It is said that music, like art, bridges cultures, cures ills and calms the mad. If music is really that powerful, it should open listeners to a whole new world of possibilities. In 1925, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald put on a display of literary work that lives on today. Often revised, modernized and memorialized, The Great Gatsby has endured as a classic among readers and in a new era, has emerged to produce a cult-like following. As Fitzgerald wrote, “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course, you can!”
Started on a dare, the funk, reggae, and soul band Irie Sol began their journey of musical discovery over a decade ago. With a suave frontman who sings by night and moonlights by day as a university English professor, Dr. Joel Pace has seemingly stepped into a time portal to channel his best F. Scott Fitzgerald. Donning a fedora and spats, Pace, and the band recently released a funky homage honoring Fitzgerald’s Gatsby in the form of a new EP called Dred Scott Fitzgerald.
While combining a textured concept and approach to music, Pace boasts the band’s synergy seemed to all come naturally. With members from Brazil, Jamaica and all across the U.S., they have tailored a unique sound and this EP captures the true spirit of The Great Gatsby. When asked if he thought Fitzgerald would approve, Pace said, “I think he would have loved it — after the right amount of gin, anyway.”
During a recent interview with Dr. Pace, I had the distinct opportunity to listen as he shared about all things music, major hip hop influences and the general direction of his artistic flow. Here are a few of the most important thoughts Dr. Pace explained about the new EP and the direction of Irie Soul.
Please clarify Lit Hop for those who do not understand the concept or how it came to be:
Lit hop makes the literary aspect of hip hop more overt. It often continues the story of a character that is already established in literature or rechannels the literary tale in a hip hop setting in rhyme or by adding a hip hop beat. Much like legendary artists such as Slick Rick or Lauryn Hill who always told stories in their writings, lit hop takes that style of mashing up stories and rhythm to re-tell or repurpose classic literature.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby tells a story of betrayal and many have been impacted by this literary work of art. When were you first influenced by Gatsby?
My high school teacher taught Gatsby to me and that is where I first read and was influenced by it. I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my teacher after he heard this album. It is obvious by the genre of music I share that it really impacted me in a profound way.
You are also a college professor… What and where do you teach?
I teach English at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, which is also home to a great music scene. I also teach classes on classic literature and The Great Gatsby every chance I get. I also have a course on hip hop in which we examine the literary elements such as the rhythm, meter, cadence and the spoken word.
My experience with college was totally different. None of my professors, which I knew about, were into hip hop. So you are a professor and an avid lover of the hip-hop nation… how does that happen?
It is interesting because I grew up on the East Coast in the city. What inspired me to love and study English was the fact that street corners would be gatherings for spoken word poetry contests in the form of rap battles where they would recite rhythmic spoken word to beats, turntables or someone beat boxing. Common has a song called The Corner which adequately describes life on the block. This explosion of literature in American cities was amazingly provocative and mind-blowing to me. Later in life, during school age years, I started thinking some of these classic poems would make great raps. This brings us full circle to lit hop.
Who were some of the earlier cultural and musical influences that shaped you into the artist you have become?
I would have to say Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force’s Planet Rock, and the Roxanne Rap battles which were started by UTFO as well as the early female voices in hip-hop who responded to what had been primarily a male-based genre. Some of the early hip-hop dialogues from groups such Public Enemy, Run DMC, Grand Master Flash and other legends who were like ministers preaching from the pulpit of radio to me.
How do you measure your success in this big entertainment industry of music in today’s society?
Every time anyone listens to one of our albums, comments on social media or attends one of our shows we consider it successful beyond our wildest imaginations. It is something we are so passionate about; it is a fire burning within us and when it catches hold to someone else and helps ignite their passion that, to us, is success.
In a generation which may not know be familiar with Gatsby, how does Irie Sol and Dr. Joel Pace go about introducing this classic to those who may not really have an appreciation for it?
In one sense, some of it has already been done by Baz Luhrmann who came up with the brilliant idea to have hip-hop legend Jay Z do some of the soundtracks for the Gatsby movie. The parallel with Jay Z’s life and the rags to riches story of Gatsby and of course Beyoncé, as his Daisy, is such a beautiful romantic story. It is an awesome reflection of how Jay Z turned his life into literature in a sense. The similarities are powerful. What we did was take what jazz was to Gatsby and include and update it infusing the sound with a hip-hop flare.
What was the vibe in the room when all these creative musicians and Gatsby lovers came together to formulate this project?
It was an incredible vibe because we were lucky to have the opportunity to record in the studio of Justin Vernon who is best known as the primary songwriter and frontman of indie folk band Bon Iver. His studio is amazing, he had done collaborations with artists such as Kanye, Alicia Keys, and others. To be in that studio which is a place that is geared for the imagination because it is such a creative space.
The studio is also in his home so the vibe was just relaxed and one of ease. The environment allowed us to freely conjure up something that was really different; mashing up, rather than sampling a classic soul or funk track… All due to Justin’s hospitality.
If you could only pick one, what is your favorite track on this project?
I would have to say Reggae Gatsby because of the person we wrote the song with, Dennis Sampson. He has since passed away and the song is about someone who is continuing to be a light through the chorus which says, “Man, you’ve got to slow it down, you’ve got to give it time because my star burned out before it got to shine.” Of course, they apply to Gatsby, but we had no idea how prophetic those words would be to our friend Dennis who we really miss. That song is a great tribute to him and our work with him.
What is next for Irie Sol?
We have been very blessed by having a fun album released on Fitzgerald’s birthday in that very same hotel and next we are looking forward to spreading our music whenever, wherever and however through radio programs and live tours. We are excited for what is on the horizon and to allow our wings to take us wherever they will.
How can people connect with Irie Sol?
We can be found on Facebook (Irie Sol), our website (www.IrieSol.org) and the album is available on iTunes, Spotify, and certain songs are on YouTube.
Thank you so much, Dr. Pace, for sharing your passion for music and literature with our Guardian Liberty Voice readership. It was a pleasure to speak with you and I look forward to further opportunities to share upcoming events and news as you continue to expand and to let your message soar to new heights.
As humanity, we struggle with reconciling the age-old riddle of whether life imitates art or does art imitate life. As F. Scott Fitzgerald managed to weave sprinklings of his reality into The Great Gatsby, we too can find traces of ourselves in that which draws our attention. But Dr. Pace is out to set a new generation of classic lovers ablaze with passion from the 20’s. Armed with musical insight, he and Irie Sol are doing just that. He mentions that those long nights of recording in the same building where Fitzgerald once lived seemed to conjure a presence in their sessions. It is masterful how the simplicity of Pace’s music transports us to a place where new meets old and neither have an objection with partying the evening away. Just like Jay Gatsby.
Interview by Early Jackson
(Edited and Transcribed by Cherese Jackson)
Dr. Joel Pace
All Images Courtesy of Irie Sol