Dec 14, 2021
Meet Uzimon, the reggae Weird Al
As Uzimon, singer Daniel Frith conducts a mindmelting experiment at the intersection of reggae, theater and megalomania
Uzimon has led a crazy life: Growing up in Russia, he was groomed as Vladimir Putin’s opera-singing 77th body double. But a love of reggae drove him underground, ultimately escaping the KGB and fleeing to Brooklyn to share tales of a Soviet showdown in song.
That was the premise, anyway, of his show at Wild Birds in Crown Heights last Saturday.
Supported by a cast of sexy dancing elves, an oversized cutout of Betty White, a small supply of air horns and a poster urging the audience to alternately “pull up!” and “shock out!”, Uzimon’s “Reggae vs. Vladimir Putin” marked the triumphant return of a local legend.
A dancehall Weird Al
Uzimon is the biggest celebrity in the world, just ask him. Ice-T has called him the baddest motherfucker to ever walk. A renaissance man, Uzimon has read every book, has played on most records and picks up new instruments effortlessly. His lyrics are pure poetry and when he sings, Uzimon will melt your heart as well as your undertings.
“Everything come naturally to Uzi, ya know,” Uzimon says of himself in a languid Caribbean patois. “Something that famously was said by Kanye West was actually taken from me, is that my greatest regret in life is that there’s not two of me so I cannot watch myself perform. [Kanye has] written me many letters that he’s always regretted not seeing me live.”
Uzimon also doesn’t really exist: He is something of a reggae Weird Al, the alter-ego of Daniel Frith a Bermuda-born singer who grew up listening to reggae and has lived in New York since 2007. Frith, 43, was raised in a musical household—his father was a touring musician, his mother a dancer in the Boston Ballet—and studied theater in college.
“Late ‘80s to mid ‘90s dancehall was my entry point into making music. I had stacks and stacks of sevens from Terry Ganzie and Jigsy King, General Degree, Tiger, Super Cat,” Frith says, adding that he bussed tables to buy records and eventually started a small soundsystem with his friends in high school.
When Frith’s friend and fellow Bermudian Collie Budz released a charting reggae record in July 2007, it seemed as if the world might be open to “a whole bunch of white dudes who think that they can also make it as dancehall artists,” Frith says.
“Of course they didn’t.”
So Frith found a side-door in. He adopted an outlandish persona.
“It was almost like, ‘what if we pretended to be another one of those white guys?’” says Frith. “And we put out a couple of mysterious videos of a buffoon saying his album was gonna come out, make people think that there’s this guy that thinks he’s the greatest and he’s totally deluded.”
With the addition of a hat, some dark glasses and a wispy blonde fake beard, Uzimon was born.
Where authenticity meets comedy
Backed by a rotating squad of very serious local musicians, Uzimon sings dancehall and reggae, layering absurd original lyrics over riddims originally popularized by reggae legends Coxsone Dodd, King Tubby and others. As such, Uzi is using some of the genre’s most memorable beats and original arrangements in a hybrid parody-cabaret. Steven Segal, Betty White, kale chips, Vladimir Putin and true love are all fair game.
Frith sings in a convincing Jamaican accent, which he doesn’t have naturally but comes by honestly through his Caribbean upbringing. It’s done to perfection, though a less studied and passionate performer would likely be fielding cries of appropriation—a topic Frith addresses briefly in a new video “Vladimir Putin: The World’s Worst Roommate.” “If you’re singing dancehall, you should probably do it with some sort of attempt to be authentic,” Frith says. After all, he points out, there are Caribbean people of many colors who have accents.
The inspiration for Uzimon—Frith’s unfiltered id—came from many of his favorite dancehall artists. The earliest iterations of Uzimon would parody slackness, the hypersexualized, gun-talking subgenre of dancehall popular in 1980s Jamaica. His first album, “Showdown,” was released in 2011 and aped the style to a T.
Uzi’s 2012 track “Colombian Daughta” (an NC-17 tale of a quest for love that pits Uzimon against a ruthless criminal org) combines the graphic storytelling traditional to the genre with humor: “She was a sweet Colombian angel/but her body belonged to the Medellin cartel/oh well, guess me have to go and kill them all,” Uzimon sings, effortlessly folding in references to “Fraggle Rock” and Batman. Somehow, it works.
