10 Ft Ganja Plant is a roots/dub Reggae group primarily based in upstate New York. They’re a spinoff collective of the popular group John Brown’s Body, and are spearheaded by former JBB dub engineer Craig Welsch. The group lineup currently shares no members with JBB and often employ a deep crew of special guest artists. One of the main keys to their legacy is the shroud of mystery that tends to surround them. For the most part, fans don’t know who the 10 Ft players are since there are no personnel credits featured on any of their albums. We got with an unnamed member of the group to hear the plant speak about the history and influence of roots reggae on music and culture. Catch 10 Ft Ganja Plant in Burlington, VT on September 29th, 2017 (tickets available here).
Let’s start with this: roots reggae versus contemporary reggae. What is roots reggae? What is considered the golden era of reggae?
You’d probably get ten different answers from ten different people, but probably, for me, the golden era is really early 70s through—I guess you could even just say the 70s. Although, some of the things that came out in the early 80s were also undeniably instant classics, but when you say roots to me that means pre-digi. It means recording on tape and it means—again this is all subjective—organs, pianos, before there were synthesizers. I think there’s also an element of lyrical content being an essential element of what roots is. I’m going to qualify it too much but—the struggle. The people singing from their experience and love songs are certainly a part of that, but more importantly I think it is the crucial struggle of people who are brought in chains from Africa, and the liberation struggle. That’s a crucial element of the roots style.
Enjoy this Spotify playlist, specially curated by 10 Ft Ganja Plant.
It seems like historically so much important art comes directly from suffering. Do you have a perspective on that in general or as it relates to reggae?
Everyone suffers, so I’ll say that. The suffering definitely informs the art and I think it makes for deeper art. It’s not that it can’t happen without the suffering, but again I do think everyone suffers. We can say people are privileged but they still suffer. Everyone suffers because everyone, I think the nature of being alive and being sentient by definition is going to have ups and downs and it’s just the nature of humans to suffer. Man was made to suffer, they say. Woman was made to feel the pain. I wouldn’t say that the art is dependent on the suffering, but it certainly becomes deeper when you know somebody’s feeling that pain. They can put it into the art in a lot of ways. That’s how a lot of us actually process and feel better through creation. The art becomes like therapy. I know speaking from personal experience when I’m processing something difficult like a breakup or loss, if I can pick up a guitar and put my feelings into the sound, it makes me feel better—plain and simple.
Do you think that’s a defining differentiation between the roots reggae and contemporary reggae?
Yeah, I think where I see the break being is slackness. There was always an element of rude boy in the roots era. There were always boasting wars even back in the 60s, but it kind of took over in the dancehall era, you know “I’m the baddest.” For me, I start to think “Okay, now I’m focusing on the production style. I’m listening to things other than the actual lyrical message.” There’s value to that stuff but to me it seems fragmented at that point. I don’t really care for that type of a message. I feel like it’s divisive and just not productive. It has its place but it’s not my thing. That’s why I prefer the more rootsy style.
Around the same time as the roots era in America, there was a lot of energy in the arts and culture movement towards rebellion. Vietnam and Civil Rights and Women’s Lib—there was a surge of it at that point. Do you see a parallel in the cultures between the messaging at the time? Do you think there was a kind of global unrest that was leading us or do you think that the particular struggles were very different?
I would say yes, as we progress through the decades we’re becoming more and more connected. Even just looking at it from a global history/military/war perspective you have this war, that war, this war, that war and they’re all related to regions or specific struggles. But, then you see World War I and World War II at the beginning of the 20th century and the middle of the 20th century. You could say we’re more and more connected, and it continues to progress. As we progress, I think we get closer and closer in terms of awareness of each other. There was a time when we had no idea what the continent of Africa looked like as Americans—and America is such a young nation. To go back to your question, there is a connection in terms of that decade. In the states, the fifties were a conformist time and it just naturally follows. You can see this in late child development, too. Kids go in these cycles where they’re going to be looking for approval from the parent, they’re going to be conforming, and then they’re going to be hitting a period where they’re more striking out on their own. Actually, a lot of the teen years can be, “Hey look at me I’m out on my own.” They’re actually looking for and hoping for some sort of disapproval. I think of the so-called punk movement—with pink mohawks and that stuff—it’s like the point of the style is to reject conformity. As a global human culture, I do think that the 60s and 70s were definitely a period of rebellion. I don’t know if it contained the Far East—if they were on the same page—but certainly the Western hemisphere was connected in that way, yeah.
