The Lords of Reggae Are Rolling: New York Times

New York Times -

June 28, 2002

The Lords of Reggae Are Rolling

BEFORE most summer music festivals, the questions are simple: What will the weather be? Who's performing? How much are tickets? But with reggae, it's a little different. New York City's biggest reggae concert of the season takes place on Sunday on Randalls Island, and some fans may have another question on their minds: Will any of the performers be booed offstage, or perhaps even attacked with beer bottles? It's a rare occurrence, but not unheard-of.

The question was put to Elephant Man, one of the headliners of the concert, the Guinness Reggae Carifest 2K2. "You know, you don't think about bottles; I'm not into the war and the passa-passa," he said, using the slang term for gossip. "Whosoever wants to go and get bottled, he can go and get bottled, but I'm coming to perform for the people."

To anyone who thinks of reggae as a laid-back relic of the 1970's, Sunday's concert might be a surprise. In its current incarnation, reggae — sometimes known as dancehall reggae — is a fierce, restless genre where creativity and competitiveness are closely linked. "This is a younger generation of reggae music," said Beenie Man, another of the Carifest headliners. "It's faster, more lyrics, more things to talk about, a better groove, something to jump to."

Reggae itself is relatively young. The first reggae records came out in the late 1960's, and the combination of soulful vocals and exaggerated backbeat was so popular that the term reggae became synonymous with Jamaican music. The name stuck even as the sound began to evolve.

The Jamaican record industry has historically been driven by D.J.'s, not consumers, and the D.J.'s required a constant stream of records that sounded new and different. So vocalists and producers embarked on a series of experiments. In the early 70's, producers experimented with radical remixes of popular songs (thereby creating a subgenre, dub reggae); later, they began to incorporate electronic sounds and samples. At the same time, vocalists were trying out a more declarative style — a combination of singing, talking and shouting.

The music-making process that has emerged is at once innovative and old-fashioned. Every week, a new batch of songs are pressed onto 45-r.p.m. vinyl records and snatched up by club D.J.'s, radio D.J.'s and a relatively small number of consumers. These singles are grouped by the musical backing track they use; the track is known as a rhythm, and when there's a really popular rhythm, virtually all the leading vocalists will record their own versions of it. It's not unusual for a leading vocalist to produce two or three discs' worth of material in a single year.

The reggae industry is still based in Jamaica; that's where most of the vocalists and producers live. There are outposts in London, which has long embraced Jamaican music, and Miami, which has the advantages of proximity and climate. But in many ways, New York is reggae's second home.

The genre's two biggest record labels are here: VP has its headquarters in Queens, and Greensleeves, though based in London, also maintains an office in Manhattan. There are first-rate reggae record stores, most notably Moodie's in the Bronx and the VP retail shop in Queens. On the radio, WLIB (1190 AM) is devoted to Caribbean music, with an emphasis on reggae, and a number of other stations have reggae programs. There's a leading dancehall reggae recording studio, Don 1's, in Brooklyn. And perhaps most important, there are lots of places to go out and hear the music: there is a network of thriving nightclubs, and all the leading performers regularly play New York. Dancehall reggae isn't usually thought of as a local phenomenon, but over the last few decades the genre has spawned one of the city's most vibrant music scenes.

The Guinness Reggae Carifest 2K2 is by no means the only reggae event in the city this summer, but it is certainly the biggest, a 10-hour extravaganza featuring 10 acts ranging from roots reggae to soca, the uptempo polyrhythmic genre derived from calypso.

The headliners are three of the best and most intriguing vocalists in dancehall reggae: Beenie Man, Elephant Man and Bounty Killer. All three have markedly different styles and personas; in fact, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer are sworn enemies.

Beenie Man

Beenie Man isn't as well known as Shaggy, the Brooklyn-reared dancehall reggae star who crossed over with "Hotshot," an accessible-sounding album that was one of the best-selling discs of 2001 in any genre. (Shaggy is not scheduled to appear at Sunday's concert.) But Beenie Man
is a much more adventurous vocalist who is trying to find success outside Jamaica while maintaining his dancehall reggae bona fides. His current single is "Fresh From Yard," featuring the rapper Lil' Kim.

Reached by telephone in Jamaica, he explained that he was in the studio, recording a new batch of 45's for the hardcore dancehall reggae audience. "You don't want to lose Jamaica and take it international, because then you're going to be messed up," he said.

