When artists start talking about wanting to move away from catchy club or radio fodder in order to make “timeless” music, they’d do well to remember which songs actually stand the much-vaunted test of time. It’s now 13 years since the first Summer of Sean Paul, and the slew of bangers from his 2002 album Dutty Rock have never really gone away. From the weed anthem ‘Gimme The Light’ and the sinuous ‘Get Busy’ to the phenomenal Blu Cantrell duet ‘Breathe’, in which Sean played the shrugging who-me foil to Cantrell’s impassioned outrage to perfection – indeed, his entire style can be boiled down to sounding effortlessly cocky without ever coming across like a dick – they’ve been mainstays of raves, carnivals and house parties ever since. When you play them now, they don’t sound like a dated throwback to a specific year because they’ve become such a natural association with every summer since.
What does seem like a different era is a year when dancehall stars had a substantial chart presence. As well as Sean Paul, 2002-04 gave us hits such as Wayne Wonder’s ‘No Letting Go’, Elephant Man’s ‘Pon De River, Pon De Bank’, Beenie Man’s ‘Dude’ and Kevin Lyttle’s ‘Turn Me On’ – classics one and all. There was also the immense Diwali Riddim, the basis of hits from Lumidee’s ‘Never Leave You’ to ‘Get Busy’ and, of course, Rihanna’s introduction to the world, ‘Pon De Replay’.
Things have come full circle now, and dancehall’s back in vogue on western charts, in large part thanks to Rihanna’s emphatic return to her roots on ‘Work’. Sean Paul’s as ubiquitous on the radio as he was in 2003, too, whether loosening up ‘Cheap Thrills’, Sia’s paean to no frills fun, or wheeling out his who me shrug again to brush off Little Mix’s righteous crusade against an ex on ‘Hair’. But don’t call it a comeback, either for him or the genre: dominance of airwaves comes and goes, but Sean Paul will always be loyal to the dancehall culture that will never disappear.
What’s the story behind getting together with Chi Ching Ching for your new single, ‘Crick Neck’?
Chi Ching is an artist I’ve known for some years. Since 2009, me and my brother would encourage him – “Yo, you should be an artist, you come up with crazy slang, people just notice you.” Me and him saw each other at Christmas at a Major Lazer concert where they were bringing both of us out. We were backstage talking and the idea to do a song happened there, with drinks in our hands.
You’ve always made a point of collaborating with some of the best artists from the dancehall scene, from Ce’Cile on Dutty Rock to Konshens on 2014’s Full Frequency and now Chi Ching Ching. How important is this to you?
Very. I’m always looking consciously to do that because it’s where I come from. A lot of people ask me, why don’t you move from Jamaica? I’m like, this is my home, this is where I grew up these are the people who made me who I am today. Yeah, maybe a lot of my friends are in the music business and we’re travelling all the time and it’s hard to see each other, but we’re keeping Jamaica as a base because it’s the people who put us on at first. When I do songs with artists I want to know that person is in the same mind space as myself. That’s not everybody. Some artists want to do songs with me and I’m friends with them – but my personal preference is I don’t really want to do a song with them…
That must get a bit awkward.
How do you get around it?
Usually I’m a good aloof person but when push comes to shove you have to be, “Yo, I’m really not feeling it”. It really comes down to that. There’ll be people who I work with all the time who give me riddims, and if I’m not feeling one there’s no hard feelings with that.
You took to Instagram recently to explain comments you made about Drake and Justin Bieber appropriating dancehall without understanding it; you’re happy for artists to do dancehall, but not when they don’t give the genre credit. Does it bother you that dancehall gets so many headlines for how western artists approach it – and less for the fantastic, living culture that it is at home? And do you laugh when you see headlines like “the year of dancehall” as if it’s just a trend?
It’s funny, because it’s the same thing they said to me when I was breaking in the States in the early ‘00s. The interviewers would say, “How do you feel about bringing Jamaican music back since Bob Marley?” I was like, no, there was Shabba Ranks, there was Shaggy, there were a lot of people. And yeah, I want everybody to know dancehall – what it is, what it means to me, what it meant to me as a kid growing up, what it means to my people. We were a generation talking in our own language to each other about our own lives and problems, dreams and aspirations. In our own language. It wasn’t, “Baby, baby, I love you,” it was, “Yo, girl, I love the way you shaking it, I’m feeling the way you shaking it.” It was more powerful to me. We’re a small country and we’ve heavily influenced a lot of people culturally. There are bound to be debates about that. History is written by the winners; I’ve been a winner and I’m trying to make sure the history of what I know, that brought me here, still exists. I don’t mind if people do this music that was indigenous to my country and my culture, that was being born when I was becoming a teenager. I just wish that more people would recognise and say, oh, that is dancehall-influenced.
Sometimes dancehall acts don’t even get a featuring credit – Assassin was on Kendrick and Kanye’s albums but neither credited him.