You were heading toward the message of hope in an increased global awareness of culture and community and race. Especially in the last year there feels like there’s a great divide between America, and also even worldwide. What do you think the artist’s role and/or responsibility is in contributing to a positive social change?
I think there are two sides. Art, like I said before, is a therapy, but also it’s a tool for social change. Different artists have different balance points where they fit in on that spectrum. I do think that it’s very much the case that we are being focused from the top down on the divisive aspects. It makes a lot of sense for people that are sitting in their safe places, their privileged places, buffered by wealth and power. I’m not Mr. Conspiracy Theory, but I would say that there’s a clear motivation for them to keep the masses divided. I have compassion for those people. I think that they’re afraid. They’re scared of losing their privileged position and their comfortable lifestyle. I’m kind of torn about it. Sometimes I’ll ride through the countryside and be like, “Oh my god, there are so many trees. There are so many miles and miles of open space.” On the other hand, I grew up feeling like the main issue with the world is that it’s overpopulated. We are all living off of the earth, and of course there are limited resources. Certainly there’s limited oil and there’s limited water. For best results, I try to focus on what there is plenty of. I think love multiplies, so yes I have hope.
There’s definitely a long road yet to travel and right now—certainly since November—it’s feeling like we’re on the precipice of possible disaster. It’s certainly possible that shit could get really real, really quick at this point. There is a bit of a tinder box feeling, but I think that if we can manage to avoid nuclear annihilation we’ll see love and the power of the people coming together. One key, and I know this may seem insane to many, but one key is having compassion for the slave masters. I’m not apologizing for them or condoning their actions, but I am saying that we’ve all been watching how we can become pitted against each other and it’s such a classic strategy, going centuries back to “divide and conquer.” The more we live through this era and we watch what’s happening, we see we are being divided and conquered. Eventually we’re going to figure it out and figure out a way to unite. I don’t necessarily consider myself an authority on it, but I do feel like if we are able to unite and can show compassion for people who have been in that position of power, it just feels like that would give me hope for the actual future, amnesty, and forgiveness. I hate Trump as much as anyone but I feel like he’s just a baby. He needs the same thing we need. Everyone needs love and everyone needs forgiveness and everyone needs to feel understood.
You know the phrase, “Hate the sin not the sinner.”
Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Right after Charlottesville, Obama made a reference to Nelson Mandela’s powerful statement promoting love and openness saying, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” Artists have a platform to talk to the world. Do you think it’s their responsibility to push the earth and our culture forward by using their platform positively?
I’m going to say no. That’s a tough question and I really should say yes, but I’m going to say no. I do think that the artist needs to have agency over what is their responsibility. I think that every human has a responsibility to do that. I don’t think it’s fair to say artists have to do it and everyone else is off the hook—you know what I mean? As artists, they do have a platform and, yes, I hate to see people abusing or misusing their platform, but if we start out from it’s “up to the artists to do this,” then I feel like that’s not going to be conducive to making art.
That’s interesting. I guess when it does happen and when artists do take that platform it’s not really coming from a place of being directed to do it. It’s not coming out of an obligation.
Right, yeah. You’ll never find a shortage of artists willing to do that. I don’t see a need to put it on them. They’ll take it on anyway.
What’s a bit disheartening is that a lot of the artists with the largest platforms seem unwilling to do it, perhaps in the interest of not pissing anyone off and ultimately not getting their bank account fucked with.
