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Music by VICE

Sean Paul: The Return

We talked with the Dancehall star about his childhood spent on the Jamaican Water Polo team, his cameo in 'Belly,' and his global approach to his home country's music.

by Drew Millard
Nov 21 2013, 6:45pm

Photo by Justin Staple

If you’re of a certain age, the music of Sean Paul played an integral role in your formative years. For a period in the early-to-mid-aughts, the Jamaican musician was a radio staple, filtering the often byzantine and imposing reggae and Dancehall scene into a format that made sense to American listeners. His singles “Temperature,” “Gimme the Light,” “Like Glue,” and “Get Busy” managed to fit into the greater picture of cacophonic, post-Timbaland pop-rap while retaining a unique sense of Jamaicanness, a fact that he takes pride in.

As the sound of global pop changed, Sean Paul changed with it, last year shedding his braids in favor of a Mohawk and releasing Tomahawk Technique, which offered a shattered-earth vision of Dancehall that wouldn’t sound out of place at a party in Kingston or in a big-tent DJ set at Ultra. This straddling of tradition and progression continues on his upcoming record Full Frequency, which includes the singles “Riot” and “Entertainment 2.0.” “Riot” is a collaboration with Damian Marley, recalling his breakout single “Welcome to Jamrock” as interpreted through the lens of scorched-earth trap. “Entertainment 2.0,” meanwhile, is a collaboration with Juicy J, 2 Chainz, and Nicki Minaj, and features one of the most stellar Nicki verses in recent memory.

Recently, Sean Paul paid a visit to the VICE offices where he and I discussed the past, present, and future of Dancehall, his stint on the Jamaican Junior National water polo team, and the 30 seconds he spent in Belly that might have made his career possible.

Noisey: Let’s talk your new song with Damian Marley.
Sean Paul: I've known him for years, known him since he was in school with my brother. Always, throughout our careers been like, yo, we should tour together, we should work together. Never did it. And then in '09 we kind of got together in the studio, never found the right one until this year. He’s very meticulous, and so am I. I think it's a great song. It's about justice.

Do you feel like there's a responsibility that comes with being one of the main guys representing Jamaica in American culture?
Yeah. The sense of responsibility where the culture brought me here. I always had a culture to bring some people along or to enlighten people who never knew about certain things about certain topics or certain things that happen in Jamaica. So it's important to me in that respect.

What’s going on politically in Jamaica right now?
It's back and forth all the time. There’s two major parties. One is a major party that's kind of setting up—the party that's not in power now does have their own elections so it's kind of crazy. Our politics is very mixed up, I don't like to get involved.

What was it like growing up in Kingston?
It was different for me for you know, I guess from the regular view of what someone growing up in Kingston is. I was a middle‑class kid; I was always provided for. But the great thing about being in Jamaica is that you get to see both sides of the fence, even if you're from the poorest part or you're from the richest part, you interact with everyone there. It's just a small place. So the great thing about that is that it gets your mind sharp. I'm not just one way. There's people who grow up in a certain situation and they're like, “Oh, this is me and this is my whole lifestyle.” I know people who live in a zinc hut, like aluminum roof. When it rains water and mud comes under their bed. And I know people that live in mansions. So you know, as I said, you get to see both sides and I guess it makes me just a more aware person or a conscious person.

I saw on Wikipedia that you were on the Jamaican Water Polo team?
Yes, sir.

That's fun.
[Laughs] Yeah, it's—[laughs] my grandfather came back from World War II and joined the first water polo team in the Caribbean. And they went to Central American games and that was in the '50s. It was actually the Commonwealth Games, sorry, and it was held in Jamaica in the '50s. He had seven kids, they all swam. My father being the oldest. He met my mom. She was a swim champion. They taught swimming for summers when I was growing up. So by the time I was about 13 I was playing water polo just like for the country. Went to certain games like what you call, Central American Games, Pan American Games. We went to events like club events in Orlando and Trinidad and Barbados; Mexico, San Juan. So I was touring back then but just not for my music. I was representing the country. I feel the same sense of patriotism when I'm doing my thing on stage. I'm waving the flag for my country right now.

When did you decide to do music?
I was about 15 years old and I was like, “Mom, there's a keyboard I could build back riddims with it.” And she was like, “What are you talking about?” She sent me to piano lessons and I'm like, “No, I want a keyboard.” And she bought it for me in a flea market on a Sunday, basically for my birthday. I dabbled with that for a few years, different beats, trying to mess with it. And then I kind of started rhyming.

What was it like back in those early days grinding? How did you get your music heard?
It was two ways: The street, or the radio. And so I always wanted to do something that got on the radio, but it was important to be very heated in the streets. I started out by going to small barbecues and like school events and stuff like that, and then graduated to the real dances. Back then it was street dances—even though our genre is much bigger right now, back then, there was way bigger dances. Now there's a noise law in Jamaica, and so we can't hold the things outside anymore as much. So those were what we used to do, go on the streets, go to the big dances, get on the mic and try to be on the radio. In those early years there were a lot of dubplates, too. I don't know if you know what that is, but it's like a special song for a sound system or a radio disc jockey or whatever, that basically you just—you do a song, you get on the radio, and then you do it 5,000 more times for every disc jockey out there. And I think it was a great way to practice my work. It was a great way to get my stuff out and it actually worked. I think when you worked hard then, the results showed. Right now, if you work hard a lot at promotion, sometimes it doesn't really show up, which is unfortunate.