While a handful of detractors questioned his lyrics and authenticity, reggae fans were generally impressed by Uzimon’s humor, tight band and Frith’s commitment to the bit. Uzi developed a cult following and he later shared stages with major acts including Beres Hammond, Ziggy Marley, Maxi Priest and Raekwon, even landing a TEDx talk.
Uzi found more widespread viral fame with the release of 2013’s “Steven Seagal 2.0,” in which he moved on from slackness’ gun talk to sing the praises of Seagal’s martial arts prowess: “Me nah talk ‘bout van Damme wearing a tight speedo/Me only talk about the original ponytail guido/Practicing ai-ki-do/Up inna dojo/Perfectin’ him death blow/Tootin’ on a piccolo.” The song was featured on the front page of torrent site The Pirate Bay for a duration, and brought more attention to Uzi’s particular brand of reggae.
Eventually, Frith and crew began doing a live show, replete with airhorns, props for the audience, backup dancers and costume changes in a “cabareggae” style. The show—which was once held regularly at Mercury Lounge—employs significant improvisation and crowd participation; the more excited the crowd, the wilder Uzi gets. The plot may be thin and ever-changing (Uzimon has many outlandish origin stories aside from being Putin’s body double), but the theatrics are unique to the reggae scene.
“When you see music, especially in New York, a lot of people will sit there with their arms crossed judging. Uzi is there to make everyone feel good about themselves,” says Brett Tubin, the guitarist in Uzi’s army and his producer. “If you go to an Uzimon show, you’re going to have a great fucking time and you’re going to leave with a big smile on your face.”
Crucial to the performance is a wicked rhythm section, which features local heavyweights including Eddie Ocampo on drums and bassist Steve Capecci, guitarist Matt Kursmark, and Gideon Bluemthal on keys, among others. Legendary percussionist Larry McDonald has also been known to sit in, and several musicians also play with Frith in rocksteady cover group Full Watts. “That’s what kind of gives Uzimon its life. The act is comedic, but having that authentic backing is what makes it possible,” Frith says. “If it was rock musicians trying to play reggae who didn’t understand the style, then we wouldn’t get away with it.”
While his megalomanic tendencies have remained constant over the years, the subjects Uzimon tackles have evolved: His most recent release is “The Betty White Mixtape.”
“A lot of the early Uzi stuff was poking fun at dancehall culture–bling, chauvinism—and once Trump came in and rights started changing… it was no longer cool to be the manliest man. [Frith] had a struggle for a while about who Uzimon was going to be,” Tubin says. “We’ve been accused of being sexist and all kinds of things in the past, [but] he’s willing to change and look at himself.”
Newer Uzi tunes extol the virtues of kale chips, albeit through a lens of machismo (“kale chips, that’s how you get the women. You cook for them. A woman’s favorite food is kale chips,” Uzimon notes) and encourage getting a good night’s sleep. Following “Steven Seagal 2.0,” Uzimon became a hit with the martial arts community and met the team behind McDojo Life, a a group that aimes to expose “the fakes, frauds and phonies” in the martial arts community . The crew tapped Uzimon for a collaboration and the resulting “McDojo Life” is part love song, part fake dojo take down: “He calls himself Sifu Mark Zimmerman/He got a dojo in a strip mall near Cinnabon/Now she spends all day trying to break boards with her thoughts/but the only thing she breaking is my likkle heart.”
Uzimon may have begun as two-dimensional character but, Tubin says, “in his betterment of himself, he’s created this really cool, funny thing.” The character’s evolution follows a wider trend in reggae, too. While dancehall artists like Vybz Kartel still do slackness, singers like Chronixx and Protoje are bringing a new wave of consciousness into reggae.
“Uzi’s not that either,” says Frith. “The slackness thing has been left behind and he’s open to exploring newer things.”
See Uzimon in action at Wild Birds on Saturday, December 18.
You might also like
The ballad of Mucky, the unlucky Gowanus dolphin
Community & Commerce
Community & Commerce