Reggae soundsystem Tribe of Kings pioneered San Diego's Rastafari nightlife
Since 1997, Tribe of Kings have been bringing old school steppers, dancehall, and roots reggae vibes to San Diego with weekly parties in Ocean Beach, Mission Hills, and now, North Park.
On Sunday, November 18, Tribe of Kings celebrates 15 years of irie vibrations at The Office with drink specials and catering by Harney Sushi.
DJ Unite talks to The Reader about the Tribe’s roots, how the local reggae scene has evolved, high points, dark clouds, and the future of San Diego’s premiere reggae soundsystem.
Could you tell me a bit about how things got started and how the event has changed over the years?
Tribe of Kings started as a name given to a multimedia project being headed by Jay Dread and Kofi. It quickly evolved into a DJ group with Jay Dread, Stump I, and Rashi playing records. The first professional gig was Sunday nights at The Dog in Pacific Beach, A small, quality beer oriented watering hole which would move its pool table to make a little room for dancing. Jay asked Unite to come down play records as well, so our original line-up for Sundays was Jay Dread, Stump I and Unite, with Rashi, Dash Eye and Kofi playing some guest slots.
When the summer of 1997 ended, we had the opportunity to move the night to a new spot that was building momentum off the beaten path called Bar Dynamite (at the bottom of Mission Hills on Washington Street). A new owner had taken over and started reinventing the dive bar with a darker, hipper atmosphere, and added some turntables. Stump I wanted to continue doing The Dog on Sundays, citing the beach area as a better place for our reggae set. He brought in Carlos Culture to join him while we started a new Sunday night line-up that would really break Tribe of Kings onto the San Diego club scene with our party called "Forward Rhythms." Rashi, Dash Eye, and Kofi joined the DJ fold regularly along with Jay Dread and Unite, and we all had our parts in driving the vibe of the evening.
As Bar Dynamite's popularity grew, we were also beginning to get new and larger opportunities than went beyond just playing a weekly Sunday night dance. Soon we were working as support for reggae concerts, playing festivals etc. Just as we picked up MC Tesfa to handle microphone duties, Kofi left the fold to travel to London and seek opportunities for his photography venture out there, which tightened up the line-up and we all locked ourselves into place.
After a 2 1/2 year run at Bar Dynamite, circumstances led us to move our party from Bar Dynamite, to the Gaslamp District. Everything seemed to fall right into place as we agreed to move our party to the Martini Ranch (Now the Double Deuce I think). We went from a capacity of 150 to a 250 person nightclub with the potential to open the other side of the bar and add another 250 people. The party, which we titled "Downtown Top Ranking" was successful from the jump and became a Sunday night staple another 2 1/2 years. Understand that having up to 500 people weekly on a Sunday night in a bar in Downtown San Diego was unheard of, much less a Reggae club in Gaslamp, period. We went from just servicing the underground reggae crowd in town, and we were now seeing celebrities and Chargers rolling though on Sundays.
We actually got to a point where we all felt we needed a bigger place to house our dance. The lines were becoming too long, and we wanted to do it bigger. We made a move from Martini Ranch to the newly remodeled Aubergine. We changed the name of the party to the "Super Hit." We had two large rooms, and we had dancehall reggae in the room and roots reggae in the front room. For a month straight our numbers ranged from 750-900 people a night.
We got fired from Aubergine after our best night ever, attendance wise. Apparently someone started firing guns around the corner, and the owners freaked out and fired us. Not only did we lose our biggest venue we had ever had, we picked up this dark cloud around our name. From that night on it took a couple of years for any club manager in Downtown to even consider talking to us about DJing, fearing we would bring shootouts to their club.
Without skipping a beat, we returned to Bar Dynamite, which was still flourishing. Unfortunately, all of our momentum dissipated as our regulars from Downtown were not too hip on the smaller intimate vibe of Bar Dynamite. We really trimmed the fat off of our crowd, and kept a strong core of folks that would not miss Reggae Sundays no matter what. Our line-up also underwent another big change. Founding member Jay Dread decided to hang up his DJ hat, and move forward with other ventures (which culminated into him founding 5 and Dime in Downtown). The DJ line-up for the next couple months was Rashi playing classic roots reggae selections, myself transitioning from all roots reggae to filling Jay Dread's void playing the latest dancehall and classic dancehall, and Dash Eye rounding out the evening with more dancehall and winding it down with culture and lovers rock anthems.
