Usain Bolt & Nugent "NJ" Walker
Photo: Jay Enigma
Olympian Usain Bolt Gives Track New Meaning In Debut Reggae Album, ‘Country Yutes’
It's only right Usain Bolt is in a sprinter van.
It's just past noon and the Jamaican gold medal sprinter is in a cozy Dolce & Gabbana hoodie traveling towards London where the weather's cooled off and the twilight summer September sun's blocked by clouds. Lately, Bolt's got a melodic itch he can't scratch hard enough if he had more than two hands. He owes this burning calling to cherished childhood memories tagging along with his father Wellesley to community concerts. It was there he grew up on Bob Marley, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man.
The itch gives way to a craving and the craving gives way to an insatiable appetite for RAD music–or reggae, Afrobeats and dancehall–all packaged up into an album aptly called Country Yutes, a body of music winking at Bolt's past as a kid in rural Sherwood Content, a small town in Trelawny Parish, Jamaica.
Following his family's relocation to the city Kingston in his promising youth, Bolt felt less than welcomed coming from what he calls the country. His story makes a full circle now, as he recorded the very album winking at those Sherwood Content days inside Kingston Big Yard recording studio in the Eastwood Park neighborhood.
This may come as a surprise to those more tapped into Bolt's sprints on tracks rather than his vocals. Either way, his runs on the tracks making up Country Yutes issue informed direction when it comes to respecting the storied sounds he's contributing to. At 35 years old, Bolt's activity in music dates back to a self-released 2019 mixtape. He's worked on music with dancehall stars such as Dexta Daps and Baby Cham. More comfortable in his role as a DJ Khaled-esque vibes curator and executive producer than ever before, Usain Bolt kept things close to home on Country Yutes, enlisting a childhood best friend Nugent "NJ" Walker to play leadman.
Speaking to Reggaeville, NJ let on that he played the keyboard in church. The friends assembled Country Yutes in a single room within the two-room studio note by note. The songs happened naturally. Released Sept. 3 on A-Team Lifestyle and United Masters, Bolt joins GRAMMY.com to discuss his musical upbringing, his album, and his run-in with Drake.
What's your earliest memory of music?
I'm from the country. Growing up, we started listening to Bob Marley at the age of six because there was a thing in Jamaica called Round-Robin that our parents would go to. At a young age, my dad would take me to go to the early part and send me home at night. That's my earliest part of all this.
How musical is your family?
None of us played any instrument. I tried to play piano once. I wasn't very good.
Did you take lessons?
Mainly just in school and in music class, it was a little bit more difficult than I thought, so I just stuck to track and field.
Is the album title Country Yutes referencing your childhood?
Yeah, that's where I'm from. It's something that I came up with true to life. When we came to Kingston, we faced some challenges like oh, we're from the country. We got some negative feedback, some classicism. We're country. That's how we came up with the actual name of the album.
When was the first time you walked into a recording studio for this album?
It was sometime last year. Music was something we actually wanted to do. We felt the energy. Late last year we felt like we should do an album to put ourselves out there. That's when we started thinking about getting rhythms together.
Did you record in the United States?
No, in Jamaica. All in Jamaica.
In Kingston. We live in Kingston now.
What was the name of the studio?
Big Yards studio.
Why do you think artists want to be athletes and athletes want to be artists?
We enjoy music as athletes. It helped hype us up or calm us down depending on the type of genre. For the artists, it's all about the hype to come to a sporting event to watch athletes perform at a high level. For me I've really been into that from a young age.
Why do you think it's taken so long for dancehall to become this popular globally?
I don't know, but for me dancehall music was always there. Shabba Ranks… all these guys over the years. Bob Marley impacted the world so much. People are really taking to it. People are putting effort into their music. Reggae music and dancehall have been on the scene for a minute. Hip-hop people always talk about reggae and dancehall. For me, Afrobeats came onto the scene and impacted the music industry.
What was the first song you made for the album?
"LIVING THE DREAM" was the first single we put out for the album. They said we shouldn't do music because we're track athletes. We did it to show people. As a youth, I didn't know I could be the fastest man in the world. Just living the dream and working hard, you know what I mean.
What was the last song you made for the album?
"RIP MY G." It's really about my friend Germaine Mason. He was a Jamaican high jumper who represented Great Britain. He died in a motorcycle accident in 2016. For me, that's what it was all about. We wanted to pay tribute to him.
Will you release more music videos?
Yeah but we're waiting to see what people like and then we'll do some videos for those.
How many songwriters did you bring in?
It was just my best friend and I. We just listened to music, put pen to paper, had different ideas and made it happen.
Were there songs you had to leave off the album?
Yeah, definitely. A few songs.
Sample clearance issues?
No, in music you have to be true to yourself. They just didn't fit.
Will you tour this album?
All depends on how it goes. The world is crazy right now but then again we'll see.
How much unreleased music do you have in the vault?
We just started music. We have a few but not a lot. We're working with a few artists over time. We just got into music.
What inspired the song "Days Like This?"
For me, it's just what people go through. Ups and downs. People look at me and think I live a perfect life. The album is about different levels. We're trying to show the world we're here to stay. We want to show them we're more than one dimension. That's why we switch from reggae and dancehall, with messages to music that makes you think.
