Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Sean Paul: Dancepaul star

Sean Paul
Sean Paul Sean Paul Sean Paul Sean Paul

With more than 10 million albums sold worldwide, Sean Paul has already become easily the most successful Jamaican artist of all time in the US charts while simultaneously - on a wider scale - giving his homeland its highest global music profile since the heyday of the late, great Bob Marley.

Born Sean Paul Ryan Francis Henriques in Kingston, Jamaica in January 1973, the man since dubbed in some quarters âthe shaggable, telegenic star dancehall music has always been waiting forâ(!) released his debut album - the prophetically-titled âStage Oneâ - back in 2000. Since which time - via career highlights like 2002âs Grammy-winning, multi-Platinum LP âDutty Rockâ (which spawned the international smashes âGimme The Lightâ, âGet Busyâ and âLike Glueâ) and 2006âs transatlantic chart-topper âTemperatureâ - he has unquestionably done more than any other dancehall deejay to bring the cutting-edge hardcore sound of underground Kingston to pop and urban audiences across the world; proving time-and-again that modern Jamaican reggae can be a viable genre in todayâs international music mainstream.

Meanwhile, this summer finds the ever-personable Sean finally following up 2005âs Platinum-certified âThe Trinityâ with his aforementioned, long-awaited fourth LP âImperial Blazeâ. Which - pioneered by the compulsive hook and monstrous, stabbing bass of its infectiously upbeat single âSo Fineâ - sees him delivering more of his signature blend of dancehall, reggae and hip hop on a set recorded primarily in Jamaica with some of the islandâs hottest young producers. As a braided-and-beshaded Mr. Henriques explains, while reacquainting himself with Blues & Souls' Pete Lewis.

âA lot of people think the title âImperial Blazeâ means a big spliff or a huge chalice. But no sir, what it actually signifies is âThe Kingâs Fireââ, begins Sean in articulate, yet still-strong JA tones: âWhat Iâm talking about with âImperial Blazeâ is that thing inside of you that makes everybody turn and go âHEY! That person has to be NOTICED!â⦠Every King has it, every person who leads people has it⦠You know, everybody whoâs blessed by The Lord has it, and everybody is blessed by The Lord in different WAYS! So, just like you are the greatest journalist, I am the greatest MC!... You know, what Iâm talking about with âImperial Blazeâ is the fire in you that gives you the desire to do whatever you DO - and be the best in the world AT it!â

Which, in Seanâs eyes, definitely involved progressing musically this time round: âYeah, while from the beginning of my career Iâve always wanted to grow musically, sometimes things can get a bit weird. Because people are often like âBut what we like from you is THIS, and we donât want you to CHANGE!ââ, he observes honestly: âSo I think, with this album, Iâve finally come to a place where Iâm able to give people what they expect, while at the same time showing GROWTH. Which is something Iâve always wanted to do. So, though musically weâre still building songs from hip hop drums and synthesizer keyboards - which is what weâve always done in ALL dancehall - at the same time we are pushing towards the future by looking at different methods of production, different mics to sing into, different equipment to play the stuff with, different sound modules that you download or borrow from somebody... You know, me and the kids Iâve worked with in Jamaica this time around were definitely looking to make the album a lot broader musically.â

Meanwhile, Sean also feels âImperial Blazeâ represents a significant step forward in terms of his lyrical maturity, with signature sexual party cuts like âBirthday Suitâ and âPress It Upâ this time standing alongside more reflective songs like the hauntingly romantic âHold My Handâ, which (featuring US R&B songstress Keri Hilson) is already being dubbed âthe first-ever dancehall balladâ: âYeah, lyrically Iâm kinda getting a little more mature with the swaggerâ, he acknowledges: âBecause, while with a lot of my songs - when you listen to them - the lyrics are just about me meeting a girl and wanting to get with her, Iâve aimed for a different vibe with this album. Where Iâm looking at different CONCEPTS in relationships, different TYPES of relationships, different periods of TIME in relationshipsâ¦â

âSo, while âSo Fineâ is about me meeting a girl and just saying âYouâre so fine. Iâll be there ANY time for youâ, on a song like âLatelyâ Iâm talking about me and her fighting. Where sheâs like âLately all you do is go out and drinkâ, and Iâm like âWell lately you donât give me no LOVE - so Iâm going to look for it in the CLUB!â⦠Then âPepperpotâ is kinda reminiscent of the âRomeo And Julietâ story. Where, though Iâm professing my love for the girl, at the same time itâs so HARD! Because every time I do it, neither her family nor my family want us to BE together! While on âNow That Iâve Got Your Loveâ Iâm dealing with like an âOPPâ scenario. Where, though sheâs other peopleâs property - someone elseâs girl - Iâm still professing a love for her.â

