Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Like many young people in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Jeff Frelich was exposed to reggae through The Clash. The British foursome became a worldwide phenomenon by wedding punk, early-era rock ’n’ roll, socially conscious lyrics, and the music of Jamaica. In the process, the band turned Jeff Frelich into Professor Skank.
At first, The Clash made such an impact on him that Skank began playing the group’s music regularly at the family business, local mini chain Shoe Stop, which he and his brothers still own and operate.
“In 1980, I was working at our Creve Coeur Shoe Stop, and I was playing Sandinista! by The Clash,” he remembers. “Always brought my own tapes. I remember a lady saying ‘Son, lemme give you some advice. Don’t play that kind of music here.’ I realized she was right, and that The Clash really wasn’t appropriate in a retail store. So at that point, I started to play reggae in the stores, and still do till this day—over 30 years. If by chance I don’t have it on, some ladies usually ask if I’m feeling OK, and why aren’t I playing it?”
Within a few years, his voracious listening turned him from fan to advocate. He adopted the moniker Professor Skank in 1991 (“skank” refers to the guitar-strumming technique that gives ska, rocksteady, and reggae their signature bouncy sound). In time, he founded his own record label, Skank Records, which is active today. So is the KDHX-FM show Positive Vibrations, which began airing in 1987, says Skank’s alternating co-host, Michael Kuelker. The original hosts, Craig Tabor and Joe Striker, left the show in 1992 and 1997, respectively, with Skank and Kuelker succeeding them. Always heard on Saturdays, the show currently runs from 9 to 11 p.m. weekly.
“Skank and I do really different programs,” Kuelker says. “I hope that’s one of the show’s strengths. Skank is especially strong on roots and reggae ‘outside Jamaica,’ as his anthology series signifies, always with a nice surprising blast from the past and its accompanying dub. I come in with the roots and try to reach back toward rocksteady, and blend it with [Rastafarian] Nyabinghi, dancehall, and dub in a way that makes sense to the ear. And beyond that, KDHX reggae listeners have Ital-K, Erica Lewis, Mr. Roots, and DJ Ranx, all with their own programs and stylistic flairs.”
For Skank, the type of sound he plays is simple: “It’s timeless music.”
To keep that statement true, his label has been releasing (and rereleasing out-of-print) music since 2004. This spring, he’ll be offering the fourth in his series of international compilations, Crucial Reggae from Outside Jamaica. While Skank still releases the occasional single-artist album, the anthologies are often the way people first find his label. Asked about the title and why his show frequently references the idea of “crucial reggae,” he laughs. “Crucial’s just an adjective. That’s probably not a good answer. It basically means that this music is the best. Crucial is the best of the best.”
For all of his projects, Skank says he consistently works to pay fair royalty rates and do proper promotion. That’s tough enough to do with single-artist albums, but when he’s finishing a new disc with more than a dozen global bands, he does say, “It makes you question your sanity.”
While he says that in jest, there’s a serious side to the remark. His musical efforts are a labor of love, one that became even more pronounced after an unexpected brain surgery about three years ago. “I’m happy to be here doing this,” he says. “Every day’s a blessing.”
Other promoters of reggae in town say his labors have been a blessing.
Longtime friend and associate Kuelker says, “Professor Skank is one of reggae’s true believers. He’s loyal for life to his core principles and friends, among whom are many reggae fans, radio listeners, and artists themselves. The man has put in his heart and time and pocket-
book for every bit of the last two decades.”
Joshua Grigaitis (a.k.a. Joshua Loyal), who’s long booked reggae at both Pop’s Blue Moon and 2720 Cherokee, has worked with Skank on various shows over the years. “Skank is obviously very passionate about spreading positive vibes, such as good, soulful roots music,” he says. “People like him help keep this crazy world tolerable, if you ask me.”
Kuelker adds that Skank is playing a role in keeping traditional sounds alive. “Today’s Jamaican popular music is ruled by artists like Vybz Kartel and Mavado, whose sound is much rougher and slacker than the island’s pop music of the mid- to late ’70s, what everybody calls roots reggae,” he explains. “And while there are still artists who carry the sound and aesthetic of that period, contemporary roots reggae has been left for other artists to develop. That’s where Skank comes in. He’s anthologized excellent and mostly under-the-radar Caribbean and American and African musicians, and the label has put out two albums apiece by Zion from Dominica and Ossie Dellimore from St. Vincent. They have a vision, and he totally shares it. He’s energized and inspired by their music, and the label is a way to give back—iron sharpening iron.”
Skank doesn’t have any intention of slowing down his current pace of 26 radio shows a year, alongside a release or two. And while he’s selling his reggae online through Skank Productions (skankproductions.com), he’s also continually (and literally) in touch with the music, selling it from boxes at his Shoe Stop stores, just as he’s been doing for the past decade.
“My brothers are cool enough to let me play the music in the stores,” he says. “They know it’s a passion.”
For more on St. Louis reggae history, go to www.reggaestlouis.net.