Back to Life

Back in 1995 an unknown singer named Richie Spice hit the Jamaican charts with the funky reggae tune "Living Ain't Easy." Over the next few years his lover's rock ditty "Grooving My Girl" and the spirited keyboard-and-bass-driven "Earth A Run Red," which emphasized the plight of suffering ghetto youths, also became hits. With the release of his 2000 album Universal on Heartbeat Records, Spice was regarded as an extremely promising artist, although not as highly rated as iconic neoroots crooners Luciano and the late Garnet Silk.

Then earlier this year, in a rare instance of a reincarnated song enjoying greater popularity in its second life, "Earth A Run Red" began a steady climb to the top of the Jamaican charts, despite having been relegated to selectors' oldies juggling sessions only a few years earlier. Its seismic impact on the European and American reggae scenes has transformed the 33-year-old Spice into a hot commodity once again.

The revitalization of Spice's career more than a decade after it began is in large part due to a chance meeting he had with the fiery chanter Chuck Fenda. Fenda introduced him to Devon Wheatley, chief executive officer of 5th Element Records, a small label/management company based in Kingston. "Before it was just me going out on tours continually singing them [songs]," explains the somewhat reticent Spice while seated in the courtyard of Kingston's Altamont Court Hotel. "Then 5th Element come along and put in their promotion and people accept them."

Wheatley explains that it was Spice's "good messages" that made him want to invest in the artist. "We made a good video for öEarth A Run Red' [with Jamaica's acclaimed dancehall video director Ras Kassa]," he explains, "and did a lot of promotional CDs, gave them to all the disc jockeys, and they started playing it on radio and in the dancehall, and it just took off."

Born Richell Bonner in the Kingston suburb of St. Andrew, Richie Spice hails from a musical family that includes older brothers Pliers (from the deejay/singer duo Chaka Demus and Pliers of "Murder She Wrote" fame) and singer Spanner Banner (best known for his mid-Nineties hit "Life Goes On"). It was Banner who initially brought Spice to veteran Clive Hunt, who produced Spice's breakthrough single "Grooving My Girl." Although its appealing pop sound is an anomaly in his roots-oriented catalog, it remains one of the most popular numbers in his repertoire.

Almost five years passed between the release of Spice's Universal and his 5th Element debut, Spice In Your Life, nearly an eternity for reggae artists who often release several albums per year. In contrast to that assembly-line approach, Spice In Your Life is a carefully crafted presentation of organic roots music. It features some of Kingston's finest musicians playing loping acoustic guitar strums, vigorous percussive accents, and sinuous bass lines live in the studio, an ideal complement to Spice's emotive vocals and uplifting messages.

"Earth A Run Red" reappears on Spice In Your Life, its lyrical power undiminished. "Watch out for the big-time thief who claim say that dem smart/Stop bringing the crack and the gun to mash up the youth them heart," sings Spice. His voice and the tone of the song are deceptively melodic, almost in contradiction to its serious content. "Earth a run a run red, ten-year-old look dem own tea bread/I hear a next youth dead."

From his righteous indignation aimed at the oppressive Babylon system to his immense pride in his African ancestry, each song expresses various aspects of Spice's Rastafarian way of life. It is packed with Jamaican chart busters such as the sonorous hymn to herb "Marijuana"; the ominous "Folly Living (Blood Again)," with Spice's mournful wailing accompanied by a somber rhythm riddled with gunshots; and his empowering delivery, as stirring as a preacher's Sunday morning sermon, on "Move Dem Out."

"I am a Rasta, a righteous man, I love progressiveness," Spice proclaims. "Richie Spice as an artist is here to defend the people on a natural livity to uplift the youths, let them know that selling sex, pretty cars, diamonds, and a whole heap of vanities that is not all, it is an illusion."

Eleven years after he started singing professionally, Richie Spice has suddenly catapulted to acclaim on the international circuit, and his renown is certain to increase now that the impressive Spice In Your Life has hit the streets. While his journey to recognition has been a long one, with lean periods too vast for most artists to endure, he never lost sight of his desire to make an impact as an artist in Jamaica and beyond.

"While you are singing positive songs it may take a little longer, but it has to manifest," Spice observes. "Artists that do different types of songs might make it more faster, but those songs fade out quicker and righteous songs always stand predominant."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.