Shaggy: “Reggae artists need to start handling themselves like business people”

Former US marine Orville Burrell, known to most by his dancehall moniker Shaggy, has reached mainstream heights no other dancehall artist has in terms of mainstream success. Chart-topping singles and album all over the world with a career spanning near 20 years, most notably 2001’s diamond-selling Hot Shot which boasted singles “It Wasn’t Me” and “Angel” – both in the top five selling singles of the year in the UK.

Summer 2011 sees the release of new EP titled Summer In Kingston lead by single “Sugarcane,” a cheeky song about a females addiction to the cane, which is rapidly rising up the reggae charts.

Marvin Sparks recently spoke with the legend himself (yes, it was him) to find out why he started making music, evolving his style, working with Mavado, nerves about performing in the UK this weekend and why he thinks UK artist Chipmunk is “A force to be reckoned with.”

So, what motivated a successful musician such as Shaggy to make music; feed his family? Make a change in the world by bringing unity? Get some bling and 20″ rims? “I started spitting rhymes because it got attention,” he says nonchalantly. “I’d get into clubs for free, drink for free then leave with the baddest chick.”

When the baritone, Jamerican (Jamaican-American) began his musical journey, the landscape for dancehall artists was a lot different to now. “There wasn’t anything to aspire to because nobody was really dominating any particular charts in dancehall when I started,” he explains. “Shabba, at that time, had just started making some noise. It wasn’t a career.”

Jamaican music was known for reggae singers such as Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker to name a few. Dancehall productions and deejays (Jamaican rappers) as we know them today began flourishing in the ’80s with artists such as Yellowman, Josey Wales and Charlie Chaplin. Shaggy’s emergence in the early ’90s coincided with that of Shabba Ranks, Chaka Demus & Pliers and Snow (yes, “Informer” Snow. Remember the Tony ‘CD’ Kelly produced “Anything” which featured Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Terror Fabulous and Louie Culture?) on the mainstream. Both Supercat and Yellowman enjoyed a fair bit of attention outside of dancehall circles, but nothing significant as what was to come.

Shaggy scored his breakthrough in 1993 courtesy of his cover of ’60s ska record “Oh Carolina” by The Folkes Brothers which claimed top spot on the UK singles chart. Once again, not created with the intention of anything special.

“When I covered that song, it was just to hear a bunch of people cuss a bad word,” he states. “When I was growing up, we used to sing ‘Ya rass, bumboclaat’ to Oh Carolina, so my vibe in doing that was never to put out this massive hit record out. It was me being a rebellious teen and from that it became a monster. We never knew where it would go or what it would transpire to be.”

To this day, I don’t know what the radio edit says apart from “jump and prance”, but if you bought the single (as I did on vinyl) the B-side had the swearing. Admittedly, I did play it with the volume low when my parents weren’t in the room. And yes, I did feel cheeky singing along in an almost whisper just in case an elder walked in.

In 1995, he followed that up with a remake of Mungo Jerry‘s “In The Summertime” which hit top 5 and he proved the one-hit wonder critics wrong when he topped the UK singles charts again, this time with the Levis advert music “Mr. Boombastic” – also became his US breakthrough single. Unlike the fun “Oh Carolina,” “Mr. Boombastic” introduced the heart throb side or as he called it “Mr. Lover Lover mmmm!”

After a few years of obscurity, Shaggy returned in a huge way with the modern day classic, “It Wasn’t Me” – UK’s best-selling single in 2001. The album, Hot Shot, went on to sell over 10 million units worldwide.

“Highlight of my career is Hot Shot. It’s the biggest time of my career, I sold diamond and I impacted the world with reggae – narrative music.” Bob Marley’s posthumous released greatest hits Legend is the only other reggae title to achieve this. Oh, and who can forget the collaboration with Staines massive very own Ali G on “Me Julie”? It reached #2 on UK singles chart.

Persons within the dancehall music industry often complain of obstacles put up against them – both at home in Jamaica and internationally. For example, Jamaican beer Red Stripe pulled out of sponsoring events in 2008 (a decision they reversed in 2010) and USA cancelled the VISAs of 5 high profile entertainers – including Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and Mavado – due to unclear reasons last year. Both Beenie and Mavado have since had theirs reinstated recently.