That’s a good point. That’s a really good point and yeah I think that there’s an element of “the machine” that wants to turn out stars and they are encouraged to steer clear from politics because it keeps the money rolling. You definitely have a market for revolutionary art. Look at Bob Dylan and look at…I don’t know, different artists couch it differently too. I’m thinking of the Police. They certainly had messages critical of the system in the middle of a whole bunch of sad songs about how lonely the artist is. That goes back to your question about suffering. But yes, I agree with you that it’s an issue when you have Taylor Swift that’s just throwing out who knows what. Bragging, blaming, posing…I don’t really know her music but everyone’s talking about that new song she just released and it does strike me when I look at some of the lyrics that it’s just narcissism. It’s definitely wasteful. But again, it’s rare to see anyone who is strongly critical of “the system” getting that kind of a platform. And the few who do, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Roger Waters, to name a few, are in many ways marginalized, or put in the “entertainer” box, and people generally look to entertainers to help them forget their problems. It happens in professional sports too, did you see Colin Kaepernick is blacklisted? We have to thank him and others who have the courage to use their platform to speak truth to power. And yes we need more of that for sure.
Back to reggae. What unique contributions do you feel reggae music has made to the world’s culture?
That’s a great question. The concept of space in music is something that I really enjoyed when I discovered reggae. The concept of a lot of jazz is based on this. Miles Davis was famously quoted as saying, “Play what’s not there.” I don’t know, maybe the Miles thing wasn’t exactly right, but the way I understand it is that the space between the notes is as important as the notes themselves. The “one drop”—my understanding of what that means is that when you’re counting four to a bar, there’s nothing on one, the strong beat is empty. That’s a profound musical contribution that I don’t think you’ll hear in any other music as far as I know. It’s the most unique thing—it’s so brilliant in its simplicity. That alone is huge, but also just the meditative aspect and the ganja-centric culture really leaned toward reflectiveness. I think we all could use a little bit of time to just sit back, burn one, and look around and see what we see. People race around so much. It’s nice to embrace that cultural phenomenon of being reflective and cool running. Calm, cool and collect. That’s what 10 Foot really comes in as. We like to have a lot of instrumental songs in our records. We’re named after the ganja plant and that meditative space is something I think our fans enjoy. And that is a huge contribution that reggae has made. John Lennon maybe tapped into it a bit with his “give peace a chance.” “I’m only sleeping,” the message of just “sitting watching the wheels go round and round.” There’s a certain pacifism that I think is nice and interesting because it balances with the revolutionary aspect.
Are there artists in either philosophical category that stand out to you?
Bob Marley stands tall at the top of the heap as both. He is a revolutionary and he’s also someone who appreciates the reflective time. I think they feed each other. Yin and yang. You can have more of one when you have more of the other. Burning Spear (Winston Rodney) is at the top right there with Bob as someone who has a very militant and independent streak, especially in recent decades. He’s still active and he constantly puts out a message of fierce independence. I love seeing him posting, he’s active on social media. It’s awesome to watch him proclaim his independence from everything—from even the music industry. It’s sad to see him constantly accusing various entities in the music industry of taking advantage of him, but it’s actually probably mostly true. Unfortunately, I do think that business and economics and capitalism reward the people on top. The people with more money make more money, and far too often the people just trying to break in unwittingly sell the rights to their music. I’m sure most of his classic recordings he probably has no control over, which is sad but unfortunately I imagine that he just signed them out because he thought he had to. But I digress.
Back to the Obama tweet and not combating hate with hate. What does that leave to do? One school of thought is education and losing that ignorance in order to connect with people. Does music have the power to do that? And, from your experience digging into reggae and jazz at such an early point in your life, did that inform your understanding of race, separation, or similar issues?
I would say my understanding of that came actually more from relationships, not from the musical sphere. Music would always reinforce it, but I think my conscious evolution in terms of dealing with conflict and dealing with somebody who was blaming me for their suffering came through navigating various intimate relationships and watching what works and what doesn’t work. When somebody comes to you with a problem that they may or may not attribute to your actions, we instinctively tend to put up a wall and we tend to play defense and we tend to attack. I hope this is evolving with each generation, because that definitely doesn’t progress anything, it just makes people dig their heels in, which is where we are now as a global relationship. It’s going to take a lot, but I’m sure that the only way we’re going to avoid killing ourselves is by loving each other out of it. Mandela’s message is right on. That message is 100% on the money if you ask me. “Hatred cannot conquer hatred—only love can do that.” Look that one up!
“A recipe is a story that ends with a good meal.” — Pat Conroy