Sean Paul: “Dancehall’s influence on popular music culture is immense”

“Got any Sean Paul, mate?” is a request most DJs have become familiar with ever since Sean Paul smashed through the mainstream doors with an aunthentic dancehall brand of floor-fillers such as “Gimme The Light,” “Get Busy,” and “Like Glue” almost ten years ago. Selling in excess of twelve million albums, numerous top ten’s (including four #1’s), inspiring pop/R&B (or “dancehall knock-offs” as I call them) smash-hits, in addition to collaborations with icons including Chris Brown, Rihanna, R. Kelly, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Busta Rhymes and Carlos Santana requiring that unmistakable, nasal-induced Patois, dancehall flavour – few predicted these heights during Summer in 2002. 2012 will see the release of the as-yet-untitled fifth studio album lead by UK top 20 Stargate-produced single “Got 2 Luv U” featuring young starlet Alexis Jordan. Oh, and he has a new haircut.

“Nah, I never really missed it,” says the Jamaican on time out of the mainstream spotlight. Most of the time was spent recording, touring and in recovery following an unfortunate accident, breaking his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) – something he classes as a slight blessing. “That helped me to finish the album,” he says. “I was focusing on healing the knee and getting myself to finish the album. I didn’t miss the spotlight.”

Along with the aforementioned achievements, Mr. Paul (can I call him that?) has scooped several awards including MOBO, Soul Train, American Music and a Grammy, but still plans on improving on his craft. “At this point in time I want to keep on giving people quality and expand my artistry.” This includes playing drums, learning chords on guitars (which he admits he won’t do regularly on stage) and producing. He has released two beats, better known as “riddims” in the dancehall world, named Blaze Fia and most recently Material. “Producing is a big thing I’ve wanted to do from back in the day and now I’ve actually learnt how to manipulate these computers that I never knew anything about couple years back.” All of the above helped keep his mind off not being in spotlight.

Whilst the gap between previous album Imperial Blaze and new single has only been two years, it’s easy to feel like Sean Paul has been missing for a while longer. Imperial Blaze’s lead single, “So Fine”, marked a slight change in sound and failed to live up to previous chart successes, becoming one of his lowest charting singles. Asked for a reason why it didn’t match success of his previous work, Sean’s unsure. “I really don’t know. I worked with a hit producer in Jamaica called Stephen McGregor who’s a very talented kid, an artist himself and very humble. I’m doing work with this dude, Mavado’s doing work with this dude, but his songs are [hits] and nothing was wrong with my songs, so I can’t tell you why. Maybe it was just the time.”

Despite the underwhelming sales performance he maintains, “I’m still very proud of Imperial Blaze because it’s an all-Jamaican produced album, no major collaborations and lists “Now That I’ve Got Your Love” and “Lately” as some of the best songs he’s penned. “It sold the least, but it is my most memorable piece of work especially as I worked so hard and the fight I got whilst creating it. People in my own home country saying ‘But it isn’t dancehall’.”

As an avid fan of both dancehall and Sean Paul, I can say that statement passed through my mind. Prior to Imperial Blaze, we knew Sean Paul for exporting the hottest dancehall riddims – namely Buzz (“Gimme Di Light”), Diwali (“Get Busy”), Buy Out (“Like Glue”) Steps (“We Be Burnin’”) and Applause (“Temperature”) – to the mainstream, so it was a shock to hear him on previously unheard beats with a house influence to dancehall. He explains his decision for the sound: “When I hear what’s playing here [in the UK], in the United States and internationally you hear a big sound. [Back in Jamaica] you had some people making some [minimal sounding] rhythms.”

No longer an artist establishing himself, he has grown to a level where he has beneficiaries, however, he maintains he’s sticking to the roots despite his success, just not the same roots as before. “Roots can mean underground or it can mean grounded,” he begins. “At my level in the game, so huge, that if I was to be underground it would mean my time has passed. My time hasn’t passed by far.

“I am not the roots, I am the tree. I have a band to feed of 21 people that I tour with, producers that rely on me to record for them because it will help people to know them internationally, artists that want me to produce for them, to tour or collaborate with me because they would like a piece of that shine. I am the tree. My roots are firmly grounded but I am the tree.”

Due to the underwhelming performance of the previous, many consider this to be somewhat of a comeback album, something he admits to feeling nervous about. “Getting back into it is quite nerve-wracking. [I think] ‘Ahh bwoy, what do they expect now?’” he confesses. “There’s feeling of I have a lot to live up to. People are looking for me to [be successful] every time.”

With great expectation comes greater pressure to produce hit singles, especially in a more singles-driven market where labels aren’t afraid to drop acts for failure to ignite the charts instantly. Sean Paul says he’s taking a relaxed, more organic approach making singles this time around. “I’m not really thinking of trying to make a hit song every time,” he says. “I wasn’t doing it then. That’s the problem sometimes; you think ‘I have to remake [a previous hit single]’ when at those times you weren’t thinking about making a hit song. It was how I vibed with the track.”

A statement I find very honest and quite interesting; many artists have a spark when they start, then turn garbage (to paraphrase Jay-Z). Sean Paul, however, has been in the game over ten years and still churns out quality songs such as current favourite in dancehall circles, “Wedding Crashers” and personal fave “Turn Me On”. “I definitely find myself trying to go back to the basics. Just be free, don’t think about trying to get a number 1 song.”

Speaking on themes to expect on the forthcoming set, he says: “You have party songs, relationship like what I was doing on the last album and more deep topics.” One of the songs with a deeper topic is an inspirational song, entitled “Hold On.” “I dedicate it to Usain Bolt for what he’s going to do in the Olympics next year, but it can be for any sports person or even people in a natural disaster like what happened in Haiti. Hold on to the dream.”

