Even when he’s dominated the pop charts, Shaggy’s always been a man out of time. “There was nothing on the radio that sounded like it,” he tells me in conversation last week about his 1993 debut single “Oh Carolina,” a slow-rolling, “Peter Gunn”-nicking growler that also counted as the Kingston reggae veteran’s first real-deal hit. That song and 1995’s “Boombastic” both counted as global smashes—but it was 2000’s “It Wasn’t Me” that Shaggy broke big with US audiences, scoring his first number one single in the country.
“We were in a Britney Spears and N*SYNC kind of world at the time,” he ruminates on the pop climate circa the release of 2000’s Hot Shot, the six-times-platinum album that features “It Wasn’t Me” and fellow number-one hit “Angel.” “I decided to just do Shaggy. I’ve always gone against the grain of things.”
Indeed, since Hot Shot Shaggy’s spent the last 16 years charting his own path, dipping in and out of slithery dancehall, bouncy chart-pop, and sunny, straight-ahead reggae. As he puts it, “I’m the only one in dancehall that’s been able to go from dancehall to pop, then back to dancehall, and then to reggae—while still being successful in all of them.” And he’s still moving: the first two singles from his forthcoming LP, the James Brown-sampling “I Got You” and the just-released “That Love,” embraces bright sonics and strident drum sounds—think more “Uptown Funk” and “Happy” and less of the current strain of dancehall running through the veins of American pop music.
“Dancehall is now very popular, but when I did it, I was criticized for selling out,” Shaggy explains without a trace of bitterness in his voice. “They’re doing what I’ve always done, so I have to find another way to challenge myself. That’s why I take James Brown and put him on a dancehall record—who the fuck does that?”
The 47-year-old says that his new album, due out later this year, will be focused on “love songs,” likening it to Hot Shot—but Shaggy being Shaggy, he’s cautious against repeating himself stylistically, too. “I used to do a lot of storytelling, which I don’t do as much anymore.” he offers regarding his songwriting approach. “It’s more about saying fun things in fun ways.”
Above all else, Shaggy’s keeping in mind what he perceives to be his core demographic—women. “Dudes don’t like me as much as the chicks do,” he laughs. “Dudes like me because the chicks like me. There was a survey that more women purchased ‘It Wasn’t Me’ because women are better than men at everything—even cheating.”
Noisey: Do you remember the first time you ever said “I love you” to someone?
ShaggyI don’t even remember my first girlfriend. I don’t think my first girlfriend even knew she was my girlfriend—I probably I told her I loved her fifty times in my head. Young boys and their crushes, man—those young girls that were in school were my girls.
Have you had any extreme encounters with female fans—women waiting outside of your room or anything like that?
Who goes to be in music as a top superstar and not bang? You get into this whole thing to be laid. I could sit here and tell you I was just in it for the music—but nah. I got into clubs for free, I got drinks for free, I got chicks, and they paid me. What a fucking job—the best in the world.
Do you remember the first show you played?
It was in Miami’s Bayfront Park—an African guy put it on.
Were you nervous?
Nah. I did sound systems before that, so I was already used to just being in front of people. I got popular in school by spitting rhymes in the lunchroom—people would just gather around, and that’s how I made my name and got chicks.
So you’ve never been the shy type.
I was the shy type before I started doing something where people started taking notice. The shyness goes away when everybody knows you.
Tell me about your experience as a Marine.
I used to sell weed on Clarkson and Nostrand in Brooklyn, and I was hanging out with all the wrong people doing all the wrong things. I saw one of my friends get locked up and knew I don’t want to go there, so in 1989 I walked into a recruiting office and looked at the uniforms. The Navy wore blouses and ugly-ass bell bottoms, but I thought I could get laid in the Marines uniform, so I went with that one.
I didn’t know the Marines were so hard, though. I thought it’d be like Cub Scouts, but there’s some dude screaming in my face and chewing tobacco. I mushed him in the face and six of them came out on me, so I learned really quick what not to do that night. Being talented is one thing, but I couldn’t have made it this far in music without being disciplined in the military. [Points to his team] Do you know how early those motherfuckers wake me up just to go get something done? That doesn’t happen unless you’re in the military. They’d have us ironing clothes, and we’d have to use toothbrushes just to wash between the grout on the bathroom. It instils something in you.
I was stationed in North Carolina, and I drove up to New York City every weekend to do music—an 18-hour round trip. My producer and I would go to the studio, I’d cut the records, and then I’d turn around and drive all the way back. I was always AWOL.
Did you ever get in trouble with the Marines for that?
Absolutely—but the colonel of my battalion was a big reggae fan, so he turned a blind eye at the time.
Tell me about fighting in the Gulf War.
It was rough. I drove through [the Iraqis’] fighting holes and saw pictures of their loved ones, and we were just blowing them up. You see their families and realize that these people are just people.
You have kids, right?
I have five kids—I’m Jamaican, man, what the fuck are you talking about? [Laughs]
If any of your kids wanted to enlist in the military, would you let them?
No, not at this time. When I did it, people could go 20 years without seeing war. Now you can’t enlist without seeing battle. The US is in the midst of all that ISIS shit and everybody comes back fucked up. Look at all the guys over in Afghanistan. I do a lot of work for USO, and as an ex-military all I can do is just do my best whenever they call. We do a lot of stuff with them and try to help them out. Someone told me that, at Parris Island, there’s a big picture of me in the gallery.
How have you seen Kingston change over the course of the last few decades?
It’s a massive city—a melting pot of coolness. A lot of people visit the coast for the real touristy shit, but all of my friends that I’ve brought to Kingston have said they want to come back because they had so much fun.
What’s the biggest misconception American culture has towards Jamaica?
That it’s the most violent place in the world. I’m not saying there’s no crime, but you could show me places in New York City I shouldn’t be after 10 PM No major city is exempt of that.
People are scared [of Jamaica], but the minute they come down and experience it for themselves, they’re like, “Aw man, this is dope.”
Over the past few years, American chart pop has increasingly sounded more like pop music not specifically native to America.
A lot has changed. Pop radio used to only play white pop music. Now, with the internet, white kids see a whole new culture that wouldn’t have been available to them otherwise, so when you listen to radio, it’s not segregated anymore. The more that happens, the music changes. There was a time that if you said you were pop, that would be death to your career. Now, the hardest guys in Kingston are listening to Justin Bieber at seven in the morning, smoking a spliff. Everything is now cool—that’s just how the world has changed.
I loved your album with Sly and Robbie, Out of Love One Music. Tell me about working with two reggae legends such as them.
I was noticing that I wasn’t booking any reggae festivals. They’d tell my agent that I wasn’t reggae. I decided to do an all-reggae album—and if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it really well with the best there is, so I called Sly & Robbie because they’re the best at this and I’ve known them for years. They flew up to my house in New York, hung out in the kitchen, and cooked as we made records all day for about two weeks.
We were nominated for a Grammy, and we should’ve won, but the record that won that year was a Steve Marley album that nobody knew. I’m not scared to say that shit, because the Marleys dominate the Grammys most of the time—and it’s not really their fault. Half these other reggae artists don’t know you have to vote and register and all that shit. The Marleys do, though—they vote, they register, they win, and we get all mad. I work for the rewards, though—not the awards. The awards just collect dust.
Larry Fitzmaurice really loved the early 2000s. Follow him on Twitter.