Emotionally, meanwhile, âImperial Blazeâ attains new-found lyrical depths with the heartfelt, one-drop reggae chug of the lilting âStraight From My Heartâ, which Sean penned as a tribute to his mother: âWell, my mom has always been a great force in my life and she has taught me a lotâ, he responds sincerely: âAnd, with her being an artist, I remember how - when I was a kid - she once painted my face and gave the painting to me. So, with âStraight From My Heartâ, I decided that this time I was gonna paint HER - and show her what she means to me - with my WORDS! And, when I played it to her on her birthday, she CRIED! And, to tell you the truth, for me it felt like the first song I should have ever written!â

âYou know, when youâre a youngster youâre that much more immatureâ, he continues: âAnd for me, back in those early days, it was all bout trying to prove myself to Jamaica and to the world; to let everybody know that I was hardcore and I could really make it out here! But, while I can understand why I felt I had to do that, I also now just think itâs unfortunate that we as men cannot from the BEGINNING be a little bit more mature, and be more like âYo, give love to your mom because sheâs the first lady in your life!â... So yeah, while it did take me 15 years to make it, I do feel that just that one song alone has made âImperial Blazeâ a much more mature album.â

Speaking of his mother, Seanâs own family lineage in itself truly reflects Jamaicaâs national motto âOut Of Many, One Peopleâ. With his Portuguese-Jewish fatherâs side boasting a family legend about the shipwreck of horse-hustling ancestors during an escape from bounty hunters, his mother (of English and Chinese-Jamaican descent) on the other hand is a renowned Jamaican painter. All of which results in his hazel eyes, neat braids and mocha complexion today reflecting a biological mix of Jamaican, English, Jewish, Hispanic, Creole and Chinese blood!

Indeed, with both his parents having also been renowned Jamaican swimmers, Sean was born on âthe right side of the tracksâ in the Norbrook district of Kingston and raised a Catholic. Meanwhile, as a youth he too represented Jamaica in several international swimming and water polo competitions before graduating from the islandâs University of Technology (UTech) with a degree in hotel management. However, with him developing a passion for dancehall in his early teens (he recorded his first local hit âBaby Girlâ in 1995, which was followed by a steady string of classic underground dancehall singles like âDeport Themâ and âHot Gal Todayâ), this eventually led to the release of his aforementioned debut album âStage Oneâ in 2000. Unusually - and interestingly - he today attributes his decision to pursue a musical career partly to his middle-class upbringing.

âYeah, I basically grew up in an uptown neighbourhoodâ, he explains: âWhich meant I was well provided-for, put through school, and I didnât have to worry about clothes, food or shelter. But, while it was a good life for me as a youngster, as a teenager I started becoming aware of the fucked-up differences around me. How some of the friends I went to school with every day lived in shacks; how five miles in one direction there were crazy mansions, and five miles in the other there was ghetto⦠And thatâs when, although I wasnât a ghetto kid myself. I decided I wanted to do something that would enable me to express to the world what a paradise Jamaica was, and also what a hell it was at the same time!â

Indeed, itâs Seanâs unfailing loyalty to his homeland thatâs resulted in his determination to showcase the talents of Jamaicaâs hottest young producers on his new album - the production credits on âImperial Blazeâ reading like a whoâs-who of contemporary dancehall trackmasters, ranging from Don Corleone and Jeremy Harding (who doubles as Seanâs manager); to Seanâs own brother Jason âJigzagulaâ Henriques plus 19-year-old Stephen âDi Geniusâ McGregor, whose Big Ship/Di Genius Records label has dominated the dancehall scene for the past year: âYeah, while Iâd love to work with the latest US hip hop producers - Timbaland, The Neptunes - and I HAVE worked with before on various collaborations, whatâs MORE important to me is to take part in the history of my own music in my own countryâ, he asserts without hesitation: âYou know, I want REGGAE music - and I want DANCEHALL music - to be bigger.â

âI mean, today a lot international DJs tell me that, while a couple of years ago they could play a whole hour of dancehall, today they can only play like 15 MINUTES!â, he continues passionately: âSo thatâs why, on my new album, I do work with a lot of upcoming Jamaican talent. Like Stephen McGregor, who I first met when he was like eight years old and I was in my twenties! You know, his father - (vocalist) Freddie McGregor - is one of the real Kings of reggae music. So Stephen was BORN into this, and now his riddims are RUNNING the place!â

