TIME IS THE MASTER
story by Morgan Gerard
photographs by Anna Keenan; assisted by Hakili Don
The multi platinum-selling Jamaican reggae superstar is less than thrilled to be here. Location isn’t the problem. Toronto is one of his favourite cities in the world, showing the love long before he sold two million plus and became dancehall’s go-to guy in the hip hop collaboration equation. And a quick stop next to MuchVibe’s fetching young host is pleasing enough, even though the highly-praised ‘environment’ has about the same ambience as an airport waiting lounge. So what’s the problem? Well, for every hour that he’s away from the studio, Sean Paul is counting the sixty minutes that could have been.
On a good night in Kingston, Jamaica - given a hot riddim track, a capable engineer, and the right mix of studio vibes - sixty minutes can mean a new song. But on a cross Canada tour that taps twelve shows in ten nights, sixty minutes can mean one photo shoot, an extended hand-shaking autograph session, or a little less road between Toronto and Hamilton. Not exactly exciting stuff for an artist who thrives on the buzz of launching another 45 into the international dancehall circuit.
Today has been anything but exciting. Sean Paul has just wrapped up posing for the candid fan shots, scarfed down a box of pad thai, and still has our photo shoot to come. Chilling in a Much artist lounge that looks like a walk-in clinic waiting room, there’s a palpable sense that, for him, touring and working the exclusive media circuit is like being stuck in creative limbo. Tomorrow, he’s off to the rest of Canada. And after that, he’s committed to a Budwieser-sponsored promotional run through the States, two weeks in Europe, and a road trip with 50 Cent that’s looking to push its way straight through much of August. All in all, his spring-summer schedule is vexing him to no end.
“If I don’t have a new song I don’t feel good,” he says. “I have a work ethic where I need to be in the studio making records, not out on the road promoting records. That’s not what makes me happy.”
In the day-to-day runnings of dancehall’s global ambassador, happiness is only half the story. Like the hundreds-deep roll call of Kingston DJs who’ve preceeded him, Sean Paul knows that time spent ‘inna foreign’ instead of Jamaica means time lost.
“Things change in Jamaica fast and I’m not always there to catch up,” he says. “I’ve already missed so many new riddims this year. I’ve recorded four songs that have played on the radio in Jamaica and that’s still not enough. Just this past month I was home and went to a dance and see this new dance that I never see before. Shut your eyes for just a minute back home and there’s something new.”
In fact, shut your eyes for too long and by the time you blink another man could be holding your mic. That’s how fast reggae can change in downtown Kingston. Think rappers are treading competitive waters? Forget the Jigga vs. Nas hype and check the back o’ wall talk between dancehall fans. In recent rating’s memory the contention over and between the likes of Ninja Man, Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, Beanie Man, Capleton, Merciless and, now, Elephant Man usually reads more like a Christiane Amanpour report from the frontlines than a run down of who’s hot and who’s not in reggae music. And while Sean Paul might not have the same cache´ of local support that Elephant currently commands, his platinum sales are worlds away from who holds what local DJ crown and for how long.
In response to constant nipping at the heels, Sean Paul remains as armed and dangerous as ever. With brother Jason more deeply embedded in Kingston with his Coppershot sound system, Sean keeps up on the latest and greatest in downtown intelligence - new talk, new dances and the most sensitive of recon, new riddims. That’s why he’s travelling with fresh ammo.
“I’ve started to take these riddims on the road with me,” he explains. “Every time I go home I have fifteen or twenty CDs waiting with like ten riddims on each. That’s a lot to catch up on but I’m taking those on tour with me now. If I have any studio time anywhere on the road I can do songs and when I’m back in Jamaica go straight to the studio and pump as much out as possible.”
That was the plan for the end of May - four days in the studio to freshen up the market with some new tunes between his latest Dutty Rock album and his next big project, a full-length Dutty Cup disc where, in an Eminem pushing D12 style, he’s giving some shine to his local crew before beginning work on his third solo disc in September. But earlier this season, the latest studio run went flat when recording for a Bud Light commercial soaked up all his time and energy.
