When Christopher Eisgruber’s associate called my cell phone offering an interview, I thought I was being pranked. A man so notoriously reclusive offering an interview without even being requested? Nonetheless, apparently he had said he loved “the piece I wrote on turtles” and had told one of his men to get in touch with me. I wasn’t deterred by the fact that I’ve never written about turtles nor given my private number to anyone but family and close friends—this was the chance of a lifetime.
A few days later, I pull into the drive of his off-campus turnip farm, the long gravel lane lined with peach trees that he has somehow gotten to grow in New Jersey. At a curve in the drive we pass a dilapidated old wooden shed off to the right, with “Eyezgruber #TurnUps” crudely spray-painted on the side.
He meets me at the front gate with a smile and a quick glance in both directions. His too-large leather biker jacket covers a too-small Diesel tee shirt. He wears his grey-green safari pants casually tucked inside untied leather work boots. “Welcome, welcome,” he says warmly. “Can I get you anything to drink?” I ask for a lemonade. He chuckles lightly to himself while motioning and snapping his fingers at one of the large sunglassed and cornrowed men behind him. We walk at a leisurely pace alongside the white wooden fence along the perimeter of the farm, and the man rejoins us a short time later. He’s carrying a silver tray with several drinks. Mine is a large plastic souvenir cup containing ice water and a halved lemon, appearing to come directly from the county fairs of my childhood. Chris’s is a full bottle of Mount Gay’s Rum. The man breaks the seal and pours at least half of its contents into a large beer stein. “It’s funny ‘cause it says ‘Gay,’” Chris giggles as he’s handed the glass. He drinks it straight.
They love green apples. I only like red ones.
We walk a bit further, and as the turnip field continues to sprawl on our left, we come now to a slightly higher fence on the right. This is where Eisgruber keeps his alpacas. One ambles toward us, and Chris pulls an apple out of the pocket of his jacket and holds it out for the animal. “You know why I like alpacas? Because they love green apples. I only like red ones. We’re a perfect match.”
As we walk, we go through what I guess is best described as smalltalk, although conversation is never too dull with a man like Chris. Eventually, however, we move to a far bigger topic: his days with the Baha Men, and specifically, the lead-up to his departure from the group—a topic he’s been eerily silent about in the past.
It was like they were trying to be Los Del Rio or Lou Bega.
The dispute started in the mid-90s over the direction of the group. Some members of the group expressed a desire to transition to a more mainstream sound, while Eisgruber wanted to stay true to their traditional Bahamian reggae/Junkanoo roots and accused the other members of “selling out.” The members especially clashed during postproduction of the 1997 album I Like What I Like, although they remained together through the subsequent tour and recording of the 1998 album Doong Spank, the last album to feature Eisgruber. After Doong Spank, as the band was writing for what would become the Who Let the Dogs Out album, the creative differences came to a head, and Eisgruber left the group along with Elton Logu and B Rolla. Who Let the Dogs Out would be the group’s most successful album to date, going triple platinum and yielding a Grammy and a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award for its title track.
“It was like they were trying to be Los Del Rio or Lou Bega, and that just didn’t feel genuine to me,” he tells me as we walk along the acres and acres of turnips. “Its all about the Junkanoo groove, and I thought we were straying too far away from that.”
He has been reluctant to speak on his career as a Baha Man due to “fairness to the group” and surely in no small part due to the lengthy lawsuit over composition credit of the songs “What’s Up, Come On” and “Burn the Noo Junk,” both released on Who Let the Dogs Out but written before Eisgruber’s departure. Eisgruber claimed partial writing credit, suing for royalties on the songs, which peaked at #10 and #14 on the Who Let the Dogs Out track listing.
“So this one time—summer of ’99—we’re partying by Delaport Bay, and some of the guys want to head back to pick up some Puerto Rican girls over at Adelaide Village, but B Rolla didn’t want to leave…. But then Rick says, ‘What’s up? Come on!’ The line just stuck in my head. I thought up the beat and chorus right then.