Beenie Man, 28 (real name: Anthony Moses Davis), was a reggae child prodigy. He had his first hit, "Too Fancy," when he was 8, and in the early 1990's he established himself as one of reggae's most appealing voices, an accomplished lyricist who delivered his verses with just enough melody to make them stick.

Right from the start, Beenie Man found himself embroiled in controversy: a fearsome young vocalist called Bounty Killer contended that Beenie had stolen his style. Almost a decade later, the war rages on.

Asked about the feud, Beenie Man tried to take the high road. "A lot of people strive for negativity," he said. When reminded that he would be sharing the stage with Bounty Killer at Carifest, he shrugged off the rivalry. "Anything can happen," he said, "but I'm there to work."

It may sound convincing, but don't believe it for a minute. A few months ago, at a concert in Jamaica, the two men had a nasty confrontation onstage. And earlier this year, Beenie Man released a series of vitriolic singles attacking Bounty Killer, accusing him of being a "chi chi man" — a homosexual.

When he's not maligning Bounty Killer, Beenie Man is a good deal more charming. He has a knack for turning a fast and furious reggae beat into something light and playful. One of his biggest hits, "Who Am I," was based on a nonsensical bit of patter about a BMW: "Sim simma/Who got the keys to my Bimma?"

Unlike a number of other reggae singers, Beenie Man has also figured out how to negotiate nonreggae rhythms. "Girls Dem Sugar," an enchanting duet with the R & B singer Mya, used a beat by the hip-hop production duo the Neptunes. His new album, due out later this summer, will include a collaboration with Janet Jackson.

He insists that hip-hop producers have been ripping off reggae for years, but when pressed he admitted that the influence goes both ways. "We take music from America, too," he said. "You rob somebody, and somebody robs you back. That's justice."

Elephant Man

First off, there's the name. And no, it doesn't come from the movie, and no, he didn't earn it for being ugly. (Although, truth be told, the bleached hair doesn't help his case.) For the record: "When I was a kid, they said my ears were big, so they used to call me Elephant Man. But I outgrew the ears."

Elephant Man, 24 (real name: O'Neil Bryan) started out as a protégé of Bounty Killer, but over the last few years he has distanced himself from his former mentor, releasing a string of winsome singles and two successful albums. The most recent, "Log On" (Greensleeves), came out in November and topped the Jamaican pop charts for months.

Few performers can match Elephant Man's unshakable belief in the power of novelty. There seems to be nothing he won't do once — or over and over again, if need be — to keep people interested. Even his voice sounds, at first, like a gimmick: he screams every word, sacrificing melody (and sometimes sense) for the sake of bluster. It would be a memorable approach even if he didn't have a severe lisp and a fondness for highly sibilant catchphrases like, "Shizzle my nizzle" (which means, more or less, "Uh-huh").

He is also known for his live shows, which often find him jumping into the crowd, climbing onto the speakers and even wriggling into the scaffolding. "Whenever they see Elephant Man, they're going to get their money's worth," he vowed, proudly explaining that his fans had bestowed upon him another nickname: the Energy God.

Since he believes in novelty, Elephant Man isn't afraid to be topical. His response to the attacks of Sept. 11 was one of the first, and it remains one of the strangest. On "The Bombing," Elephant Man remembered the day with a combination of candor and irreverence that few other performers would attempt, even now. Reflecting on the ways things have changed, he rhymes, "No weed cyaan smuggle again, through the bombing/Cyaan pass customs with a pen, through the bombing." ("Cyaan" is Jamaican dialect for "can't.")

Elephant Man is perhaps the finest rip-off artist in reggae, and that's quite a compliment. "Log On" included his garbled versions of hits by Missy Elliott, R. Kelly, Nas, P. Diddy and Trick Daddy, as well as a puzzling cover of the old doo-wop song "Earth Angel." More recently, he has appropriated the 1980's pop tune "99 Red Balloons," and he swears that this most recent theft wasn't premeditated: he was in the studio, listening to a rhythm, and the old Nena tune just popped into his head. "I was so thankful," he says, remembering the moment.

Asked about his tendency to sing other people's tunes, he seemed to slip into character. "I'm trying to show you all that I got the talent!" he exclaimed. "It's nothing for me; I can do anything. I can ride the beat, I can pronounce the words, I can take the melody and do something so creative with it, so brilliant . . ."

