Chinese Connection Dub Embassy CD release party
9 p.m. Saturday at The Beer Garden, 84 S. Reese. Cover: $12; includes EP and all-you-can-eat buffet. For more information, call 901-454-9988
"This isn't just a band. It's a movement," says Omar Higgins, bassist and oldest of the three brothers in the Memphis reggae band Chinese Connection Dub Embassy. "Our movement is to unify Memphis through music and sound, whether it be reggae music, whether it be punk-rock, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, gospel, even rap.
"It may seem like a lofty ambition, but the truth is few bands in the Bluff City have ever crossed as many boundaries as the Dub Embassy in just three years of being together.
The band, which also includes Omar's brothers Joseph and David, drummer Donnon Johnson and saxophonist John-Michael Tubbs, has emerged as the city's top reggae group. But thanks to a confluence of Memphis, New York and West Indian influences, it has also become a preferred collaborator with a host of artists across different genres, including funk-pop singer Ryan Peel, Latin-jazz diva Marcela Pinilla, roots-punks Sin City Scoundrels, and alternative rapper Knowledge Nick.
"We're genuinely just fans of all kinds of music," says David Higgins, recounting the band's role, captured on YouTube, backing up a cypher — or freestyle battle — of different rappers at Nick's packed record release party last weekend at Newby's. "We listen to everything, so when we do a show with a metal band or a rap artist, it's genuine."
Reggae remains Dub Embassy's bread and butter, however, and the band will reassert its claim to the local Lover's Rock throne Saturday when it celebrates the release of its debut EP, Farmers Market, with a show at The Beer Garden, formerly known as Raffe's Beer Garden, at South Reese and Poplar.
The sons of renowned Memphis-born drummer Ervin Higgins (Chaka Khan, Isaac Hayes and, most recently, The Eye 2 Eye Band), the brothers have been making music together since they were youngsters. They grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the cross-cultural currents of the neighborhood combined with their father's Deep South soul and their mother's West Indian heritage to provide a varied music education.
In 1996, when Omar, the oldest, was about 14, the family moved back to their father's hometown. The move was a shock to the Higgins boys, who were used to the more open cultural interchanges of New York. Upon experiencing the still relatively segregated South, their ambition to unite the city's disparate cultures was born.
"If you're a black guy at a metal show, you're looked at weird. If you're white guy at hip-hop show, you're looked at weird," Omar Higgins says. "We believe in unity. It shouldn't matter if you're black, white, green, purple, homosexual, lesbian, whatever. It doesn't matter."
Dub Embassy's origins lie in Omar's return from a stint in the military in 2003 when he started a band called the Soul Enforcers. In late 2008, Joseph and David joined the band, on keys and guitar, respectively. A year later, inspired by the title of a Bruce Lee movie — "People don't know about the strong connection between martial arts and reggae culture in the '70s," says Omar Higgins — the group changed its name to Chinese Connection Dub Embassy.
From the beginning, the band threw itself into its mission of uniting the disparate strands of the local music scene. Some of its earliest gigs were their "Subculture Clash" shows where they teamed with acts from different genres, like the Sin City Scoundrels and Pinilla. Later, they became the backing band for Peel, whose métier is more Prince and Maroon 5 than Lee Perry and Peter Tosh.
All the while, Dub Embassy was steadily working on scores of demos. The biggest hurdle to getting a record out was finding audio professionals sensitive to the sonic needs of a reggae band. They ended up recording with Josh "DJ Homework" Metzger at the University of Memphis studio. But most important was getting Sin City Scoundrels bassist John Fayette, who understood that the most important elements are the drum and bass, to mix and master the record.
"It was all about getting that sound, getting that vibe of reggae in the '70s and '80s and getting that Memphis soul on top of it," David Higgins says.
Farmers Market is the first in a planned series of EPs that Dub Embassy will put out leading up to the release next spring of their full-length debut. In the meantime, the group is also planning the 1st Annual Memphis Reggae Fest to be held in June at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park.
"Reggae does have a scene out here," Omar Higgins says. "Memphis needs reggae music. It needs that positivity."