“He’s like hip-hop meets that Caribbean vibe,” says Shana, a girl who describes herself as an audiophile. “It’s that big city flavor we need here.”
I visited Cielo Vista Mall and showed his My Life video to ask what people thought of it.
“It has a flavor,” said Trevor, who works at the mall. “It’s easy, you know, to jump into, to feel that grove he’s on.”
Who are they talking about? Matt U Johnson
“It’s flavorful,” says Ras Black, one of my friends in Jamaican. “It’s bringing things like Sean Paul, like Anthony B, Morgan Heritage. All this thing comes into the pan, mix up, and you have Matt U.”
I was able to catch up with Matt, via phone, during his promo tour with Treyy G in London. I also spoke with his parents, Dr. John and Maureen Johnson.
So, who is Matt U Johnson? For the last six years, Matt U has been climbing his way up the independent music scene here in El Paso.
Having moved here from New York City, he’s immersed himself in our unique culture, flow, and way of life. He’s performed at some of the many local shows we have, like Minerpalooza. He’ll also be at the Neon Desert Music Festival this year.
“He sang the Divine Liturgy of St. John of Christendom,” says Dr. Johnson. “Then sang in choir in College.” Dr. Johnson, a retired pastor, and his wife Maureen have instilled some interesting traits in their son.
“The lyrics are clean,” says Dr. Johnson. Listen to a lot of music on XM Radio, that causes Matt U Johnson to stand out.
“Well, you know, in the music business, there are very few overnight successes,” says Dr. Johnson, when I asked him about how his son differs. “Other artists, some people use profanity, they are talking about guns and killing people. Kids who keep it clean, who go pop, country, or rock, may not be given the same advantages of someone who curses or is negative. In society today, that’s what they want.”
What Matt U Johnson is doing with his music, his style is staying genuine. He is staying true to himself, to his roots.
“He was into what I was into, he brought me up into that world,” says Matt U Johnson of his father’s love of music, and that’s where the Jamaican infusion comes from. Matt U’s music is an eclectic mixture of styles. There is the pop influence and EDM.
You’ll also find a bit of Dancehall as well. It’s a different style, a different form that is not often found here in the United States.
“I think it’s being accepted on a wide basis now,” says Matt U. “It started with Bob Marley and the Wailers. Then it evolved in the 90’s with the Dancehall scene of Shaba Ranks, Buju Banton and all these different kind of people. You’ve got Sean Paul; you have Sean Kingston. So, it’s very, very accepted. And it’s branched into the pop and electronic dance realm as well.”
Now, I should say that I love music. For the first forty-six years of my life music is all I had. Didn’t own a television, until last year. My life revolved around what I would find on the radio, what CD’s I would decide to listen to, or what musical rabbit hole I would jump down on
Another aspect of my life that involved music started back when I was fifteen. Back in 1985, I got my first radio gig at KXCR. The station billed itself as the “Heart of El Paso.” (I miss KXCR. It was the only contemporary Jazz station El Paso had). Music is at the center of my life.
I began to compare Matt U’s style of music to people like Buju Banton, Sizzla, and even Bob Marley. You can hear the inspiration Matt U took from these and so many others in his music. It speaks to you, it draws you in and compels you to get up and move your body.
I asked Matt U if he would ever get into recording Roots Reggae.
“Yeah man,” he said. “I was raised on the Roots Reggae thing too. Steel Pulse being an influence, Black Uhuru, Freddie McGregor, Morgan Heritage.”
Matt U has even worked with Jimmy Cliff and Computer Paul Henton. Working with these musicians, growing up with the music of others, it informs what Matt U does, his style, the way he presents himself on stage. For him, it works. However, tetting there, on the stage, did have its struggles.
We are hard on people. By “we” I am speaking of El Pasoans. It’s almost like we have this double standard. If you are coming from out of town, someone fresh off the bus, you are going to have a lot of advantages others don’t. If you’re from here, we just may look at you and shake our heads, thinking “What can he do? What does he know? He’s from (insert a part of town here)”
I’ve seen it and experienced it myself.
“I noticed if you are truly local to El Paso,” says Matt U “sometimes they don’t really want to give you a shot. But, as time went along and some of the opportunities kind of ran out in El Paso, and they started really branding me more of a local artist, I kind of seen that it got more and more difficult to get things going.”
As I said, I’ve seen this. People who have a dream here and find roadblock after roadblock tossed up before them. It can be crushing. Matt U is not trying to brand himself as a lifelong El Pasoan. Nor is he trying to be another Khalid. But, Matt U will rep El Paso as much as he does New York.
Honestly, we can use all the exposure we can get. With Matt U, we are getting that exposure as well as a dose of positive vibes.
As an independent artist, with his family and G-d behind him, he is going to make it.
“If he’s in the music business, and can keep it clean, make money, help his community,” says Dr. Johnson, Matt U’s father, “as long as he keeps it clean and maneuvers the nastiness of the music industry, he will make it.”
“You keep praying, you keep moving,” says Dr. Johnson, “and you will succeed.” Matt U has echoed that same statement, giving credit to his family and G-d for what he has received thus far. I guarantee you; we will be hearing and seeing a lot more of Matt U Johnson.
I invite you to listen to part of my interview with Matt U Johnson above, he’s a great guy, and I think you’ll like him more. You can also follow him via his webpage, Facebook page, YouTube Channel or check out his music here.
Photos courtesy Tony Jerome and Surpreme Photography