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Publication: Touch, cover story, 2003

Sean Paul

Sean Paul has take dancehall to the charts, hearts and dancefloors of the world. All hail the dutty conqueror 

‘Shake. That. Thing. Misskanakana/Shake. That. Thing. Missannabella…’

Your hear it anywhere, you hear it everywhere and you hear it all day. You hear it marginally less than 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’, which you hear too much anyway. Your hear a voice threading between hip hop, R&B, bashment and dancehall across daytime radio and pirate fequencies, in passing cars, on carnival systems, in the hiss of the iPod adjacent to your tube seat, on MTV, BBC, Top Of The Pops and over the top of the screams of 1,500 girls at Hackney’s Ocean venue.

That was last night, but this is today. Sean Paul, 30-year-old baritone heartthrob and global renaissance man of digital dancehall, is everywhere. More visible, bankable and shaggable than any Busta, Jigga, Mega, Diddy, Shaggy or Ele you care to mention, he is the urban music everyman of the moment.

Sean Paul is from everywhere too. In his hazel eyes, neat braids, mocha complexion and voice as rich as Guinness you can discern Jamaican roots as well as English, Jewish, Hispanic, Creole and Chinese blood. He has been a champion swimmer, water polo player, banker, cordon bleu chef and a graduate of hotel management and was born on the right side of the tracks in the Norbrook district of Kingston to boho parents. As a teeneger he received the kind of uptown schooling that gets you far in the world business and finance, but gets you nowhere among the savagely adverserial market economics of Kingston’s dancehalls and studio scene, where the rhythm of you rhyme and the girth of your pants is what matter. ‘I’m a uptown boy, yeah,’ he’ll tell me later, ‘I’m not from the ghetto.’

Not that it makes any odds anyway. Sean Paul’s life is on permanent fast-forward. Onstage, he is a man in ninth gear. In person, he’s so relaxed that time practically reverses. He sniffs a lot. Fiddles with a CD player. He’s wearing graffiti-cover denims, a white do-rag and a Marley T-shirt and looks like he could have do with an extra week in bed this morning, as he sips tea in a London hotel room. He drives a Lexus Jeep, wears Adidas, drinks Red Stripe and smokes weed ‘definitely’, and all of the time, and wears a $6,000 Jacob & Co watch permanently set to Kingston time.

Sean Paul’s ultrafresh, extra-hooky singles – the paean to toking ‘Gimme the Light’ (Billboard No 1 In the US, Number 5 in the UK) and ‘Get Busy’ (UK Number 4) from his sophomore ‘Dutty Rock’ set - compound fiendishly tuff chat with ghetto glamma straight from yard, and then rolls them in enough pop stardust to charm the global urban market.

He’s been doing this since 1993, when he schooled by day and studio-ed by night. Now it’s paying off. ‘Timbaland‘s been building new dancehall riddims, I’ve linked up with him,’ he says. ‘I did a track with for Beyonce called ‘Baby Boy’. Jay-Z came to me…’. So did Clipse, the Neptunes, Rahzel, Kardinal Offishal, Busta Rhymes. Back in Kingston, Sean Paul has so many platinum discs he’s lost count.

‘There’s Best Pop Song award from High Times magazine too,’ he says. ‘They gave me a bong. That was the coolest award. I definitely did use it, but it’s not supposed to be used.  Someone delivered some plaques the other night. I didn’t have time to open them…’

He’s more surprised than anyone at how big he’s become.

‘Definitely! I wouldn’t say I’m shocked, but it’s great to be able to represent on this level. It’s a crazy: there’s no time to stop and say, wait, there’s this thing happening. You just go with it. You think a couple of months ago I didn’t have any of this – these plaques on the wall. Das a lotta plaques…’

Dancehall has waited long for a moment like this and for a telegenic star like Sean Paul. Since hip hop has become the global language of product placement and many of it stars cartoonish parodies of their former  street-level selves, it didn’t take much for listeners to engage dancehall’s raw-from-road attitude (even if dancing to its endlessly evolving riddims it still, for many people, the equivalent of playing Twister).

‘[Video Producer] Little X said to me, “Dancehall is the next hip Hop”. I was shocked. I was like, what do you mean.? He says, ‘when hip hop started ,m everybody used to dance, everybody used to this and that. It’s not happening anymore because it’s already been done. People are looking for a new edge.’

For a long time dancehall has had at best a fractious relationship with the mainstream. Since the early Nineties, but Jamaica has thrown up no truly galvanising presence able chat the global language of pop with an authentic JA inflection. Until now. And if it’s unlikely that a few killer riddims will shake hip hop culture to its foundation, there’s no doubt that dancehall is beginning take on rap on at its own game.

Cleverly, Sean Paul conquered New York before he moved on to the rest of the world. He toured the underground  dancehalls and honed his skills in the toughest of environments.

‘New York supported me,’ he nods. ‘In 2000 I could have five shows a night. One in Queens, two in one in Manhatan, one in New Jersey and one in Brooklyn. For real. Hip hop lives in New York – it was born there. East Coast, West Coast, down South, they all come to new York. Once you burst onto the scene you can really take the rest of the international market’

In any case, for Sean Paul the distinction between a dancehall DJ and a hip hop MC was always entirely false.

