Cover Story: Shabba Ranks

The dancehall has been a part of Jamaican music since before there were even really Jamaican musicians, much less halls to dance in. Soundmen like Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd imported planeloads of jump blues and boogie 45s from New Orleans to satisfy the revelers at their outdoor dances years before the first ska record was cut. but the movement most commonly called dancehall, bashment or ragga is a different animal. It's as if the countervailing forces of punk and reggae, which famously clashed on the streets of late '70s London, produced some sort of Weird Science lovechild, a nuclear fission of anarchy and Rasta, pro-black and angry white. By 1987, that bastard child emerged, fully grown, premeditated rips in his clothing held together by gold chains instead of safety pins, razor-lines shaved into his eyebrows and unruly dreads carved into sharp geometric angles, ready to claim his birthright. And his name was Shabba Ranks.

In 2010, Shabba Ranks is mostly remembered outside dancehall circles not so much as a person or an artist, but as a cultural moment, like new jack swing or rave gear. He was a skit on In Living Color and a running joke on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, in both cases his name serving as lazy shorthand for being too black and too ugly. But the impact crater he left on pop culture is hard to measure only because its circumference is so damn big. In the current soundscape of Sean Kingston and Major Lazer, its difficult to even imagine the strangeness of his sudden appearance on MTV, his presence multiplied into inifinity as he posed off in a classically Jamaican splay-footed stance, chin cocked forward, nostrils fl ared with regal disdain, eyes hidden by tinted Lennon specs, and with a center-parted yet asymmetrical coif that can only be described as a Frankenstein fade. 

If you were going to sound the depths of that crater, however, you’d have to start with his profound and overlooked musicality. Shabba is the ultimate exemplar of the human voice as instrument—in his case, a bass instrument. Riding low on the riddim, it served as a groundwire allowing the current to flow, a foundation on which any construction could rest comfortably: the raps of Queen Latifah and KRS-ONE, the crooning of countless UK lovers rock divas, some Johnny Gill and yes, even one Eddie Murphy. With his instrument he played deceptively simple, intricate couplets designed to imprint themselves indelibly onto grey matter: Mi have the remedy fi yuh heart, mi have the remedy fi yuh brain/ Mi have the agony fi yuh body to mek you choo-choo like a train. It’s no wonder they lend themselves so effortlessly to sampling, combination and remix. If the history of hip-hop and reggae can be plotted as an inexorable movement towards bass and rhythm—stripping away strings and disco arrangements from the breaks, dubbing voices and melodies in and out of the hyper-present riddim track—then Shabba is the logical extreme of that movement, a human talking drum, filling the spaces of the beat with baritone arabesques.

There’s also the irreversible change he performed on the music industry, and Jamaica’s place in it. This can be glimpsed in the caliber of people he surrounded himself with. Since working with Shabba, Olivia “Babsy” Grange of Specs/Shang management has served twice as Jamaica’s Minister of Culture, and during her first stint was a decisive player in passing new copyright laws in Jamaica to protect songwriters. Gussie Clark, who produced a string of UK hits for Shabba, also founded Dub Plate Music Publishers, which administers publishing rights for independent producers. 

But the cultural impact would have to be the biggest, and here the “Ugly Man” jokes are surprisingly telling. He’s said that the name Shabba was taken from an African king—possibly a corruption of Shaka Zulu—and given to him by his schoolmates for his looks. A title of black royalty transformed into a playground taunt and then—with the addition of Ranks—transformed back into a title of black royalty. Within the schizophrenic oscillations between “Roots and Culture” and “Needle Eye Pum Pum,” there is a coherent strain of unapologetic African masculinity, and even when he's half joking, it’s serious. Shabba is in that very real sense a spiritual precursor not just to all the Bujus and Vybz Kartels who came after him, but also to Biggie, that greatest of rappers, when he sing-songed Black and ugly as ever/ However…

You could consider the effect of a tune like “Dem Bow,” so central to the DNA of reggaeton, that for years the genre was simply called “dembow” in Puerto Rico. Or, you could just take a second to contemplate the breath control required to speak out loud the titles of his incredible run of essential boom tunes listed… let alone perform them: Original Fresh; Get Up Stand Up and Rock; Needle Eye Pum-Pum; Best Baby Father; Peenie, Peenie; Mauma Man; Love Punaany Bad; Wicked in Bed; Roots and Culture; Just Reality; Telephone Love; Don’t Test Me; Twice My Age; Champion Lover; Mr. Loverman; Housecall; Pirate’s Anthem; Just Be Good To Me; Caan Dun; Ting a Ling; Hood Top; Dem Bow; Gal Yuh Good; Trailor Load a Girls; The Jam; Slow and Sexy; Shine and Criss; Ram Dancehall; Original Woman; Heart of a Lion; Respect. 