Weren’t you in Belly?
Yeah, I was in Belly for two minutes. [Laughs]

Belly's like the greatest movie ever of all time.
It is. And it was crazy for me. The night before—there's a big beach dance that's held every year called Fully Loaded. And it has a sound system, so we went to it and I was kind of getting tired of it; I was doing a lot of touring at the time. So I stayed home and the next day I got up at nine in the morning—that was early for me—and this dude was like, "Yo, DMX was at a party last night." And I was like, “No way. How is he at the party? No one ever ties him being there.” “Oh, he's shooting a movie.” “Okay.” Second call I get is Tony Kelly who's a producer of the track (“Top Shotta,” which appeared on the Belly soundtrack). He's like, "Yo, come into my studio today like right now. You're doing a song with Mr. Vegas and DMX." I was like, "Okay." And at the time, DMX that year had let go, released three albums that year and was just the biggest star.

We were actually writing a girl song, because that's what me and Mr. Vegas, that's kind of that's our link. And you know, what was I gonna say? Hype Williams just wanted the two hottest kids in Jamaica, at the time which happened to be us. So DMX comes in and hears us and he says, "Cool, I was thinking this—here comes the boom, here comes the boom." And it starts this kind of crazy lyrics and we're like, “Oh, damn, okay, cool.” So we were singing the song with, "All of the girls put your hands high." And then we changed to be, "All of the gangsters, hold up your guns high.” And then Hype Williams is like, “I'm gonna put a scene in the video, in the movie, we're gonna do a video for the song too.” We actually shot half of a video.

That's awesome.
Which I don't know where it is, or why it doesn't exist right now. I was wearing a stupid Oakley shirt, I remember. It just never came out. But us being in the movie kind of helped to bring me and Vegas to a lot of hip‑hop heads and crowds here in the United States. So I'm always thankful for those 30 seconds. [Laughs]

Where do you see dancehall heading?
There's so many different things happening in dance hall. As I said before, it was a smaller genre when I first started. There was a whole island-pop kind of thing going on a couple of years ago which a lot of artists were doing and trying to capitalize on the pop song thing that was happening with people like Sean Kingston or whatever. So a lot of our artists were making tracks that sounded very light and poppy and it just didn't sound like dancehall to me anymore. So I was not doing a lot of dancehall tracks, and I tried to do some other work in terms of work with other producers that I'd never worked with before. However, in the scene right now, I'm think there's a revival of the culture going on right now.

Let's talk about “Entertainment 2.0” with Nicki Minaj. Did you see that verse coming?
I did not see it coming. [Laughs] I went to, what was it, Atlanta. I've not done hip‑hop, nothing, since, the days with the Clips and working with Neptunes. I've been on songs with Busta and Jay Z and I just kind of missed that energy of being in the hip‑hop crowds. So I did my part on the song, and then I heard 2 Chainz was in the studio. I was like, “Let's go over there.” We played basketball, we fucked around, we didn't really talk about music or nothing. And so for that reason I think that was just the most organic link on the album. It was just me and him, we were playing ball and then I was like, "Yo, I got something," he's like, "I got something too." And we both listened to each other's projects. After that, I talked to Nicki Minaj trying to get her to do another song. And she just hits us back saying, “No, I like this song, ‘Entertainment,’ I'm on it. And they're sending me the track.” So that was a surprise to me because it was like out on a limb to try to get her on the song anyway.

One of the most amazing things about your classic records was how you could stitch these words together and all of the sudden they're just like in your brain forever.
It's the way I flow. People are like, “Oh, I've got this riddim, I'm thinking of like a great party song.” And those tracks are just making me say something else. And “I'm like, I'm not hearing it, I'm hearing this.” Most people want party tracks from me. Not many producers are wanting me to sing anything else or to rap anything else on a track. But when I'm flowing I flow. I don't how it happens. Stitch it together, as you said, I like it. Because that is what I'm doing. It's not really profound paragraphs or sentences, I'm just telling you what's on my mind, basically.

I relistened to Dutty Rock today in preparation for this, and what struck me was how ahead of its time it was.
25 tracks on it. That's what I miss nowadays. But thank you. We did skits. We put like a little video on there. We wanted to be different from what was happening in Jamaica. I always thought our music is great, it's big, it's the most underground, international music, it doesn't get played on the big radio stations or TV stations, but there's at least one or two records in every club in the world that people know and people hear and they're like, oh, I love that.

How did you manage to cross over?
That's the thing. A lot of times we see our work presented to us in a way that where we're like, that's not natural to us. They're like, “Oh, you got to be in the hills with the Rastas and smoking on a big pipe.” And I'm like, “I don't see that image for me. I see another image which is just something abstract, which will make people go hey, that's different.” I always stood out in my genre—I do not come from the ghetto, where this music was born. I don't market, but I knew that if I came in a different light I would get a lot more people's attention. No one ever thought of shooting your own album cover and doing your own artwork at the time, or even doing skits, or putting a little low‑budget video on the album just to give the listeners a little bit more.

Why did you lose the braids for a Mohawk?
One day I was looking in the mirror and I was like, “I hate how this looks.” I just hated seeing the braids over and over. I guess a lot of people were like, “But that's what we know you for.” I guess I became more internationally famous with the braids, but I just didn't like it anymore. I decided I was going to shave it, but halfway through doing it and I was like, “Wait a minute, how about a Mohawk?” Did it. And I left it. I sent my family a pic and I spent my brother a pic and he's like, "Oh, you did it, nice." And so I went to my brother’s house and—

You did it yourself?
Yeah. Well I had a cap on so I shaved the sides and I'm walking in and they're like, “Oh, yeah, you shaved, let me see.” Took it off and they were like—both my mom and brother took two seconds and said, "I like it, leave it." My wife cuts it now.

Pre-order Full Frequency on iTunes.

Drew Millard is the Features Editor of Noisey. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard