The cover of Crew Vibez, the fresh album that Chinese Connection Dub Embassy drops this Friday, has a portrait of brothers Joseph and David Higgins in shades of red, gold, and green — rather appropriate, given that they are Memphis' premiere purveyors of reggae. But among the faint letters in the background, nestled among words like "irie" and "truth," is the name Omar. As their fans know, that's their eldest brother, who founded the band with them (along with the hardcore punk band Negro Terror) and passed away unexpectedly in April of last year.
The fact that the brothers carried on with the project is a testament to the entire family's love of music. "My dad was a drummer; my mother was a saxophone player," David tells me. "And our mother was West Indian as well. We came from New York to Mississippi and Memphis. We were more about the Jamaican reggae and skinhead culture. Working class, for the people, by the people." And some tracks on the new album reflect this directly, such as politically charged songs like "Dem A Callin' (Flodgin')" and "Warzone."
- Chinese Connection Dub Embassy
But this is an album full of surprises, and the biggest may be the group's embrace of other styles beyond the classic reggae they've purveyed in the past. As Joseph says, "It's a compilation of different kinds of reggae, from dancehall to straight-up roots. Some feel-good tunes. We're even tapping into a little bit of Memphis hip-hop with some of our friends. We still pay respect to reggae as a whole, but we wanna give a Memphis vibe to it. I think this project will really open peoples' minds."
And while the group typically opens minds with their unique brand of consciousness-raising roots music a la Peter Tosh, this new work aims to open hearts as well. Many of the tracks, from lead single "Honey" to "Melanin Queen" or "So Grateful," explore a sound that combines classic "lover's rock" with drum-machine-heavy dancehall beats.
As executive producer Ryan Peel notes, the two surviving brothers are "reinventing Chinese Connection Dub Embassy. Joseph and Dave know what I do. I'm a pop producer more than anything. Usually that lands in the realm of rap and R&B. They wanted a newer element in the sound, but also someone who understood the history and the different rhythmic choices for each of those sub-genres. So that's how we moved into it being dancehall heavy."
Peel has known the Higgins brothers for years, and has often drummed for them in the classic roots reggae style they perfected. But this time around, he was programming beats, not playing them. "I wanted it to sound like a hip-hop record, but with the music itself being dancehall and reggae," he says. Indeed, the album features several local rappers and R&B singers as guests. "Tia 'Songbird' Henderson is on one track. 'Warzone' has the rappers SvmDvde and Hannya Chao$, who's really guttural and primal. And Harley Quinn, R.I.C.O. Tha Akronym, Webbstar, and Sebastian Carson are also featured."
While David has always been the guitarist of the group, this album doesn't feature much of that. "One song, 'Never Gonna Break Your Heart,' starts out with flamenco guitar," says Peel. "And he smashed it in one take! But I don't think David was necessarily thinking of himself as a guitarist on this record. I think he was thinking, 'I'm a lead vocalist now.' I was like, 'Damn, dude! Where have you been? You should have been out here! Omar should have let you sing more!'"
For most of the songs, Peel says, "Joseph would write the chords and a basic drum part, then I'd soup it up." Once the beats were sequenced, Joseph, a keyboardist, would flesh out the arrangements, starting with the bass. "He's the sub-bass king! He killed it. It's almost like Joseph said, 'All right, what would Omar do? Let me pull out my synth-bass version of Omar on this.' As a drummer who played with Omar for years, I feel that in my heart. It feels right. For people who knew CCDE with Omar, this isn't going to be too alien to them."