Upcoming singer/songwriter and talented producer John Quansah, with the showbiz name John Q is one to watch. I would even dare go as far to use the words ‘unique’ and ‘timeless’ to describe this reggae artiste. His delivery and voice has a vintage essence, but his words reflect what’s happening today. John Q is an acclaimed rhythm master in the making of reggae, hip-hop and dancehall beats.
He has in the past written songs and produced other artists such as Mellow Wayne, Jah Tempo, Lady S, and Tilly Beng just to mention a few. With the future looking ever so bright, John Quansah managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with yours’ truly – reflecting on his childhood academic dream, his album “Reggae Storm” and his classical training at Rev. John Teye Memorial School of Music.
First of all, I want to express my gratitude for granting me the opportunity to interview you. Can you tell us about your background and family?
I was born and raised in Accra, Ghana. My mum was a school teacher and a pastor in Ghana and New York. My father trained as a civil engineer and a medical doctor in the United Kingdom. My mum was from Accra from the Ga tribe and Dad was a Fanti from Central Region (Cape Coast and Saltpond). I currently live with my only child/son as a single parent.
Tell us a little about your musical history and how you fell into the roles of producer/songwriter and studio/touring musician.
I had the interest in playing musical instruments as a kid (at 5 years old), and my mum enrolled me at Rev. John Teye School in Ghana which was the greatest elementary music and math boarding school. Most students at John Teye spent several hours a day playing the keyboard at the time I attended the school. I would play with friends and we would try to compose our own simple beats on the keyboard. That was where my love for music began. We were also taught to write poetry at an early age at the school. Writing poetry was actually the beginning of my music carrier. Music has always been my source of consolation in difficult times and in my everyday life. Music is my second source of motivation in life of course God being first. The difficulties and painful experiences in life drove me to begin writing music and learning to play the guitar seven years ago. I then wrote four songs on the first Mellow Wayne Reggae album titled "Truth & Love". I had my first studio experience working with Jah Mike. I was also blessed with two guitar teachers who have moved on to the next world. My mother was a strong source of motivation because she did not tolerate average performance in the family as such I am driven to persevere. I spent my first five years writing music for various artistes and running the business aspect of their music carriers.
You count Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Jacob Miller, Percy Sledge and The Commodores among your biggest influences. Of all the records Bob Marley released, which one do you consider the most essential? ... Tell us your favorite, and feel free to share why you love it so much! ... Obviously Legend does not count:).
My favorite Bob Marley's Album is "Survival". It definitely instilled consciousness in me as a young African man. It gave me more education than any teacher I encountered in my academic journey. I am also heavily thrilled by his album "Catch A Fire". I got my motivation from Bob Marley as a high school student. I am thankful to him for teaching me to be a musician and most importantly a Godly man of consciousness. Bob Marley's Song "One Drop" was always my favorite song in the world. I then embraced his other song "Africa Unite". He is still talking to us till today. It is ironic I am saying this on Ghana's Independence Day. Quoting The Honorable Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, “The Independence of Ghana in meaningless until the entire African continent is free”. It is a shame that many African politicians are still sell outs, greedy and corrupt power drunken idiots and children of Africa still suffering at home and abroad. If Africa had united as Bob Marley, Kwame Nkrumah and Haile Selassie had envisioned it, we will not be in the mess we are in today. Most of our people be it the educated and non-educated are so mentally enslaved. The album "Survival" definitely has been a healing medication for the mental slavery and lost identity that is widely spread in our population
Your debut album ‘Reggae Storm’ was released in July 2010 to rave reviews. I’m feeling the track and music video for ‘Born Alone, Die Alone’. Any message behind that track?
