Cradle of Cool
IT'S BEEN DUBBED THE OTHER JAMAICA, THE NORTHCOAST RIVIERA, AND THE CRADLE OF COOL. BUT LOCALS WILL TELL YOU THAT PORTLAND IS SIMPLY ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PARISHES ON THE ISLAND.
One of Port Antonio’s biggest advocates is British-born music industry pioneer turned boutique hotelier Jon Baker. Alongside his partner Steve Beaver, a fellow music industry veteran, Baker founded the Geejam Collection that encompasses 3 of the area’s most desirable properties as well as an on-site recording studio. What sets the collection apart is a highly personalized approach where everything is infused with individual taste, attitude, and vision. "I treat it more like managing a band than running a hotel," Baker says, who first came to Portland back in 1986 and discovered an instant and abiding attraction. "I knew immediately that if I was ever fortunate enough to be able to own a place or have an escape in Jamaica, that is where I wanted it to be."
Baker had started his independent Gee Street record label in London in 1985, and began to have sizable success with artists such as Queen Latifah, The Jungle Brothers, The Stereo MCs, Doug E. Fresh, and PM Dawn, including the number one U.S. pop record "Set Adrift On Memory Bliss." The unexpected windfall allowed him to seize an opportunity and actualize his Jamaican vision. Here Baker talks to us about some of his more memorable studio sessions, guests who’ve come to call the property home, and why Port Antonio is just so cool.
What have you have created at Geejam that makes artists respond in the way that they have?
It’s mainly about Port Antonio, I think. And then our unique approach to running a brand. Where do you have a hotel or a hospitality entity that is created by people who are actually part of the music industry fraternity? So it's not like one these hip hotels that are trying desperately to be hip...we can't help it. (Laughs) It’s just the way we think. We like to think of new ideas and creative ways of doing things because whatever we do has kind of got no barriers. By the same token, when artists come down, they get the keys to the studio, they get lots of ideas, and they find their flow in very natural, untouched surrounds. And yet you go into one of our hotel rooms and you get everything you would get if you're staying at the Maritime or an upscale hotel in New York or London. So you get the best of both worlds. I would say it comes down to Port Antonio, the unpretentious locals, and the overt beauty of the parish that they say is one of the most beautiful in Jamaica.
Who are some artists who’ve stayed or recorded at the studio?
With celebrities or anyone who comes down regularly, they just chill and their guard is down because the community could care less about stardom. When Gwen [Stefani] came down and recorded the No Doubt Rocksteady album, there's a path down from the studio that takes you into a little village called Drapers. Well, they were down there playing dominoes and drinking rum with the locals most nights. When you look at their "Hey Baby" video with Bounty Killer, there are scenes in that video that are just emulated from the scenes from their Port Antonio experience. We get great compliments from security because even when we've had some of the film stars come down, you can't walk in Port Antonio without us knowing, let alone if you've got a long lens. We really make a point of protecting and caring for our guests. You won't know when any guest or celebrity has stayed at Geejam until...usually it’s the guest who Tweets about it.
Where do you like to go when you get away?
I've only just started getting away, and it's given me a bit of an epiphany. So this year, with my kids, I chartered a boat and went to Turkey. I did Turkey and Greece for a week or two. It's the first time in like 10 years we managed to organize that. Put it this way, to go to the Maldives and sit on the beach is not something I'm particularly excited about because of where I live. I love the cities. I love going to Rome, Paris, Berlin. I've got great friends in all of those places. So what I tend to do is take a couple of weeks with the family and then we just go and hit those places where I've had great experiences in my very blessed career. I was involved in hip-hop in France in the '90s. IAM, the French rap group, we recorded their first record – they were huge in the late '80s and '90s. So I can always go back and reference and connect. At Geejam, we've got a great network of people from music, film, fashion, and the arts.
When you go to Jamaica or London or New York, what does home taste and feel like?
New York feels like home. I came in last night. I got up this morning and I walked from the Meat Packing District, just walked across to the East Side and the sun was there through Union Square. Just the energy and the vibe made me feel very relaxed and at home and clear-headed. By the same token, as you know and I know, living in New York too intensely makes you need to get out. In Port Antonio, the same thing happens if you're there too long. So I'm very lucky to have the balance of the two. I don't really consider the U.K., I really haven't lived there for 30 years. I'm totally non-patriotic. Call it my punk days but I couldn't give a damn about the Monarchy. So I'm not a huge fan of what's going on in the U.K., especially in politics. It's certainly more exciting here, what's going on in New York at the moment. I consider myself a New Yorker through and through, over and above the U.K. and Jamaica, totally. I've always had my real ground-changing experiences here that have led me to places, but I've always come back here.
What's a night out in New York like for you?
I was a doorman in the after hours clubs when I was 19 in New York. I was the doorman at the Roxy. I was the doorman at the Negril Club that preceded the Roxy, which was started by Blue. I used to drink like a fish. I always say I used all my drinks tickets by the time I hit 45 so I decided to have a lifestyle change on that! Since the advent of the bottle service, it’s really changed the whole club chemistry. Clubs used to be creative places where people would go to share ideas and you had the rich and the poor, people from different backgrounds and cultures, all mixing together. Like there used to be Jean-Michel Basquiats and people who were real originators. I don't see that anymore. I don't see the youth culture tribes like I used to because I think so much is about living in the box right now. You could walk through London in the '70s or '80s and you could see a punk, a goth, a more defined scene. So you've got kids expressing themselves because out of those movements things happen. I don't see as much of that right now or maybe I'm not in the mix.