Sean Paul: Dancepaul star
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 “the shaggable, telegenic star dancehall music has always been waiting for”(!) released his debut album - the prophetically-titled ‘Stage One’ - back in 2000. Since which time - via career highlights like 2002’s Grammy-winning, multi-Platinum LP ‘Dutty Rock’ (which spawned the international smashes ‘Gimme The Light’, ‘Get Busy’ and ‘Like Glue’) and 2006’s transatlantic chart-topper ‘Temperature’ - 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 today’s international music mainstream.
Meanwhile, this summer finds the ever-personable Sean finally following up 2005’s Platinum-certified ‘The Trinity’ with his aforementioned, long-awaited fourth LP ‘Imperial Blaze’. Which - pioneered by the compulsive hook and monstrous, stabbing bass of its infectiously upbeat single ‘So Fine’ - 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 island’s hottest young producers. As a braided-and-beshaded Mr. Henriques explains, while reacquainting himself with Blues & Souls' Pete Lewis.
“A lot of people think the title ‘Imperial Blaze’ means a big spliff or a huge chalice. But no sir, what it actually signifies is ‘The King’s Fire’”, begins Sean in articulate, yet still-strong JA tones: “What I’m talking about with ‘Imperial Blaze’ is that thing inside of you that makes everybody turn and go ‘HEY! That person has to be NOTICED!’… Every King has it, every person who leads people has it… You know, everybody who’s 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 I’m talking about with ‘Imperial Blaze’ is the fire in you that gives you the desire to do whatever you DO - and be the best in the world AT it!”
Which, in Sean’s eyes, definitely involved progressing musically this time round: “Yeah, while from the beginning of my career I’ve always wanted to grow musically, sometimes things can get a bit weird. Because people are often like ‘But what we like from you is THIS, and we don’t want you to CHANGE!’”, he observes honestly: “So I think, with this album, I’ve finally come to a place where I’m able to give people what they expect, while at the same time showing GROWTH. Which is something I’ve always wanted to do. So, though musically we’re still building songs from hip hop drums and synthesizer keyboards - which is what we’ve 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 I’ve worked with in Jamaica this time around were definitely looking to make the album a lot broader musically.”
Meanwhile, Sean also feels ‘Imperial Blaze’ represents a significant step forward in terms of his lyrical maturity, with signature sexual party cuts like ‘Birthday Suit’ and ‘Press It Up’ this time standing alongside more reflective songs like the hauntingly romantic ‘Hold My Hand’, which (featuring US R&B songstress Keri Hilson) is already being dubbed “the first-ever dancehall ballad”: “Yeah, lyrically I’m kinda getting a little more mature with the swagger”, he acknowledges: “Because, 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, I’ve aimed for a different vibe with this album. Where I’m looking at different CONCEPTS in relationships, different TYPES of relationships, different periods of TIME in relationships…”
“So, while ‘So Fine’ is about me meeting a girl and just saying ‘You’re so fine. I’ll be there ANY time for you’, on a song like ‘Lately’ I’m talking about me and her fighting. Where she’s like ‘Lately all you do is go out and drink’, and I’m like ‘Well lately you don’t give me no LOVE - so I’m going to look for it in the CLUB!’… Then ‘Pepperpot’ is kinda reminiscent of the ‘Romeo And Juliet’ story. Where, though I’m professing my love for the girl, at the same time it’s so HARD! Because every time I do it, neither her family nor my family want us to BE together! While on ‘Now That I’ve Got Your Love’ I’m dealing with like an ‘OPP’ scenario. Where, though she’s other people’s property - someone else’s girl - I’m still professing a love for her.”
Emotionally, meanwhile, ‘Imperial Blaze’ attains new-found lyrical depths with the heartfelt, one-drop reggae chug of the lilting ‘Straight From My Heart’, which Sean penned as a tribute to his mother: ‘Well, my mom has always been a great force in my life and she has taught me a lot”, he responds sincerely: “And, 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 ‘Straight From My Heart’, 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!”
