At times, it seems like the once glorious possibilities in reggae’s red-hot cry of ghetto outrage against all downpressors have shrunk to dictates about hairstyle, clothing, diet, and even fucking, from guys who get off on telling the rest of us what to do. Take the case of the impromptu contest a few years ago in Kingston between two born-again Rasta DJs over who could demonstrate more contempt for bling bling—even their own—that culminated in one turbaned youth jumping up and down on the roof of his brand-new Benz.
All this makes guys like Shaggy and Sean Paul—boyz who just want to have fun and invite us all to the party—that much more appealing. Light-skinned, multiracial sons of Jamaica’s relatively privileged middle class, these reggae MCs are living proof not only of the island’s proud boast, “Out of many we are one,” but also that the music has finally crowded country and western, rock, and calypso from Jamaican airwaves. A new generation of Jamaican “brownings,” one comfortable with its African past and more likely to follow hip-hop ways than adopt the fawning colonial manners of its parents, has embraced reggae—dancehall stylee, that is—as its own. Dancehall may not have much of a message, but its rhythmic impact on us is bigger than Jamaica’s internal struggle with its class system. Dancehall is part of the hip-hop nation and hip-hop has wound up traveling 360 degrees back to its past in Jamaican sound-system culture. (After all, Timbaland isn’t really just the top hip-hop producer; he’s also dancehall’s biggest, broadest mixing-board star.) What really counts is that this is the One Love Bob was hankering for.
So, while Sean Paul and Shaggy endure “uptown and brown” slings and arrows from the jealous crabs back home still struggling to climb over the top of the Jamaican music industry barrel and onto U.S. hit charts, everyone else embraces them as they are—skilled riddim riders with all-inclusive sounds and vibes.
Shaggy likes to point to the old formula of 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration as the reason for his unparalleled success. Shaggy is not a single person, he explains, but Shaggy Inc., a long-standing collective of managers, musicians, artists, et al. He even acknowledges that he’s not reggae’s finest. But Shaggy insists, and rightly so, on his solid skills and clever writing, and—this is most crucial—that his CDs belong in the reggae, not the pop, bin of your local record store. To underscore the point, Lucky Day‘s first tracks—”Shake Shake Shake,” the headboard banger “Hookie Jookie,” and the independent-lady big-up “Full Control”—are straight, no-chaser dancehall, their only concessions being Shaggy’s easy-to-decipher vintage chat on typically cheeky themes, and drums mixed up front, hip-hop style. Still, for “Get My Party On,” his Chaka Khan duet, Shaggy downplays his dancehall singsong and eases into a monotoned rap. But for the most part, like “Boombastic,” “Oh Carolina,” and “Summertime,” Shaggy Inc.’s crossover hits—as well as Hot Shot, the 2000 set that went beyond reggae’s wildest dreams to become the top-selling album of the year—this latest CD doesn’t fix what ain’t broke. Lucky Day isn’t about transforming the human condition, just about remaining Mr. Lover Lover—the man with a fluid waistline and the promise of good bed time.
Sean Paul, on the other hand, is another clever bedroom boy, but he makes no concessions. Dutty Rock is a defiant yet pop-palatable slice of the real deal: genuine dutty Jamaican-style rock, its patwah at times impenetrable, its riddims created a Yard, but so rhythmically rapturous overall that everyone is jumping on it.
Unlike a tight rapper, who drills rhythm tracks in a tough, manly monotone, the mark of a great reggae DJ like Sean Paul is the ability to create similarly rope-stretched-taut constructions, at the same time finding time and space to also take that vocal instrument on wild musical adventures. Like Shaggy, Sean’s got pinup-muffin looks, a winning Jamaican thick-tongued slur (though Paul’s evokes Super Cat), and a gift for penning witty, even ironic conceits. Take the notion of “deporting” girls who don’t meet Sean’s exact standards in “Deport Them,” written when the enforced return of Jamaican bad bwoys was an especially hot-button issue, or this album’s opener, “Shout (Street Respect),” a not-so-veiled call to dancehall fans worldwide to come together and boost the music out of the underground. Sean’s Reggae Grammy acceptance speech for Dutty Rock has got to be included in the televised ceremony.
“Gimme the Light” is no one-off. Like Lucky Day, Dutty Rock brims with infectious, hook-laden dancehall conundrums, but it’s locked firmly in terra Jamaica. “Like Glue” puns off JA slang for lady love juices, a pledge to stick to women both lyrically and personally, and the sticky bacchanal of the track itself. “Punkie,” already a proven hit in reggae circles, borrows old-school charm and makes a bow of respect to the Cat, Paul’s Don Dadda dancehall daddy. The Spanish-language version of the tune makes a similar gesture to Sean’s considerable Hispanic massive. Sean also breathes new life into his roots with a cover of the Alton Ellis-Marcia Akins rock steady classic “I’m Still in Love With You.” Beatbox master Rahzel (on the intensely edgy “Top of the Game”) and Jamerican rapper Busta Rhymes (on a banging “Pass the Dro-Voisier Remix” of “Gimme the Light”) are just the first in a crowd of hip-hop notables lined up to voice with Sean. Conveniently for everyone, the CD booklet’s lyric printouts serve as a Patwah 101. No one before has offered more compelling reasons to study that dancehall course.