‘Growing up in Jamaica, To me there was no difference between a Supercat and LL Cool J,’ he says. ‘In JA, there’s no difference between a Bounty Killer and, say, 50 Cent. That’s how it is. So we always wanted to see this happening, and it is happening. There are so many artists that can benefit from my little Success.

‘People say, ‘boom! Gimme The Light’ is on radio!’ But  Dancehall has been bubbling in clubs since 1990, when Supercat and Shabba was a world phenomenon. Dancehall and hip hop was merging from that time. A lot of people used to check dancehall at that time, but A&R misrepresent our artists, the companies that didn’t know how to market them. They put them in an R&B market where they got lost. Your hear a Bennie Man song with Janet Jackson, and people can’t understand what is dancehall and reggae. When they pushed Shabba with Bobby Brown, we were saying, What we want to see on the TV and on radio is ‘Trailerload Of (A?) Girls’!’

In the midst of dancehall’s current prominence is Sean Paul, a man who could snap knicker elastic at a hundred paces. The fact that, as a female friend pointed out to me, he’s ‘fucking fit’, is unlikely to hinder his or dancehall’s stratospheric success curve. But his appela ia about much more than looks. Sean Paul shares with Craig David much more than merely having two Christian names: both are clean, modest, career-minded, unshowy and humbly acknowledging of their support. Set against his contemporaries, Sean appears ‘realer’ than Shaggy, but softer than Shabba. You can discern his hard-fought cred among his rhymes and riddims, but he has fewer of the rough edges of, say, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer or Elephant man.

Meanwhile, Unlike the bachelor-for-life CD, Sean Paul is busy putting his good looks to their rightful use: breaking hearts. Sorry girls, he’s taken.

‘There’s a lady back in Jamaica,’ he nods, grinning slyly. ‘but it’s a good feeling to know ladies check you out. When I was a kid I was like, I want ALL ladies. Every man think like that. But my life is very hectic right now. I was trying to settle and this blew up…

Last night, at a packed Ocean in Hackney, Sean wasn’t just onstage but all over it. When he plays live, Sean Paul pogoes, hops, leaps, and skips across the stage in a flat cap and baggy pinstripe suit like the Dick Van Dyke of the dancehall demographic. It sounds daft, but looks incredible: for an hour an a half he machine-guns out dutty bashment with one foot on the monitor as his band pulse behind him and his brother Jason – known to his Copper Shack soundsystem colleagues as Jigg Zagula - swerves round stage fringes. The sound is hardcore dancehall grime that resonates like the tectonic plates of the earth moving. It wouldn’t stand a chance in the pop charts, but here, under the spotlights and amid the oestrogen fog, if feels like the rawest, livest thing Black  Sabbath split up, or Gulf War II ended. ‘Blowing up’ doesn’t begin to describe it.

Sean Paul has been in London before, and expresses a fondness for British exports like So Solid Crew, Ms Dynamite and Heartless Crew, whom he ran into last in a Miami strip club (like you do). He recalls dining with Red Rat one of the capital’s noted gastronomic locales – Piccadilly’s Kentucky Fried chicken – and touring around the country in 1988. ‘I was on tour and went to the Stratford Rex and Bristol,’ he says. ‘This was the hardcore Jamaican audience coming to these shows. So I’m like, dancehall never went anywhere – we’re keepin’ it alive’.

But as a career and work schedule that barely lets him breath, let alone chill, gathers pace, Sean Paul is determined that what’s happened to many of hip hop’s principal players won’t happen to him. Life at the top of the charts is fine; but down in the dancehall is where he’s gonna stay.

‘When I’m at home, I put down my bag and I’m out on the street,’ he says. ‘There are big producers, but they don’t live in Jamaica anymore and they don’t know what’s happening, they don’t got to dancehall. Copper Shack and Dutty Cup Crew keep me on the street. I need that respect from them. Music doesn’t live in radio stations or TV station, it lived in clubs and on people CD and mixtapes.’

Everybody wants a piece of Sean Paul and dancehall right now. Since the Diwali riddim became the urban music’s new lingua franca, Sean’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. It’s perhaps only a matter of time before Madonna bandwagons into town with some spurious ‘new dancehall direction’, but as it stand, pop’s other beauty queen, Beyonce, has sought to add a dash of Kingston hot pepper, teaming up with Sean Paul for ‘Baby Boy’.

‘She said, “yo, I want you to add what you add to these tracks’,’ Sean explains. ‘“Take it to where I need it to be,”.  I was like, aiii cool. I went up to Miami and did what I had. In 15 minutes. When she came in she was like, ‘wow’. I’m glad to represent!‘

The celebrities collabs come and go, but what remains is The Music. In particular, ‘Feel Alright’, a track he produced with the King Of Kings the day before he left Kingston for London. He pull out a CD player and give Touch a world exclusive playback of the new Sean Paul joint – a high-voltage, disco-paced package of hyperspeed chat over the all-new ‘Indian Girl’ riddim.

He breaks out a broad smile, begins bouncing in his  seats and clapping along. Diwali isn’t what’s happening right now. Indian Girl is what people want in dancehall. For me, songs like that are coming out more easy. Party songs. Just like ‘Get Busy’. Sounds about being in the dancehall. That’s easy enough, I’m always in the dance.’

And that’s where he intends to remain. When the Fame, the fortune and the fads have passed, dancehall is still dancehall. Gimme the light and pass the joe: right now, it’s Sean Paul’s party. 

© Kevin Braddock 2003

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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