w/Brian Hill/John Decarlo/Johnny Cakes and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypso/Black and Tenn. Wed., June 5, 7 p.m., New World Brewery, 1313 E. Eighth Ave., Tampa.
Jeff Baker is a busy guy. When CL initially caught up with the “ageless” ska music icon (he shares a birthday with Count Basie and Joe Strummer, but won’t give us a birth year), he was busy running errands around his hometown of New Brunswick, N.J. in advance of an upcoming 24-date, three-week tour of the Southeast. His Bluetooth headset is acting wonky, and he’s got one hell of a toothache.
“I’m actually headed to the pharmacy to pick up some medicine,” he said over a distorted cellular connection. “I’m running around crazy.”
Everything sounds hectic, which is fitting. Baker, better known as King Django, hasn’t had a day job since 1995, and he’s spent every moment since then madly devoted to promoting roots ska to the masses. He’s fronted largely successful outfits like Stubborn All-Stars, which saw heavy MTV airplay back in the ’90s, and you won’t find a ska rat who doesn’t know a thing or two about Skinnerbox or Murphy’s Law. He's been a part of countless releases, thanks to his role as head honcho of Version City Studios, and he even spent a few years pressing vinyl right out of Kingston, Jamaica.
You’d expect a bit of exhaustion after nearly two decades of non-stop action, but Baker actually gawks at the idea of even thinking about quitting.
“Wow, I really don’t think the thought has ever crossed my mind,” he said. “Occasionally, I fret about finances, health insurance, this kind of stuff, but I think it’s clear at this point: I’m a lifer.”
He truly is locked in. His solo output alone eclipses that of the average recording artist. His journey once took him to the Jamaican Music Museum, where he performed alongside The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, Junior Reid, and Bongo Herman. For a disciple of ska (which is widely regarded as the “grandfather of reggae”), that’s almost the mother lode.
“That was an incredible day,” said Baker, “The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari Grounation triple LP really changed my whole musical life when I was a teen [and] had a huge influence on me … [that performance] was mind-boggling.”
Baker’s own contributions to the whole of ska, dancehall, reggae and punk rock shouldn’t be overlooked either. He’s championed the genres since he started Stubborn Records in 1992, ventured into all-Yiddish recordings (2006’s Roots & Culture), and recently called on a handful of friends to help him piece older cuts into a new album — this year’s Anywhere I Roam.
“It’s very satisfying to have to put out an album because I’ve got the material piled up,” he explained when asked about the charmingly piecemeal nature of Anywhere. “I feel really lucky and blessed to have had the opportunity to link up and do music with so many different people in so many different places.”
Oddly enough, one of those places is Tampa, and one of those people is former Magadog frontman Ed Lowery. Baker credits Lowery (who now leads The Apes in the wake of Magadog’s dissolution) with getting him out of the studio and back on tour.
“I had pretty much stayed home for a really long time working on other people’s records,” said Baker. “Ed invited me down to do a few shows with Magadog in June 2011.” Those shows eventually became the Version City Tours, which comes back to Ybor City on Wednesday.
“Somewhere along the line I realized that I really feel most like me when I’m on the road playing music every night,” Baker exclaims. “That really kinda lit a fire under me.” It doesn’t look like that flame is going to fizzle out anytime soon.