I feel strongly about that also. But some of these artists are saying they’re OK with it. I don’t know if it’s because they’ve gotten paid or something – I don’t see why they wouldn’t seek a credit. But it’s funny because I’ve recently found out some stuff about some big dancehall artists that I thought had a lot of stuff together and they don’t. The whole business side, they’re great at being an MC or DJ, but this is what happens when you have a society that has so much problems. Things like a paper contract – they say, “I have so much frickin’ problem in my fuckin’ life, I’ll fuckin’ sign it”. Without knowing or caring what’s on it. And it might come back to bite them. These kids are getting smarter, but it’s still overlooked. Like, why didn’t you make that step in your career? Oh, I just didn’t have the time. When Baby Cham was breaking with the Alicia Keys song, when Elephant Man was breaking, a lot of them all signed to Atlantic, and I thought that was cool – that was happening because of my success and I loved it. Why it didn’t work is debatable, in terms of why those artists aren’t on the same level as me or Shaggy right now – but they’re at a way bigger level than they were. So it’s a great thing all around. Right now Mavado is doing his thing, so is Popcaan. Dexta Daps is really dope, I think he has a great career ahead.
You’ve obviously worked with a lot of collaborators outside the dancehall world, from The Saturdays to Sia. You can probably tell whether they know much about it or whether they just want…
…something to spice their track up? [laughs]. With Sia I could clearly tell she knows how she wants to sound on that riddim. As to if she knows [artists like] Gage or these kids, probably not. It shocked me one time to hear Mick Jagger in an interview say that Vybz Kartel was one of his best lyricists. I was like, I’m pretty sure he can’t name five songs! But he’s heard the name a lot. And I love jazz. I love jazz when I hear it. But I don’t actively go out seeking new jazz acts I like Miles Davis and certain classics and I have those on my iPod. For some people, Shabba Ranks is the epitome and the be-all and end-all of dancehall. But lately our genre has just been growing numbers in terms of fans and producers and artists. It cannot just be Jamaica any more, even though the heartbeat of it is there.
History is written by the winners; I’ve been a winner and I’m trying to make sure the history of what I know, that brought me here, still exists.
One of your best collaborations in recent years was 2014’s ‘Dangerous Woman’ with afrobeats artist Fuse ODG. Are you excited by the fusion of afrobeats and dancehall right now, and the power lines connecting Jamaica, Trini soca and African pop?
Definitely, definitely. Over the years as a young kid I used to say to myself dancehall and soca were the most afrocentric music in the western hemisphere. Hip-hop was just westernised to me. I loved it but it didn’t have the African thing.
It never sounded tribal to me. And then people like Rupee and Kevin Lyttle had a breakaway sound and afrobeats has zoned in on that. More mellow, more palatable, not as hardcore as dancehall or soca. It’s coming straight from Africa now. I think our worlds are very close together as you say I’ve worked with Fuse and Timaya, there’s a great single I have coming out with Wizkid. We’ve been talking to each other for quite some time now. I’ve done a song with Burna Boy also.
The basement rave in the ‘Get Busy’ video still looks like one of the best parties any music video has depicted. When was the last time you were at one of those raves?
I haven’t partied like that in a minute. And I miss it, because it’s grimey. I still go to the dancehall rave but it’s not the same as when you’re a teenager. When you’re a teenager everyone there is young, you wile the fuck out. It’s not happening now, I’m not dancing on every girl now. I’m holding a corner in the club, I’m drinking. That’s where I come from, where I built the music. It’s moved to arenas, to Bestival yesterday with thousands of people. It’s funny that when we were in those grimey little parties and clubs as kids, as teenagers, those tiny little corners would seem like a big arena to us. It’s that energy that transfers all the way to Bestival. The same energy. It must run free, it’s like there are atoms, like so much energy that just needs a chance to be exposed.
You used to play water polo for Jamaica – do you still do that?
I haven’t played since I was 16. It’s the worst sport. You drown, they’re kicking your teeth, they’ll scratch you up. My grandfather was over here [in the UK] in the war, and he was on the first water polo team in the Commonwealth Games that was held in Jamaica in 1954. And then after that my father was the first person to swim across the national stadium pool, my mum was backstroke champion, my father was butterfly champion.
I used to play water polo and swim for Jamaica – I was the bronze guy, I got a lot of bronze medals, but there was another kid, Sion Brinn, and we were like, he’s gonna go! And he did go to the 1996 Olympics. The national stadium pool is about 50 metres long and 30 odd years old. It’s not a big sport, and all the people who’ve swum in there – you still feel close to them. We were all cheering for this young girl Alia Atkinson [at Rio, where she reached the 100m breaststroke final]. When we were swimming, she probably wasn’t even born.
You live in the same area as Usain Bolt, but I read that your wife Jinx thinks he’s a bad neighbour.
Ah, no, he gets wild when he parties and it affected the wife at one point! But he’s a good dude and he’s a very special person. I can’t say nothing else about him. We’ve hung out a couple of times but it’s not a routine. I don’t claim to be his friend but I root from him every time.