Shaggy tells Amina Taylor why he deserves to be ranked among reggae's best
Tuesday September 13, 2005
Shaggy: 'I'm absolutely comfortable with being Mr Lover Lover. When I put on the voice and raise my eyebrows, it's fun. I couldn't be that character 24 hours a day. I don't have the energy to deal with all the ladies.' Photograph: Eamonn McCabe
While hardcore acts such as Beenie Man and Buju Banton have brought acclaim and controversy to the scene, and Sean Paul has been hailed as dancehall's saving grace, Shaggy's critics claim his music is little more than glorified pop. Removing his straw hat and rubbing his hand through his curly Afro, Shaggy sighs. "I'm 'conveniently reggae'. Let me explain that," he says. "Within the last year, when dancehall has got its shine, there have been people who have dubbed me 'not quite dancehall'. Whenever people want this type of music to be in Madison Square Garden, the big bosses ask about the music's homophobia, sex and violence reputation, and the promoters will say: 'That's not true, look at Shaggy.' But when it's time to say, 'Look what reggae has done,' and acknowledge the people who have been influential, then I'm conveniently not reggae. I've had to live with that."
Born in a prosperous middle-class area of Kingston, Jamaica, the young Burrell joined his mother in New York just shy of his 18th birthday. After moderate underground music success, he joined the Marines where he saw action in the first Gulf war. With his lilting American-Patois accent and fair skin, he does seem to have more in common with US pop stars than a dreadlocked Jamaican DJ. His penchant for a catchy musical hook may also have been held against him. "I was told by Sly and Robbie that the same thing happened to Bob Marley," he says. "Some of his songs were overdubbed by pop session musicians to gain that radio appeal. Isn't it ironic that those songs are now reggae standards? When I did Boombastic I wanted to put it out as raw dancehall but had to add the Marvin Gaye beat or radio would not touch it."
Shaggy points to songs from his new album, including the politicised Stand Up, as proof that he has real range. "I guess a part of that was to say to critics, How dare you say that I can't do this? I just had to make certain moves to stay on top of the game and now I'm being criticised for it? I'm showing my versatility: if I decided to dedicate all my energies into doing that type of music, I would do it better than anyone because I know myself. I've come back big four times on four different labels. I've got nothing to prove to anybody."
Shaggy isn't the most successful dancehall artist of all time because he's Bob-Marley-in-training, however, but because people love the cheeky Mr Lover Lover image - found in the new album in songs like Ahead in Life, an ode to his male member's misbehaviour. "I am absolutely comfortable with being Mr Lover Lover," he says. "It's an alter ego. When I put on the voice and raise my eyebrows, it's fun. I could not be that character 24 hours a day. I don't have the energy to deal with all the ladies.
"There are things about Mr Lover Lover that I find amusing but not realistic. The flamboyancy, the utter nonsense that the Shaggy character comes up with - the only thing I can do is shake my head and say, 'I can't believe Shaggy got away with that.' "
Perhaps it is this upbeat Shaggy persona that has kept his career free of the controversy that has dogged some of his dancehall counterparts. An ill-advised response to a Mark Lamarr question on homosexuality destroyed Shabba Rank's burgeoning international career; other dancehall acts have found there is little appetite for bigotry outside of a hardcore fanbase. Asked how he has managed to avoid the homophobia debacle, Shaggy is refreshingly open. "I'm not against anyone. There are more important things in life for me to worry about than who someone is sleeping with. There is only one judge and it's not me, it's God. I'm also well-travelled and that opens your eyes."
Shaggy's album is being released just one week before the latest by the international face of dancehall, Sean Paul. Shaggy, though, is unfazed. "The music is at the best stage it's ever been. We have more opportunity to achieve chart success than ever before." Isn't he even a bit peeved that artists like Sean Paul have not been more vocal in giving him credit for their own success? "I don't have any disrespect from someone like Sean at all. People, when they are on their high, might stay away from my name because it's probably not to their advantage. Why would you mention your biggest competition? But I get respect. It's unspoken, but I get it.
"I try to school others in this game. I've said over and over, the race is not for the swift but for those who can endure. Don't believe the hype about yourself. I've sold more units on any single recording than even the great Bob Marley, yet I am with the same people and I don't live above my means. I'm still out here on the grind because of the love for the music and frankly, I'm not good at anything else."
This is no false modesty. His voice drops from its Mr Lover Lover timbre as he reveals one of the downsides to his fame: "It's so sad to say this but music comes before everything else in my life. That's why I wrote Letter to My Kids. It bothers me that I've missed out." Father of two boys, aged 10 and seven, Shaggy has insisted that his children attend state school - but this has not been the exercise in community spirit that he may have envisioned. "Kids tell my sons: 'Your dad is washed up, he's not even a reggae artist.' And they end up in a fight defending me."
It is this "injustice" that Shaggy would like corrected on his musical epitaph. "I want it to say: 'I made a difference.' I want to know that I was part of a movement. I don't think that's asking too much. You can't mention Jamaica without mentioning Bob Marley and weed. You shouldn't mention reggae without saying Shaggy. It's fine if you say: 'Shaggy, Sean, Buju and Beenie' - but don't you mention those other names without saying mine".
· Clothes Drop is out on September 19 on Universal