Hosted by Highsnobiety’s Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency, “On the Record” is a podcast series of intimate, off the cuff conversations with icons and cultural engineers that have shaped the worlds of fashion, music, tech, art, business, sports and youth culture at large. For this episode, Morency spoke with Jamaican dancehall legend Sean Paul.
There would be no mainstream dancehall as we know it today without Sean Paul. The Sean Paul who created chart toppers including ‘Get Busy’, ‘ Temperature’ and ‘Baby Boy’ with Beyonce. The Sean Paul, who has been nominated for 8 Grammy’s and won the award for Best Reggae Album with his legendary album ‘Dutty Rock’. And the Sean Paul who all of us continue to play at house parties and the club.
I wanted to hear a different side from him, and that we got. Today he still lives in Kingston, Jamaica where he’s from and it’s where I called him up to discuss everything from evolving your public image to mentorship for the next generation, and paying back to the culture that made him.
The below interview is a written version of ‘On the Record’ Season 2, Episode 4. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher Morency: When we think of reinvention and evolution, and I think much like the fashion industry, in music, it’s getting so crowded now which means you really have to reinvent at such a faster pace to stand out. That’s where you, Sean Paul, come in. Never afraid of the new, always looking at the landscape, taking it in and really adapting to it without straying too far from your roots. How have you been thinking about reinvention and influence during this time?
Sean Paul: It’s been depressing for me. I’ve never really been too much of an online type of person. I’m more live and do concerts. I feel that I’m going to have to get more and more innovative with my online presence, but when people say, “Is it too soon?” I just felt like I was taking advantage of people [by] continuing my hype life and all it takes to get people’s attention online, so I haven’t done much, a few [live streamed] performances here and there.
For me, I just don’t think I want to see [celebrities] on Instagram so much. You know what I mean? I want to know that they’re sending inspirational messages. I’ve seen Puffy do it. I’ve seen a lot of people who are just helping out their communities, in my own dancehall genre [it’s not about] giving out gift bags, [but] support bags, care packages with food and essentials that they need. But to promote your album and stuff like that, it’s kind of overdone to me, especially at this point.
Yeah, man. With all that being said, thinking about how to get followers, it’s something that I’m going to have to slowly get into. I’ve always been a slow starter. To tell the time on my watch, to tie my shoes, as a kid, I didn’t learn those things until way, way later. But once I do learn, I’m very good at it. When you say that I’ve been the one to [always] adapt and all of that, it’s funny. I just stay true to myself and try to not overdo it with the latest trends. I see the trends and I get into them the way that I think makes sense for me instead of totally changing who I am. A lot of people say I reinvent myself because of the hairstyles that I’ve had, but it’s not really a reinvention. It’s just an image. I’m the same person.
It’s an evolution.
Yeah. That’s a great word, evolution. That’s a great way to put it.
And your fan base is big. You had 780 million streams, 72 million listeners from 79 countries just on Spotify alone in 2019.
Yeah, that’s nuts. I also just released a song called ‘Back It up Deh’, which is a big dance song. I recorded and produced it myself, I would say almost a year ago. I’ve released other little projects, rhythm jugglings with different artists and myself for the past three years, and I was saving this one up. Because I constantly record on a regular basis but as this has been happening, past two months, nothing. [But] I’m going to start releasing these. ‘Back It up Deh’ got a million views in one day, which is the most views that I’ve ever gotten for my production so I’m feeling pretty accomplished with that. I asked the ladies to do a back it up challenge on camera and dance as good as they can. I haven’t received much of those videos yet, but I hope that they will be coming in soon.
I want to go back to those early days because it spark joy reading about those early days when you came up and it goes back to that pioneering spirit of influence in the early 2000’s when you came up and really did something that no one was doing internationally. You were so ahead of the curve with bringing dancehall global. Now, obviously we have everything from reggaeton and Afrobeats and K-pop but back then, the world was so centric around English music. Back then it wasn’t. How was it perceived in the early 2000’s?
In the culture I grew up in there was no difference between Shabba Ranks and Bobby Brown, which we know went on tour together and people were more blown away by the eccentric behavior and the crazy patois rhythms that were coming at them through Shabba Ranks’ performance. After Shabba, there was Shaggy who was big international but both of those artists kind of had to blend, which is something that I would have done if I was in that time period as well. They blended R&B and hip hop music with our dancehall style to try and get it out there. They were the pioneers to me. Then when I came up, I just wanted to do straight dancehall. I didn’t want to mix it. If America, the UK or Europe didn’t accept it, at least my own people in my country would appreciate it and party to it. So that was my main goal.
