by Kenton X. Chance
MIAMI — They knew each other before he became an international singing sensation with his hit song, “Turn Me On”. Back then, as a 13-year-old, she was yet to know that a little girl born in Chateaubelair, St. Vincent would distinguish herself to leave behind a trail of firsts at American educational institutions.
And while their lives had taken different paths during the intervening decades since their teenage years, fate would bring these two Vincentians together again in a way in which she would help to rescue his music career and they would both go on to create a record label that is attracting international attention.
It is the story of musician and businessman Kevin Lyttle and his wife, Jacqueline James-Lyttle, who holds a doctorate in architectural engineering and is also his business partner.
Kevin gained international attention when, in 2003, he released the dance hit remix of the 2001 soca ballad, “Turn Me On”, which became a worldwide hit, peaking within the top 10 in 15 countries.
But sometime after that, his manager was jailed — for reasons unrelated to him and his song. While Kevin’s song was topping the charts, he was doing nothing, because he did not have an agent.
“When we met again is when he was going through all this. And when I say all this, I met him living in someone’s basement in New York with million in the bank and his name was not to the millions in the bank. [His manager’s] name was,” Jacqueline tells iWitness News in an Oct. 7 interview at Tarakon Records’ new home in this North American city.
“At the height of his career, when his song was the number one song in the world, his manager [Alison Hunte] got locked up.
“And so he spent a whole year — year and a half, almost two years — doing absolutely nothing when he should have been at the peak of his first hit,” she says of the man she would go on to marry — a relationship that has produced a 6-year-old son.
“So that’s really what his downfall was; nothing but that. He had a bunch of music, all kinds of things ready to go and that happened to him; he separated from Atlantic [Records],” she says.
Jacqueline tells iWitness News that while Kevin needed representation, he couldn’t just move from a label to a person. So, in 2007, they created Tarakon, which, she says, means “dragon” in Maori — the language of the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, whose ethnic group and language bear the same name.
Tarakon was also significant to the new business partners as they both were born in the Chinese year of the dragon.
When the Lyttles started Tarakon, Jacqueline was not yet involved in the music industry. She was just trying to help Kevin, she tells iWitness News.
“And little by little we expanded to the point where now, this year, we expanded into other genres apart from doing Caribbean music,” she says, adding that the label now includes hip-hop, R&B and Latin music and now represents 12 artistes.
“The record label is expanding,” Jacqueline says, adding that one of the first artistes that they began to represent was Vincentian soca artiste Reon “Madzart” Primus.
She described this as “a natural transition given that he (Maddzart) was with him (Kevin) in ‘Turn Me On’ and it would make their appearances internationally a little easier”.
It was Maddzart and Kevin who had originally partnered for “Turn Me On”, but the 2003 remix featured Jamaican artiste Spragga Benz instead.
After Maddzart came on board, Tarakon then brought on two other young Vincentian artistes — Marlene “Cheery Noir” Bute and Royston “Roy Q” Quashie. Tarakon is also in partnership with Jamaican artiste Red Rat’s label, Infinity Moguls.
In 2008, Tarakon released Kevin’s second album, “Fyah”, in Japan, where it was distributed through a licensing deal with Universal Records. In 2009, he released in Europe a single, “Anywhere”, with Flo Rida.
Jacqueline tells iWitness News that Tarakon is in partnership with a label in Europe called Play On and released a remake of Turn Me On, featuring Kevin Lyttle and Matt Houston.
“Kevin Lyttle also released a third album called “I Love Carnival’ on which he has a song the same title as the album with Skinny Fabulous, as well as a bunch of others.”’
She says that this year Tarakon has taken off “even bigger” and had two songs on the billboard charts at the time of the interview.
They have also started Tarakon Europe with Guillermo Tjin.
“We have associates now in two parts of the world but we are the owners of the label. We have Tarakon Europe and we are just now building Tarakon Latin America.”
Jacqueline describes herself as co-founder and “CEO-in transition” of Tarakon, telling iWitness News she is looking for someone to fill the role of chief executive while she remains co-founder so she can focus on other things, including the studio.
“I prefer to be president of our enterprise, which is EEP (engineering, entertainment, and properties) Investing LLC, which owns Executive Studios. That’s the holding company for all of it,” she explains.
Executive Studios is the new home of Tarakon. The couple found it necessary to find a home for the label as it was expanding.
They didn’t want to continually be renting studio rooms for artistes to go to when they come in from out of town. They also wanted a studio home for Kevin.
The couple used to record at their house but that meant that producers and engineers always had to come to their house. “It wasn’t the most comfortable situation. So, after KJ (their son) was born, we said we needed to find a home for Kevin’s studio,” Jacqueline tells iWitness News.
The Lyttles had been trying to find the perfect space for three years.