A criticism often levelled at Mr. Paul is that he isn’t hardcore enough. Reggae has always been music from marginalised society providing an alternative narrative to the prominant theme of criminals and low lifes reported in the media, meaning the most popular artists have always been voices of the ghetto. Growing up in middle-class, uptown Kingston, Jamaica meant the son of an athlete (father) and painter (mother) has never been able to represent the ghetto youth. Irrespective of previous songs “Where’s All The Love,” “Young World,” “Sufferers,” “Time Rolls On” and single “Never Gonna Be The Same,” Sean Paul is better known for getting the party started with songs girls move their waists seductively to. “People wanted me on their riddims and the first thing that came out of their mouths is, ‘I want a hot girl song just like ‘Gimme Di Light,’ ‘Get Busy’ and ‘Temperature’,’ because they’re looking for a hit.”

However, his initial lyrics were social commentary which will come as a surprise to most. “I started out doing songs like these mainly and people would ask ‘Why?’ Yeah, I was born and grow uptown, but my father went to prison when I was 13 and my mother was left with two youths growing up. I started to think about life a lot when I was 13 years-old, so when I started to rhyme, it was from that perspective alone.”

Like most reggae artists, listening to Bob Marley had a major effect and cites “Simmer Down” as an influential song. “Sometimes I would come with lyrics that were a bit different or a bit deep, but they didn’t know what to make of it. [Girls and party songs] were more of what people wanted of me and the industry wanted at the time.”

The young artist was told to avoid those subjects because artists such as Tony Rebel, Buju Banton and Bounty Killer did it with better accuracy. Although it is easy for him to accept, it is still a perspective he has always wanted to voice. “I got famous for doing songs dedicated to dancing, and ladies and it stuck. I started to enjoy building songs like that, but lately I’m injecting some of what my roots are into the pop world that I am in now.”

In addition to the tangible achievements over the course of his illustrious career, proving dancehall in its purest form can sell consistently in the mainstream is definitely an example of injecting some of his roots into the pop world. Dancehall artists signed to major labels at the time usually abandoned authentic dancehall in favour of a reggae fusion (usually a mix of another popular genres with a hint of reggae/dancehall).

Along with fellow dancehall artists (Elephant Man, TOK, Wayne Wonder etc.) breaking through on Jamaican riddim, mainstream acts such as Will Smith, Christina Milian, Nina Sky, Lumidee, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé and many more scored chart hits with dancehall-inspired singles following Dutty Rock’s impact. Oh, and let’s not forget the whole reggaeton phase with Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderon, NORE, Pitbull etc.

I begin to ask his opinion on dancehall (knock-offs) in the mainstream, and as I list the aforementioned, he interjects, adding to the ever-growing list, but also rightfully pointing out that some were overlooked as dancehall by mainstream critics.

“Don’t forget people like R. Kelly. He did stuff that sounded like dancehall [editors note: “Thoia Thoing,, “Snake,” “Fiesta”…] and they gave him best R&B album. I was like wow. I respect his musicianship, but when we hear that it is straight dancehall. When Stargate hit with Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent”, that’s a dancehall track; it’s just that Vybz Kartel and Spice stole it and did their thing.”

Back to the original question regarding his influence, he remains humble. “My impact is not only my impact, it’s people like Buju Banton, Shabba Ranks who helped to pave that way for me where I emulated and loved their music so much that my stardom turned into something that has a life of its own. Who’s to say who I am inspiring now that is going to take in another direction? The influence that dancehall has had on popular music culture is immense.”

Times have changed dramatically since the early days of his success. Euro-house music rules the pop charts over urban hits, something he plans on embracing. “The fact that dance music is the hot thing right now is just a fact of life. Life is like a ball, it goes around. We have integrated some of my tracks to sound like dance tracks, but they’re dancehall.”

Enlisting a star-studded line-up consisting of some of the biggest pop hit-makers alongside his own, Washroom Ent., Stephen ‘Di Genius’ McGregor and other dancehall producers. “Right now I have Stargate, Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco, Rico Love and Akon making dancehall from their perspective for me. That goes to show that they see my fan base and they want to get involved with that.” An example of a eur-house x dancehall track is next single “She Doesn’t Mind.”

Almost at the end of the interview now, it’s always nice to end things on a positive note so I’ll hand it over to Sean Paul to talk more on the influence dancehall has on the mainstream – something many overlook until Rihanna does the bogle or someone like Vybz Kartel nabs the instrumental for his own version. Vybz Kartel quoted an old Jamaican phrase when I asked why he felt it was fine to use the “Miss Independent” instrumental: “Thief from thief makes God laugh.”

Hold tight Bruno Mars waving the reggae flag on the low, we rate that. Jason Mraz too. Can’t forget Justin Bieber‘s “Mistletoe.” Nicole Scherzinger’s attempt at twanging Patois fell short, but big up for trying. Ok, enough shout-outs. Over to you, Sean.

“I’ve worked with dance producers like Congo Rock, Diplo and DJ Ammo – all these people are coming to the dancehall to see what’s up. I’ve had Dallas Austin in the middle of the dancehall in Jamaica, we brought down his new artist to work with Sly & Robbie and it is unmistakable to not see the influence reggae and dancehall has had on mainstream music throughout the world. Even Wretch over here in England, his first song that blew up is dancehall and we big that up.

“In terms of myself, I love to see people trying to emulate our thing. That’s how Hip Hop grew back in the day too. It was just in the Bronx, and then moved to Brooklyn, Queens, LA, Miami, New Orleans… For the music to grow it means more pie for the people involved.”

“Got 2 Luv U” featuring Alexis Jordan is out now.
“Blaze Fia Riddim” is available to purchase here
Material Riddim is out December 13, with a new album slated for release in February 2012.

Follow him on Twitter @DuttyPaul

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