Atlantic recording artist Kevin Lyttle is proving anew one of music's most important tenets: that just one person, with one daring idea, can convert an entire world full of listeners, fans, and musicians.
With its irrepressible beat, sweet melody, and a vocal performance that's at once mellow, intense, and inviting, Kevin's smash single, "Turn Me On" - recorded in a local studio on the island of St. Vincent - is the biggest soca hit to emerge from the Caribbean in 20 years. His eclectic and innovative fusion of music - traditional soca, American R&B, and Jamaican dancehall - set the entire West Indies on fire, and has boomed across dance floors worldwide in a phenomenal two-year run. For Kevin, 26, its massive and still-growing popularity has been a living lesson in music's ability to unite and inspire.
"Everybody's searching for something new; that's the way of the world," observes Lyttle. "I'm trying to be an ambassador for a music that's been underestimated. My main focus is to take soca music where it's never been before, so people can hear our music, our deep culture. It's important for people to know where I come from."
Since Kevin's signing with Atlantic in the fall of 2003, "Turn Me On" has been on an absolute chart tear globally, and at this writing the single is nearing the million mark in international sales. It hit #2 in the UK, where it stayed in the top ten for a remarkable seven weeks. It had a ten-week run in the #1 spot in Denmark, while ranking at #2 in Germany, Holland, and Norway, #3 in Australia and Switzerland, #4 in Italy, and #5 in Sweden. It also rose to #3 on the Music & Media pan-European singles chart. "Turn Me On" has garnered top-five radio airplay in numerous countries, including France - where it hit #1, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, Belgium, Slovakia, and Austria. The single has so far been certified platinum in Australia; gold in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland; and silver in the UK and France.
Kevin was first inspired by music as a seven-year-old, sitting on his mother's shoulders watching local Calypsonians competing for the title of Road March King in the yearly St. Vincent Carnival. At the same time, he cites the North American awards shows and televised performances - Michael Jackson's moonwalk and "Billie Jean" in particular - that transfixed an entire generation of R&B and rap artists. "I've been influenced by all genres of music," says Lyttle. "I have a love for every form of art."
From his primary school days, young Kevin was encouraged by his mother and uncle in voice, dance, and acting. His pursuit of international success, he says, is a means of giving honor to the lifelong sacrifices of his mother, Janice, who raised him with modest means in St. Vincent. Lyttle wrote his first original song at 14, and participated in song competitions and cultural exchange programs, representing St. Vincent throughout the Caribbean.
"'Shower Me With Your Love' by Surface was the first song I ever performed onstage," Kevin recalls. "I was so nervous that I switched the verses around, but the girls were carrying on too much for anyone to notice. I worked for years, practicing my vocals and coaching myself from books to improve my range, trying to sing more like Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder. I wanted to be able to represent myself onstage on that level."
While working a variety of day jobs, Lyttle cut his first professional record without success. Nonetheless, encouraged by his workmates, in 2001 he brought two songs to local producer Adrian Bailey, one of which was "Turn Me On." The session itself was deceptively easy. "I was done in two takes, less than an hour," says Kevin. "No one had heard me sing in this range; on St. Vincent, some people thought it was Beres Hammond doing soca. That was really flattering."
After a tremendous response in the St. Vincent Carnival, "Turn Me On" spread by radio and club play to neighboring Caribbean islands. On the recommendation of a local promoter, Kevin met his current manager, Allison Hunte, and he spent weeks performing the song in Trinidad, in the run-up to Carnival's premier event there. With "Turn Me On" a confirmed smash in the Caribbean, Kevin then took the uncommon step of promoting the single throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe. While legitimate copies were seeded to radio by Kevin's management, even more downloaded copies of the tune were passed from fans to DJs, generating club and radio chart rankings in countries where the song had not been officially released. "I realized that this was my break, so I jumped on it. Everywhere they called me - in the Caribbean, New York, Toronto, London - I went to represent it," Lyttle says.
In two years, the song has proven its appeal to a cross-cultural audience, and proven soca's potential at the same time. "The song's foundation was soca, but I meant for it to have other elements of R&B and reggae, as well as an exotic vibe," says Kevin. "That way, I could keep it hardcore for the Caribbean audience, but the worldwide audience could grasp it also." The Caribbean is a thorough ethnic mix, Kevin notes, with obvious pride. "Chinese, Japanese, Indians, blacks, whites, Spanish, are all there. And the islands are also integrated with people from around the Caribbean itself. And you find people from the Caribbean all over the world."
While this suggests that the song's groundbreaking fusion was inevitable, it's clear that Kevin's boldly progressive approach has helped bring a new momentum to soca. "You don't have to limit the music. You should explore it," he says. "Music is a mission, and you have to make yourself a part of it. I don't intend to do my music the same all the time, either. I'm going to keep changing, flex my voice, and do different forms."
Kevin's self-titled Atlantic debut album is as much an eye-opener as the innovative "Turn Me On," with production by a diverse slate of top names from the fields of dancehall, hip-hop, and soca - including Salaam Remi (Nas, Ini Kamoze, Fugees), who also oversaw the whole project with Atlantic's Craig Kallman and Kevin's manager Allison Hunte. Enlisted for the production crew were the likes of Cherry Ince, Scott Storch, Troyton Rami, Troy Taylor, Andreas S. Jensen, Da Bhann, Anastas "Nas/T" Hackett, Jeremy Harding, and "Turn Me On" producer Adrian Bailey. Kevin co-wrote nearly all the songs on the album, which includes special guest appearances by Spragga Benz and Assasin.
While acknowledging his dream of international success, Kevin describes his true gift as "the ability to pass along an emotion. What we hear in music connects to both the heart and the mind, conscious and sub-conscious. People have said that they met or got to know each other while 'Turn Me On' was playing. It touches my heart that the song is causing people to connect in a loving way. It's all about love."
Contrary to widespread assumption, the term "soca" does not refer strictly to the fusion of North American R&B or soul with calypso, but rather, to the incorporation of dance-oriented East Indian percussive and musical elements into traditional calypso. Trinidad's Lord Shorty, who perfected this style in 1973, was credited with defining the inner "soul" of calypso through this expression of Trinidad and Tobago's African and Indian ethnic mix. Comparable fusions of Asian elements with reggae have resulted in such massive dancehall rhythms as Bhangra (Chaka Demus & Pliers' "Murder She Wrote") and Diwali (Sean Paul's "Get Busy," Wayne Wonder's "No Letting Go," Lumidee's "Never Leave You").
The soca fusion was embraced throughout the Caribbean, where Carnivals are held on each island in the spring. Much the way that preparations for New Orleans' big Mardi Gras blow-out dominate the pre-Lenten season, the yearly run-up to Carnival sees an explosion of music-making in anticipation of the event, because of the obvious opportunity to launch a huge hit in the competitions and parties that surround Carnival. The biggest international hit ever to come out of soca up until now was 1983's party classic, "Hot, Hot, Hot" by the Montserrat native Arrow (Alphonsus Cassell), covered by Buster Poindexter for the U.S. crossover market.
--- from the official Kevin Lyttle website