Walshy Fire's impact across multiple genres, including dancehall, reggae, Afrobeats, and EDM, is emblematic of his love for music, his culture, and, more importantly, his hometown. The PBS American Masters documentary, Walshy Fire: Pull Up, intimately strings together his anomalous legacy from local emcee to a global multi-hyphenate DJ-slash-producer.
Released in April, the short follows the Miami-bred, Chinese-Jamaican-American DJ (born Leighton Paul Walsh) on the journey from his childhood to DJing, producing, recording, and emceeing across the world, from Miami to São Paulo.
The documentary was directed by Jamaican-American filmmaker Alicia G. Edwards, who pitched the idea when American Masters put out a call for stories for the second season of its "In the Making" series, which follows the journeys of emerging cultural icons. A Miami native, Edwards grew up immersed in the same Caribbean-American culture that's influenced Fire's style and wanted to take a closer look at how he took a specific, regional sound to the world stage as part of the dancehall-tinged EDM trio Major Lazer, which also consists of fellow South Florida native Diplo.
"I was really interested in the fact Fire came from this super-local Jamaican or Caribbean immigrant music scene," Edwards explains. "I don't think the average person thinking about Miami thinks about a bruk-out dancehall session in a warehouse."
Before he was traversing across the world as frontman and emcee for Major Lazer, Fire rose to prominence in Miami DJing dancehall, soca, and hip-hop sets for underground radio stations and was eventually recruited by Black Chiney, the popular Miami-based Jamaican sound system cofounded by Grammy Award-winning producer Supa Dups. Back then, he was spinning at Caribbean nightclubs across the country and contributing mixes to Black Chiney's popular dancehall mixtapes.
"Where I'm from and what I've experienced in life is very unique," Fire tells New Times. "Being Caribbean and mixing that with Miami bass, Miami music, Miami sound is just one of those moments where you realize not too many people get to tell this kind of a story."
Filmed in early 2022, Edwards followed Fire for two months from homegrown fetes to large festival stages, where he mentored and coproduced for budding artists on trap and reggae-infused songs. Pull Up provides an intimate perspective of Fire's passion for DJing and production despite his demanding schedule.
"I don't know how he does this, and he just keeps going," Edwards adds. "After a week of going to three shows, I was done, and he does that every day. I was really in awe of that, and it was important for me to catch those nuances. When we filmed in Coyo Taco, and you see those men dancing, we were in the middle of the dance floor with the camera pointing up."
Inside the Wynwood taqueria, she zooms in on the marriage of cultures Fire evokes at his weekly party, Rum & Bass, with a set incorporating Afrobeats, hip-hop, dancehall, and soca. The camera pans to the middle of the dancefloor, where a circle of men jook and stick to a remix of DJ Chipman's "Beam Ahh." As the bass reverberates from the speakers, the energy between the dancers is palpable and infectious.
"I feel like a director from the outside would've stood in the corner of the room or on a ladder and filmed. But I feel like my culture and my experience let me know that the circle is this ancestral, redemptive feeling of seeing unadulterated joy and community," Edwards says.
She also filmed interviews with Fire's close friends and family at the Wynwood-nestled listening bar Dante's HiFi. Anecdotes and reflections from people like fellow Black Chiney member Warren "Willy Chin" Hoo, his cousin Dean Patel, and 103.5 the Beat's DJ and radio host Papa Keith undergirds his story. At the same time, Caribbean studies scholar and University of Miami professor Patricia J. Saunders frames the cultural and historical context of Fire's legacy.
"Music was still connecting us. Music was our bridge to the places we had left," Sauder says in the documentary about the diasporic fusion that inspires Fire's music.
Ultimately the short is a love story of Miami's sprawling Caribbean immigrant community and the unique culture birthed from the resilience and pride of those enclaves. "The culture that we've cultivated has gone on to influence so many things," Edwards adds. "You can't even talk about Major Lazer without talking about Black Chiney."
Most DJs and producers who have performed on the world's largest festival stages prefer to rest on their laurels among other industry aristocrats in cities like Los Angeles or New York City. But Fire always comes home to insulate his craft right where he started. Pull up on him at a Caribbean fete any day of the week, whether it's on a Saturday night at WynCarib or the Shrine at Red Rooster or on a Tuesday night at Coyo Taco — he's never too far away from the place that molded his sound.
"I grew up in a Caribbean neighborhood, and I went to a high school that was full of Caribbeans. Then I went to Atlanta where there were none," he recalls of his time as a student at Clark Atlanta University. "I began to appreciate the city and all that it brought together with so many people from so many different places."
Fire's American Masters documentary is a testament to how he preserves Miami's sonic history. Over the past few decades, he's been a vanguard of the evolution of Caribbean-inspired sounds, taking Miami-specific music across the world and merging it with EDM, hip-hop, and Afrobeats.
"He loves Miami bass; he loves Miami jook. It's really a Miami story for him, too," Edwards adds. "There's nowhere else in the country where the culture is this readily available. Walshy's story is very emblematic of this part of South Florida."