A less confident artist would have considered it a horror scene. The room was packed with more than 100 people watching him. He looked ready to roll with his Mohawk and shades. But the night of Nov. 10 did not play out well for K’Coneil Barron, 27, as he performed covers of R&B hits from the last decade and one of his own tracks during a friend’s fashion show at a Lehman College. The disc jockey started on the wrong song after the performer already introduced himself. He felt uncomfortable interacting with the models that walked on stage in elaborate but revealing clothing because he hadn’t met with them before the show. He just could not find his groove that night.
Only a few people applauded after the show, but he was not discouraged. “You know, it’s work,” he said after the performance. “You do what you got to do.”
Barron, who prefers to be called by his stage name K’Coneil, still hopes to make it in the music world. He recently signed a deal with a recording studio in his neighborhood, Wackies in Williamsbridge, to help him pursue that dream. Wackies’ history inspires him. Started by Lloyd “Bullwackie” Barnes in the 70’s, the studio has produced music with strong Jamaican vibes. Like K’Coneil, Wackies is still dreaming of hitting it big. The label has sold thousands of records, but never reached its goal of a mainstream hit. K’Coneil and the Wackies crew hope they can break out together.
One night late last month, K’Coneil performed multiple takes of an opening verse inside the studio while his engineer, Meddz, aka Steadly Reid, gave directions for each new recording. Meddz, 26, set up his software on two flat-screen computer monitors stacked on top of each other with synthesizers to his left and two large speakers set on his desk. K’Coneil stood in the sound booth, which was padded with form and lit dark-red like a womb. As the speakers in the recording suite blasted the instrumentals, K’Coneil crooned his tune “Cloud Nine” into the microphone: “This gonna be the weekend song / fresh wannabe with a V-neck on / Gucci shades and my Yankee on / DJ play my fucking song.”
Meddz split each take into different sections on his monitors after he made enough recordings. He selected the best parts of each vocal layer and combined them to create a perfected version of the verse. “Surgery, man, surgery,” Meddz said in an accent with a slight Caribbean lilt while playing the tune back, getting some laughter from K’Coneil.
Both musicians had much in common, besides their business partnership. They wore the shades and Mohawk combo, wrote pop music and hoped to gain large-scale success. A resident of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., who grew up on Boston Road in the Bronx, Meddz has produced and engineered tracks for different projects at Wackies. As a perk, he has access to the studio to work on his own material outside of the Wackies label.
In April, he finished “Pick Up the Phone,” a song about a man trying to get his girlfriend to speak to him: “Don’t text me back, pick up your phone / leaving voice mails ‘cause I can’t leave you alone, no.” The message is that people rely too much on new technology to communicate. “Everybody’s tweeting and texting,” Meddz said. “The song is straight to the point: pick up the phone.” Under the management of GaurdFather Productions, “Pick Up the Phone” reached SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s 20 on 20 station, but has yet to break out into mainstream radio.
The pop style of their recordings differed from much of the work done in Wackies during the 70’s and 80’s. A week before K’Coneil’s vocal session, Milton Henry, 61, played his guitar in the studio’s lounge. His fedora cast a pitch-black shadow over his face, save for the white fuzz reaching below his chin. He reminisced about his earlier days. “I have two albums released on Wackies, plus quite a few singles,” Henry said.
Though he worked on some recordings in Jamaica, Henry created his first solo album with Wackies: “Who Do You Think I Am.” “It’s one of Wackies’s best albums,” Henry said. The style of reggae in the title track differed from the Meddz’s and K’Coneil’s, with horns and organ playing over a repeated melody created by piano chords and bass strumming. Henry sang about leaving oppression behind and trusting in the figure of a spiritual chosen one: “Who do you think I am? / I am only, only a living man / and a man, a man got to take a stand / and praise, and praise the living jam.”
Henry also oversaw the sales side of the studio’s business. The company, run by Barnes, always hoped for a breakout, but large-scale success never came. Typically, their records would sell 500 to 1,000 copies. “Sometimes, you don’t know if a record’s going to go off,” Henry said.
Still, there would be times when they would make more copies. Some of their bigger reggae artists, like Sugar Minott and Horace Andy, could get 5,000 to 10,000 records out into the public. “We were still a small label,” Henry said. “An independent selling 10,000 records was a lot back in those days. For big record companies, that’s not even a drop in the bucket.”
While Henry spoke about his past, K’Coneil and Meddz stepped out of the studio after talking about their latest track. They shook Henry’s hand before leaving the apartment. “He’s gonna make a lot of changes. He’s got the new sound,” Henry said, referring to Meddz’s pop-style. “In other words, Wackies is going to have the old sound as well as the new sound.”
K’Coneil wants to take part in that new style: reggae with modern pop vibes like the music played on mainstream pop stations. Though he has an accounting director position at an insurance firm and a bachelor’s degree in business management from Nyack College, he hopes to make a career as an artist. He may enroll in graduate school in the future, but his focus is now on a more creative pursuit. “My plan’s to get the music going,” he said. “But getting a master’s in finance is something I would love to pursue at some point.”
While looking for a way to break out near the end of this summer, K’Coneil listened to Meddz’s debut single. “I realized I needed to reach out to him as soon as possible,” K’Coneil said.
K’Coneil felt that the style of the song might work for him. The singer currently has a deal with Wackies, with Meddz as an engineer and producer. According to K’Coneil, clients can expect to pay around $50 per hour at the studio, but he pays much less due to the friendly chemistry between him and Meddz. K’Coneil hoped to create a seven-song extended play with vocals he wrote and beats the Wackies crew composed. He planned to shop the songs to different labels by next April.
Just before midnight on Nov. 20, Meddz and K’Coneil had finished the vocal track for the song. Meddz let the song play after he left the studio for a quick break. K’Coneil sat in a computer chair, listening to his voice accompanied by the bongo drums and the synthesized melodies of the track. He scratched his goatee, pumped his fist in the air to the bass kicks, and harmonized his own vocals. On that night, K’Coneil found his groove.