“You know, when you’re a youngster you’re that much more immature”, he continues: “And 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 it’s unfortunate that we as men cannot from the BEGINNING be a little bit more mature, and be more like ‘Yo, give love to your mom because she’s the first lady in your life!’... So yeah, while it did take me 15 years to make it, I do feel that just that one song alone has made ‘Imperial Blaze’ a much more mature album.”
Speaking of his mother, Sean’s own family lineage in itself truly reflects Jamaica’s national motto ‘Out Of Many, One People’. With his Portuguese-Jewish father’s 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 “the right side of the tracks” 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 island’s 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 ‘Baby Girl’ in 1995, which was followed by a steady string of classic underground dancehall singles like ‘Deport Them’ and ‘Hot Gal Today’), this eventually led to the release of his aforementioned debut album ‘Stage One’ in 2000. Unusually - and interestingly - he today attributes his decision to pursue a musical career partly to his middle-class upbringing.
“Yeah, I basically grew up in an uptown neighbourhood”, he explains: ‘Which meant I was well provided-for, put through school, and I didn’t 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 that’s when, although I wasn’t 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!”
Indeed, it’s Sean’s unfailing loyalty to his homeland that’s resulted in his determination to showcase the talents of Jamaica’s hottest young producers on his new album - the production credits on ‘Imperial Blaze’ reading like a who’s-who of contemporary dancehall trackmasters, ranging from Don Corleone and Jeremy Harding (who doubles as Sean’s manager); to Sean’s own brother Jason ‘Jigzagula’ Henriques plus 19-year-old Stephen ‘Di Genius’ McGregor, whose Big Ship/Di Genius Records label has dominated the dancehall scene for the past year: “Yeah, while I’d love to work with the latest US hip hop producers - Timbaland, The Neptunes - and I HAVE worked with before on various collaborations, what’s MORE important to me is to take part in the history of my own music in my own country”, he asserts without hesitation: “You know, I want REGGAE music - and I want DANCEHALL music - to be bigger.”
“I 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!”, he continues passionately: “So that’s 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!”
“And it’s even been the same on my previous records. Like even on my second album, ‘Dutty Rock’, the person doing the introduction is Tony Matterhorn. Who a couple of years later had a big dance song in Jamaica called ‘Dutty Wine’. Then on my last album, ‘The Trinity’, 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 don’t think my community has treated ME at all selfishly, I in turn definitely don’t wanna treat THEM in that way!”
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: “Artwork 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 don’t know and understand.”
“Plus, what many people don’t 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 mark”, he continues thoughtfully: “So, while yes there is a thin line between expression and hurting people’s feelings, that element of dancehall is not literal and shouldn’t be take out of context. It’s like, if you can understand punk rock, then you should be able to understand that shock-value aspect about dancehall.”
Nevertheless, Sean does feel that many of Jamaica’s younger artists today could benefit from his own guiding hand, career-wise: “Well, 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 can’t be played on the radio. And, while I do respect and admire all these artists’ work - there’s nobody in the music industry in Jamaica that I wish wasn’t 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 it’s all about a vibe and singing particular songs that fit current public opinion, as an artist I’m not gonna let ANY local popular opinion influence my long-term CAREER!”
“I also think that modern-day culture has gotten too caught up in trivial, contrary things”, he continues, now in full flow: “Like I didn’t see Bob Marley singing about homosexuality! He sang about INJUSTICES, and someone’s sexual preference is not an injustice to me! Like it may be upsetting to some people’s morals, but it’s not something you need to keep SINGING about! Especially right now, when there’s 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 - ‘Gimme The Light’ - 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 it’s like ‘No, don’t sing so much of that! It’s about being rounded and it’s also about being ENTERTAINING! And who wants to be entertained with other people’s problems and personal issues all the time?’!”
While Sean’s 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: “I’ve 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.”
“Plus they’re also similar TYPES of music”, he adds; “They’re 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 it’s great place to visit, but because there’s a LINK - in that the MUSICAL culture is similar to their own.”
Sean performs at IndigO2, London on August 31
The single ‘So Fine’ is released August 17. The album ‘Imperial Blaze’ follows August 31, both through VP/Atlantic
Words PETE LEWIS