Actually, the album I produced "Reggae Storm" was released in 2008. It had my first single I sang "Born Alone Die Alone". I was inspired to write that song out of four sad situations. My 2 closest friends (my music teachers), my mother and closest auntie all passed away in less than a two year period. I felt empty inside and the whole world was crumbling around me. I had asked my son to come live with me as he had requested earlier and somehow his mother got him to write me a painful letter basically asking me to leave him alone just after my mother had died. I had also been victimized by the cold legal system at that time and I realized that I had to start loving myself first before I could be concerned with anyone else because I basically had no one and I still had the zeal to keep on moving so I had to advise myself and the advice was that " Born Alone Die Alone" you need to love yourself before anyone. I also wrote that song as a tribute to the late Jacob Miller who is also one of the musicians who inspired me to sing. I actually adopted his style of singing at a point of the song when I emphasize on "your your your self self". The real message behind the track is that "If you love anyone more than yourself it could break your heart and make you cry" "you were born alone and you will die alone" as such you owe it to yourself to make yourself happy. In your hands lies your destiny. The message is plain and blatant. On the night I was going to voice this track at E2 Recording Studios in Brooklyn. I was on my way to pick up my trumpeter Akrofi Francis by Fordham road and then to proceed to Brooklyn. I had stopped for the red light on a rainy night, and a lady hit me from behind. I realized that the Devil was doing everything to discourage me and I was determined to sing my first track that night. I still proceeded to the studio to record the song before going to the hospital. I realized what that first single meant to me. It feels good to know that people love that song. I am glad you love it too and thanks for the compliment. I also released my new album title "Jamaica To Ghana" and my mixed music DVD titled "African & Caribbean Unity" are available in every African movie shop or markets in most states and also available at http://www.johnqrecords.com/.
Have the personal experiences inspired you musically?
My personal experiences in life are what motivate me to write good music. Everything I write is real in our everyday lives.
Do you write your own music and what goes into the songwriting process? Do you write specifically for artists or write in general?
Yes. I always write my own music. My song writing usually lays emphasis on a subject and most of the emphasizing is done on the hook of the song. I do both. I write in general and I also write specifically for artistes. I also write some songs from hearing a beat.
As I scanned your biography, I noticed that in addition to being a classically trained pianist, you are also a drummer and a guitarist. Which instrument was your first love, the keys or the drums?
Actually my instrument is the guitar. I play rhythm guitar and understand the rudiments and theory of the guitar. I just have a little feel for drums and could hold a rhythm but not really a drummer. The guitar is really my instrument.
How are the people outside Ghana appreciating your music?
People outside of Ghana actually appreciate my music more than my fellow Ghanaians do. I am more of a reggae musician and as such I have more following in the Caribbean (mostly Jamaica), United States (especially New York), Europe and Japan. I am well supported by many Ghanaians in New York though and my deepest appreciation and gratitude to them.
How are you finding being an artiste as well as the business man?
Being an artist and a business man is very difficult and tasking but I am glad I can do that because most artistes cannot do it so they usually fade away if they don’t get a good record deal. In my case I don’t need a record deal to be successful in music or to stay in the game because I know how to make my own money. Most musicians have gone out of business because they cannot run a business. They need to be spoon-fed. I don’t. The world is changing and in whatever you do you have to be business-minded. It’s a challenge having to worry about finances, writing, composing and performing at the same time. Sometimes it affects my productivity but the positive outweighs the negative. Being business-minded toughens an individual. It also gives me the freedom to do what I want as a musician. I write and produce what I want to because I own the record label. It can be stressful being afraid that things might fall apart but I have faith in the Lord.
Have you found it difficult building up working relationships when looking for someone who looks out for your best interests?
Yes. I have had some difficulties sometimes trying to work with some people who sometimes are looking out for your best interest because as different individuals we have different views.
Are you signed to a record label? Have you been approached by one?
No. I am not signed to a record label. I have no reason to do that. I can finance my own record label. One of my artistes has been approached by one for a gospel deal. We are at very early stage of the negotiation. I don’t know what my future plans will be because some offers are sometimes too good to turn down. However, I hope to make my record label bigger and will not have to worry about working for someone.
How would you describe your sound to people that haven’t heard your music before?
My sound is usually cultural classic reggae like songs of Inner Circles and other great reggae bands like steel pulse. I don’t restrict myself to reggae. I also do some Jamaican Dance hall, Hip life dancehall, reggae Jazz and also produce Caribbean and African gospel.
You double up as a songwriter and producer. Which role do you prefer and why? What specific things do you look for in an artist before you’ll work with them?
Songwriting is my favorite thing. I love the art of putting words together and making them rhyme. I love the art of breaking things down in a simple form and being informative to the people. As a musician, I am an observer, a teacher and a counselor. My training in writing poetry at an early age gives me the strength to write good music. The main qualities I look for in an artiste is someone who can be aggressive, radical, conscious and a strongly motivated individual with the thirst to succeed.
