Crossover Rhythms

In music shops, on the radio, and round the clock on MTV, Jamaica’s hottest dancehall artistes have triumphantly broken into mainstream pop music, via energetic collaborations of hip-hop, and rock performers. David Katz considers this thriving trend, and talks to the cross over king himself, Sean Paul

  • Elephant Man. Photograph by
  • Sean Paul. Photograph courtesy VP Records
  • Mr Vegas
  • Bounty Killer. Photograph by
  • Buju Banton. Photograph by
  • Sly and Robbie. Photograph by
  • Beres Hammond. Photograph by
  • Beenie Man

Sean Paul and Busta Rhymes. Wycliffe Jean and Beres Hammond. Alison Hinds and
Elephant Man. No Doubt and Bounty Killer. No Doubt and Lady Saw. Beenie Man
and Janet. Beenie Man and Kelis. Beenie Man and just about everybody.

There’s a cross-cultural collaboration thing going on with Jamaican dancehall
performers that is changing the shape of contemporary pop. That it’s happening
with increasing frequency attests to the penetrative ability of dancehall
artistry. A guest spot by a Jamaican rapper has been de rigueur in
pop music for the better part of a decade. And these days the genre-bending
collaborations work both ways, as hip-hop and soca artists bring their flavors
to prime Jamaican beats. As reggae gets increasingly “outernational” in the
21st century, multi-genre crossover is the order of the day.

Historically, certain precedents set the stage for such collaboration. Jamaican
music has always been a dynamic hybrid. In the 1920s and 30s, the island’s
popular music was based on American big-band jazz. In the late 1940s, the
rise of the sound systems brought the rhythm and blues of the American South
to Jamaica’s dance fans. The mento that graced the first Jamaican recordings
of the early 1950s mixed an indigenous folk style with elements of Trinidadian
calypso. Several of Jamaica’s greatest ska musicians were born in Cuba, and
that island’s son and bolero styles were utilised in ska in
the early 1960s, along with the music of other nearby countries, such as
Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Panama.

As the reggae style was fashioned in the late 1960s, the more commercially
minded Jamaican producers tried to attract international attention by adding
lavish orchestration to Jamaican music, theoretically making the raw sound
more palatable to foreign ears. Such efforts to break reggae into Top of the Pops
resulted in strings-laden cover versions of British and American hits, as
heard, for example, on the albums John Holt cut for English producer Tony
Ashfield, which included saccharine renditions of Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through the Night and Burt Bacharach’s Alfie.

Then overseas pop stars began flocking to Jamaica to spice up
their songs with reggae magic. Texan soul singer Johnny Nash scored three
UK chart hits cut with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires in Kingston; he then
worked with the Wailers, bringing Bob Marley to Sweden to work on a film
soundtrack. Paul Simon cut Mother and Child Reunion in Jamaica, the Rolling Stones cut their Goat’s Head Soup album there, and Paul McCartney enlisted the help of Lee “Scratch” Perry for songs voiced by his wife Linda.

Then, in the aftermath of Bob Marley’s death, international attention turned
away from Jamaica, and reggae music returned to its hardcore roots in the
emergent dancehall style. Aside from ace musicians Sly and Robbie, who were
spending increasing periods abroad working with artists such as the ambient
pioneer Bill Laswell and dance diva Gwen Guthrie, collaborative work was
generally on the wane. But the infectious style of Jamaica’s premier rappers
had a direct influence on American gangsta rap and hip-hop. In fact, the
forms have always cross-pollinated each other, and we should not forget that
New York deejay Kool Herc, who many credit as the founding father of hip-hop,
was in fact a Jamaican with a sound system background who moved to the Bronx
in his youth. It was in the dancehall era that a more equal form of collaboration
was initiated, as Jamaican toasters were given space on hip-hop and R&B
hits, which in turn led to rappers and crooners making guest spots in Jamaican

When the Haitian-American Fugees broke in with their reggae-fied
brand of hip-hop, their love of Jamaica’s dancehall was evident. Lauryn Hill
not only collaborated with the Marley clan — she ended up having a relationship
with one of Bob’s sons; while Wycliffe Jean has collaborated with leading
Jamaican stars such as Beres Hammond and Beenie Man. Stephen Marley furthered
this trend by having American rap artists voice new renditions of his father’s
classics for the Chant Down Babylon album. And Beenie Man is probably
the most prolific Jamaican collaborator of all, having appeared on numerous
R&B records on both sides of the Atlantic.

