Walker Goes to Trinidad
How a Rocker from Queens Fell in Step
with the Late 90s Soca Circuit
words by joanie wolkoff
The year was 1999 and the 48th annual Miss Universe Contest was being held in Trinidad, where reigning queen Wendy Fitzwilliam would hand her crown down to Miss Botswana. Jack Wagner, known for his soap-standard performance on a series in the Beverly Hills 90210 franchise, was hosting the illustrious event. This proceedings included gold lamé swaddled Carnivale dancers swooping under a flaming limbo stick onstage. Miss USA made her entrance in what would today be considered an offensive red, white and blue Native American themed costume. The all star panel of judges boasted big names like Evander Holyfield and Stephanie Seymour as well as a rising fashion model named Melania Knaus. Snugged away in the front row was squinting, yellow-tufted co-owner of the Miss Universe pageant, Donald Trump.
Also in attendance were Walker Hornung and Brent Toussaint, a couple of struggling musicians coming to grips with how they’d wound up there in the first place.
“We’d spent two days driving around Trinidad trying to find rental tuxedos for this thing, like the New Yorkers we were. You try to rent a tuxedo in the late 90’s on a Caribbean Island,” challenges Walker in his Howard Beach twang. “We’d been invited on account of this hit soca record we had out and were schmoozing with all these international dignitaries, and there’s Donald Trump. At the time he was like a two bit carnival barker who hosted beauty pageants.”
What was Walker, a white alt rocker from South Queens, doing in Trinidad on a hit record in the heyday of 90’s soca? Gather round to hear a tale of happenstance, vision and impeccable timing.
Long before his whirlwind stint as guest vocalist on back to back soca hits, Walker ran with thrash metal mainstays like Caligula, Gnostic Front and S.O.D.
“We were just a bunch of simple guys from Rockaway Beach,” he shrugs. “I tended bar to make ends meet at a time when you could stretch one night’s work serving drinks over an entire week in the Rockaways, which were basically an abandoned stretch way out on the fringe back then.”
Walker counted the Krishnacore band Cro Mags among his basketball buddies and partook in the word of mouth hardcore scene with its clickety-clack mix cassettes and xeroxed flyers, but his musical pursuits didn’t hit critical mass until he found his footing along the right-time-right-place continuum in an altogether different niche genre.
“West Indian music was gaining prevalence in New York, but it wasn’t mainstream the way it is today. You have to understand, this was only a decade after the unthinkable Howard Beach hate crime, when an African American man was chased to his death on the Belt Parkway. Joe Gotti had also been promoted to head of the Gambino [mafia] family, if that helps describe the climate of those times in that neighborhood.
That idiot mob mentality was alive and well, but there were also plenty of hard working families like mine who rejected all that disgusting behavior,” he recalls. “Everything was in pockets in the outer boroughs. Brooklyn and Queens were still sort of divided culturally when I was growing up. But you’d pass through these enclaves and when dance hall first took off, and I loved it. Music that came out of the pre-Buju Banton culture- dub stuff, like Yellow Man. I was singing in this sort of hard rock Flamenco band, Q South, but we’d been shelved by our record company. I’d started working for an airline to make ends meet and wanted out, but there were dirty diapers to change at home and bills to pay. One night after a show, my band was approached by this young kid from Flatbush, Lawd Pemberton, who wanted to manage us.
A producer he knew needed a vocalist to sing on a Soca remake of U2’s ‘With or Without you.’ I figured why not, and sang on the track. Every single person in New York who heard our soca rendition of a U2 classic told me that I was throwing my career away, but all these years later I’m more known for soca than anything else I’ve done- especially in the West Indies. After I got to Trinidad I called my boss at the airline and told him he’d never see me again.”
Lawd Pemberton sent Walker to Brent Toussant, the very producer he’d end up joining forces with in their quest for rental tuxedos on a tropical island. Toussaint grew up Trinidadian in Brooklyn, listening to soca spearheads like Super Blue, Mighty Sparrow, Lord Shorty, and Lord Kitchener. “I was born into soca, exposed to it from birth,” Toussaint explains. “Trying to play the drums and DJ as a kid in the eighties, soca was everywhere. In my junior year of highschool a friend who was interning at Platinum Factory said he could get me into the studio for forty dollars an hour. I was shown to a little room with a just four track and thought I’d been robbed! Luckily, when the main recording session in the larger room was cancelled, they let me loose in there and my life has never been the same since. I mean, suddenly I had access to a Fosstex 8 track cassette, a Roland Juno 106 synth, Yamaha DX keyboard and the SP-12 drum machine. I was this fifteen year old kid recording an R&B album.”
In the years to follow, Toussaint went on to produce engineer and arrange for a handful of folks you might’ve heard of, including Lil Kim or ragga royalty Bunji Garlin, who crossed over into mainstream popularity via his 2014 collaboration with Major Laser.
Toussaint was viewed as a bit of a renegade for getting a rock singer to reprise U2 vocals on a track for Machal Montano. By pre-early aughts soca standards, he was downright edgy.
“A lot of soca artists used to be resistant my ideas,” he muses. “Everything the genre has evolved into, I was already pushing for back then. I took George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ and mixed it into a soca hit for Bunji Garlan back in the day and it blew up. We bridged the pop and soca elements. What you hear in chart topping soca right now, we were trailblazing fifteen years ago. One day, I was listening to the baseline of “With or Without You,” and decided to double the beat. Walker sang on it. Then Machel Montano, who was the hottest thing in soca at the time, loved what he heard and performed on the track for his album.”
