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The dictionary defines “genius” as somebody with exceptional ability, especially one whose intellectual or creative achievements gain worldwide recognition. By any definition, the 18-year-old production prodigy Stephen McGregor lives all the way up to his reggae a.k.a. “Di Genius.”
The son of legendary roots reggae vocalist Freddie McGregor, Stephen was born January 6, 1990, and literally grew up inside Big Ship Studios, one of Kingston, Jamaica’s leading sound labs. “When I build my studio I build it with the concept that a lot of young youths could get a chance,” says Stephen’s father Freddie, “cause I know how difficult it can be.” Freddie McGregor began his own career at age seven under the auspices of Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, but compared with his son Stephen, Freddie the Studio One child star was a late bloomer.
“Every time Stephen come in the studio we know,” his father recalls with a smile. “You see the door open, but you don’t see nobody—him that small.” Stephen recorded his first song at age six, a combination with the dancehall legend Tiger entitled Roll Dumpling Roll. He released his first song at age seven, a credible dancehall cut titled School Done Rule that appeared on the 1997 Ras Records anthology More Reggae For Kids.
But Stephen McGregor’s first love was the drum. Watching ace session musicians rehearsing every day, Stephen was inspired to lay down his own beats. “Him watch the flex,” his father remembers, “and as a likkle youth him say ‘Me can do that. Ah no big deal.’ Every single day that God send, him play that drum set for like an hour and a half. Him just get wicked as a drummer,” his father adds with a laugh: "Sometimes we haffi ask who inside deh ah play?”
After mastering the drums, young Stephen bought himself a bass guitar and went on to teach himself a total of five different instruments including the violin. “He just develop as a champion on him own,” says his father. “Right now me proud of him and proud of his accomplishment. He’s the youngest producer to be so successful in the history of Jamaica.”
“We weren’t forced to do music,” says Stephen, who boasts a discography that many veteran producers might envy—although he only graduated from Ardennes High School two years ago. “Dad built a studio beside our house, so we just developed a natural love.” That love has led him to become one of the most influential and in-demand young producers in Jamaica’s ultra-competitive dancehall scene. These days the island’s top reggae artists line up to work with him on a daily basis. “I don’t really feel pressured,” says the teenage hitmaker. “It’s just basically me doing what I do.”
Since 2005, Stephen McGregor has been churning out a flurry of densely layered dancehall riddims with names like 12 Gauge, Tremor, Ghetto Whiskey, and Red Bull & Guiness, which was the backing track for Mavado’s international crossover hit Weh Dem A Do. He showed a smoother side of his sound on DaVille’s smash lover’s rock tune On My Mind (and a subsequent remix featuring Sean Paul). Now he’s hard at work on Sean Paul’s next album—he produced the Grammy-winner’s recent local single Watch Dem Roll—while negotiating “a lot of international stuff” he can’t discuss quite yet. “I blend all the genres into the dancehall and I listen to every genre,” says the producer of Area Leader by Collie Buddz and Krayzie Bone of the rap crew Bone Thugs N Harmony. “I have a lot of tracks doing extremely well, not only here but all over,” says McGregor, who periodically travels to Japan where he produces for popular local music acts. “The hard word is paying off,” he adds. “A lot of sleepless nights and stuff—so it’s a good feeling.”
“Stephen, you too damn evil!” Vybz Kartel booms at the top of his latest ghetto chronicle, My Scheme on McGregor’s heavy new Darker Shadow riddim. But McGregor saves all the badness for his beats. Humble, soft-spoken, and quick to smile, Stephen isn’t the first person you’d think of when listening to the hardcore dancehall cuts he produces for artists like Kartel, Mavado, and Bounty Killer. “I admire all of the artistes,” says the producer who always save room on his riddims for promising young talents like Bramma and Black Ryno (whose Ay Ya Ay Ya has made some noise on the Shadowz riddim). “It’s more competitive now. Artistes have to be more creative. For new artistes trying to break, lyrics are totally different compared to two years ago.” Whenever larger-than-life egos and rivalries spin out of control, he does his best to take the drama in stride. “I just try my best to stay focused on my goals,” Di Genius states calmly, “and not on other things that are goin’ on around me.”
Nor does Stephen have any intention of sleeping on the business end of the music business. His father has taught him well, and his copy of Donald S. Passman’s classic , All You Need To Know About The Music Business is well-worn. He also recently retained management services from veteran dancehall manager and producer, Jeremy Harding (Sean Paul) so he can keep focused on the studio and not the paperwork. But despite all his accomplishments and his “Sky’s the limit” ambition, Stephen McGregor remains refreshingly humble and hype-free. Perhaps some of his father’s Rastafarian teachings rubbed off on him somewhere along the way. “A lot of people tend to get ahead of themselves for various reasons, especially in the music business,” says the level headed youngster, who’s clearly in music for the long haul. “People sometimes let possessions or other materialistic elements of the world to take away their focus and change their morals. That’s not me.”
His working methods are deceptively simple. “I don’t really use a lot of stuff,” says McGregor modestly. “It’s just an MPC2500 and the keyboard, plus ProTools.” But such are the building blocks of genius. And how many dancehall producers can lay down a live violin part on their own track? “Drums are my first instrument,” says the unassuming young producer. “That’s where I put most of my effort in terms of sound.” A quick listen to the wide range of rhythmic tempos and textures in his cutting-edge compositions like his brand-new Bee Hive and Daybreak riddim bears out his statement. And somehow it seems fitting that the offspring of reggae history should be an architect of the music’s future.
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