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Victor Axelrod, the thirtysomething keyboardist, arranger, and engineer who creates reggae music under the handle Ticklah, decides to open the sidewalk grates early. His aptly named Don't Trip studio is tucked beneath a Brooklyn sidewalk in a desolate section of Gowanus: Washing machines double as amp stands, keyboards are stacked like pancakes, drums are stuffed in corners, and a large mixing console holds court among egg crates and pegboards full of patch cords. From the street, you follow the trembling sounds of bass and keys down a dark cement staircase.
On a warm September night, a loose collection of heavy-hitting musicians filters into that cramped, low-ceilinged basement. Guitarist Marcos Garcia, Axelrod's bandmate in the Brooklyn Afropop collective Antibalas, arrives first. Following his lead are bassist Victor Rice (who's worked with throwback ska outfits the Scofflaws, the Stubborn All-Stars, and the Toasters), singer Tamar-kali (of reggae collective the Easy Star All Stars), and singer Rob Symeonn (known for his righteous roots tome "Chosen One"). Various others congregate nearby, either in Axelrod's apartment upstairs or out in his garden. Everyone has come together to rehearse for the release party celebrating Ticklah vs. Axelrod, his first reggae album under the name Ticklah. Axelrod is businesslike as he conducts the rehearsal, stressing over latecomers and constantly reminding the assembled when crucial hooks need to be highlighted or when to phase out a tune. At one point, Symeonn's sweet vocals throw the drummer into a trance, and Axelrod has to remind everyone not to "zone out" during the performance, bringing a dose of structure to the historically mind-bending abstractions of dub music. Although Axelrod says he doesn't subscribe to the romantic notion that legendary reggae studios like Studio One and Channel One relied on spontaneous jam sessions sparked by random people who just happened to be hanging out there, he may not realize he's creating that very same vibe at Don't Trip. But it all starts with him. In addition to his Antibalas tenure, he was an original member of retro-soul titans Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and did production work on Easy Star Records' Dub Side of the Moon, the NYC label's highly successful reggae tribute to Pink Floyd. Ticklah vs. Axelrod, a pleasantly polished and delicately mixed reggae-dub album with impressive vocal talent, was coddled, massaged, and perfected over a number of years in Axelrod's basement studio during Antibalas's downtime. Most of the rhythms were created organically through impromptu sessions with Rice and other friends. "Victor would come to the studio, and I would get behind the drums, and we'd kick around some ideas," says the multitalented Axelrod, who played a little bit of drums and bass on the record, as well as all the keys. "We would work out ideas, and the tracks would sit for a while before I would overdub them, thickening up the rhythm with guitar or piano. But the thing I always look for in a track is some kind of identifying melodic content, to basically elevate it from just being a cool reggae or dub track to making it into a tune."
On Ticklah, these melodic sensibilities can manifest as a thick, overdubbed trombone ("Scratch to Win"), clattering organ catches ("Two Face"), or the subsonic sound effects that make dub unique. The results are spirited renditions of old-time dubs that conjure images of larger-than-life personalities like Lee Scratch Perry and King Tubby, logging long hours behind massive mixing boards, musical equations bubbling in their heads like mad-scientist experiments.
Working closely with Easy Star and exploiting his other affiliations, Axelrod didn't mind outsourcing his melodies, either. "Sometimes reggae singers have a song already in their mind that can work over different rhythms," he says; consider "Queen Dub," graced by Symeonn's distinctive voice and capped with a heavy bassline and xylophone hook. A similar alchemy occurred with "Rescue Me," wherein Axelrod got an instrumental track in the hands of reggae pioneer Mikey General while overseeing the production of a Luciano track. General's high-pitched voice and cool timing, combined with the track's airy flow, add some authentic Caribbean flavor to the album. And throughout, Axelrod tackles dub with a love of the form and its craft. Ticklah combines all the musical tastes he's absorbed over the years, from Afrobeat to Latin. The album features two unique reggae versions of classic Eddie Palmieri salsa tracks, "Mi Sonsito" and "Si Hecho Palante," both featuring the vocal nuances of Mayra Vega, who's worked with Antibalas in the past.
Unlike modern reggae, which emphasizes overproduced beats and synthesizer patches while paying little attention to the rhythm section, Axelrod made it a point to use live musicians. "The overall texture of having live instruments is a big part of what I love about the old records that I listen to," he says. But the studio where they convene is equally important. "Reggae music has always been about a producer rounding up some musicians and going into the studio with some rough ideas. From the beginning, the music was really about records, and making a recording that ended up getting played at the dance hall. And because there was so much emphasis on having a great-sounding record, it may have helped studios to really get their chops together. Different studios and labels began to develop distinct sounds that they could pride themselves on. That studio work is what has really influenced me."
While the engineers and mixers of studios like Channel One were too busy crafting sounds and tweaking equipment, they might not have realized the social implications and camaraderie that resulted. Axelrod may be too consumed to realize the scene blossoming at Don't Trip. For now, both his studio and his reggae dalliances are side projects, hobbies. But he'd consider producing other artists there, and there are certainly plenty of other artists around. During a break in the rehearsal, huddled around an open bag of dried Goji berries, Axelrod's musicians swap handwritten sheet music and talk about collective farming, organic tomatoes, and the health benefits of the master cleanse. Elsewhere, Symeonn and another smiley Rasta exchange proclamations to Jah, while the figures assembled in the garden buzz like an orchestra of summertime crickets.
"What I've read about those [old] studios has led me to believe that it was all about business," Axelrod says. "And I know to be on the outside, it is definitely easy to think that there must have been 'that place' where good music was being made, musicians were hanging out, and there was a loose and free atmosphere. But the thing is, I have never really seen that here." But perhaps that's because he's been too busy to notice, tinkering with his keyboards and experimenting with sound just beneath the sidewalk.