Fresh off the release of their new album Avrakedabra, Gramps, Mojo, and Peetah Morgan of Morgan Heritage sat down with The Pier in NYC at VP Records‘ flagship store in Jamaica, Queens. We had an in-depth discussion on a variety of topics, including their new album, how Brooklyn shaped their music and personalities, as well as the next generation of Morgan Heritage.
After the release of their Grammy-winning album Strictly Roots, Morgan Heritage traveled the world, bringing the music to their global fan-base. They also spent that time writing and recording this latest project, Avrakedabra, which truly has roots planted all over the world. Morgan Heritage also brought in some of their close friends to collaborate on Avrakedabra, creating a diverse set of sounds on the record.
With over two decades of experience recording music, Morgan Heritage has an extraordinary catalog of music, and an equally impressive knowledge of music. We’re thankful to Gramps, Mojo, and Peetah for sharing some of that knowledge with us.
Interview: Morgan Heritage
The Pier: Your new album, Avrakedabra, just recently dropped. What can you tell us about how you chose that name, Avrakedabra, for the album?
Peetah: The name was a word that we discovered in our study of history. We as Morgan Heritage love history, and we’re always researching, studying new things, and educating ourselves. So it’s a word that we found that is very ancient. Ancient Aramaic. The meaning that we found resonated with us. It became a part of us. Even in creating this album it brought that meaning into existence. So we leave the audience to go do their own research, and see what it means to them.
The Pier: Much like Strictly Roots, there are a ton of features on this album. Icons like Ziggy and Stephen Marley, but also fresher faces like Kabaka Pyramid and Dre Island. How did you choose the roster of artists that joined you on the album?
Mojo: Organically. Yeah it was very organic. As the songs were being written and created, demos were being laid, ideas were just surfacing and we would share it with each-other, send it out to the artists and get feedback. We were always very relieved when we would get a “yes.” Because it’s not something that we’re known for! You know, we’re not like a Ja Rule, who somebody sang the hook on every hit song that he’s had. We’ve been alone on most, if not all of our hit records. So it was great putting this album together, and we love the organic way everything happened. It was almost magical.
The Pier: Which comes back to Avrakedabra doesn’t it?
Mojo: Yes, it comes back to Avrakedabra. When you look at the late great Bunny Ruggs being on this album. A song recorded over three years ago because he passed, rest in peace, three years ago. Mr. Talkbox from Bruno Mars “24k Magic.” A friend Gramps met at a Grammy event and built a relationship with. And we brought together sounds that we grew up on, with Roger from Zapp, the original talkbox king. To now, this new guy Mr. Talkbox, bringing together funk and reggae.
The Pier: Obviously there is reggae, but you guys seemed to tap into a bunch of different genres on this album. Rock, R&B, EDM, hip-hop, and pop are all mixed in there. Is that a product of what you’re currently listening to, what you grew up on, or just how the music ended up?
Gramps: That’s us. Tears for Fears, Van Halen, Aerosmith, Lionel Ritchie, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson. It’s what we were listening to on the radio! Same thing that Bob, Peter Tosh, and Toots & The Maytals were listening to. They were listening to Fats Domino, Rolling Stones. It’s just everybody is sort of antsy about it these days. Like “oh, it sounds a little bit like hip hop in there.”
Peetah: It’s real, man. And it’s genuine. That’s why we say the world is in this album. You know, it was created around the world. It was influenced by a lot of different things around the world. Especially musically. So that’s who Morgan Heritage is. We are reggae music. But our reggae music is different.
The Pier: So this album was recorded all over the place?
Mojo: Four different continents.
ThePier: “Selah” is a song from the new album that talks about the untold story and portrayal of Africa. Beyond the song, what should people know about the continent that we might not?
Peetah: It’s not even just about Africa. We used Africa as a reference because that’s where we were when we wrote the song. But the truth is, it’s about the world. It’s about traveling and seeing the world. You know, Americans are probably the only people that I see, where we don’t take learning another language seriously. When we go to foreign countries, we’re asking, “you don’t speak English?” Wait. “You are in my country. We speak this here. Our national language is..Italian.”
Peetah: “When we come to America we have to learn English to speak to Americans. So why don’t you take the pride to learn a little bit of my language, so when you come to my country you can relate to me.” And that’s where I think we’re missing the connect, of just being people of the world instead of segregated people of the world. “Oh, I’m American. I’m German. Or I’m African.” No. We’re just people.
So we’re saying the world is beautiful, and don’t always just take what you see on the news about some place, you know? I saw someone on the Internet this morning talking about American politicians making issue of what’s happening in Syria and different places around the world, when we have some of those same issues here.
A bomb went off in the UK, in Manchester, at an Ariana Grande concert. Things like that are happening right here in America. Not a bomb, but you have snipers sitting on roofs pecking people off in the streets. Pecking police from far distance. People going in suburban neighborhoods and blazing fires on people’s houses that they don’t even know. A lot of issues are happening here. This is a country of 350 million people, and we have a lot of issues of our own to deal with. We’re not perfect.
So it’s “Selah,” go see the world. See what the world has to offer.
The Pier: So it seems politics is something Morgan Heritage isn’t scared to talk about in your music or in your interviews.