âAnd itâs even been the same on my previous records. Like even on my second album, âDutty Rockâ, the person doing the introduction is Tony Matterhorn. Who a couple of years later had a big dance song in Jamaica called âDutty Wineâ. Then on my last album, âThe Trinityâ, I featured younger artists like Wayne Marshall, Tami Chynn... You know, I like to encourage the fresh talent to come through. Which is what I mean by partaking in the musical history of my country. I mean, if I just went to America and worked with people like Timbaland, it would be all for MYSELF! It would be very SELFISH of me. And so, because I donât think my community has treated ME at all selfishly, I in turn definitely donât wanna treat THEM in that way!â

One of the main problems dancehall music has of course encountered within the international mainstream in recent years is unquestionably the controversy caused by the homophobic aspect of some of the lyrics. Which has in turn resulted in several high-profile artists losing their record deals and becoming barred from performing in certain countries. Sean - who has never himself been targeted by gay activists - has interesting views on the subject: âArtwork reflects life. So, when someone paints a picture of Jamaica, it is gonna reflect the idiosyncrasies and the thoughts of the people. And the reason for homophobia being prevalent in Jamaica stems from things like how slavery forced religion on a set of people and people wanting to rebel against things they donât know and understand.â

âPlus, what many people donât realise is dancehall music does have a very big element of shock to it - especially in terms of the stage shows and young artists wanting to make their markâ, he continues thoughtfully: âSo, while yes there is a thin line between expression and hurting peopleâs feelings, that element of dancehall is not literal and shouldnât be take out of context. Itâs like, if you can understand punk rock, then you should be able to understand that shock-value aspect about dancehall.â

Nevertheless, Sean does feel that many of Jamaicaâs younger artists today could benefit from his own guiding hand, career-wise: âWell, to me that whole homophobic thing is ONE part of the problem with dancehall. The OTHER is that you also have a lot of people singing gangsta-type lyrics that canât be played on the radio. And, while I do respect and admire all these artistsâ work - thereâs nobody in the music industry in Jamaica that I wish wasnât around - at the same time I do wish I could be looked upon as someone to guide their career. Because I feel I have the right idea of how to get them across to an international audience. Because, while in Jamaica itself itâs all about a vibe and singing particular songs that fit current public opinion, as an artist Iâm not gonna let ANY local popular opinion influence my long-term CAREER!â

âI also think that modern-day culture has gotten too caught up in trivial, contrary thingsâ, he continues, now in full flow: âLike I didnât see Bob Marley singing about homosexuality! He sang about INJUSTICES, and someoneâs sexual preference is not an injustice to me! Like it may be upsetting to some peopleâs morals, but itâs not something you need to keep SINGING about! Especially right now, when thereâs so many sad things going on in the world. You know, my music has more of a lighter, happier vibe. And, when you look back, my first big international hit song - âGimme The Lightâ - actually broke right after 9/11 happened - at a time when people were being faced with more and more negative information and depressing news. So yeah, I do wish that I could sometimes influence some of these kids. To where itâs like âNo, donât sing so much of that! Itâs about being rounded and itâs also about being ENTERTAINING! And who wants to be entertained with other peopleâs problems and personal issues all the time?â!â

While Seanâs own music these days is primarily Jamaica-centric, it was nevertheless through his collaborations with numerous US R&B/hip hop acts (ranging from chart-topping mainstream divas like Beyonce and Blu Cantrell; to bona fide rap icons like 50 Cent, Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes) that a good portion of his initial international crossover success occurred in the early-to-mid-Noughties. He appropriately concludes our lively and revealing chat with his observations on the parallels between American hip hop and Jamaican dancehall: âIâve always seen them as interlinked - a kind of brother-and-sister music that reflects the mirror image of their two countries. You know, hip hop was developed in The Bronx, New York City in the late Seventies/early Eighties - around the same time dancehall was developed in Jamaica.â

âPlus theyâre also similar TYPES of musicâ, he adds; âTheyâre both usually made by kids telling you about their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations, their problems and their lives in general. And I think that link between them is still definitely there today. I mean, (chart-topping US rapper) Eve and (US R&B superstar) Kelly Rowland were just in Jamaica last week chilling out for Fashion Week. You know, they come from circles where they could go ANYWHERE for Fashion Week. But yet, they still enjoy coming to Jamaica - not only because itâs great place to visit, but because thereâs a LINK - in that the MUSICAL culture is similar to their own.â

Sean performs at IndigO2, London on August 31

The single âSo Fineâ is released August 17. The album âImperial Blazeâ follows August 31, both through VP/Atlantic

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