His catchy beats and ganja-fied choruses have propelled Sean Paul Henriques, 30, to the top of the singles charts. Hip-hop-inflected dancehall cuts such as "Gimme the Light" and "Get Busy," from his second album, Dutty Rock, have become dance-floor staples across the planet. "It's my favorite thing to be able to be in the studio creating," Paul says from his pad in Kingston, Jamaica. "I'm just getting more and more into music as I go along."
How did you learn to sing?
I was young, maybe four years old, and I was at a barbecue. I couldn't find my parents, and I remember crying. I think there was some disco music playing, but – I know this sounds weird – I was crying in the same key or tone as the music. Even now, when I sing along to the radio, it reminds me of when I was bawlin'.
What's the first record you ever bought?
I had some single – [Queen's] "Another One Bites the Dust" was one – but the first record that I went out to buy was Beat Street, yo. I got it at a local music store here in Jamaica on my twelfth birthday. I remember about five kids came over for a small party at my home, and the record was playing, and my friends try to bumme – when it's your birthday, they run you down and hold you up in the air and kick your ass. It's kinda crazy. I ran to the roof and stayed there the whole day listening to Beat Street.
Did you pick up an instrument as a child?
When I was fourteen, my mother sent me to piano lessons. I think I had a talent, but I only did it for a year, because when I went, Mrs. Burger would always say, "You need to place your fingers here" and "Sit up straight." I was like, "It sounds good to me, why you telling me to sit up straight?" I knew my talent, and she wasn't seeing it. Then my mom bought me a Casio at a flea market. It had a small drum section and twenty different sounds, like violins and flutes.
What's on the radio in Jamaica?
On Sunday, all of the radio stations play crazy oldies. Not just reggae but a lot of gospel, Al Green, a lot of stuff from before my time. Bob Marley said that he drew inspiration from early-Fifties rhythm & blues music. Kids in Jamaica know their music; I take it for granted. It's not all the time that kids are brought up listening to music like that. Like, people hear "I'm Coming Out" and they don't even know it's a Diana Ross song.
What is your favorite song about smoking ganja?
Whoo! There are lots of those that come to mind. Bounty Killer sang, "Smoke some herb/Give thanks and praise." I think it came out in 1995. But it was sung to the melody of a Christmas song – that's why it's so crazy. It was, like, an an them for the generation of kids that was smoking at the time.
What do you think about pop music – such as No Doubt's "Hey Baby" – that borrows dancehall rhythms?
I love it. Some people find a lot of pop corny, but to me music is about bringing people closer together. Even the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" – [sings] "You are my fire" – it's corny, but it's a good melody and sound.
What was your worst gig ever?
In Grenada, a small island in the Caribbean. A lot of my songs are big there, and I thought it would be a great show. Earlier in the day, the promoters had asked me to invite this dude onstage. They said, "He's a singer, he'll come up and sing the hook on one of your songs." So I called him on, and the first thing the guy does is start to battle me: "Sean Paul, me dressing up full white, you dressing up full black." That means my future bright and your future dark. I had no beef with this dude; I was calling him up to give him exposure. It was a disaster. I cussed the hell out of the promoter and went back to the hotel room and looked forward to a day when I wouldn't have to face shit like that.
What do Bob Marley and Peter Tosh mean to you?
My mom used to play those songs a lot. As a kid, singing along to their music was second nature: [sings] "Every little thing/Is gonna be all right." But in my later teens, I got more of a respect and love of Marley and Tosh's music. At that time in my life, my pop was in prison [on marijuana charges] and I was very depressed. I was gettin' real conscious, and their records were conscious – they spoke of violence and solutions. They spoke of things that meant a lot to me.