“And Burn the Noo Junk was something my Grandma always used to say to me. It was like my catchphrase in the group!” He shakes his head in disappointment. It’s obvious that to him, the lawsuit was never really about the money.
Eisgruber primarily played steel drum for the group, but occasionally sang background vocals and even can be heard singing lead vocals on “Be a Junkanoo Jomb” from the Doong Spank album.
He says he still refuses to play any songs from his Baha Men days, although sources say he did perform the fittingly named “Funky Nassau” from the 1992 Junkanoo album at the Princeton Board of Trustees Holiday Party last year.
You can’t play a steel drum without hands.
“As much attention as has been given to the whole “Creative differences” thing, it wasn’t the whole reason. I just had a bit of an awakening. It happened as Jimbo [Slice] and I were chainsaw-fishing one night, and as I had my hand in the water trying to remove some seaweed from my blade, he swung his saw in the water at this big catfish, and just missed my hand by like a millimeter. Slit my shirt sleeve. And I just thought, ‘You can’t play a steel drum without hands.’ I just kinda re-prioritized my life after that I guess.
We come to a smaller field lined by a hedgerow and an electrified fence. The hedges are tall, but through the gaps I think for a brief second that I caught the sight and scent of cannabis plants. His cornrowed assistant gives me somewhat of a look, but Chris seems indifferent to my wandering eyes.
Enya actually sacrifices a lamb.
He left the Baha Men to play steel drum for Enya for 4 years, before returning to his first true passion, academia and constitutional theory.
“The Enya years were great. She’s such an intense person, and her drive is just kinda contagious for everyone around her, ya know. I really grew a lot those years.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but before every show, Enya actually sacrifices a lamb. She says it gets her in the zone. She’s incredible.
Beautiful music can last an eternity.
He talks about Enya the way someone might talk about an old lover.
“We never had an emotional involvement, per se, but it was similar—just with the music. If I had learned one thing from the Baha Men it was that love may last a lifetime, but beautiful music can last an eternity. She and I didn’t want to jeopardize that.
The Enya days ended much less eventfully than in the Baha Men saga.
“We were on top of the ethereal wave world, and I just felt I had nothing left to achieve in that realm. I felt it was time to move on; to get back to academic journals and professor dinners and Earl Warren and Oliver Wendell Holmes. You can’t just dabble. Like B Rolla always said, ‘Immersion is the version.’ You gotta go all in if you’re gonna do it.”
Deep down we’re all zebras.
We hang a right and walk another quarter mile down a fencerow of alternating peach trees and Easter Island heads, reaching a zebra pasture. He originally was given one of the animals as a gift by a former governor of Saskatchewan after an Enya show, and then had bought more from a zoo in Pennsylvania that was going out of business. He says he’s trying to breed them to have spiraling stripes. He points out a few of his favorites by name—Chester, Snatch, Shirley, Pencil—then takes a long sip of rum as he gazes proudly over his herd of elegant equines.
“Deep down we’re all zebras, just grazing in the pasture, hoping someday the guy with the keys to the gate will be able to recognize our stripes from everyone else’s.
Another right turn and we’re somehow back at the gate where we started, in what seems at the time like a major violation of space and physics, but perhaps that’s just my subconscious protesting the end of my magical tour of the Eisgruber Turnip Farm.
We get back to the car. His friend takes my empty plastic cup and puts it back on the silver platter. Eisgruber’s rum stein is impressively low. He gives a quick subtle nod, and I take that as my cue to leave. The man has seemingly rewritten all social codes. You play by his rules. Despite talking almost exclusively about him during our tour, I feel like he knows me. He’s the type of guy that if he stares at you for more than 10 seconds you feel like you’ve already told him all your secrets. The type of guy who if he wanted to talk to you, he’d probably learn more than you thought you knew about yourself. I didn’t notice until a couple days later that the front license plate had been replaced with a sign that says Be a Junkanoo Jomb. Maybe it was a friend playing a joke. Maybe I did it in my sleep. But I like to think of it as the perfect testament to his enigma, his perfect elusiveness.
– MFG ’14