Tarik “ Rvssian” Johnston may be the closest thing to a truly ‘worldwide’ super-producer Earth has yet produced. Crafted hits for everyone from Juice WRLD to Chris Brown , to Cardi B and French Montana he has also helped Sean Paul, Shaggy and Shenseea reach their broadest international audience. Having developed artists from Japan, Italy, Jamaica and across Latin America, his collaborations with reggaeton artists such as Bad Bunny , Faruko and Rauw Alejandro not only positioned them as global stars in their own right but launched the hybrid genre of Latin Trap in the process. His million-dollar ears, in fact, have shaped such a wide cross-section of global music that one could be forgiven for wondering which section of Earth he calls home. Despite his slavic alias, however, Rvssian’s roots are firmly in the Caribbean. Just as many of the genres he’s touched can ultimately trace their roots to sound systems of Jamaica, Rvssian, too, is a product of the “little island with the big sound.”
Born and raised in the island’s capital Kingston, Rvssian comes from a musical bloodline. His father Michael Johnston co-founded Micron Music Ltd.–the label on essential roots releases from Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, among others–in the early ‘70s. By the time young Rvssian started at Ardenne High School –of which current reggae stars Koffee, Alkaline, and Jesse Royal are all alumni–he had taught himself to make original beats on his father’s piano and drum machine. By the time he graduated, he and a group of friends had already started their own soundsystem, producing original remixes and collecting dub plates from high-profile artists like Sizzla and Bounty Killer.
Switching from remixes to original production, Johnston gave himself an 8-month window to focus on college or make an impact with his own music, working from a desktop studio set up in a small side room at the house of his cousin I-Tall. It was I-Tall’s brother Ricky who gave him the name Rvssian as well as the catch-phrase “Head Concussion” which would later become the label for his own productions. Rvssian quickly graduated from shopping his beats via flash drive and placing uncredited work on other producers’ releases, to putting out a full slate of artists on his own production (the Liberty Riddim, including Konshens ’ “Ago Kill Me”) but the connection that permanently altered his post-school plans however was a brief encounter with dancehall’s biggest star, Vybz Kartel.
Meeting first at the studio of another Ardenne alum, Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, the chance encounter quickly resulted in the song “Hold Me Down.” “Instantly I knew it was a hit,” says Rvssian now. “Because of how simple it was, just like a nursery rhyme.” The nascent dream team soon followed with “Life Sweet” which gave the fledgeling producer his instantly recognizable tag in Kartel’s ad libbed shout “Eh, Rvssian!”. These were only the first in a string of successful genre-changing collaborations including “Straight Jeans & Fitted” and “Go-Go Club.” Rvssian began releasing music on his own Head Concussion records in earnest, working with some of the genre’s biggest names as well as signing and developing new artists (including Chan Dizzy and the late J Capri ). Many of his productions from this period still dominate dancehall sets some 10 years on, including “Whine & Kotch” ( Charly Black & J Capri, 2012); “Pull Up to Mi Bumpa” (Konshens & J Capri, 2013).
His celebrity in Jamaica reaching the stage that he was in demand as a vocalist in his own right, Rvssian was soon looking abroad in search of new targets for his ambition, shifting his production base to Atlanta, then Miami. At the same time, the minimal acoustic guitar and contradanza groove of his Rio riddim provided reggae singer Gyptian with a viral hit in “Wine Slow,” eventually racking up some 1.4 million views on youtube and introducing Rvssian’s sound to a whole new audience, especially in Latin America. Determined to fan those flames, Rvssian tracked down a promising reggaeton newcomer named Farruko to voice a remix.
That collaboration was the first in an unprecedented run of cross-Caribbean collaborations between Rvssian and various Latin artists. Multi-platinum hits like “Passion Wine” (Farruko and Sean Paul ); “Sunset” (with Nicky Jam and Shaggy ) and “Privado” (pairing Nicky Jam, Farruko and Arcangel with his first Jamaican collaborator Konshens). The distinctive sound of “Privado” in particular, provided the sonic blueprint for a whole new sub-genre: Latin Trap. Solidifying the sound on “Si Tu Lo Dejas” and the viral hit “Krippy Kush”, Rvssian also i ntroduced the world to the naturally-screwed flow of soon-to-be global superstar Bad Bunny . Seen dancing alongside his Latin partners in the video that accumulated hundreds of millions of views and took the sound of Latin Trap mainstream, Rvssian understandably found himself having to explain that he was not himself Puerto Rican. A proud Jamaican, in fact, even if like many Kingstonians, he can trace his family tree through other parts of the Caribbean (his paternal grandmother having arrived in Jamaica from Panama as a young girl). “That’s the whole twist with me,” he laughs now. “I’m Jamaican, I have a Latin hit but my name is Rvssian.
” While hits like “Ponle” (with Farruko and Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin ) cracked millions of views on YouTube, Rvssian made a point of returning to Jamaica in 2017 and 2018 to produce “Best Nana” and “Hard Drive,” working with Konshens and rising star Shenseea , who would l ater be the first artist signed and released through Rvssian’s own imprint for InterscopeRecords. Still, as the 2020s approached there was no question that his music now belonged tothe world, placing him in studios (and atop charts) alongside artists from Nigeria (Rema & AyraStar), Argentina ( Tiago PZK ),Japan ( Pushim ), France, ( Kalash) , Italy ( Sferra Ebasta ) and evenAlbania ( Noizy ).Even as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed music into the virtual realm, Rvssian showed no signsof holding back on his globe-spanning approach to production, releasing music with Latin artistsl ike Rauw Alejandro and Tiago PZK through Sony Latin, beats for American rappers like KevinGates through Interscope and more Sferra Ebasta projects through Island Def Jam Italy, allwhile continuing to develop newer artists like Belizean dancehall deejay King Kosa . There’scertainly no looking back now. On the contrary. “If anything,” he says. “My experience has justshown me that skies are limits.”