Where did that confidence start?
Growing up in Jamaica, I always kind of felt like I didn’t belong. I was a middle class kid. I went to a very upper class school and everybody who went there would go to Miami on school breaks. I never did. They would all come back with all kinds of gadgets and stuff, and so I didn’t feel like I belonged fully in that community. And then also as a kid, growing up, you see poor people and you also feel you don’t belong around them either because you don’t have it as hard as they do. To write songs where it would be accepted by a culture was my way of being included in the culture. To feel that I belonged. I’m a light-skinned kid that just didn’t have any so to speak knowledge or culture of that type of life then. You know what I mean? “He ain’t about that life,” type of thing and for me it was my way to try and express myself by saying, “Hey, we’re all equal. I can do this, you can do that. It’s the same thing. It just depends on what you put your focus to.”
I always saw my career as a type of fight for equality in terms of showing people that you can think outside of the box of what people expect you to be or become, and you can turn your life around and be part of whatever you want. I saw many great artists come before, as I said, who had to blend it. If I was an artist in that time period, that would have been the way to go. But by the time I [came up] it was just time for dancehall to pop. It wasn’t something I did, so to speak, it was just the same old proverb, “preparedness meets opportunity.” I was prepared. I had the material. I wanted to prove myself through my sales and so I became fit on that level. I owe it a lot to timing and also me wanting to prove it to myself enough.
That duality has always played to your success. Back then you were either famous on the street with the music, or you were famous on the radio. You never decided to do one or the other. It was always, “Let’s try to do both.”
To me, that’s what dancehall is. It’s the newspaper of the street. [Dancehall] talks about many different things and so it was on the radio and it was also in the streets. That’s just how it’s around here. I’ve always tried to be more of a monument person instead of a moment person. I was glad to be the person of the moment in 1996, ’97, ’98 and then after that, I wasn’t the person of the moment anymore in Jamaica. I had to fight to say, “How am I going to keep this?” And I realized, I couldn’t just be a person of the moment anymore. I had to be a monument. I had to stand up like a statue. I had to keep recording. I had to keep getting my voice out there and tell the stories that I knew other people would like to hear.
So what happened?
When I first started, I was doing a lot more conscious music and a couple of producers looked at me and said, “Bro.” Conscious music talking about the issues and they said, “We don’t believe you.” And I’m like, “Why don’t you believe me?” And they’re like, “Because although you’re singing the things, you don’t live that type of life. What we see you as is [someone who] has the ladies in his hand. You’re the party type of person. When we look at you, that’s the personality we see,” and so I gravitated to doing more of those songs, which really worked for me and I took direction in that respect. But as you said before, dancehall encompasses so many different things so I do have conscious songs like ‘Calling On Me’ that I did with Tove Lo earlier this year. In dancehall, you have to be versatile like that and you have to put out a lot of singles in this arena.
I think a lot of people get the meaning of dancehall confused. It’s such a versatile genre. It’s hints of pop and reggae and R&B and a lot more. How would you describe dancehall, the feeling, the vibe, the differentiator compared to other genres?
I like to tell people, especially in those early days when they ask me, “What is it? Dancehall? You’re from Jamaica and you don’t do reggae?” And I say, “Yeah, it’s called reggae dancehall. It’s more like the son of reggae and a brother to hip hop.” That’s exactly how I explain it. They understood it perfectly then. It’s like, “Oh, you’re talking in your own language, your own type of groove with the rhythm which is a very Afro-centric thing, and then you’re kind of rapping to us,” so they got it then. I think music like reggae, like hip hop, like dancehall, like reggaeton, even soca and calypso music and now Afrobeat are music where we cover topics that are current. They’re happening now so it’s living music. It’s now music. People can always go listen to music back in the day from the dancehall or from anywhere and you go back to that time in your head. You go back to that time in life. That’s why it’s such a prolific [genre] and it’s why it’s so easy for me to do songs with other genres like with Clean Bandit and ‘Breathe’ with Blu Cantrell or ‘Baby Boy’ with Beyoncé. It’s easy for us to do because we’ve [always] had to be versatile and go on any type of rhythm that you give us. That’s a stipulation of being real popular in the genre, in the stadium.