Walker agrees, “Toussaint had this musical clairvoyance. I was a rock singer and he needed that vehicle to shape the blueprint of soca. Plus, Machel Montano was like the Stevie Wonder of the West Indies, a former child star.”
It was the perfect storm. Toussaint and Montano headed down to Trinidad with Walker to join them in short order. Freshly landed at Piarco International Airport, Walker hopped into a cab and noticed his bandmates looking at him disapprovingly as his soca track began to blast on the car stereo.
Hornung says with a giggle, “My friends knew I was a radio hog- the type of person who got into the car and immediately slapped cassettes in. They were like, ‘Walker, you gave the taxi driver your cassette? How could you do that? You don’t even know this guy!” He assured his friends that this was no tape cassette. His voice was already making the rounds on Trinidadian airwaves and the driver had simply switched on the radio.
While Montano and Toussaint were waiting for the American rock imports to arrive in Trinidad, they caught wind of some mouthwatering gossip. “So, Walker and his bandmates get off the plane. [Trinidad] didn’t even have a full blown airport yet. They still had to drive those steps up to the plane to get the passengers down on the landing strip, and everybody’s like ‘Who are these three white guys landing in Trinidad?’ Before you know it, the rumor was that Bono was in Trinidad. As quick as that happened, the news was on local radio. Of course, people figured out the truth when they came out and saw him live, but within a year and a half, Walker and Montano were playing Madison Square garden together.”
Within days of his arrival in Trinidad, Walker was whisked backstage and asked to perform impromptu on multiple songs with a Machel Montano. “We’d never rehearsed,” he marvels. “This national hero just asked if I’d like to go out and sing. In retrospect, my fearlessness was only youth strutting like a peacock. Being seen in a performance with with this guy was equivalent to being handed the key to the city. Just add water. Instant stardom. That first stage I stepped onto in Trinidad was in front of 40 000 people. I was meeting Calypso legends over lunch. I’d go down there for months on end. Machel Montano had given me the Trinidadian pass. I sang our medleys in every major international show he did for the next seven years. Destiny’s Child opened for us in Toronto. Where did it get us? Our record sales weren’t really tracked and that was the age of CD’s, which everyone just pirated anyway.”
As his music career hit critical mass in an unexpected twist of fate, Walker never lost sight of what it meant to exercise cultural sensitivity. He took pains to catch up with infamously tricky Trinidadian parlance, politely ate delicacies like pig feet souse at all the choicest of West Indian shindigs. All the while, he knew he was walking a fine line as an outsider and took great pains to sidestep appropriationism. “I didn’t try to put on a fake accent or pretend to be something I wasn’t,” he states, “and that was refreshing for those audiences. I never tried to sound like I was West Indian. I got to be myself, only in a different genre.”
What Walker never banked on was longevity. When soca music is released in Trinidad for the carnival season it gets non-stop play. It’s seasonal and extremely nationalistic, and yet there he was, a foreign and visible minority spending months on end in Port of Spain hotel well after peak season, on call to perform nightly with Montano.
“Back in New York, all the alt rock people thought I was selling out,” he reminisces, “but I likened Soca to New York hardcore music in the early 90’s. Sonically they have little in common, but they’re both all about audience participation, just a whirling mass of people. Nowadays soca’s sort of become a subgenre of EDM. I think it lost a lot of spontaneity when it lost the live instrumental component. Real horns. But it’s still got this energy.”
When they have the time to catch up in New York, Toussaint still likes to tease Walker about his salad days in Trinidad. He chuckles, “There was a time when Walker was so famous in over there that he could not walk down the street. I’m pretty sure he could still go back there now and they’d remember him. You wanna make a run back down there, Walker?”
But Walker isn’t one to overstay his welcome. After recording a follow up album with Montano, he made his way back home to New York. “I didn’t wanna be a one trick pony,” he sighs, “But that experience provided a bond and a friendship with people like Brent that’s lasted to this day.” He reflects on Toussaint’s playful bid for a Trinidad reunion, “It’s hard for me to do that. I went to the top of the mountain. Instead of warriors, Trinidadians have statues of Calypsonians in their parks.
Really, anything else would feel like going backwards after singing with Mighty Sparrow. I’m just happy to leave my legacy, or whatever it is, down there. I brought them crowd surfing, cuz that’s all we did in New York hardcore.” DMX, on the other hand, got dragged right off stage by Armed Trinidadian soldiers for cursing. Walker was right there when it happened, thanking his lucky stars that he hadn’t hadn’t dropped any careless f-bombs onstage himself.
Brent Toussaint is still producing and recently engineered a track for Beyoncé. True to his roots, he’s working on some fresh soca for 2017. Today, Walker Hornung follows New York’s horse racing circuit from the Aqueduct track in Queens to Belmont and Saratoga. A lone wolf with a paperback with three silver US dollars from the 1800’s tucked in his front pocket. He winks, “They were given to me by older horse players for luck. And to never be dead broke, ever.” The Queens native also performs his own music with his rock band, Walker and the Brotherhood of the Grape and doesn’t altogether deny rumors of a new duet with Mashal Montana, for old times sake. His tone falls somewhere between teasing and dead serious when asked. “Sure,” he smiles, “It’s inevitable.”