Major labels, radio & TV stations and corporates are also challenges they must overcome. “There’s always gonna be challenges because reggae is narrative music,” he says. “This music doesn’t have a format. We’re not blessed with having a format on radio, supported by the corporate sector. For instance when a Sean Paul and Shaggy go on tour, you don’t find a Coca Cola, Nokia or BlackBerry or whatever trying to sponsor us, because they say this music is negative music of guns and violence while hip hop has sponsors everyday. They give them hotels, buses and everything. We have not mastered the art of partnering with the corporate sector globally.”

However, he concedes some of it is down to the artists themselves. “A lot of it is our fault as artists and people. Our artists need to start handling themselves like business people and entrepreneurs and realise for every action there’s a reaction. Some of these products are family products, so they won’t associate with you if you’re doing things that’s going to bring them down.”

Although he had moderate success with “Hey Sexy Lady” and Olivia-assisted “Wild 2nite”, he didn’t manage to replicate the dizzy heights he achieved in ’01. During his disappearance from the mainstream, he has kept with steady releases from the core dancehall market. “We went back to dancehall with ‘Badman Nuh Cry,’ ‘Church Heathen,’ and ‘Longtime’ then recently ‘For Your Eyez Only’ and ‘Girlz Dem Luv We’ which we know have done well in the inner city.”

The latter (“Girlz Dem Luv We”) surprised many due to the feature on the chorus by hardcore dancehall artist Mavado. “I’m an artist that has crossed the board. That tune was just a hardcore tune for Jamaica. We never released it commercially,” he explains. “Sometimes you do things to say, ‘If I want to go into your lane, I will go into your lane, but I don’t want to. Don’t ever sleep and think I can’t.’ A tune like that will get a youth on the corner to say Shaggy can spit,” ending with “…Mavado is one of my favourite artist.”

UK rapper/MC Chipmunk, who was in Jamaica shooting the video for “Every Gyal”, makes a small cameo in the video (at 3:23). Shaggy speaks highly of the young starlet. “It was the first time I met Chipmunk that night. Mavado brought him through, I never even knew who Chipmunk was,” he admits. “It’s afterwards I really find out who he was and found out he’s a very significant artist for the UK. I met him, thought he was a nice youth, we spoke a little, he came in the video and that was that. It was later on that I realised Chipmunk is a force to be reckoned with.”

Almost 20 years since his entrance, he returns with album Summer In Kingston powered by single “Sugarcane.” “That is a song doing very well out here. It is currently #6 on the iTunes reggae chart. Moved up very fast in the past few weeks. We’re getting a lot of mainstream radio support too.”

July 31 saw Shaggy grace a UK stage for the first time in half a decade for the One Love Peace Festival at the prestigious Wembley Arena. Even though the UK has supported his career from the very beginning, he’s unsure of how he will be received. “I don’t know what to expect from a UK audience right now. I haven’t played there in about 5 years, so that’s why this is going to be very interesting for us.” Nerves? “I just know that we’ve had a lot of hits in the UK from the jump; ‘Oh Carolina”, “Mr. Boombastic’, ‘That Girl’, ‘In The Summertime’, ‘It Wasn’t Me’, ‘Angel’, ‘Hey Sexy Lady’. There’s a lot of massive records.”

Not only was the concert in memory of 30 years since Bob Marley’s passing, it was against knife and gun crime. “It’s an honour for us to be in a venue like Wembley Arena trying to achieve peace within the music.”

Shaggy famously supports Bustamante Hospital for Children in Jamaica, for whom he puts on a concert and auction for every year. “I’d been supporting the charity from about nine years prior to doing the concert. I used to buy beds, fix roof, paint the building and buy equipment just out of pocket. I then went there again and saw an eight year-old girl with a bullet in her head so decided something has to be done so that’s when I threw the concert.”

Speaking on what has made him successful, he says, “I always go against the grain. When I made Oh Carolina, It was very different to what was going on in dancehall at the time. I’ve always liked to experiment.” So, with that said, of the new material he explains, “With me doing music for the longest time now, I have to find things that stimulate me, so I have changed my style with a little bit more traditional reggae.

“Everyone put down the traditional side of the music, so I just put my Shaggy style to the traditional side and come with some clever songs and clever writing to put together an album titled Summer In Kingston. It’s 8 tracks and it’s more of a fan appreciation.”

Summer In Kingston is available digitally at the cost of $2.99. Bargain right? In the words of Shaggy: “Any fan that has been there for Shaggy deserves that. I haven’t put anything out for the longest.”

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