Pirates of the Caribbean

Record execs hoist soca as the island flavor of the season

Today's Caribbean crossover boom, however, is flavored by more than just jerk. "Ten, 15 years ago it became hip to be Jamaican," explains Dahved Levy, host of two Caribbean music programs on WBLS. "And suddenly everyone was Jamaican and everything was Jamaican. Athletics: Jamaican. Music: Jamaican. But in the last few years, people are getting out of that, and you're hearing about Barbados and Trinidad and St. Vincent."

And Puerto Rico, adds DJ Buddha. His Caribbean Connection mix CDs blend reggae and soca with reggaeton-Spanish dancehall, which is also enjoying its crossover moment: "Oye Mi Canto," which sets rapper N.O.R.E. alongside Nuyorican duo Nina Sky and reggaeton veteran Daddy Yankee, has rested in Billboard for over four months now, and Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" is following in its footsteps. Buddha says that Yankee—and a host of other reggaeton acts—are being bombarded by major-label offers.

If all this talk of crossover has made you, Caribbean music fan, indignant that your scene is being co-opted—well, get over it. Caribbean music is bigger than you, and it's bigger than music. In 1997, Jamaica's recording industry contributed $300 million to the Jamaican economy—as compared to $2 million garnered by music in Trinidad and Tobago. The idea of soca going mainstream has thus thrilled Trinidadian economists; a recent editorial in Trinidad's Express heralded soca as "our most likely breakthrough product" and welcomed BET's coverage of Carnival 2005 as part of a "dream which, quite apart from its value as an additional marketing tool, earns hard foreign exchange invariably deposited here." The Barbados Nation celebrated Atlantic's signing of Rupee by pronouncing "the need for Barbados to emulate Rastafari by pushing indigenous culture and artist creativity." Caribbean tourism would wear an altogether different face if the islands were perceived as culture-rich vessels, not vast tanning beds. If this Caribbean crossover boon bears fruit—if soca finds footing without, as purists say, "selling out" in the process—that's good news. So dare we be optimistic?

Rupee is being hailed as the Sean Paul of soca.
photo: TLA
Rupee is being hailed as the Sean Paul of soca.

Rupee is an optimist. Backstage at Club Exit, where he's the token non-Spanish act at a reggaeton show, the singer has more positive energy than an AA meeting. For good reason: His dulcet album, 1 on 1, is slated for release this year, and Rupee—light-skinned and poster-child charming—is being heralded as the Sean Paul of soca. Like Paul's pop-making predecessor Shaggy, though, Rupee garners gripes for not being "authentic" enough to rep his genre: He's not from Trinidad, birthplace of soca; he likes "blending [soca] with other genres," he says, in order to "pave the way for pure soca to make it to the mainstream."

Purity: Rare is the crossover artist said to possess it. But what is "pure" soca? The genre was inaugurated in 1973 by Trinidadian Lord Shorty, who felt the soul of calypso was as multicultural as Trinidad's population: a near even split between peoples of African and East Indian descent. Hoping to set this cultural pilau to music, Shorty sped up calypso—itself a mongrel of African, Cuban, and European musical forms—and infused it with Indian tones. Once soca was born, it morphed. "Ragga soca" merged soca and reggae; "chutney soca" added dhol drums and sitar; "parang soca" fused soca with Latin Christmas music; "rapso" added rap and spoken word; and this spring VP Records releases a "popso" compilation, which is—well, figure it out. If postcolonialism had a theme song, it would be soca: The music is an exhilarating earful of cultural hybridity that muddles all talk of pure versus impure, selling out versus staying "true."

Soca's chameleon-like nature, though, is its blessing and its curse. The genre can blend into playlists smoothly—so smoothly that it's not called soca anymore but, say, dancehall or r&b (Kevin Lyttle has been deemed both). "We are sometimes known as 'Trickydadians'—we have the ability to blend in and sound like anybody, act like anybody," says Trinidadian soca star Bunji Garlin, whose deep-toned delivery and gangster-happy image evoke Jamaican DJ Bounty Killer. His music is frenetic, hovering at 165 bpms, and given this tempo, Garlin says he's honed in on a potential niche: "It's easier for my kind of soca to cross over into the techno or the house market."

Then there's Machel Montano, soca's Beenie Man: a blazingly charismatic child star who grew up to be an industry staple. Montano says he now sees himself and his band Xtatik as "a live outdoor festival group," a "punk band" that promotes wining, meditating, and moshing: "We're Rasta alternative-rock soca." His current carnival hit, meanwhile, is a hip-hop collaboration with Doug E. Fresh.

Montano's 1996 hit—the house-flavored "Come Dig It"—is one of few soca songs to hit the mainstream. Others are what Rupee calls "grass skirt, drinking-out-of-a-coconut type of novelty music": "Hot Hot Hot," recorded in 1983 by Montserrat artist Arrow, covered by Buster Poindexter, and featured at a wedding reception near you; and the Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out," which won a Grammy in 2000, landed the Baha Men on tour with *NSync, and is featured at a Foot Locker near you.

Both Montano and the Baha Men enjoyed stints at Atlantic. Montano signed in 2001, but claims he was expected to "fall into a machinery that was making a certain type of music—to go pop." He says he left because "I didn't want to come off as a solo artist with two dancers and a DAT machine," but Kallman puts it differently: "We really didn't quite hit on ignition-type singles that could break [Montano] all the way." Ditto, Kallman says, for the Baha Men: "Big crossover success is driven by hit records. 'Who Let the Dogs Out' was a huge hit single; 'Back to the Island' wasn't."

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