Such product definitely internationalises the sounds of its
collaborators, yet some have suggested this is not always a good thing. Can
collaboration result in homogenisation, leading a fiercely nationalistic
and notoriously insular genre to lose its unique appeal?

“I think music is music,” says Mr Vegas, a dancehall star who collaborated
with a rapper called Ayo on a track cut in Stockholm, Sweden. “So outside
influences are going to be positive. Music doesn’t play one way.”

“I think outside influences on any music is a good thing,” says Kunle, a
member of hardcore dancehall group Ward 21, “because it’s creating a bridge
between people, and getting more people to get together. If we do a reggae
song on a hip-hop rhythm, people that listen to hip-hop only would hear our
voice, and we might earn new fans. Likewise the other way: you see Timbaland
been making reggae rhythms, Flipmode been making reggae rhythms, and it gets
reggae people listening to hip-hop. Bounty Killer and No Doubt do a song
that’s alternative rock and reggae, and almost nobody in Jamaica knew about
No Doubt before Bounty Killer did that song. No Doubt get popular in Jamaica
now, and Bounty Killer gain some fans abroad too.”

Bounty’s gruff contribution gave No Doubt’s material an added
edge, aided by strong production values from Sly and Robbie in Jamaica. But
such productions are not always smooth sailing: though the collaboration
greatly raised Bounty’s profile abroad, resulting in appearances with the
band on Top of the Pops and at the Super Bowl, the Killer reveals that there were problematic elements.

“Sly and Robbie are producers that I worked with previously, and they had
this project with No Doubt; I seen them on my TV, so I know who No Doubt
was. They said they had this song they want me to go on. I said ‘No problem,
I’m excited’, as it’s international exposure, but their [financial] offer
sound embarrassing to me; it sound like an insult, but I think what we are
doing is a big project, and I don’t think the money should get in the way,
so I said ‘Tell you what, I’ll take my payment in a different way, I’ll take
it in exposure,’ so I said I was doing the song for free.

“Then they said they want to do a video, so we went up to California and
shot the video; they show me this naked part where [band member] Adrian started
to take off his clothes, and I’m saying ‘I don’t see where that’s necessary.
That doesn’t complement what we are saying.’ It does have some impact on
Jamaican culture, as some just don’t want to see a man getting naked in public
— not saying he’s a this or he’s a that, we just don’t want to see a guy
getting naked. If a girl’s getting naked, well, she can go ahead, but I don’t
think we want to go further than that — that’s how our culture is.

“I told them I think that should not be in the video, they said they’re gonna
take it out. But when the video come out, it’s in the video still . . . then
one bag of animosity and rumour come in Jamaica. I was upset with them, and
then they went on VH1 and do a concert and have some back-up guy singing
my part, and they went on the Billboard Awards and do the same thing. Then
they try to buy out the publishing, try to give you a certain percentage
and say they own the publishing. They’re not supposed to own my publishing;
they’re not supposed to approach me with no deal like that. We’re in dispute
about that, but it was great working with them still.”

Despite such hurdles, Bounty explains that, in his view, it
makes sense for today’s generation of Jamaican performers to be more adept
at cross-genre collaboration than their predecessors. “We have BET, we have
MTV, so pickney a grow up influenced by different things. If I was listening
to hip-hop and R&B from when I was a kid, I don’t think I would be singing
such hardcore depths of Jamaican culture. These kids are different now: there
are kids who go to foreign places in their childhood, interact with different
cultures and different races, so they’re going to do things that sound international.
If I used to listen to LL Cool J and Rakim, I think I would be doing what
the kids do now. When you listen to the youths, they sound like American
artists; nuff rapper there a Jamaica now, because them a listen to those

Kunle agrees, and explains that it was time spent in America that led him
to incorporate hip-hop elements into Ward 21’s material. “Me did play sound
in Jamaica and then me did migrate fi a little while to New York at age 17
with my father. I was exposed to a whole heap of hip-hop: Dance Effects,
EPMD, Redman, SWB, Naughty By Nature, all of the hot hip-hop music that come
out between 1992 and 1994. Me used to watch Yo MTV Raps regular, and Funkmaster
Flex did just get him radio programme, and that did turn me on to it. Me
buy turntable and start practise scratching at my house, then me carry them
down to Jamaica.”