“They wanted to re-record and re-record just to pronounce one word more clearly,” he explains. “By the time I was finished it was too late and I was too tired to record my own song. That pisses me off.”
In the grand scheme of reggae working the system, really, how can Sean Paul complain? Anybody who’s got anything from a few Renaissance CDs to the complete works of Barry Brown knows that pronunciation is half of why America’s never fully embraced reggae. Just imagine Shabba Ranks doing “Trailer Load A Bud,” Super Cat chatting “bud up, bud up,” or even Ninja Man opening the suds campaign with “phenomenon one, Bud Light it a de one”. It’s pretty clear that Sean Paul holds the golden key to reggae’s next generation. Just remember, he’s only the second reggae artist to go platinum in his lifetime. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh only topped those numbers in memoriam and, even though he might be more readily equated with America and pop music, don’t forget that Shaggy opened the door first.
Not exactly the typical icon we’ve come to expect from the mythologies of Jamaican dancehall music, how did Sean Paul get to the point where throwback-clad white girls at all-ages shows need resuscitating when he grinds on stage?
Born Sean Paul Henriques on January 8, 1975 to parents of Portuguese and Chinese-Jamaican descent (his mom is a famous painter), he grew up in the posh district of Norbrook, graduated from Kingston’s University of Technology with a degree in Hotel Management, played water polo for Jamaica’s national team, and even worked as a bank teller for a while. As a gainfully employed, uptown youth, you probably won’t find him starring in part deux of The Harder They Come. Still, like dozens of reggae celebrities before him who caught their first break at King Jammys’ auditions, cut a dub at Arrows, or heard that first tune of their’s played at a Stone Love dance, he’s had to run many of the same obstacle courses that Kingston’s dancehall circuit demands.
“I spent hours and hours and hours trying to get in the door at Arrows or get producers to listen to my tapes,” he says. “Back in those days I did whatever I could to be close to the music industry - I DJ’d over 45s on a friend’s sound system, worked for Sunsplash, and was a driver for this promoter named Sharon Burke. I would pick up Tony Matterhorn and Bobby Konders from the airport for Fully Loaded. Whatever it took.”
In the end - which is really the beginning - Sean Paul twisted two of dancehall’s usual rules of engagement to slip through the side door to success. First, where a solid three decades of DJ culture dictated that, in order to gain your stripes, you had to go through Kingston’s sound system boot camp, Sean Paul did not.
“A lot of the older time DJs had downtown sound systems really backing them but that didn’t happen in Jamaica for me. It kind of happened in New York City with King Addies. They put me on as their own youth and really broke me in New York dances.”
And second, where any young DJ in his right mind would naturally gravitate towards a veteran producer or an established label to cut his first tune, again, Sean Paul did not. Instead, he linked with a virtual unknown named Jeremy Harding, a Canadian citizen who’d been setting up studio in Kingston and, to make ends meet, recording jingles for advertising. Like Sean, Harding was also somewhat out of place in Kingston’s runnings. The son of a horticulturalist and a lawyer, he attended boarding school in Ottawa, studied chemistry at McGill University, did two years of production training at the Trebas Institute, and cut his musical teeth on campus radio with his Native Tongues program on CKUT. In part, the combination of the uptown DJ and the Canadian-bred producer was the lick.
“He had a brilliant riddim and I had a great song,” says Sean, whose “Baby Girl” track on Harding’s Fearless riddim in 1996 not only established the 2Hard label but also copped a modest local hit for the pair. “He was a first time producer and I was a first time artist. If I had recorded first on a label like Penthouse or Steely & Clevie it would have been seen as just one of their records with a new guy voicing. But with me and Jeremy together heads turned. It was like ‘Who’s that producer? Who’s that artist?’ That became the focal point for us.”