Another change happened after a few months: we added DJ's Peril and Jester to the fold at Bar Dynamite, and a new era for Tribe of Kings began.
We had another steady 2 1/2 year run and Bar Dynamite. Once again circumstances led us to move the party (circumstances of the business type, not violence) and we did about a 2 month stint at the Kava Lounge to preserve our weekly posterity. Kava Lounge was a good vibe, but we needed something bigger to reinvigorate Tribe of Kings.
Dash and I were doing a weekly Wednesday night dance at the Morena Club, when the owner approached us a with the opportunity to move our Reggae Sundays to a new bar he bought and was remodeling in North Park. There was already a new buzz about what was being planned for North Park, and it seemed like a good move. The bar formerly housing "Buster Daley's" was transformed into "U-31", the largest dance club at the time in North Park. We were actually the first weekly residents to spin at U-31.
As part of our reinvigoration, we gave a nod to our days at Martini Ranch, and named the party "Uptown Top Ranking". U-31 was a great space for dancing, and we banged out a 4 year run at U-31. We were able to house such reggae acts as Sister Nancy, Ranking Joe, Tristan Palmer, Edi Fitzroy, Perfect, Gappy Ranks, and Million Stylez.
The winds of changed blew through our Sunday nights once again, and we made a move from U-31 to The Office at 30th & University (formerly Scolari's Office). The Office is owned by the same person as Bar Dynamite, so it was a bit of a homecoming for us. We are still at The Office. Our current line-up is Rashi, Jester, Peril, Unite, and Dash Eye.
From your experience, what insight do you have into San Diego dancehall culture?
San Diego dancehall. That term just seems doomed. Dancehall, being Jamaica's answer to hip-hop, is a very niche genre in San Diego. It is not easily swallowed for new comers to the genre, because to the average listener it's foreign artists screaming slang over different rhythms than the west is used to. To the untrained ear, it's hard to decipher the lyrics and message, although the rhythms are infectious.
Reggae has historically been very popular in San Diego since the 80's, meshing well with our climate and beach vibes, mixed with the harsh reality that is in our streets. You will find a lot of the hardcore reggae enthusiasts tend to morph into artists (singers, players, DJs) and fill the void in the ever growing reggae community. It ends up being a lot of big fish in a small pond. Fortunately, over the past few years we've seen a lot of these folks working together to nurture the scene, which is why there are some many local and international reggae artists on any night in San Diego.
But the bottom line is, reggae is more popular in cities with larger populations of Jamaican's living in them. This makes San Diego's reggae market pale in comparison to those of Miami and New York, with L.A. and San Francisco also boasting a strong market for all things reggae. San Diego's market is stronger for roots and culture reggae (Barrington Levy, Don Carlos) artists in comparison to dancehall artists (Beenie Man, Buju Banton).
What were some of the high points over the years?
I think anytime we have an artist come play at our dance, in comparison to a concert, you have a much more intimate vibe which not only gets our crowd involved with the artist, but gives them a chance to see what dancehall reggae is really all about. That's a definite high point. Also being able to participate in a sound clash at Undisputed Gym in a boxing ring was definitely a night to remember.
While we don't try to stray too far from our main duties as San Diego's champion reggae soundsystem, 2013 will see our first offering as producers, and possibly our own label. After 15 years of playing dancehall reggae, we are primed to add to the music's output. We are linked with all the best reggae players in San Diego, so it just makes sense to throw our hat into that ring.
We used to do internet radio quite often, but over the past year we have haven't been doing any transmissions. I think next year you will see us reinvent our radio game. We've been knocking on every station's door to host a reggae radio show on FM, but that goal has yet to be reached.
As it stands, Tribe of Kings has been playing reggae music every Sunday night in San Diego for 15 years straight, without missing a night. Since 1997 we have had a dance every single week. Although our legacy is far from done, I'd like to think we've helped pave the way for folks doing the same types of things in San Diego. The same way people like Papa Elliott from Trade Roots, Commander Jackson and Spidaman from Destiny Roots, Major Chris, Revelation Sound, Makeda Dread, and Carlos Culture paved it for us.