If you want to see something move in T&T culture just tell Kenny Phillips it cannot be done. Prolific, pioneering, defiant, legendary–the music producer, businessman and stalwart of T&T culture for more than 40 years does not subscribe to the word “no”.
Sixty-one years of life have cemented his belief in being self-sufficient and enterprising. For all of his radical moves, he has mostly landed on his feet.
As a visionary arranger and producer, the man behind KMP Music Lab has churned out hit after hit with music icons across all genres in T&T and the region. Dismissed by broadcasters in his bid to play more local content on the radio while he was the acting head of the Recording Industry Association of Trinidad and Tobago (RIATT), he answered with a march with local artistes in 2000 and the launch of his own radio station, WACK Radio 90.1FM, in 2004.
Hosting live streams of fetes, calypso tributes, Christmas shows and talk show events on an ever-increasing number of social media platforms, Phillips has maintained a window into our local culture for the Caribbean diaspora and the world at large.
His latest project is the Kalypso Kolisseum, the first virtual showcase of T&T's best calypso tents under one roof. It is the culmination of two years of some 220 virtual productions by Phillips station, the country's foremost promoter of all things local. Rather than a display of artistes gearing up for tense competition, the focus of the initiative is entertainment.
With eight tents now carded to appear, Kalypso Kolisseum kicked off with Kaiso Showkase on January 14 and shows will continue right up to March 1, Phillips said. Calypsonians, including Queen Victoria (Showkase), Devon Seale (Calypso Revue) and Valentino (Kaiso House) will pull from their arsenal of hard-hitting classics and deliver new offerings.
Like last year, live Panorama events are also expected to be live streamed.
Phillips' championing of local culture and live streaming have seemingly come full circle in the height of COVID's hard clamp on social gatherings and events. As many of the station's thousands of worldwide listeners report, in a punishing pandemic that has left a Carnival drought in this country, live-streamed events from the station's conference room in San Fernando complete with stage, lights and screens, have been a welcome reprieve.
Though not everyone embraces his efforts, no other alternatives were being suggested, Phillips shared in a recent interview with Sunday Guardian.
“I saw that nothing was happening and we were just sitting and waiting on the powers that be. The powers that be have other things to study. The first thing they cut in a budget is culture and that says a lot as to where we stand, so I am not waiting on any organisation or institution,” he said. He said while priorities and circumstances of those in power change, the needs of culture do not. Coursing through the veins of Trinbagonians is the need to create and produce, he feels.
“The songwriters have to write, the singers have to sing, producers have to produce because it is in our DNA. Sometimes somebody would say: 'Me ain't writing this year. I ain't taking part,' and down to the last day, they have a song. That is how creatives operate. If you create something, you have to put it out or else it will combust inside you,” he said.
His events occupy a large spread on the FundMe TnT site by Blue Gurus Inc. He said his company remains transparent, so the public can see how much is made for each show.
Kenny Phillips, seated, shares a laugh with children, clockwise, Kasey, Kyle, Kaisha and granddaughter, Kai.
Recapping some of the adventures of his youth, Phillips admitted that he has always had a rebellious and indomitable spirit. The Naparima College alumnus said he watched boys play in the school band and longed to be a part of the group.
“I used to just watch the band and not be able to be in the band. I used to say: one day, one day eh, I go be bad (great).”
The San Fernando native said many boys would spend their days on the corner dreaming of starting a band, but with “nobody making a move to do nothing about it,” he decided to take up guitar lessons. He was so committed, he finished the guitar lessons book the first day he had a class with the guitar teacher, Mr Gaskin. He and Gaskin often ended up just doing jam sessions, he laughed.
Experiencing his first taste of band life with the Walters School of Music band, he looked forward to many of their gigs on Harris Promenade and at other events.
Being “a radical” from even then, when the leader decided it was impossible for the band to perform at a fete in Morne Diablo and a Hilton Christmas party recording for TTT on the same day, Phillips left and joined B Flat Majors.
“I said if we're not doing this, this is not the place for me,” he recalled, explaining that being able to balance different gigs was his idea of what band life should be.
At B Flat Majors, he was introduced to the iconic Leston Paul, whom he greatly admired, and his music career took off.
The first calypsonian he played for was Grabbler. Though he had to be led in reading the music bars, his guitar skills saw him through and he quickly improved his craft.
“The first time in the studio, I had no clue. I was hired because I played with a kinda vibe, but to read and play like that was an art you had to develop.”
For his next session, his blazing guitar inflections would feature heavily on the Lord Kitchener's “The Symptoms of Carnival” (1983), a fast-paced vibesy tune, which he described as a sort of pre-cursor to soca. He would work with Kitchener for the next nine years.