You have with a number of reggae artistes, performing and recording with them. How has it been to work with some big names like Mellow Wayne, Jah Tempo, Lady S and Tilly Beng?
Working with Jamaican artistes has been my best experience in my music carrier. Most of them started singing from the day they were born. There is something unique about Jamaica and reggae music. That little Island produces so much talent every year and you talking about internationally recognized talents. No wander it is the home of Rastafari. Music is a spiritual thing that is what many fools don’t know. We have stability in the camp. Like one journalist referred to John Q Records as a movement not just a record label and indeed it is a movement to initiate African & Caribbean Unity. I have worked with Mellow Wayne for 7 years, Jah tempo for 7 years as well and Lady S also for 7 years and 2 years with Tilly Beng. We are very united and try to squash any misunderstanding as quickly as possible. All artistes in the group are great performers and have their own following.
Are there any new artists out there that you’re interested in working with?
At the moment I am working on a Ghanaian gospel album for Evelyn Kwakye. I am not really looking for artistes at the moment because I have a lot of songs that I am promoting and have to finish up an album for 4 more of my artistes. I am not in the position to take on another artist unless the artist has something extra ordinarily well. We can never say "never". I am opened to the idea of doing some more work with a few more Ghanaian artistes like Samini , Wutah, Sarkodie and of course Bright of Buk Bak again.
What does it feel like to perform in front of a crowd who feel and really respond to your music?
When performing to people that feel and appreciate what one is singing is a great feeling that cannot be described. It gives me an adrenaline rush and also gives me the power to control the emotions of the crowd/audience.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The greatest moment of my music career was when I did a show in the North Bronx with the Unity Reggae Band. It was a charity concert which featured reggae artistes from the Bronx and Brooklyn. I was scheduled to perform last and got nervous when I saw how well the artistes who performed prior to me did. I got so nervous I started panicking and decided to be calm. Also I was the only non-Jamaican artist performing that night. When I was called to the stage some people in the audience were surprised I was also there to perform. I took the mic and sang out the introduction for the song "sweat" by inner circles. As I screamed ": I"ve been watching you all la la la la along long li long long long" I heard people banging on the walls and tables. I was told to pull up and rewind the tune each time I started singing the tune. By the time the tune was done I was sweating and the entire room was sweating. Lady S walked up to me and said " John Q. If you can come and rock a reggae night concert for Jamaicans, they appreciate your work then you have a future in reggae music because Jamaica is the homeland of reggae music". I felt good as a musician and was proud I represented Africa that night.
What would your advice be to an aspiring songwriter who wants to showcase his material to the music biz, how should he/she proceed?
An aspiring song writer or musician who wants to show case their music should have it at the back of the minds that the quality of the product must be good. It is better to focus on one single. Make sure that single is strong and also start creating a buzz with that single prior to approaching a record label or any type of investor. It’s more about quality not quantity.
Which advice would you give aspiring songwriters in terms of songwriting itself?
My advice to song writers about song writing itself is that the music must come from the heart. Don’t write a song because it is the popular subject at stake. Write the song that lingers on your mind all the time.
You’ve had a lot of studio experience through the years. What advice would you give to bands to best prepare them for the recording process?
My advice to bands for better preparation for recording is rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would like to change the fact that violent and degrading music is more glorified. I would promote and reward music with spiritual, motivational and informative ingredients more than the stupid superficial and shallow music that tend to be more patronized due to the spiritual and moral decay in society.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I see myself as a well established record label with record shops in New York City, Accra and London. I am on a mission to establishing something progressive in Ghana and Jamaica (would not like to disclose the details of that).
So what’s set for 2011?
The agenda for 2011 is promoting the new album and music DVD I released. I am going to Ghana for the first time in 20 yrs. Will be performing and promoting in Europe, Africa, Asia, United States and Jamaica of course. 2011 is all about a lot of travelling. I will be going to Jamaica soon with the Unity Band. I am looking forward to that. Also I will be dropping the first Ghanaian gospel album by Evelyn Kwakye. In short, 2011 is the year of travelling to spread the word. Thanks to the Lord Almighty.
Well, as you would expect, more people recognize you for your work. But I think, more so, there is a certain validation that I have in their eyes now. The only expectation is to keep making GOOD music!
For more information on John Q, follow him on Twitter (@ReggaeStorm) or visit his official website: http://www.johnqrecords.com/.
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