In today's competitive dancehall reggae arena, many artists bust with one initial tune, only to shortly disappear. Achieving longevity is no easy feat for an audience that can be as fickle as the genre's continuously dropping riddims. Singers, however, tend to have a better run than DJs since love songs and other subjects courted by rich vocals remain in the hearts of listeners far longer than the catchy DJ flavor of the month. Durable singer Richie Stephens is one of the triumphant few.
His story is similar to that of many youths in Jamaica, growing up in a country town -- in his case, Russia in Westmoreland. He was the neighborhood entertainer, singing for anyone who would listen, always encouraged by family and friends. Stephens says, "After singing for friends in the community, I started to perform outside the community around town -- the crowd was appreciating me the same. I started to build up confidence in myself."
His new self-confidence pushed him to life as a roadie for the Umujah band. Next was a stint with the Stars Incorporated Band, then a backing band for Junior Reid, Half Pint, and other established artists. Feeling the need to practice and perfect his art, Stephens ventured off to the tourist circuit of Jamaica. After touring Europe in 1986 on behalf of the Jamaica Tourist Board in an effort to promote travel to the island, Stephens began a new direction with recording.
His first recorded single, "Buff Baff," didn't get much response. But his next effort, "Trying To Get To You" -- recorded with Penthouse Studio's powerhouse Donovan Germain -- officially broke Richie Stephens into dancehall, and today you will still get an overwhelming response when this single is spun at a show, a session (an authentic dancehall party), or in a club.
Stephens was soon managed by Specialist, who had another star under his wing: Shabba Ranks. The two toured in the early Nineties, expanding Stephens's career and landing him a deal with Motown Records. This was short-lived, however. "It was a great experience while it lasted," says Stephens. "Things never really worked out because management and me got into some problems and it affected the deal." At the time, Soul II Soul featured him on the single "Joy," which led to a live performance on The Arsenio Hall Show during its prime.
Frustrated with the limited recording time when voicing for other producers, Stephens started his own production company, Pot of Gold. For him it was the desire he had to "spend more time on my music and get it done a certain way that I'm pleased with. A lot of producers do things differently. I had recorded a lot of songs that I thought could be better with more time spent developing them. I figured if I did it myself, I could spend more time on particular songs and tracks." Plus, having traveled to the United States and Europe, Stephens knew the response for the music could be financially lucrative if approached correctly.
This was proved almost instantly with the hit "She's A Maniac" featuring Stephens with Bounty Killer, the first release for his own production company. He confesses, "Initially I wasn't intending to be a full-time producer, but due to 'Maniac' being a huge song it created a demand from me production-wise and I started writing and producing other artists. After doing that for a while, I decided I wanted my own studio. The Almighty blessed me with one, Pot of Gold Recording Studio."
One of the first projects from the new studio is Stephens's own gospel album. For him it's a matter of acknowledgment and tribute. He explains: "The reason for this is after all these blessings over the years, I figured to myself the best thing is to do a tribute to the Almighty and express how I feel about him in music. I decided to do a full gospel album. I used to be a regular churchgoer when living in the country. We would go to church on Sunday, mostly Sunday school, like most Jamaicans. So I'm no stranger to the religious vibes."
Stephens paired up with ERC Records, an offshoot of the Website www.reggaecd.com, and found working with CEO Eric Jones promising. He says, "The new album is fourteen tracks, mainly original songs. I wanted to express myself in my own way. Traditionally people like to cover old gospel songs when recording a gospel album. I differed from that route. I wanted to come with my own expression and melodies and express myself my own way. All songs are original except one, 'Yamo Be There,' that was originally done by Mike McDonald and James Ingram."
Man Upstairs, Stephens's eighth solo album, features his own godly interpretation of R&B, ska, and reggae: "The Man Upstairs," "Dance For Jesus," "Father I Love You," "He's Everything," and "Call His Name" featuring Bounty Killer in a holy turn. There's also a track with Lt. Stichie. The song "Safe With You" features Stephens's mother, Mama Carmen.
Stephens is positive about the direction of this new album and the project is truly one of the heart. He offers, "I've been doing gospel music long before other artists and producers started thinking about being Christians. In early 1992 I did a gospel song called 'Don't Turn Your Back.' So far the response to the album has been very good." Which is something he finds refreshing. He sighs, "Today, people just get up and do things nowadays with no level of morality. I think lots of people are not really into God but they are afraid to say it because they are afraid of the response they might get from people in terms of some dealings." Maybe this album will sway some over to the side of the Lord!