It probably wasn't the first time he had shouted these words into a phone, and it probably won't be the last. But Elephant Man's stylized approach goes beyond mere chest-thumping. It's a reaction to the regimented world of dancehall reggae, which demands creativity while insisting that everyone use the same music. Elephant Man wants to make sure he stands out like a sore thumb, and so far he has succeeded.

Needless to say, he's not satisfied yet. Before he hung up, he made a final plea: he wants to record a song with the R & B singer Usher. "Do you have a friend that can hook me up with some people over there," he asked, "so we can do some collaboration? Just do it. You ain't going to
regret it."

Bounty Killer

As of last week, Bounty Killer, 30 (real name: Rodney Price) had the most popular single in Jamaica. The song is "Sufferer," based on a dazzling rhythm called "Diwali," and it starts with a burst of lyrics: "Born as a sufferer/Grew up as a sufferer/Struggled as a sufferer/Make it as a sufferer." At the end of the chorus, the singer Wayne Marshall pleads, "I've been working to get my pay, my pay, my pay, my pay."

When someone picked up the phone in Bounty Killer's studio in Jamaica, the same rhythm was playing, and Bounty Killer was singing the same tune. But he had changed all the words. The new version goes, "Born as a murderer/Grew up as a murderer/Fight as a murderer/Survive as a murderer." He has rewritten the chorus, too, so that now it's about shooting a machine gun: "We spray, we spray, we spray, we spray."

Bounty Killer, 29, is one of the most feared lyricists in reggae, a veteran of so many battles that people call him the Warlord. And on this afternoon, he was recording a dubplate: a one-off record made for a specific D.J., who would play it during a cutthroat club competition known as a clash. Bounty Killer said he would never release a track like that for mass consumption. "I ain't encouraging people to be murderers," he said. "I'm a Killer, but I ain't a murderer."

Bounty Killer is nothing if not contradictory. One minute he was vowing that he didn't want to be a pop star; the next minute he was bragging about "Guilty," a rousing new collaboration with the hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz. To capitalize on his own contradictory tendencies, Bounty Killer split his new album into two discs, with 20 songs on each: "Ghetto Dictionary: The Art of War" and "Ghetto Dictionary: The Mystery," both released last month on VP Records. "One for the street thugs," he said, referring to "The Art of War." "And one for the sufferers and strugglers in the ghetto who are trying to understand their mysteries."

Neither disc is as cohesive as Bounty Killer's landmark 1996 album, "My Xperience," but each affirms that he has one of the greatest voices in the history of reggae. He goes from a commanding baritone to a blood-curdling wail in the space of a few words, spitting rapid-fire lyrics the whole time.

For years, the division between Beenie Man and Bounty Killer seemed clear: Beenie Man was the aspiring pop star, Bounty Killer was the virtuoso vocalist. Then No Doubt asked Bounty Killer to contribute a verse to its song "Hey Baby," and suddenly Bounty Killer had a huge crossover hit.

But the success of "Hey Baby" posed a peculiar problem. In the video, No Doubt's drummer, Adrian Young, takes off his clothes. That was all the opening Beenie Man needed: with a mixture of amusement and indignation, he castigated Bounty Killer for taking part in such a production, concluding that since he had appeared "in a video with a naked man," he must be a member of the "chi chi Taliban."

When reminded of the No Doubt incident, Bounty Killer unleashed an antigay tirade of his own, dredging up an ancient story about the time Beenie Man appeared on a talk show with the drag queen RuPaul as host.

It's not just Beenie Man and Bounty Killer: antigay lyrics are a fixture in dancehall reggae, delivered with vehemence and glee. "It's just the way of people, man," Bounty Killer said. "They are upset with people being gay and fronting as if they're hardcore."

Bounty Killer clearly loves reggae's tradition of competition and insult, and he said he was looking forward to Carifest, where he'll face not only Beenie Man but also Merciless, another dancehall vocalist with whom he has feuded. "Outside of Jamaica, New York is the most powerful place for Bounty Killer," he said. "I could play New York for a whole month."

He said he wasn't going to prepare any verbal assaults for the other performers. "I don't want to go there planning to pick on them, and everybody's laid back and makes me look like I'm the bad one," Bounty Killer said. "I just want to go there with an open mind. If everyone's cool, I'm just going to do my show."

And if everyone's not cool? "I'll kill them all."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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January 26, 2003 at 02:37 PM