“But when we found this place, just this year, a few months ago, we were like ‘this is the perfect place to start’,” she says of the property located at 14224 South West 136th Street, Miami.
Among the qualities that made the location ideal was its 2,200 square feet of space.
That was enough to house Tarakon’s office and conference room as well as four studio rooms — three production rooms and a live room.
“We didn’t just want the vocal room. We wanted a room where you could bring the drums, the keyboards and rock out and the music would be bigger, heavier,” Jacqueline says of the space that they started to build out in July.
The second reason for choosing the location was that it wasn’t in the “crazy” part of the city and parking was available.
The couple has a lease-purchase agreement with a view to owning the property in months.
“I try not to buy things on impulse,” Jacqueline says, adding that her evaluation of the location so far has detected a problem with the circulation of air by the cooling system. “As an engineer, I am going to take the next six months to figure out all the little ins and outs of the building that I don’t like, fix it before and make sure it the right place to live.”
While Jacqueline holds a doctorate in architectural engineering, she spends 80 per cent of her time managing Tarakon. The next 20 per cent is spent with Imara Engineering, of which she is the founder.
Imara recently merged with Demarco & Associates, a firm owned by one of her former professors and employers when she was a graduate student at the University of Miami.
“What I do now for Imara, we call it in engineering, a hunter. So a lot of people know me, a lot of my clients want me to stick around. The initial meeting with any client is mine or his and we meet them, we talk with them, they know us very well, we get the job, we get into the conference room, we brainstorm and then the minds inside the company take their pieces. We dissect the job and they work on it.”
Jacqueline says that by the end of this year, she sees “Tarakon increasing the space to twice the amount. I see us also increasing the number of artistes to, maybe, twice the amount as well”.
She says the most craved part of the music industry is distribution for an artiste.
And two weeks ago she got an email and a call from a major company in the sector allowing them the opportunity to make it in distribution.
“Tarakon Records just became its own distributor, not only distribution — Vevo, YouTube, we have direct access to all those now. We don’t go through a middleman anymore to distribute or market our music.”
The interview took place at the end of Tarakon’s one-week retreat with its artistes, which Jacqueline says will become an annual event.
It was a time for the artistes to get to know each other, and, among other things, learn how to present themselves to the media.
But importantly, the activity included a session on finance.
“We are dead against having broke people all over the place after they have been successful which we know happens quite a bit — football player, basketball players, musicians,” Jacqueline tells iWitness News.
“My husband could have been in that position when he fell in 2005. So we are dead against it. So, if they are going to be a part of Tarakon records, they are going to learn how to manage their money.”
The Lyttles have been giving back to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, including in the form of a donation of medical supplies after the December 2013 floods.
And there is also the Janice Lyttle Foundation for Heart Disease, named for Kevin’s mother, who died suddenly of heart disease at the age of 52 on April 1, 2008, without every having presented with any symptoms.
The Lyttles are also looking to make donations to their primary school, Peters Ville Primary School and Chateaubelair Methodist.
Asked how she feels about what she has achieved, Jacqueline tells iWitness News:
“I just got goose bumps because the feeling is crazy every time it happens to me and I am getting used to it, but not really.”
She says she used to “escape and bawl in the bathroom” every time she did something that was “not supposed to happen to someone like me…
“I was the first Vincentian to attend a military academy, then while I was there, I was the first black woman to graduate with an engineering degree, and then in my last year there, I was the first woman from the Caribbean to become head of one of their military companies, and then I was a three-time all American,” says Jacqueline, who is also a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering.
“The things just kept happening. And then I came to UM (University of Miami) and then I was first the first black woman to have a PhD in architectural engineering. And I worked really hard and I want these things to happen but it really never changes the feeling when it does happen,” Jacqueline said.
There was another euphoric moment a few weeks ago when she got the call saying Tarakon had been accepted to be an aggregator — to distribute on our own.
“I think that if you were downstairs in the parking lot you would have heard us scream, you would have seen me put my head between my legs and sit there for like two minutes.
“I still get emotional; I still do. It is only when people like you make me sit down and talk about all the firsts and all the things, it makes me happy because I was born and raised in Chateaubelair with my grandparents until I was 7 and moved in with my parents. I didn’t even know how I was going to college, but I knew that I was. And when I went there, I didn’t go there to conquer the world or become anybody’s first woman to do anything. I just went there to succeed and if this is the success, I am taking it. Every time it comes, I’m taking it,” Jacqueline tells iWitness News.
On the investment side of things, the Lyttles buy, remodel and rent properties and Jacqueline is using her engineering training a lot for that.
“So I am using it to make us more passive income as opposed to making it my everyday. The music became my every day, although I never knew I could do this stuff. I just sat down one summer and read a bunch of books, decided that I was going to help my husband and this is it. This is where it led to,” she says.