Posted by: Dutty Philosophy | October 26, 2012

When Dancehall Goes Pop: Is Sean Paul to Blame?

Everything was almost perfectly ordinary. Sean Paul was playing a private press preview in a small, yet stylish Meatpacking District lounge in New York City. The label suits and dancehall dreads were mingling by the bar, downing watered-down drinks sponsored by some vodka company. The white girls were shrieking. It was, after all, an album year for Mr. Paul, and certain things are to be expected. But two things were amiss: the dancehall king’s signature cornrows were gone and replaced by a carefully cropped mohawk. And if somehow connected by magic, the dancehall backbeat coming out of the speakers was replaced by the persistent bump-bump of the now ever-present, loved and hated acronym of the year: EDM.

Don’t be fooled, however – the new hairstyle wasn’t done on a whim. Rather, it appears to be a concept at the heart of Sean Paul’s return to a Billboard chart near you. After a three year recording hiatus, Sean Paul released Tomahawk Technique this September, his new ‘do (which he cut while sharing the experience with his fans on Twitter in 2010) prominently featured on the album artwork and all promotional materials, as if beckoning the prospective listener, “Come with me, let’s go clubbing.” But getting his hair re-styled for the 21st century was only stage one of his campaign to re-take the pop music industry. He also went and recruited some of the hottest producers making R&B and four-on-the-floor pop music right now: Norwegian duo StarGate (of Rihanna “Please Don’t Stop the Music” fame, among many other things), Black Eyed Peas contributor DJ Ammo, and hip-hop mainstay Rico Love.

“This album is about keeping up with the times,” Sean Paul explains, speaking with me from behind a pair of sunglasses in the offices of his Manhattan publicity agency. “Dance music has been really something that’s taken over international circles. Every music kinda has that tempo now. While I’m not planning on doing straight up dance music, I’m wanting to fuse what’s going on. It’s dancehall with an edge.”

“Touch The Sky,” Sean Paul’s straight dance music tune off Tomahawk Technique

The result is an album lingering on the borderlands between electronic pop and reggae. The lead single “Got 2 Luv U,” mixes Sean Paul’s chatting with a room-temperature R&B beat and big room synths. Other tracks stick closer to the dancehall sonic palette, with the occasional pop hook, such as “Hold On,” released in February as an anthem for Jamaican athletes in the 2012 London Olympics. And then there’s “Touch The Sky,” a catchy club tune straight out of the Swedish House Mafia playbook, with no island rhythm in the riddim to speak of.

Sean Paul says his decision to work with mostly non-Jamaican producers was about setting himself apart from the rest. “Some of the tracks being produced at home are sounding a little amateur to me,” he says. “I have some of the most amazing musicians working with me in Jamaica, but sometimes you have to step [out] of bounds to get a different flavor and check that out. Put that butter and that cream on top of the cake.”

With just about everybody hopping on the 2012 dance music sensation, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that club music is the cream chosen to top Sean Paul’s cake. But compare a track like “Touch to Sky” to the daggering, passa passa and slackness tracks that pop off on the island, and the gulf between the reggae getting play on Top 40 and the stuff that works on the street seems particularly wide.

Of course, pop isn’t anything new for Sean Paul. Like Shaggy before him, Sean Paul has made a career of translating Jamaica’s fire to mainstream audiences. Whereas dancehall stars like Buju Banton and Lady Saw have had widespread name recognition and radio play in big cities like New York and London, Sean Paul’s music has reached an entirely different set of ears. In 2005, “Temperature” hit #1 on Billboard’s Top 40. In 2003, “Get Busy” hit #3, and a large number of his other singles charted in the top 20. Those positions mean you’re hitting more than urban markets. We’re talking Kansas numbers. Idaho money.

To do it, Sean Paul and his team was strategic. While many Jamaican deejays would chat in various degrees of Patois, Sean Paul rhymed in the Queen’s (albeit Jamaican-lilted) English. And while dancehall stars could occasionally be found singing about all sorts of street tings (ie slinging drugs; murdering gay people), Sean Paul kept his tales PG-13, focusing mainly on popping bottles and “getting busy.” Anybody could relate.

“A lot of people will say, ‘You turned me on to dance hall. I never really messed with it before’ and now they’re like ‘I’m checking out more artists,’” says Sean Paul. “It’s kinda cool for me to be that person that introduces that.”

In the process, Sean Paul has become the richest dancehall artist alive – after Shaggy, that is – with a net worth of $11 million dollars, according to Sean Paul is richer than any of the Marley heirs, and has almost three times the wealth of dancehall kingpin Buju Banton.

Sean Paul’s “Got 2 Luv U,” the lead single off Tomahawk Technique

Of course, taking dancehall to pop-town has some drawbacks too. “There’s definitely been that backlash story,” admits Sean Paul. In the process of making Jamaican music digestible to teenage girls everywhere, he’s been accused of watering down the genre. Of making reggae for the lowest common denominator. And on the new album, hardly making reggae at all. According to Sean Paul, Jamaican DJs are mixing his music into hip-hop and pop sets instead of dancehall sets.

