By Jacob Katel
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Ultra has never offered much homegrown local flavor. Even as the globally minded EDM fest has broadened its musical scope to include rappers, R&B stars, and indie bands, the other sounds — reggae, salsa, merengue, authentic Miami bass — that keep much of the 305 dancing the rest of the year are rarely represented. When Major Lazer performs on Ultra's Live Stage, though, audiences are sure to receive an education in dancehall from Miami's own ambassador of the culture, Walshy Fire.
A product of Carol City by way of Kingston, Jamaica, Walshy is the live MC (or hype man, if you prefer) for DJ, producer, and onetime Broward denizen Diplo's dancehall-inspired EDM outfit. Locally, though, Walshy is best known for his role in the area's top-ranking reggae DJ crew, Black Chiney Sound, as well as his longstanding gig at local underground station 96 Mixx, positions he continues to hold down on the rare occasions he's in town.
Since joining Diplo and crew full-time last year, he's been the onstage ringleader of a circus that's among the most unique things running on the EDM circuit. As MC, he orchestrates a chaos of confetti-spraying machine guns, man-mauling female dancers, and genre-bending beats, all while periodically bolting over the crowd in a human-size hamster ball. "If you've gone to any EDM show, it's nothing like that, but it takes some parts of that," Walshy explains. "If you've been to a hardcore dancehall show, it's nothing like that, but it takes some parts of that.
"You go to these EDM shows that we play on, and it's one guy up there, lots of lights, his whole set is premixed, and he's just finger-pointing and working some knob... People hear our music and go, 'Thank you,' for just doing something different at these shows. No disrespect to anybody, but people really do appreciate 'different.' Some people hate it. But for everyone else, it's love beyond love."
Major Lazer's live shows weren't always so gripping. Formed by Diplo and now-departed copilot Switch as a Gorillaz-style concept project with a one-armed Jamaican commando as its mascot, the outfit put on early performances in support of the 2009 debut Guns Don't Kill People Lazers Do that were major flops. The addition of diminutive hype man Skerrit Bwoy proved to be a major coup; his acrobatic spin on the über-aggressive dancing style known as daggering helped make Major Lazer an irresistible anomaly on the international festival circuit. But when Skerrit suddenly devoted himself to Christianity in 2011, the group found itself in search of a new MC who could maintain the high energy level that fans had grown accustomed to, minus the daggering.
As it turns out, Black Chiney's early '00s-era, dancehall-meets-hip-hop mixtapes were among former Plantation resident Diplo's inspirations for forming Major Lazer. That, and Walshy's track record as an ambassador of dancehall — his resumé includes DJing for Miami's New World Symphony and hosting a DJ battle show on Jamaican TV — made him a perfect fit for the new-look Major Lazer, which also currently includes DJ-producer Jillionaire.
You won't find Walshy on the new Major Lazer album, Free the Universe, when it drops next month. The LP — which features appearances from Wyclef, Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig, and dancehall stars Busy Signal, Johnny Osbourne, and Elephant Man — was mostly completed prior to his enlistment. And for now, his role mainly involves the live show. But he's made his mark overseeing a series of Major Lazer mixtapes spotlighting up-and-coming Jamaican talent, among other behind-the-scenes moves.
"My sole purpose with this Major Lazer thing is to bring back some glory and international exposure [for] reggae and dancehall," Walshy says, referring to the genre's weakened visibility in the iTunes era. "We just make it fun so that people will walk away going, 'I want to go do some research.'"