Redemption Song

Philly's El Feco mixes hip-hop, dancehall, reggae and R&B for a sound that inspires.

By Kate Kilpatrick
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 24, 2004

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El Feco--a rising star in the Philadelphia reggae community and beyond--was originally named Fika, meaning "one who was late finally has arrived," which made sense given that his mother was pregnant for 10 months before giving birth to him.

Though she had him in the countryside of Manchester, Jamaica, Feco's mother sent him off for a better life with his father in Philadelphia when he was 6 years old. But six months after he arrived here, his father was murdered in a drug-related argument.

Despite that tragedy and the many times violence and death struck heavy blows to his life later on, El Feco's songs are tales of universal struggle and the need to rise above. "How many times have you felt slighted?" he asks over lunch at Cavanaugh's. "But in the same sense, who are you to claim that your burden is the heaviest?"

Now 30, Feco looks to music to ease some of life's burdens. He says he comes from a line of hustlers and drug dealers, and followed the same path himself growing up. But days of fast cash taught him that anything that comes quickly is bound to disappear just as fast--like the $1,000 he would make (and spend in a snap) hustling drugs in West Philly. And when a lot of the guys he admired ended up dead or in prison, he found himself moving toward music instead.

Better late than never, he's ready for his second coming--this time as a star.

El Feco is well known in a local tight-knit reggae circle that includes Philly-based performers such as Singing Craig, Ras Professor and Summer Angel. DJs like Kenny Meez and Peter Blacks--El Feco's "keys to Jamaica"--keep his singles on radio rotation and in the reggae clubs in Philly.

His international exposure--mostly London-based--is solid. While he still hopes to reach the level of full-time artist, he's not afraid of the struggle to get there. In the meantime, he works two food service jobs at local hospitals to support his wife and daughter.

Coming of age in West Philly, El Feco was exposed to a lot of hip-hop, but he says he was always attracted to his Jamaican heritage. As an R&B singer he infused his music with heavy reggae vibes. He started out as a selector, DJing at all the major reggae venues in the city with mentors like John-T, Peter Blacks and Roger Culture guiding him.

His music today--a reggae-infused mix of dancehall, hip-hop and R&B--is hard to definitively classify. Though his versatility is what makes him just as likely to open up for Jill Scott or the Roots as Sean Paul or Elephant Man, it's also, he says, probably why he hasn't signed a deal yet.

El Feco sings with a reggae flow but not in standard Jamaican patois. "I'm coming at you with lyrics that both sides of the camp can understand," he says. "You don't have to rewind the tape. The words are right there visibly displayed, just like a picture. That's something I pride myself on--being able to maintain my flow, but with clarity."

And his lyrics aren't flooded with the staple dancehall material of "bad man" lyrics and sexual exploits.

"If you love your mother, can you please make some noise?" El Feco called out at a recent Electric Factory show. His own mother died of brain cancer earlier this year, and he's performed this piece a cappella at every performance since. "Please give me a moment of silence so I can talk to my mother," he said, sitting for a moment on the speakers at the front of the stage as he prepared for the sweet, soulful ode to "Mama"--a tribute so passionate, it's unclear whether his face is wet with sweat or tears.

When he's not performing, El Feco tries to keep a low profile, sticking to a few reggae standards in Philly--Studio 7, Reggae Lounge and Filo's. "When I'm doing the big shows like Beenie Man, I don't want people to be like, 'Oh, that's just Feco from down the street,'" he says. "They hear my stuff on the radio, they see my face on the fliers, but they still look forward to seeing me, as opposed to, 'I just seen him last night in the club.'"

The typical route to success as a reggae artist requires building a buzz in Jamaica first. But El Feco's mission is to do what he says has never been done before--become an established force in reggae via America.

"I love Philadelphia," he says. "I'm here by choice. The question has been asked time and time again: 'Why don't you go to Jamaica? Yo, you're too talented to be here.' But I literally feel it's my duty. I feel it is my sole purpose until proven otherwise. I feel like I just have to be the first."

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