Opening with a serpentine, strange and seductive rhyme, then layering in stuttering, boxy beats, Equiknoxx keep it dark and spicy on their latest mixtape Basic Tools. For international fans outside of the UK and Europe, the release is likely their introduction to the Kingston, Jamaica collective, made up of producers Gavsborg (Gavin Blair), Time Cow (Jordan Chung), Bobby Blackbird (Nick Deane), and vocalists Shanique Marie and Kemikal.
Shanique Marie is pure magic. She is truly a vocalist in the sense that she sings, raps, hums, freestyles and ultimately weaves her soulful, sure-footed voice into whatever form feels right at the time. She is both an integral part of Equiknoxx and a solo artist, having released her debut album – Gigi’s House, named after her biggest fan, her mother – in mid-2021. When we connect on Zoom, she is at home in Kingston, stifling a yawn at the end of the day, but she regularly segues into song to illustrate what she is describing or remembering. It’s a captivating, small-scale performance.
“I’m pretty sure I can speak on behalf of the entire group when I say this. When I talk about our sound being organic and our creation of music being organic, I mean that it is something that comes from within and something that comes very naturally to us,” she says. “It’s almost magical, in a sense, how things fall into place where our music is concerned. It can just be a conversation that we’re having in the studio that becomes a line that starts a song, or a rhythm is built around this, or a sound that we hear that Gavin, Jordan or Nick are like, ‘oh, we have to sample this!’”
The squiggly samples and funky percussion of “UGGH” is a prime example. Gavin and Shanique were having a phone conversation when Gavin said, “You sound like UGGH!” A moment later, he exclaimed, “I’m gonna make a song!” He duly took the line and built the song from it.
“Much of the songs Gavin and I work on tend to be like that, where we’re literally having a conversation and Gavin or Nick makes a joke, or Jordan makes a joke, and then it’s like, ‘we can make a song from this!’, you know?” she says.
Their rough and tumble sound reveals the group’s genius for creating textures from processed bird sounds, smudging beats into odd time, liberally enriching the sonic soup with cymbals, gongs, choir samples and comical vocal snippets, and a quirky, macabre sense of humour. Bird Sound Power, released in 2016, was a compilation of Gavsborg and Time Cow’s productions dating back to 2009. Colón Man – in a sense, their first traditional album, made as a cohesive collection – arrived a year later, attracting “Best Of” listings for FACT, Resident Advisor, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork. Eternal Children was arguably their most accessible album for mainstream hip hop and pop audiences in 2019, in no small part thanks to Shanique’s hook-laden, butter-melting vocals. Perhaps, too, the world was ready for their oddball musical courtship of our eardrums. We’d been primed by the retro-sleaze R&B of Blood Orange, the mad beats and humour of Madlib, and the timeless adventurousness of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
Equiknoxx is both the name of the collective, and also the name of their label, Equiknoxx Music. Operational since 2007, they’ve been making intriguing, body-moving, slinky music that sweeps through the trap-reggaeton-electro sphere for just over a decade. Throughout Basic Tools, the groove is so deep you wonder how you’ll clamber out of the funky, hypnotic, languorous beats and patois-laced rhymes. Elsewhere, barely restrained snarls, rapid-fire raps and layered, haunting harmonies threaten to become the matter of urban nightmares. Whether it’s a double-entendre or a straight-up reference to “eating bananas,” drive-by shootings, or queens who do Kegels, the rhymes are clever, sometimes funny, often skewering the listener when they dare to get complacent with their attention.
It’s hard to imagine anyone ignoring Shanique Marie, though.
Raised in a very traditional Christian family, she used to sing in church choirs and spent a lot of time with her grandparents, listening to Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Otis Redding, Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald. A neighbour overheard the then-17-year-old singing and insisted on introducing her to some friends with a studio. Shanique Marie’s mother was having none of it.
“Equiknoxx was rising in the local dancehall scene… but the thing about Jamaican and even Caribbean culture is that young girls are never encouraged to go into the studio because the whole idea is that it’s gonna be a lot of males that are going to be smoking weed. Young females might be taken advantage of, so growing up in a very traditional, religious family, my mom was like ‘School is the focus, there is no going to studio,’” she recounts.
Instead, Shanique began a conversation with Gavin via MSN Messenger.
“But of course, I was younger than him and at the time, nobody took me seriously.”
Years later, they did. Shanique was midway through her Bachelor of English Literature (and has since graduated, along with a Masters in Education Management) when her work with some event promoters lead her back into the Equiknoxx studio to record a jingle promoting a local party. Gavin was sitting in a corner throughout the session and at the end of the hour, Shanique approached him to introduce herself. What began with her working as a background vocalist on his beats for other artists evolved into a much more equal billing as her adaptability, range and confidence emerged.
“It’s so ironic how the universe works and how things just fall into place,” she reflects. “This was the path that was ordained for me. At one point I was really pushed into the academic path and I had put music down. There’s a book called Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and she talks about how ideas find you, and I apply that to my life. Reconnecting with Gavin and the crew really just confirmed for me what my purpose is on this Earth… music just accosted me. Music came back and was like ‘Excuuuuse me, hello!’”
From 2009, Gavsborg and Bobby Blackbird had been making beats for dancehall stars, including Beenie Man. Then, in 2013, Poland-based reggae DJ 27Pablo invited Gavsborg and Masicka to perform at his club. It was impossible to refuse, since he’d named the club “Equiknoxx” in homage to the crew he’d met in Jamaica. They put together a four-track EP (Equiknoxx Introduces Masicka to King Tubby) to entice Polish fans to come see them, establishing their international career in earnest. Their second home, Manchester, is also a base for the collective but they’re equally likely to be in a club in Lisbon or Berlin.
“We do travel to Manchester quite a bit,” Shanique confirms. “The UK has always been a second home for me and a stomping ground where a lot of music is made for us as a group and as individuals within the group. We do a lot of work with Swing Ting and they’re based out of Manchester. We also work out of London, as well.”
Their theatrical, sweaty performances fuse Shanique Marie’s solo songs with Equiknoxx group productions, criss-crossing through tracks from Basic Tools, Eternal Children, Colón Man, and Gigi’s House. Don’t expect a US tour too soon, though.
“We’ve done some awesome shows in the US, but we found that the market for us has been stronger in Europe and the UK,” explains Shanique Marie. “We’ve done some really wicked shows for Red Bull, Marfa Festival in Texas, we performed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York… but our sound, that whole electronic dancehall fusion, has had a much stronger appeal in the UK and Europe.”
For Shanique Marie, the connection is clear.
“UK garage, dance and grime, drum ‘n’ bass, those are the places where it’s still at the forefront of performances. I’ve never been puzzled by it. I think it just makes sense given that those genres are so prevalent, whereas it’s more of an underground scene in the US; it’s not mainstream, it’s not pop culture,” she reasons.
The immediacy of Equiknoxx’s music is what hooks you in. It doesn’t feel laboured, manipulated, or manufactured to the nth degree by labels and promoters. They’re present. They’re organic. They’re loving making this multi-layered, strange beast of a track in real time as much as you’ll love twerking and twisting to it in your living room. It is the unexpected laugh in the studio, or an exasperated sigh, or an ill-timed clash of cymbals or feedback that can kick off a whole creative adventure in storytelling. Listening to Equiknoxx is an invitation to hang out with the group, and while you might just have to go to Jamaica or London to do it in person, Basic Tools brings the collective to you in its bright, eclectic glory.
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