Speaking from his home in Toronto, Snow is still baffled that his reggae-hip-hop merger “Informer” topped charts and moved millions of copies over 25 years ago. “That’s a jail song,” he says, still sounding surprised. “It’s not, ‘Baby, I love you.’ I wrote that song in jail about informers. But people didn’t know what I was singing.”
When no one was looking, “Informer” — with its pumping beat, spit-fire patois and “licky boom-boom down” hook — has refused to go away. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler danced to it in the 2015 comedy Sisters, Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon included it in one of their “History of Rap” medleys on The Tonight Show, and Drake sang a portion of it during a recent Juno Awards tribute to Canadian music. Last year saw the release of a slew of EDM remixes of the song, and a buzzed-about Irish sitcom Derry Girls (available on Netflix) featured “Informer” in a recent episode.
But few of those usages top the incorporation of the song into Daddy Yankee’s monster 2019 hit, “Con Calma.” A Spanish-language remake of “Informer,” the song also features what Yankee calls “a surprise factor”: newly recorded parts by Snow himself. “I wanted to pay tribute to the classic,” Daddy Yankee says, “and the best way to do that was to bring the man who made it.” The song has hit Number One on various charts and has been streamed and downloaded tens of millions of times; last week Daddy Yankee and Katy Perry performed it together on the American Idol finale.
“When I heard it, I got chills,” Snow, who will turn 50 later this year, says of the original “Con Calma” record. “I said, ‘Let’s see if this can pass the original,’ and then I looked at the views on YouTube and was like, ‘Holy shit, no joke!’”
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Will Snow now capitalize on its renewed profile? “Capitalize?” he says, as if the word is foreign to him. “That doesn’t mean much to me. I’m in and out of music. I only do it when I feel like it. It blows up or [it doesn’t]. I don’t care.”
Snow’s career has been, to put it mildly, unconventional. Growing up as Darrin O’Brien in Irish projects in Toronto, he was raised on classic rock, from Kiss to soft-rock kings America. After Jamaicans moved into his neighborhood — thanks to then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s revised immigration policies — reggae infiltrated his life for good. “If it wasn’t for [Trudeau], I wouldn’t be in music,” says Snow, who later met Trudeau’s son (and future prime minister himself) Justin at an awards show. “He was wild, having a drink,” he says. “He was cool.”
Drinking and brawling was a regular part of Snow’s adolescence, and in 1989, that part of his life caught up with him. When construction workers mocked him after they saw him singing reggae to girls, he and a friend got into a butcher-knife fight with the workers, one of whom was cut. Charged with attempted murder, Snow spent eight months in a detention center before his friend confessed to the stabbing.
After the incident but shortly before that stint, Snow — who was given that nickname by his Jamaican-Canadian neighbors — was on vacation in New York, where he met and recorded with pioneering hip hop producer MC Shan. There, at least, his bad-boy side came in handy. “I was 18, 19 years old and a huge Shan fan, but he wasn’t doing too well at the time,” Snow says. “So I’d go to A&P and steal chickens and beef and feed his whole family. He’d be down in the basement in his studio and say, ‘Do a harmony here.’ I’m like, ‘What’s a harmony?’”
One of the tracks they cut, “Informer,” was released while Snow was incarcerated. (“More milk and cookies” was his reward behind bars, he says.) As the song went on to become the biggest-selling reggae single of all time that summer, Snow’s jail time meant he was denied entry into the States. “I had the Number One song and they threw me out of the country,” he says. He claims American radio stations stopped playing his music when they heard he wouldn’t be able to promote them in their country.
The inevitable backlash, especially given Snow was white, followed: Jim Carrey mocked Snow in the parody “Imposter” on In Living Color, and Snow’s hard living returned when he went to Jamaica to record his second album, the deep reggae dive Murder Love. “I was in Jamaica for six months, and the record company came down and I was partying and drinking,” he says. “I was having too much fun.” As strong as the album was, it sank, as did another follow-up; for many, he was simply the Vanilla Ice of the North.
In the last two decades, Snow has rarely released new music (his last album was 2002’s Two Hands Clapping), and he suffered through the cancer-related death of his girlfriend (and mother of his daughter) in 2009. “That stopped me for a minute,” he says. Five years ago he released a lone single, “Shame,” but little else followed.
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to do music and just want to lie on my hammock,” he says. “I grew up hanging out in parking lots and drinking and chilling out. It’s been hard for my managers because I don’t want to do anything.”
Paul Farberman, a Los Angeles-based lawyer and attorney who became Snow’s co-manager several years ago, doesn’t disagree with his client’s status at the time. “He was floundering and needed some help,” says Farberman. “He didn’t like to go out much. He was hibernating at home. He didn’t have anyone representing him. He didn’t know where his money was coming from.”
With Farberman’s help, Snow retrieved royalties for “Informer” that hadn’t been properly collected for years. The recurring licensing of “Informer” — as well as lesser-known Snow cuts in Asia — has helped sustain him. “All I can say is that I’m blessed,” Snow says. “You mean do I have another job? No way. I don’t want nothing, a plane or a boat. Music is all I know.”
Snow also appears in the video for “Con Calma,” but his part had to be filmed separately in Canada. Thanks to his past legal issues, including an assault conviction in 1995, Snow is currently unable to enter the U.S. without a waiver, which would have allowed him to apply for a work visa. “You’re supposed to renew the waiver and he didn’t,” says Farberman. “It’s a technical matter.”
Snow remains frustrated by the situation. “Look at all the people they let in, but not me!” he says. “It’s always something. The government or something. But it’s okay. I need to get fingerprints and letters and everything, but I’ll get in.” For that reason, he hasn’t even met Daddy Yankee yet: “I don’t want to just call him say [adapts wimpy voice], ‘Thank you, man!’” he says. “I want to grab him and give him a big hug and go, ‘Yo!’”
But compared to a few years ago, Snow’s life and career does appear to be, well, heating up. For what could be his first album in nearly two decades, he says he has 60 to 70 tracks in the can: including collaborations with Fat Joe and other hip hop acts, plus a few reggaeton cuts. He also reports that his 24-year-old daughter had a baby on Christmas Day — thus he now proudly dubs himself “Granddaddy Snow.” Given such a lifestyle change, he says he’s happy with the “Con Calma” video, which relies more on animation than cheesecake.
“I said I didn’t want girls in bikinis,” he says. “I’m married now. But it’s classy — the girls wear sweaters!”