Some might think this globalization of music genres has always existed, and that’s not the case. For a dancehall song to hit number one like you guys did with ‘Baby Boy’ and more songs later, wasn’t a given.
No, it wasn’t and it still isn’t. There’s a complaint by the fans of my genre that is like, “How come it’s always the same couple people that get through? Not even the same couple of people, just one or two songs when there are so many amazing songs from the genre?” It’s something I have also fought for. When you get to a certain level, you have a rapport with different radio stations and disc jockeys and whatnot, and I went to war with some big stations in the States at some point in about 2009/2010. It was about the fact that they wouldn’t add more than one dancehall song at a time. It was an issue to me and I got all of the artists on the phone like Jr. Gong and a couple people and people from the radio station and I asked them, “When I first broke, it was a nothing genre to you all and then now I’m a superstar in the world. I have accomplished so many different things. I traveled to over 120 countries. It’s not just me. There’s other kids. There’s other songs and you’re not acknowledging them.”
Even when we win a Grammy, we win a reggae Grammy. That’s an issue for some people. Arguably Koffee, to me, won a dancehall Grammy. This [winning] song was a dancehall song, but she says she does reggae and the world says this is the latest reggae style that they love. You know what I mean? Even reggae has been pushed out the way and is deemed underground music, even though the most prolific artist of the last hundred years [according to] big publications was Bob Marley. It’s unfortunate.
Especially with the impact dancehall has had on mainstream music today.
I think we’ve also helped to spawn reggaeton, and we kind of helped to shape what soca music sounds like from Trinidad right now. Their topics, the way they spit and rhyme, and even the rhythms where they produce one rhythm with five different people on it. That never happened before in Trinidad. It only came from their understanding and their love of dancehall music from Jamaica. Also, Afrobeat. I mean, Fela Kuti is arguably the Bob Marley of that genre, and his music sounds nothing like what Afrobeat sounds like today.
When you look at all of that and see that we even influenced pop music in terms of [Justin] Bieber, Rihanna, and Drake doing dancehall oriented singles, it’s kind of funny to me. It’s nuts to me that people don’t say, “Oh, wow, then [dancehall] has to not be considered as this dinky little subgenre of reggae, but as one of the most dominant forms of musical expression that has taken over the planet.”
Exactly. Because it’s influenced a lot right now and I feel like often it’s so tokenistic, especially when you compare it to those early days when they only wanted to have one dancehall song on the radio. Still today artists and stations want to take from the genre but they refuse to contribute to it.
That’s what pisses me off. Not that they’re doing it. I love that they’re doing it. It proves to me how powerful it’s and that I was on the right steps as you said, ahead of the curve. [But] when people like these pop artists do use the genre, or even reggaeton or soca music, none of them really say, “Oh, this is a heavy influence on what dancehall is doing and has been doing over these years. We salute it.” And God rest Rogers’ soul but I always use it as an example. If I was to get up tomorrow and make music that sounds like Kenny Rogers and say, “This is my latest album,” people would come at me saying, “But that’s country western. What are you doing? You can’t say that that’s your music, bro, because that’s Kenny Rogers’. No, that’s country western.”
In the same way, I’m saying you can’t get up and say this is your latest single because there are kids who are 15 years old and they’re checking out that music for the first time and if you don’t say to them, “This is my dancehall oriented single,” what you’re doing is pretending to be innovative and pretending to be a pioneer.
When hip hop started to utilize all of the samples from James Brown or even a lot of samples from jazz music in the early ’90s, they would say, “This is from Miles Davis. This is from James Brown and the funk era. This is how it influenced us to do what we’re doing,” and they gave accolades to those artists and that music. I don’t hear a lot of people doing that when they use dancehall nowadays. It’s just “This is my latest single.”
Going back to influence, this whole idea of becoming popular, I think now more than ever it’s orchestrated by a team but in a way we’ve also gone back in time where you do have to fit a mold.