Since then, with Harding as his manager and occasional song producer, the kid they once called the ‘copper-colour Chiney bwoy’ has scored a series of Billboard hits, sold more copies of his debut Stage One album for New York-based VP Records than any other artist on the indy label, and with climbing sales for Dutty Rock making him an undeniable force in the U.S. urban market, found the likes of Jay Z, Busta Rhymes, Blu Cantrell, The Clipse, 50 Cent, Brandy, 112, and Beyonce knocking on his door for collabo magic.
“People come to me for the dancehall vibes,” he says. “I just did a tune with Timbaland for Brandy’s new album where she uses a piece of my hook from ‘Gimme The Light’ and sings ‘You realize that you did me wrong/All I did was treat you right’. Then I come with a surprise thing after that. And I just did a tune with Scott Storch for the new Beyonce album. I’m very trusting of his work because he’s a great musician for hip hop and R&B but he can also produce dancehall. The song that me and Beyonce did was dancehall, straight.”
What this all translates into beyond the virtual world of Much beaming his image day after day is that reggae music is creeping up to its American cousin like never before. And with Sean Paul becoming an increasingly more omnipresent staple in contemporary hip hop culture, you can bet he and his management team are juggling their options like never before.
“When the big five hundred thousand sale came in it was time to renegotiate for things like video budgets and more money for myself and my whole team,” he says. “Then when we were sure it was going platinum we had another meeting to renegotiate but we didn’t really bring anything to the company. Now the plan has been to finalize things with a team of lawyers and go check them because they basically owe a vibe to us now. We told them “Get Busy” was the single, that “Gimme The Light” was gonna break. We have much love for VP Records and much love for Atlantic Records but it was we who put us here. We have been A&Ring ourself, managing ourself, and marketing ourself.”
Case in point: fighting for “Get Busy” as the single to follow “Gimme The Light” and insisting that Little X step up to the video director’s chair once again.
“I told the record company ‘This is the song!’ The reason being is the whole base market know the Diwali riddim right now. It’s the hottest thing in Jamaica, all over the Caribbean, and across the underground market in England, Canada, and America. Release this song and you snap those numbers immediately. Then it just happen to fall in place with the video. The right choreographer came to the video, Tanisha Scott, and saw that Little X was on something other than tits and ass and bling bling. He was on the empowerment of these women. They’re still very sexy but they look strong. It all came off and people were like ‘What’s that?’ It really brought the whole vibe of the Caribbean dance off.”
Putting that vibe right upfront is the only route Sean Paul plans to run right now. It’s why the dance-heavy video for “Like Glue” - shot recently in New York by Little X protegé Bobby Bounce - continues along similar vibes as “Get Busy.” And it’s why, for the time being, he’s staying close by reggae-specialists VP Records and not jumping totally into the arms of their major label partner.
“VP has got the reggae market locked down,” he says. “To be heard and known in that sector is important because I’m still very close to that and want to keep those numbers. It was a good thing that VP and Atlantic join because most of the time big companies come to reggae and don’t really know who or what is next best thing and don’t know how to choreograph the artists. So things get messed up. Yeah, we’ve had to push VP in a certain direction but what VP does and what we do is a good team in itself. I just need to renegotiate certain things. I’m not sure if we’re gonna be on VP. We might move straight to Atlantic and say I’m an Atlantic artist now. But I don’t think that’s necessary. I want to keep that base audience intact.”
This fall, when Sean Paul escapes the handshakes, autographs, and photo shoots to finally lay claim to those precious sets of sixty minutes in the studio, the trick will be balancing the demands of that base audience with the expectations of his new-found commercial masses. With people like Scott Storch, Timbaland, and the Neptunes vying for production credits alongside dancehall players like Tony Kelly, Lenky Marsden, Craig Parkes, Steely & Clevie, and the entire Jammys family, the results should be interesting. In the end, one thing is guaranteed - for a DJ who busted out of nowhere on unorthodox riddim tracks like Fearless, Liquid, and Playground, you can expect some of the unexpected.
“Reggae is a different kind of sound, a different kind of movement, and a different kind of timing,” says Sean Paul. “Just when you think you’ve figured it out along comes something totally different. Wait and see.”