcha Shok. "Before, the buzz was always shared between New York City and Miami. But I think that Miami's reggae movement is bigger now, not only because of its proximity to Jamaica and the Caribbean, but because radio is a bigger influence here. We have more reggae on mainstream radio in Miami."
Lance-O burst onto reggae's radio scene as a college student at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. During his time there, he created the school's first reggae program in January 1985, playing classics like Ini Kamoze's "Pirate" and Burning Spear's "Built this City." After graduating with a bachelor's in speech communications in 1987, he moved back to Miami and landed a Saturday night slot on The Heartbeat of the Caribbean (WAVS-AM 1170). The show was a huge success in Miami's West Indian and Jamaican neighborhoods, he says. In 1996, O'Brien inaugurated Reggae Vibes, a national and international reggae news program on Jamaican station Irie FM; it's now syndicated on 120 stations worldwide, from France and Croatia to Australia.
Although known for his radio voice, O'Brien moved into production right after founding Kulcha Shok. He assembled his label's first album, Kulcharal Dancehall, a compilation featuring artists such as Barrington Levy and Terry Ganzie. Around the same time, O'Brien started laying down tracks with St. Augustine's Wookie J and Jamaica's Natty Remo in legendary reggae producer Karl Pitterson's South End Studio near Tamiami Airport.
Pitterson won't tell you his age or where he's from, but he will say that he's worked with reggae greats such as Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Toots and the Maytals, and Peter Tosh, and even rock gods like The Rolling Stones and ABBA. "I see Kulcha Shok's reggae having a much more lasting effect than the kind of stuff coming out nowadays," he said about his experience producing debut albums for Wookie J (Big Up the Children) and Natty Remo (Babylon Fall). "That's because Lance-O has a good background in early roots reggae."
So when O'Brien decided to unite his music with Miami surfers, it became clear that this was exactly what the eccentric, wave-hungry surfing community needed: reggae vibe-oriented gatherings that seem to make you forget that earlier in the day you surfed shitty one-foot slop next to a fat transvestite with pink Speedos and a matching boogie board.
"What brings surfers together is waves and we don't have that in Miami, so it's hard for all of us to get together," said O'Brien. "But that's the idea here, to build a strong vibe and a whole community."