What was the vision for the album cover?
NJ and I sat down and discussed. We took a weekend. We actually like the one we came up with. It gives a certain energy. I really enjoy it.
Did you sequence this tracklist yourself?
I'm not even going to lie, NJ did most of the sequencing. He sequenced the tracks how he wanted it.
What are your thoughts on dancehall in the States?
I think it fell off a bit but it's starting to come back. Koffee is always on top doing great [there]. It's just one of those things.
Lately, have you had time to record?
We dabble here and there but the focus is on the promotion, to get it to every corner of the world. The focus is to get it out and promote it as much as possible.
Why do you think athletes get backlash when they do something different?
People put us in a box. They want us to keep going until we retire. For me, track and field was great for me. That was a chapter of my life. Now I want to move onto another chapter. I never really listen to critiques. I've been going through that all my life. It's a part of it. I'm just going to work hard and dedicate myself to my craft.
What was your vision for the features?
It's just people that we know from the start. We're not trying to do too much, that's why there's only two features. It's just to get the music out there so people can see the level we're at and the moves we can make. When people start hearing and believing, we'll do more collaborations with different people.
Do you feel as if you could have gotten any features you wanted?
I'm not even truly thinking about that off bat. We got a lot of pushback at the start. It was all about just making music; "Yo we're serious." We didn't want to go to anybody and say, because I know them, "Let's do a collab," and they do it just because.
I want them to do it because I want them to believe in the music we're making. I didn't reach out to anyone. For me, this album is everything. I want to hear feedback and what people really think about the music and the work that we put in and if they think it's good or if it could be better. That's why we put time into it and put it out there for people to hear.
Do you think major labels and artists will respect you more for that?
I definitely think so. People could do it because of who I am, but I don't want them to do me a favor. I want them to see I really put the effort in.
Have you received feedback from industry people?
[In] the interviews I've done, I've gotten positive feedback. It's all been positive. Hopefully we continue on that trend.
How come we didn't see any bars on this album like we did in your late night television rap battle with James Corden a few years back?
I definitely want to mix it up but I have to start somewhere. So for me I want to start with reggae music and stick to our culture and then I can veer off in different ways.
Have you noticed the difference between making music and the actual music business?
Definitely. It's difficult, that's one thing I've learned. It's one of the major reasons why I did the first album with mainly just my friend. It's hard to get my people to record. I said 12, they show up at 6. They want to record for two hours and go. I said, you know what, let's just do this first and then we can start putting things together in a few years for a proper, different album.
What inspired the label name A-Team Lifestyle?
A-Team Lifestyle is something my friends and I came up with. We hang out all the time. That's our lifestyle. It's a lifestyle of what we live and we're just going to put it into the music.
Did you record most of this album during the day or at night?
Anytime we got inspired but I think it was mostly at night. It was easier. Quieter. Not as many people in and out.
Do you think that's because you lived a full day and had the opportunity to extract your daily experience at night?
For me, it was just better. The energy was just better. Sometimes our friend would be there. Sometimes it would be just us. Sometimes we'd just feed off the rhythm with friends and throw ideas out there.
What are your studio rules?
We don't have studio rules. I don't think we're there [yet].
So you don't have any pet peeves in the studio?
For me, we always just try to give ideas. If you really don't like something, speak up. That's one thing I've learned. A lot of guys don't like to be told that that shit doesn't sound good. They think you're a weird person. But sometimes you need someone to tell you that. Speak up so then we can discuss it.
Were you working out during the listening of this album?
Yeah. I'll listen and say we need more bass here or move the tune a little bit. It's good to listen to the music in the gym sometimes. I didn't do it a lot but I did a few times.
Would the gym and the road-trip be good listening environments for this album?
The gym overall and the road trip are the two things you will enjoy. Those give you time to listen to the full album while you're working out or traveling so you can pick your favorite song and pick your playlist.
Have you given some thought to building a home studio?
Definitely. I'm actually in the process of getting my house done. We just adjusted to put the studio inside.
Have you gotten into the habit of recording voice notes when inspired or when you think of a good idea?
Definitely. I keep a notepad. If I hear something, I would text it to NJ and say "What do you think about this?" One thing I've learned is music is different nowadays. Back in the day I think people were too focused on getting music too perfect. Because of social media, no matter how silly it might sound to you, that's what people might like.
How will your social media presence benefit your album?
I think it will help. A lot of my fans are stuck on me being a track athlete but they are coming around. It will take time. They give me good energy and good vibes. I'm getting new fans who are into music.
Do you plan on DJing?
DJing is something I will do. My biggest goal is to be like a DJ Khaled. When I was running, I would DJ at the after-parties. I understand music as a DJ. I'm not perfect but I can do it. I'm a hype guy.
Which celebrity artists have you met and received advice from?
I've had that discussion with Drake, he's really cool. We talked about life in general and how tough music is, especially about the tours he was doing. That was something.
What would you tell your 18-year-old self?
I really don't know. Well, it would be pertaining to track and field. Get serious early in life. That's what I would tell him.