Before there was Sean Kingston or Sean Paul, there was Shaggy: dancehall reggae’s original poster child. The Grammy-winning Jamaican artist, now 41, took dancehall crossover to unprecedented heights, first with 1995’s platinum Boombastic album and then again in 2001 with the six-times-platinum Hotshot, which featured dancehall’s first Number One pop single. This year, in time for the beach comes his seventh release: Summer in Kingston (available digitally now). To celebrate it, Mr. Boombastic closed down the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, for a massive free block party last Saturday, performing alongside dancehall artists Bounty Killer and Elephant Man. Backstage, he spoke with Rolling Stone about breaking records, joining the Marines and making dancehall go pop.
Tell me about your new album.
It’s a feel-good album, a fan appreciation album for a recession price, as I call it: $2.99. Eight tracks of eargasmic pleasure, digital only. A hard copy would mean paying for distribution, packaging and so on, but if it’s digital you can make it as low as possible so all of your fans can get it.
Did you make the album with crossover success in mind? Is that something you actively think about when recording?
Yes, and you do have to think about it because you aim to be successful. I did a concert in downtown Kingston in the midst of the ghetto recently, and I went onstage and everyone was singing tune after tune, all of the words. So I said to myself, “There’s nothing more I can accomplish here. Let me go back in the lane I’m known for, which is making records that are feel-good and crossover friendly.”
So your decision to spend the past few years returning to your roots, so to speak – recording hardcore dancehall tracks like “Church Heathen,” which was a big hit in the Caribbean but not in mainstream markets – that was a deliberate choice?
I came back to dancehall because I have naysayers, and I always want to silence them. I remember after “Hotshot” and “It Wasn’t Me,” everybody was saying, “Yeah, but it’s not dancehall,” and, “He can’t do dancehall,” and some were going as far as saying, “He’s not Jamaican.” But I started from dancehall, from sound systems! So I had to come back here and prove that.
How do you feel about the term “pop-dancehall,“ then?
I’m not mad at it because it’s mainstream, and any hardcore artist is gonna want mainstream action. Why? Because it’s part of success. Why? Because it’s business – it aligns brands with brand Jamaica and with this genre of music. You need chart action to make this music be a force to be reckoned with. Hence, you see me with all these sponsors out here: We’re trying to send the message that this is a music that brands can partner with.
So you still fundamentally believe that dancehall has crossover potential?
Absolutely. When the music is light—like when Elephant Man and Sean Paul had it in the [early 2000s] dancing era and were hitting big—that’s when we’re at our highest. When it becomes dark, then nothing happens.
But doesn’t it feel as if the mainstream only has room for one dancehall poster child at a time?
Definitely not. When Sean Paul and Elephant Man were hitting big and signed to Atlantic, I was tied up into a deal – I couldn’t release records. It was excruciating to see these guys do so well and I could not be a part of it.
Your performance tonight was, as usual, quite playful and funny. But people don’t usually associate dancehall with humor – they think of gun lyrics and so on.
I think dancehall is mad comedic. Look at Elephant Man – he’s all comedy. People want to be lighthearted, have fun, smile. I like a gun lyric just like you, but there needs to be a balance. We don’t just have to show the ghettos of Jamaica. Most Jamaicans from the diaspora, when they come back home, they don’t come to go to the ghetto and get daggering – so why are we portraying that as the only side of Jamaica?
Is that why, through all the controversies over dancehall’s violent and explicit content, you’ve remained lyrically PG-rated?
Well, I dibble and dabble. I did a song the other day – “Girls Dem Love Me,” with Mavado – which was a little raw. I just did it because there were naysayers and I wanted to say, “I could write everything you’re writing, I just choose not to.”
I see the bigger picture. I know those lyrics will only get me so far.
Speaking of the big picture, your Shaggy Make a Difference Foundation raises much-needed money for a children’s hospital here in Kingston. How did it come about?
All of it was formed on impulse, because of what I saw at a hospital one day. I went to visit someone there and saw the state of the place. I saw this little girl with a bullet lodged in her head and I said, “I’ve got to do something.” So I said, “I’m gonna do a concert – in 8 weeks. We’re gonna make it happen and failure is not an option.” They told me I needed a foundation, so we did it – simple as that.
You moved from Jamaica to Flatbush, Brooklyn, as a teenager and shortly thereafter joined the Marines. Were you that patriotic?
No, I was just a kid trying to get off the streets. I’m patriotic because I feel for the American soldiers, but it was nothing calculated like that. I did it, it shaped my life as far as teaching me discipline, and that was it.
As far as teaching goes, what’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?
Not everybody is as genuine as they seem. People will holler at you when you’re hot, and when you’re not, they leave you alone. So you’d better believe in yourself, and keep reinventing yourself.