Yeah, it’s a double-sided sword. Back in the day, my only way to get my music out to people was to actually be in the streets, put it on there and get it on the radio, have relationships with these disc jockeys that would be the mix show DJs. Now, it’s so much easier to upload your stuff, but there’s also so much [more] stuff out there. I mean, in 2005, when a record label executive looked at me and said, “Bro, there’s so much competition now. There are 15 million bands on Myspace,” and I said, “What the fuck?” I didn’t realize that at the time and that was then. I can’t imagine what it’s right now. You can get lost in that ocean. I’m not sure if you can say it’s easier to blow. It may seem that way. It’s easier to get noticed by more friends, sure. But will it go viral and go over, that’s the next question and that’s where the team comes in. So you do need a team. As an artist, you have tools that you need to have and utilize to get around and they’re the management, that’s the road manager, that’s the A&R type thing who help with the snowball effect. Two heads are better than one. The point you made about younger people not understanding that part is very valid to me. I don’t think that most people actually do get that. The perception that it’s easy to just blow internationally all over the world from the internet, it’s not so easy.
The core of influence nowadays is how strong your brand is, how strong your team around you is and how well you can communicate that.
A lot of the time as an artist you may feel, “Well, I’m doing all the work. I’m writing the song. I’m in the studio for these hours. I’m on the stage. I don’t get any sleep.” [But] equally, these people are behind you making calls. They’re making sure that your every footstep is a smooth one and that it’s also memorable. They help to do that, for sure.
When we look at someone else who I admire in that aspect is Travis Scott. He has a creative director and he has a lot of people behind him that he also lets shine.
You can’t do it without them. I mean, you can be the one man band. You can be the artist, you can also rap, you can produce and you can buy your own cameras, but it’s going to take up so much time and it’s going to, at some point, impact the quality of the product that you’re trying to give the people. You have to segment. You can’t be your lawyer and your doctor and prescribe everything yourself. You can’t do it.
What you learn, you pass on.
Yeah, man. That’s me producing on the Dutty Rock label. It’s me trying to give back to the genre and keep it alive in whichever way I know I can. Those are the people I’m concentrating on here in Jamaica, people who don’t have the shine. Chi Ching Ching was the first signee on my label. I brought him on tour. I’m in the newspaper the next morning and I’m walking through the airport and no one is noticing me. They’re only looking at this tall dude beside me and going, “Who is that guy?” And going up to him and like, “Can I have a picture?” For him to control people’s attention like that, that’s a talent. [And] I earned no money off of it. I just see it as doing my part to continue this great genre that’s it. In 1996 when producers took a chance to voice me, I mean, they weren’t arguably making a lot of money producing these songs, not like what Timbaland and Pharrell and these guys were making or Teddy Riley at the time. They were just like, “This kid seems talented and what he’s doing is helping to keep the culture alive.
Dancehall is a lot of creative competition so I am in competition even with my own artists, but it’s creative and that’s what I like about it. It’s not manipulative or destructive. For me, it’s a way to keep myself on my toes.
That’s what true enduring influence is. I think a lot of people talk about legacy and longevity thinking as an individual, whereas, in a way, true influence in the long term is mentorship.
It definitely is. I tell people that I don’t really lead by telling people what to do. I like to lead by example and my every step in this genre should be an example to someone who emulates what I do or likes what I do. Even mentoring someone else, I hope that younger artists when they do become bigger understand that they should mentor artists and producers and take them under their wing. Teddy Riley did it for Pharrell and Timbaland. In contrast, Timbaland did it back for Scott Storch. You know what I mean? And I look at Dr. Dre and Eminem and 50 Cent. These are steps. Now, these are big money moves, yes, but they’re also steps to continue the genre and take the culture to new places.
What are some of the things that you would tell the next generation that could help them in their careers?
There are many ways to get your music out there nowadays which I didn’t have. So take advantage of those ways. If you want to be an artist that does make an impact and not just be the person of the moment, you have to dig deep in the material, dig deep inside what you have because it’s very easy nowadays to become a one-hit wonder. Be prepared, is what I’m trying to say because there’s a longevity to the music.
Then also make sure that you have a solid team, people you can trust. Even if you don’t have a big team with the stylist and this and that, you need to have a great lawyer and a great manager that helps you.
And then do it from the heart and know that right now in this time, it’s very difficult to think about just making money from the music alone. Yeah, you should be paid for your efforts but at this point in time, it’s going to be a lot different than many young people have perceived it to be. You’re going to have to work a lot harder and you’re going to have to take a lot of risks.
Sean, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.
All right, bro. Peace.