“I think his music and his whole look right now is kind of corny. I don’t like it,” says Raka Dun of Panamanian dancehall group Los Rakas. “I respect Sean Paul as an artist, and I think there’s a way for dancehall to evolve, and become commercial and make money. But I think you need to keep it organic and real at the same time.”

Not everybody in the scene would agree with Dun. “I love the fact that Sean Paul is stepping on new grounds,” says slackness queen Natalie Storm. “I think he’s a good artist and that he was integral in making dancehall relevant again on an international level. He did it at a time when it was needed and no one will ever be able to take that away from him, regardless of whatever direction he has chosen to take his craft.”

Talking to Sean Paul, it’s clear right away that he’s conflicted about his role in the music. He seemed distant and detached when talking about his album, but he lit up when we started talking about his dancehall heroes (Shabba Ranks, for example) and the culture back home. Whatever you think about Sean Paul, he loves dancehall with all of his little heart, and he wants it to shine. “I’m proud of Jamaica, and I’m proud of dancehall and that’s why I keep doing this and fighting for it,” he says. “Dancehall has been around for a while now and should be on a popular level more than just being the underground music that it is. There should be artists from our genre and songs from our genre that are played everywhere.”

Really though, Sean Paul raises a good point. How come no other Sean Pauls have emerged in the almost ten years since he first blew up in 2003? A number of artists have surfaced over the decade, but none have achieved the reach of Mr. Tomahawk. Before getting locked up on murder charges, Vybz Kartel was massively popular in Jamaica, but never found major commercial success abroad. His biggest US hit—his Major Lazer “Pon De Floor” feature aside— “Romping Shop,” was hampered by utilizing StarGate’s “Miss Independent” beat without authorization, which flies in Jamaican riddim culture but not so much in multinational music label culture. (To illustrate how much Sean Paul orbits in a different world: he went direct to StarGate to commission beats for Tomahawk Technique.)

Movado and Serani have had some hits, especially “I’m So Special” and “No Games” respectively, but nothing that really broke through beyond urban radio. Gyptian perhaps came closest with his 2010 hit track “Hold Yuh.” It was a big tune in Caribbean-influenced cities like New York, but peaked at #77 on the Billboard Hot 100. Miles and miles away from Sean Paul’s coveted #1 spot.

Damian Marley has perhaps come closest, bringing a holy combination of roots, dancehall, social messages and weed rap in Welcome to Jamrock in 2005, and following up with 2010’s groundbreaking Distant Relatives, a collaboration album with rapper Nas. Damian may not have had Sean Paul’s sales numbers, but he has earned serious critical acclaim, in addition to industry nods from artists far and wide including Skrillex. Meanwhile, one of the most relevant dancehall artists to put a dent in global pop culture in recent years is the very non-Jamaican Diplo, through his Major Lazer project.

While dancehall music has increasingly become a staple of bass music culture and a touchstone for the musically hip-and-with-it, dancehall as we have come to know it seems to have faded from the broader cultural marketplace for the moment.

“What we need is a big crossover record, or to break an artist like Sean Paul again. An artist like Sean Paul just doesn’t come along every year,” says Aaron Talbert, of veteran dancehall label VP Records, speaking from the perspective of the reggae industry. “In the ’90s lots of things were blowing up – Shabba Ranks, Beenie Man. It was a time when the market in Jamaica was really well aligned with what was happening the US. Now, the reggae market is having to reinvent and re-adapt to all the changes that have happened in terms of technology, and consumer habits and spending. Artists and producers are just going to continue to try stuff they think is going to work. For a lot of artists right now, that’s sex tunes, “wine gyal” type tunes. For Sean Paul, it’s dance music.”

So then, is Jamaica failing to produce the necessary talent to break through, or is it simply a lack of good artist development? Or by “watering itself down” for pop audiences via artists like Sean Paul and Shaggy, did dancehall lose the explosive energy that once drew serious fans to the music in the first place? Who and what will dictate where it all goes next? And who will be remembered by the masses?

Not even Sean Paul pretends to know. “It evolves all the time. Back in the ‘80s, Christians in Jamaica were like, dancehall is slackness music! And then by the ‘90s there were Christian deejays,” he says. “All I know is it will continue to grow. Some changes will pass, and some changes will become the norm.”

Natalie Storm is optimistic. “We’re going through an awkward evolutionary stage right now but whatever dancehall transforms to, will be just as mind blowing and riveting as ska, rocksteady and reggae was,” she says. “Dancehall will always play an integral part in our culture but access to new resources has exposed us to so many things, and I believe we should let people have free expression. I may not like everything people are doing, but neither did the public in Bob Marley’s time and look where that took us. Eventually dancehall always finds its way home again.”


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