For more than a decade, Milwaukee's Chalice in the Palace – DJs Eltronix, Avets, Selector Max, and Ric Vespa – has breathed life into the city's wanting reggae music scene with regular record spins featuring a wide variety of Jamaican sounds at area clubs.
We caught up with Selecter Max, aka Max David Knowlton-Sachner to ask about the record spins, the music that best moves the Milwaukee faithful and the state of the Jamaican music scene in Brew City.
OnMilwaukee.com: Let's start at the top. Tell us about the history of Chalice in the Palace.
Selecter Max: We are a group of reggae DJs known as a sound system – not to be confused with a reggae band. We specialize in rare Jamaican vinyl and cover the whole spectrum of Jamaican music from the '50s to present. a lot of members have come and gone over the years. right now our line up consists of DJ Avets, Selector Max, Ric Vespa and Eltronix.
OMC: How long have you been doing it?
SM: Each of us were doing our own things before Chalice, but we came together as a crew back in 2004. We had a reggae night at Roots Cellar every Wednesday and it was the most successful reggae night in the city.
OMC: Are you always at the same venues?
SM: We get steady monthly gigs at certain spots from time to time, but we move around a lot, as well. You can also catch us opening up for touring artists that come to town. We've opened up for acts like Toots and the Maytals, Culture, The Mighty Diamonds, Stephen and Ziggy Marley, Steel Pulse and Sean Paul. So yeah, we get around in the reggae scene.
OMC: What is the response like?
SM: The responses definitely vary. We like to start the party at a steady pace and work up to a danceable atmosphere. So at the start, most people chill and drink as they listen to our selection. That's usually the time when we play records for the people who are bobbing their heads and really listening to the music.
Some of our deepest cuts are played in the first hour of our show because in the beginning, we don't really have to cater to a vibrating dance floor. People really start to move when we speed up the BPMs a bit and bust the dancehall. Most of the records we play are unfamiliar to the average Marley fan, so it feels good to know that people still get into music regardless of whether they've heard it before or not.
Occasionally, we do get a request for some more commercial stuff, which we generally try to steer away from. We like our audience to put their trust in us, and wait till they get in their cars to hear their favorite songs.
OMC: Is Milwaukee pretty desperate for places to hear Jamaican music?
SM: Well, there are certain types of music that just aren't as popular as others, and compared to bigger cities, the sad truth is that Jamaican music just isn't that popular here. And it's not that people don't like it, although I have heard people say they "don't like reggae."
I believe that people just haven't been exposed to all the different types of Jamaican music. and that's what Chalice is here for. We want people to know that there is soul, funk, R&B and blues. It's from a Caribbean island, so you just have to listen a little harder, but it's there.
So having said that, yes, absolutely, Milwaukee is desperate for a place with an authentic, gritty, dusty, crackly Jamaican record spin – one that makes people get off their stools, if not to dance, to go up to the DJ and say "what is THIS?!" That's how I got my start in collecting Jamaican vinyl, and look at me now!
OMC: What are the types of records that go down the biggest here?
SM: Generally, I would say the newer stuff. Like pop. Either that or the older commercial stuff. At least that's what I usually hear. At our shows, it really depends on where we are and who our demographic is. The most important thing to being a good DJ is knowing your audience and feeling out the vibe. Our hip-hop heads like the hardcore '90s dancehall, Ragga and hip-hop remixes: Super Cat, Shabba and Cutty Ranks.
Our record heads like the rare, deep cuts. Studio One, ‘70s deejays and rough ‘80s digital. The younger crowd likes dub, electronic and the UK steppers. The rude boys like the ska, rocksteady and rockers while the Jamaican crowd loves the roots and culture, lovers rock, as well as dancehall classics.
We still get surprised at stuff people get into. I remember a time when we were playing in Riverwest, an old drunk guy pulled up in a limousine, stumbled into the bar and demanded we play some Bounty Killer. He was reciting songs and everything. So really, anything goes. we cater to everybody ... well almost.
The records we play also depend on our moods, and what's happening around us in the world. Reggae is not just about being happy and partaking in certain recreational activities. For a lot of Jamaicans, even the artists, living in Jamaica is a struggle. But what Jamaica lacks in wealth, it makes up for in the strength and hearts of its people and culture. and the oppression and suffering they fight against is matched by the messages in their music. Given the political climate right here right now, with all the racial contention, police brutality and corruption, '70s roots reggae is highly appropriate. It's a rallying cry by the underprivileged and abused to stand up and fight for what's right. I would like to think that the response to what we play could be revolutionary, but hey, we're just DJs right? We're just here to make people dance.
OMC: What's your take on the local scene: radio, record spins, retail, local bands, touring bands?
SM: Oh boy. The reggae scene is struggling and for as long as I can remember, it always has been. As a whole, record stores don't carry a big selection of Jamaican music. However, with the upsurge of vinyl records now being sold, lots of terrific Jamaican records are being repressed and some of the great independent record stores are filling their shelves with them – you just have to get there before Avets does.
One great thing about Jamaica, is it's bottomless pot of golden music and talent. There is always a new record to discover. But like I said before, Milwaukee is not a huge reggae city, so not a lot of these records are in circulation here. Especially original pressings. As far as reggae record spins, there are definitely DJs besides us that throw it down, but only a handful. and for strictly vinyl sound systems ... I really don't know of any.
The biggest the reggae band scene has ever been in my life, was in the early '90s during that huge Midwest ska movement, but it's really died down since then. There are a few bands/sound systems and one radio show that I know of that represent hard, but there needs to be more. More bands, more radio shows, more styles, venues, touring bands, soundsystems, selectors, deejays, singers, clashes, promotion and most of all appreciation and support.
Without that and an open mind, promoters and venues will lose money on touring bands and stop booking them. I saw Mega Banton here in Milwaukee a year ago. I specialize in '90s dancehall and I didnt hear about it until the week of the show. I live 3 blocks from the venue. There were about 20 people there. Mega Banton. 20 people.
Anyway, without promotion and support, it will be hard for bands and DJs to find good gigs. Record stores will stop carrying Jamaican records, radio shows will lose funding and the reggae scene will die. It's the sad, hard truth. If the Milwaukee music scene went to the doctor today, the doctor would say, "you are very strong and your health is good, but you need more reggae in your diet."
Here are some of Chalice in the Palace's most select cuts at the moment:
Yammy Bolo – When A Man's In Love
Black Uhuru – Plastic Smile
Prince Buster – Girl Answer Your Name
Eek-A-Mouse – Wa Do Dem
Terror Fabulous – Gun Fool
Terry Ganzie – Going Back To Texas
Lloyd D. Stiff – Brooklyn Living
Courtney Melody – Kill Soundboy With Ease
Ranking Dread – Hard Time
Gregory Isaacs – Rock On
Dillinger – Cornbread Earl and Me
Anything by Jackie Mittoo
You can catch Chalice in the Palace on the first Friday of each month, including April 3, at Thurman's.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.