If Berlin’s deep space dub techno scene has a voice, then Paul St Hilaire is surely the one most entitled to claim its title. The artist that first made his mark as Tikiman, but who reverted to his given birth name following a legal dispute, has been responsible for some of the most noteworthy vocal forays in a genre largely dominated by non-human circuitry. Best known for his frequent collaborations with Rhythm & Sound, the most dub-inspired of the city’s many technological music masters, St Hilaire’s hypnotic voice has lent their work its greatest share of human intrigue.
Rhythm & Sound’s False Tuned subsidiary has been a consistent home for St Hilaire’s self-produced work, but he has also slowly been expanding his horizons to collaborate with a range of likeminded practitioners, keeping his hand in the techno pool, even as his own issues draw him ever closer to the traditional roots reggae format. He’s done the odd spot of remixing as well, as heard on his harshly disjointed reconfiguring of Salif Keita’s “Here.”
The hint of an accent on his early work holds Germanic contours, even though his lyrics are couched in the lingo of the Caribbean and Rastafari.
Anyone that has had the pleasure of meeting St Hilaire will already know that the legendary reticence of Rhythm & Sound has apparently rubbed off on him. Attempts at securing an interview are likely to prove fruitless, and in person, like his colleagues, he is a man of few words, apparently preferring to let the music do the talking – especially when journalists are around. The few interviews that have actually appeared in print are marked by short replies that give little away, a textual mirroring of the understated vocal style that has graced his most impressive output. Consider, for instance, the following response to a question from a journalist about whether the music on his album Unspecified reflected its title: “Everything is everything.”
When I met St Hilaire some years ago, following a very inspiring performance he gave with Rhythm & Sound in France, I learned precious few particulars about the man’s life, other than the fact that he’d left his native Dominica some considerable time ago, and obviously considers Berlin his home. Indeed, the hint of an accent that is prominent on his early work holds Germanic contours, even though his lyrics are couched in the lingo of the Caribbean and Rastafari.
To say that Tikiman burst onto the scene during the mid-1990s would be misleading; his was more of a slow ascent, like that of a paper lantern sighted momentarily in the sky, the breeze blowing it in unexpected directions. The understated disco dub of “Never Tell You” was the earliest I can recall hearing of him, a debut 10-inch release on Basic Channel’s Burial Mix subsidiary which placed Tiki’s tenuous, lovelorn vocal atop a minimalist dubbed-out rhythm led by a subsonic keyboard bass pattern; one of the track’s most endearing features was the vocalist’s cursing as the take apparently breaks down, left in the mix for the audience’s pleasure.
Subsequent issues “Spend Some Time” and “Ruff Way” also slipped in on the heartbroken tip, even if it wasn’t always immediately apparent what Tiki was addressing in his lyrics; in contrast, “What a Mistry” and “Why” were minimalist “reality” tunes on which Tikiman railed against the tribulations of an unjust system. Compiling these nuggets as the album Showcase, with each vocal track followed directly by its dub counterpart, made perfect sense, placing the work right up there with similarly classic reggae albums as cut by Horace Andy at Bullwackies the previous decade.
“Acting Crazy” (credited to Round Three featuring Tikiman), surfacing on a Main Street EP in the same era, was another forcefully understated track dealing with romantic matters, this time atop a dubby, downtempo, house beat. But all of this, evidently, came after his stylistically excellent guest toast on “Take a Chance,” a trashy bit of electro-Euro-schlock, delivered to clubland by a certain Penelope. Strange beginnings, indeed, and a far cry from the Bim Sherman, Sugar Minott and Horace Andy releases that initially influenced him.
Following plenty of other work for Rhythm & Sound, issued via various “Rounds,” Tikiman cropped up as a leading light of My Sound, the debut album by Stereotyp, with Tiki on particularly fine ragamuffin form on the opening title track. (He also raises his head on that disc through the swathe of effects that decorate “Fling Style.”)
The False Tuned imprint was launched around the same time, with first issue “Dub It Witaattitude” pointing away from the techno dominance of the past, and grounding more solidly with the roots reggae that directly inspired him – a fantastic debut with very high production values and a pleasurable organic sensibility. But just in case we thought we knew where the label was headed, the lovestruck collaboration with Rene Lowe titled “Faith” was swathed in the same fog of swirling sub-dub techno beats that marked out his early work.
“My philosophy is not to stick on one style, but to be open to all good music.”
The Unspecified album tracked these parallel streams, but weighted in heavier on the roots side of the spectrum, with St Hilaire settling into a more assured vocal style, as heard on numbers like “One After One” and “Mini Miney Moe.” Then, the 2006 follow-up, ADSOM - A Divine State of Mind, furthered the excursion deeper into the roots dimension, sounding positively tripped-out on the devotional “Jah Love” and deliciously stoned on “Peculiar.” More recent collaborations with the likes of Sideshow and Rhauder have made sure that his connection to the techno world remains strong.
Ten years ago, Tikiman told journalist Karsten Frehe that “My philosophy is not to stick on one style, but to be open to all good music.” What the future holds for Paul St Hilaire’s music is thus anyone’s guess, but the off-kilter reggae and hypnotic techno that has made up his oeuvre so far ensures the next release is definitely worth seeking out and investigating, whether or not the man himself ever allows the world to hear what he actually thinks about the subject.