In the first recording he produced at his home studio, he innovated with a reggae rap in Iwer George's “Time Hard, Hold Tight”, with the flip side, “Boom Boom Time” in 1987. “Boom Boom” was a strong contender for the Road March, but was tipped by the Mighty Duke's “Is Thunder”.
In his second year, he dropped Mr Bissessar with Drupatee, and continued cranking out hit after hit, including Rikki Jai's “Sumintra”, Ras Shorty I's “Watch Out My Children” and a string of Christmas hits by Susan Maicoo like “Trini Christmas is the Best” and “Daisy Gone”, and Machel's “Soca Santa”.
Phillips was also responsible for “By All Means” (“Mama Ding Ding”) when Machel officially crossed from calypso to soca. He was also on hand to mix Bunji Garlin's debut offering, a peppery ragga soca called, “Send them Rhythm Crazy”, produced by Darryl Braxton.
He has worked across genres, doing gospel songs with Nicole Ballosingh and Easlyn Orr. Collaborations in the Caribbean for various Soca Monarchs and with Beenie Man too, form part of his expansive portfolio. In more recent times, he has returned to projects with calypsonians.
In 2019, he threw his hat into the calypso ring with the Kurt Allen composition, “Wack Dem”, presenting himself as a defender of local culture. He received the nod of four calypso tents.
Phillips is also leaving a legacy through his children, Kaisha, Kasey, Karyce and Kyle, who have sought to emulate him in their contributions to the arts. Their passion for culture stems from having grown up watching their father “do his thing” in the studio...and from sometimes joining in, even if by accident.
As a toddler, Kasey was responsible for the now-classic stop in the middle of Preacher's “Jump and Wave” when he pulled the plug out of the recording equipment while his father was working. Phillips made the children sing the chorus of the winning 1991 Song Festival hit, “Ambataila Woman” by the United Sisters so much for him to loop it, that he even put them in the credits, he laughed. He is also proud of the latest addition to the family, grandson, Keane Noah Phillips–Kassey's two-year-old–who also enjoys being in the studio.
He advises artistes, musicians and especially those affected over the last two years to make their own space rather than wait for opportunities that may never come.
Q&A with Kenny Phillips
You've stepped up time and time again to pull us out of a cultural slump when others said it was impossible, how are you able to do this?
It's a mixture of everything. It is love for the arts, love for calypso, for soca, for music, for Trinidad and Tobago. I don't look at next week, I look at where we are going in the next five years. The thing is that when you start to make the change, people look at you and go: 'he mad or what?'
I have been doing things different to everybody for years. I have always just had my own vision.
Your love for the arts is rooted in what exactly? Take me back to your earliest memories of calypso, Carnival.
I have early memories of my grandmother (Melvina O'Connell) carrying me to see mas, to see calypso. My grandmother was one of those people who used to line up by Skinner Park gate from the morning when they were having Clash or (Calypso) Fiesta with she basket of everything to make sure she had a good seat. These are the real Trinidadians. She used to carry me by Grant (Memorial Presbyterian) school to get a good spot to watch J'Ouvert. I used to watch Fonclaire coming down with (Matthew) Roach on drums, one of the greatest drummers I've ever seen. He made me want to become a drummer. I used to wait every year to see that man. Fonclaire was the funkiest band in the world. Fonclaire is an institution.
My father (Kenneth Phillips) had calypso records before I knew what calypso was, and I used to play with the gram (record player). My mother (Anesta) was a singer, she used to sing at tea parties. My sister was a singer. She went to Naps and did guitar lessons and I used to steal her guitar to play it.
You said ragga soca had roots in Lord Laro, and in the Iwer “Time Hard, Hold Tight” you did. Tell me more about that.
I did one of Bunji's earliest interviews; it was for “Send them Rhythm Crazy” when he was called the first ragga soca artiste when he first came out, maybe we can start the first official Carnival controversy for this year right now. (Laughter) We did a ragga rap in “Time Hard, Hold Tight” and that was an innovation back then and hence they say that I invented ragga soca. I mixed that first Bunji song. It was produced by Braxton and I mixed. Iwer was way before that. Ragga soca had roots there. Iwer made it popular, but ragga soca had roots too in...remember Lord Laro? He was a calypsonian who went to Jamaica and stayed. He always did a cross between reggae and calypso. It's an interesting discussion.
Do you see yourself as a guardian or gatekeeper of our culture?
(Laughter) I have seen how guardians and gatekeepers end up, so I don't want to call myself that at all. I was a personal friend of Sprangalang. He was on my board of directors. He built all the computers in my organisation when we started. People see you as one thing and don't realise your true worth and Sprangalang who was, as you say, a guardian, of knowledge–where we should have tapped into his brain and learn from him, the powers that be not interested in that. Our history could be re-written at any time and nobody's there to doubt it.