In an age when access to music is more immediate, increasing
collaboration seems a natural thing. And it is not only the hip-hop world
that has benefited from dancehall: indie rock group Black Grape used a Jamaican
toaster on their debut album, and the Jamaican who raps with Damon Albarn’s
Gorrilaz is a big part of their artistic success. Elephant Man, the flamboyant,
orange-haired dancehall performer known as the “Energy God” because of his
action-packed performances, had a huge Caribbean hit with soca diva Alison
Hinds last year, the result of spontaneous collaboration.

“I met Alison Hinds on the calypso truck in New York,” Elephant explains,
“on the Parkway, on Labour Day, for the carnival. She was riding her calypso
rhythm and I started toasting, and she was like ‘Yo man, that’s tight,’ so
she become an Elephant fan as she like how I ride the rhythms. She said she
want us to do something, so we did something and it worked.”

Such spontaneity often works best, as connections contrived by record companies
to maximise commercial potential often fail to please fans in either camp.
Dancehall and pop music fans alike, for example, scorned the recent pairing
of Beenie Man and Janet Jackson. Buju Banton also suffered from the ill-tuned
backing of rock band Rancid when he signed to the Epitaph label; a recent
collaboration with Fat Joe sounds much better, and Buju recently revealed
he is hoping to connect with Nigeria’s Femi Kuti, which could yield something
truly special if approached in the right way.

So what’s next for the future of dancehall collaboration? The musical forecast
clearly shows we can expect a lot more crossover creativity.

“I want dancehall, strictly”

David Katz talks to Sean Paul Henriques, the rising star of dancehall crossover

Where did you grow up, and how did you get into music?

I was born in 1973 in Kingston, raised uptown with a suburban, middle-class
lifestyle. My mums, Fran Henriques, is an artist, she paints; my father is
a businessman, but he went to prison from when I was 13 for six years, due
to unfortunate circumstances. Around 1994, I started to write a lot of songs.
I decided to do dub plates for sound systems, like my brother’s sound system
called Copper Shot — it first form in high school, about 1991 — and Renaissance
sound system, which was closely linked to Stone Love; I started to do dubs
for Stone Love too, and that broke my career as an artist. 1996, [producer]
Jeremy Harding was ready to put out his first rhythm, so I went on it, did
Baby Girl No Cry No More. I did another song called Infiltrate that really blew up; that was where I first got international exposure.

You introduce your new album with a skit where a rock musician tries to alter your music.

The skit is a pun on the name, Dutty Rock, because I’m trying to show
that my music rocks too. I went to the extent of making it funny, as I’m
also hoping to crossover to white kids who never heard my first songs before.
They know Gimme the Light because of MTV, but when they hear bits
of songs like Hot Gal Today and Deport Them, they’re like, “Where did that
come from?” I made it funny by saying, “I don’t need a band, I want dancehall,
strictly,” to get people hooked on.

Which other lyricists do you admire?

I like No Doubt as a rock group, from a long time; Don’t Speak, that’s
a crazy song, and [Gwen Stefani] put her own emotions into it. People who
have influenced me with their writing are Wu-Tang Clan with Method Man —
I like the rawness. I like the way Busta Rhymes attacks on the track, from
the Leaders of the New School days; he did songs with Buju Banton
in 1994, a lot of people don’t know that. LL Cool J always talk to the girls,
always told them how his heart felt, so I follow in that pattern sometimes.

Who have you collaborated with in hip-hop?

My first collaboration was with DMX for the movie Belly, a song called Here Comes the Boo,
which was me, DMX, and Mr Vegas. Salaam Remi produced a hip-hop track with
me and [former Fugees member] Pras, Spragga Benz, and Roundhead two years
ago. I didn’t really get to do any other work with hip-hop artists until
just the other day, when Busta Rhymes did the remix for Gimme the Light, and I did the remix for Make It Clap. There’s also a song that I did with Mya called Things Change, coming out on her album soon. I worked with the Clips, the group produced by the Neptunes — I’m on the Grinding remix. I did something for De La Soul that they’re putting out soon, so it’s a lot of little works.

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