Peetah: No of course not. Politics is life. Religion and politics, they go hand in hand. We as human beings imprison ourselves to politics and religion. We’re not here to boost anyone’s side. We’re here to understand everything. But beyond politics, we’re human beings. So we’re here to talk about human issues.
The Pier: So we’ve talked about the global aspect of this album, but since we’re here with you in New York, can you discuss how New York and more specifically Brooklyn have shaped your music and even yourselves as individuals?
Peetah: We were born in Brooklyn, number one.
Mojo: So it’s in our blood. That New York state of mind is always present wherever we are. You hear it in our dialect when we speak American English. You see it in the way we act sometimes. New York is like it’s own country because it’s a melting pot of the world. When people say “Where are you from?”, you don’t say America, you say you’re from New York. So being born in Brooklyn, New York, and then getting our education in Springfield, Massachusetts, we had the ability to fuse these different urban and suburban cultures into our music. That’s why you hear the hip hop, you hear the R&B, but at the same you hear rock, and even country on this album with “Pineapple Wine.”
So all of that is with us wherever we go. We are who we are and we’re not ashamed of that.
The Pier: Gramps, we often hear the phrase “cool to be conscious” on your recent tracks. So can you just tell us a little more about that tagline and what it means to you?
Gramps: COOL TO BE CONSCIOUS!
When we says “cool to be conscious,” it’s a cry out to the world, to let em’ know that we’re not upholding the segment of religion. Whatever your religion is, that is you. We empower the fact of spirituality. I’ve prayed with Buddhist friends, I’ve prayed with Christians friends, and I’ve prayed with Muslim friends. And I get the same feeling.
Sometimes music can make it even more euphoric. If I go to church, it may be a good song, but sometimes the music helps to enhance that. So I realized that music has a big part in religion. It’s truly just a good feeling and a good vibe. It’s really just a consciousness. If you’re a good person then you are a good person. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter what walk of life I come from or what spiritual denomination I am. That doesn’t matter.
So I say that on the first song, “It’s cool to be conscious!” Before you listen to this record, whatever feeling you get, it’s a consciousness. Every time you hear it on the record, we’re awakening your consciousness, and that’s what it’s about.
It just came about when we was in the studio recording for Strictly Roots, and I was singing, and I just said “cool to be conscious.” And I just kept saying it over and over, and I liked the way it felt, comin’ off mi throat. Then soon people were calling us after the release, you know J Boog was calling us saying, “Yo! Cool to be conscious.” Eric Rachmany from Rebelution, Bobby Lee from SOJA thought it was hilarious. So we are happy that people are understanding the phrase, and it frees them. It’s the biggest thing we’ve said since “Don’t haffi dread to be Rasta.”
Mojo: When you look at it, as Gramps pointed out, you don’t have to be spiritual to be conscious, you don’t have to be religious to be conscious. You just gotta be aware.
The Pier: Cool To Be Conscious is also the name of your record label. You were with VP Records for about 20 years before creating this label, so what is the biggest difference between releasing an album independently and with VP?
Gramps & Mojo: More work, Ha!
Gramps: When we won the Grammy, VP actually called us, and they were so proud of us. Like when Ray Charles left Atlantic Records and went to ABC, they said “Well Ray, we’re proud of you!” Because they taught him the business, and he was growing in the business.
It’s similar what happened with us and VP. We were ready to go to the next level of our career because we knew the business. And a lot of it that we knew we also shared with VP. When we came to VP they weren’t a record label, they were a distribution company. So we came to them and said, “Why don’t you guys…You guys are doing things that a record label would do.” Then VP turned into a record label. Then they signed people like Lady Saw, Beres Hammond, Sean Paul, and they went to the next level. So we saw them grow and they saw us grow.
And the first thing we put out, not only were we nominated, but we won as a record label! So we’re happy and looking to build the next generation. We’ve got hands on J Boog, we did stuff with Fiji, another artist named Tiana. So our hands are on a lot of artists and it’s something a lot of people don’t really know. But we like to do our work and call it a day, but the music is growing and that’s what matters.
The Pier: What can you tell us about that next generation of Morgan Heritage?
Peetah: The music is just continuing to flow through the bloodline, you know? Jemere Morgan (Gramp’s son) is the first of many to come in the next generation of Morgan Heritage. Mojo has a son in school, Eshtemoh Morgan, he’s a singer, songwriter, and musician. We took him on tour last year in Europe on the Strictly Roots summer tour. He’s gonna be great. I have a daughter Emuna out in LA developing her talents.
They’re developing a bit differently than Jemere, who learned on the road with Morgan Heritage. They’re in school learning the art form, whether it’s music or dance or entertainment. So the next generation is coming. We’re not going to force anyone into music, but if it becomes their passion and that’s what they want to do, then hey, we’re here to help and create a platform for you.
The Pier: Great! We’re looking forward to hearing all of it…Can’t thank Mojo, Peetah, and Gramps enough for taking some time to chat with The Pier about your new album and all that’s going on with Morgan Heritage. Their music knowledge is staggering, and extends well beyond reggae. Looking forward to the next time we meet up with the MH Family. If you haven’t gotten the chance yet, make sure you check out their new album Avrakedabra.