White boys doing reggae can get ugly. Even though white people co-opting black music is nothing new, this latest example seems particularly cringe-inducing. But Princes of Babylon breaks the mold. It takes a primarily reggae sound, pulls it in half-a-dozen different directions, and emerges with something far more original.
The Princes are part of a white-boys-with-dreads reggae revival that has hit the United States during the past several years. It's a response to the dancehall route that modern reggae has taken, much like punk's attempt to get back to pure rock followed the bloated hubris and decadent glitter of glam rock and disco. The primary difference is that, while punk managed to come up with something new in its reverence for the past, white roots reggae artists aren't generally quite so original.
The Philadelphia-based Princes are an exception. They manage to spice up the typical hip-hop/reggae fusion with bits of funk, jazz, and blues to come up with a somewhat more personal yet still entirely danceable sound. But as the band has shrunk from a sextet to a trio this year, its sound has become more focused.
"The hip-hop influence is now more musical rather than straight rapping," says guitarist/vocalist Dave McHale, comparing the current guitar/bass/drums lineup to the days when the band included two rappers. "Before we had a lot of different sounds trying to be shoved into one small space. Sometimes it amounted to something very original and exciting, and sometimes it amounted to a cancellation of energies."
Princes of Babylon should be tanned, rested, and ready when it performs in Fort Lauderdale this Wednesday, having just completed a six-day gig at Margaritaville in Key West. Although certainly a job, it will also be a good vacation to cap off what has been a somewhat trying year for the band. Despite halving its membership, the group is busier than ever.
"We've played 150 gigs this year. We've also managed to all but complete a full-length original CD that is just the trio. It's easily our best album yet," McHale gushes. "Before, we've always put out a four-song EP here, an eight-song EP there, just to keep up with demand. This time, we had a clear concept when we started and were able to flesh out this vision. It represents a lot more time and conscious energy committed to it."
Like most of the band's music, the songs from the new CD reflect the philosophy that gave the band its unusual name. "It's biblical," McHale explains. "The idea is that [the princes] weren't the kings of Babylon, but they obviously had the power to make changes. It was in their interest, and their duty, to change something before Babylon suffered its final demise. As much as we love this country, we're definitely exercising our right to dissent in a certain way. We have to keep it lively and fun to listen to, but our message definitely is trying to reform a system that is getting too big for its own britches."