Pirates of the Caribbean


A recent National Geographic Society survey found that 87 percent of young Americans could not locate Iraq on a map, and 29 percent couldn’t find the Pacific Ocean. Should you think that has nothing to do with the music industry, listen to the story of Kevin Lyttle.

Not long ago, on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, he was a customs officer and a struggling singer of soca, an up-tempo Caribbean music that sounds like calypso on cocaine. Visit clubs like Elite Ark in Brooklyn or Rumjungle in Queens in the coming weeks, and you’ll hear it: Soca is music for Caribbean carnivals, and since February launches the most prominent one—in Trinidad and Tobago—carnival revelry will start reverberating in our urban diaspora: at the “Soca Explosion 2K5” concert at Tropical Reflections February 25, or the Elite Ark club’s “Trini Toc Fete” show February 26.

These clubs will feature Lyttle’s breakthrough product, the pleasingly cheesy party ditty “Turn Me On.” He recorded it in 2001 with Vincentian producer Adrian Bailey, and it slowly evolved from Caribbean hit to European smash. In 2003, after touring Canada and Europe—”thousands of people coming out to hear me sing one song,” Lyttle recalls—he knew he had music industry manna: a hit single.

The major labels came knocking. Among them was Atlantic Records, fresh off a Caribbean high induced by Jamaican dancehall sensation Sean Paul. Paul’s album Dutty Rock was nearing double platinum; it had sparked a joint-distribution deal between Atlantic and Queens-based reggae label VP Records, which also landed Elephant Man on pop charts. “Via the VP deal, we gained experience working Caribbean artists into the mainstream,” explains Craig Kallman, co-chairman of Atlantic. “So it made sense to extend ourselves into other islands.”

Atlantic signed Lyttle, but there was one snag: geography. Notoriously oblivious to that which lies beyond our backyard—see above survey—Americans and world music don’t always mesh. We know Jamaica. We know reggae, and maybe even dancehall. But St. Vincent? And soca? “I tell people I’m from St. Vincent,” says Lyttle, “and they say, ‘Where? Is that part of Jamaica?’ ” Breaking a Caribbean singer who’s not Jamaican and not a reggae act is like promoting a hot, caffeinated breakfast beverage that isn’t coffee and isn’t from Starbucks.

Why should this be? Trinidadian music, after all, was Jamaican music before Jamaican music was. Literally: Jamaican mento, which eventually birthed reggae, evolved partly from Trinidadian calypso. And figuratively: Before reggae became the brand name music of the Caribbean, calypso was crossover king. When Harry Belafonte’s 1956 Calypso became the first album to sell over a million copies, record labels were modern-day colonialists, scurrying to import cheap raw goods from Trinidadian studios. “A lot of us got ripped off,” shrugs calypso legend Mighty Sparrow, whose classic “Jean and Dinah” was covered by Belafonte (and, like some 1950s songs by African Americans that were covered by white singers, has yet to earn him a penny of royalties).

But Jamaica soon usurped Trinidad as home base for the Caribbean’s commercial soundtrack. Reggae reigned, thanks to several factors: carnival music’s seasonal nature, which stunted its growth; the Jamaican government’s active promotion of its music industry; and reggae’s embrace of Rastafarianism, which created not just a music but a uniquely, authentically Jamaican culture.

To push Kevin Lyttle, then, Atlantic had to launch a brand. “Have you heard?” a publicist asked me, as “Turn Me On” found U.S. radio rotation. “Soca is the next dancehall.” Media outlets printed summertime “Soca Is Hot!” stories. Lyttle visited Live With Regis and Kelly to explain that “soca,” short for “soul of calypso,” was born in Trinidad, and that it was bacchanalian carnival music. Atlantic shored up the soca saturation by releasing a soca-filled soundtrack to the New Line film After the Sunset. It worked: Lyttle’s surprisingly addictive self-titled album debuted at number eight in Billboard, while “Turn Me On,” a ubiquitous summer smash, earned the dubious distinction of a slot on VH1’s 20 Most Awesomely Bad Songs of 2004 countdown.

“Deluged” (as Kallman put it) with sub-missions from the Caribbean, Atlantic signed another soca act: a fresh-faced singer from Barbados named Rupee, whose single “Tempted to Touch,” boldly reminiscent of “Turn Me On,” has lately triumphed in Billboard. And according to rumors, last month Atlantic signed Trinidadian soca group H2O Phlo, who rival Jamaican quartet T.O.K. for the “coolest Caribbean boyband” title.

“For this era, I humbly follow the blue-print that Island Records and Chris Blackwell laid out back in the day,” says Kallman, referencing Bob Marley’s major-label signing and citing Atlantic’s mission: to “share a wealth of talent from a region of the world that’s incredibly fertile.”

To fans of Caribbean music, this narrative has the ring of familiarity. Remember Shabba Ranks, walking with Nelson Mandela and entertaining Arsenio Hall? Or Super Cat, collaborating with Notorious B.I.G? Both dancehall dons are M.I.A. now, but in the early ’90s, they—like Sean Paul—were bigger than artists; they were ambassadors for a culture whose colors you now see everywhere on Puma’s Jamaica-themed clothing line, on trendy red, gold, and green armbands. From Bob Marley to Sean Paul, Jamaican music has, via select poster children, endured boom-and-bust cycles: One minute it’s America’s jerk-tinged flavor of the month; the next, it’s Chinese leftovers.

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 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.”

“Major labels,” industry veteran Levy argues, “do not totally comprehend Caribbean music, and they’re not totally committed to it for the long haul.” The Sean Paul prototype can work magic, but not for everyone. And if overhyped, this major-label model starts looking—to up-and-coming Caribbean acts—like the über-model. Which in turn stunts the growth of a local Caribbean industry that could thrive alongside an international one. “Everybody right now is trying to run to Atlantic to get a deal,” says Bunji Garlin, “but you need to conquer your homeland first. Before we go outside and have a big industry for soca outside, we need to have a proper industry back home in Trinidad.” Garlin laments that it’s taken so long for that to start happening: Last year, Trinidad—mecca of soca—launched its first all-soca radio station, to complement two new soca-driven television networks.

Back in the diaspora, though, Kevin Lyttle is thrilled with his three-album deal (and the vocal trainer who came with it). Kallman ardently vows to continue promoting Caribbean acts while keeping them “fertile in their hometowns and home markets.” And if you listen hard, you’ll hear talk of a U.S.-based network that has yet to announce a launch date, but is, confirms an insider, coming soon: MTV Caribbean—poised to take Caribbean crossover where it’s never been before.