From that perspective, if there’s anything to be said about the calculated crossover nature of Shabba’s numerous chart hits, it’s this: they fooled the rap-detectors of new jack radiojust long enough to smuggle onto mainstream airplay the Nietzschean essence of dancehall, which at bottom is a ritual assertion of the will to power—displayed through muscle grip, stamina, sexual prowess, verbal dexterity, lung capacity and charisma—asserted by precisely those people who have been assigned the roles of the powerless.

I saw him live once at National Stadium. He rode on stage on a big bike wid his biker crew, big batty girls on the back seat. It was awesome. Charisma. A lot of artists don’t have that. Once you have the charisma, coupled with the hits that the ladies want, you gonna be a super star. Shabba had the charisma and confidence that was before him unimaginable. He was the epitome of sexy in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He was our Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, our Warren Beatty, our Sean Penn. What Shabba had was what Bob had over his peers: cocky, confident, charismatic, outspoken and ahead of his time. That’s what I wanna be. Shabba is the legend. – Vybz Kartel

King Jammy’s studio in Waterhouse is recognized as the birthplace of digital reggae, having produced Sleng Teng—the genre’s first electronic riddim—in 1985, among countless other classic beats. He was not the first producer to record Shabba, but may have been the first to record Rexton Rawlson Fernando Gordon as Shabba Ranks. Without question, he transformed the unknown deejay into a ghetto celebrity with hit 45s like “Original Fresh,” “Love Punany Bad” and “Peenie, Peenie.”

Shabba was from Waterhouse, so I knew him from the community, but I didn’t know him as a recording artist. Josey Wales and Admiral Bailey, who I was voicing at that time, brought him to me. He played on a local community soundsystem, Twilight I think it was called, but I can’t remember (it was actually Roots Melody—ed.)

When Shabba came in we didn’t record right away, he just kind of fi t in with the others in the studio, just helped the vibe. But then we recorded together for about six years. He was a talented deejay, he came into studio and would just flow without stopping, you know. Or sometimes he would rehearse the lyrics and then just fi nd a riddim that fi t the tempo and do three, four, ten versions in a row. We voiced “Best Baby Father” and “Get Up Stand Up and Rock” on the Chinatown riddim. “Fresh” was one of the early ones as well, we took “What the Hell the Police Can Do” by Echo Minnott and made it a faster beat. With the title we were trying to bring some of the New York hip-hop style into reggae but I believe hip-hop and reggae are almost the same in terms of creativity.

All the deejays I work with have their own style, but Shabba, Shabba was a new ting coming in. Because you didn’t have too much slackness, those days. Shabba Ranks was the first person doing slackness who wasn’t a veteran artist, that was his wholestyle from the beginning. But then we found out that slackness go down well inna dance but the roots lyrics sold more records. The high point was the Grammy win, because I was part of it. I help build it and Grammy is the ultimate in music business. I was in Jamaica, watching on TV—everybody in Jamaica was tuned in when Shabba won the Grammy because it was a local kid gone big, doing big things. When he won—it wasn’t like a planned party exactly—but people in Waterhouse were celebrating in the street. By that time he was growing and he thought he needed to go bigger places—not bigger, because Jammy’s was the ultimate them times, Jammy’s bust all the youth. But he needed to move on. We still speak, not on a regular basis but we kept things on a good note.

His impact? Well I’ll tell you: Major Worries was an artist who was older than Shabba, who influence Shabba Ranks’ sound—and even he emulate Shabba. Everybody look to him, maybe not his sound or his style but they use him as example of someone who’s been there, did it, been to the top. Even if they don’t follow his sound they try to follow his success.

Shabba Ranks is an incredible artist and when he exploded on the reggae scene he had every club in New York playing a reggae set. I recall his song “Roots and Culture” being the number one song in New York. Every car uptown, in Brooklyn and Staten Island would drive by blasting it out of trunks or jeeps. Even a hip-hop fanatic like myself couldn’t stop singing the hook. He was, to me, after Bob Marley, the first real reggae superstar, and he paved the way for many to follow. He offered something different, and although Yellowman and later Super Cat and Maxi Priest had success in the field and helped spread the reggae culture, it was Shabba who was fi rst looked upon as more of a street hip-hop reggae artist, scoring one of the first gold reggae albums in America and captivating the youth of the hip-hop generation. A true pioneer. -RZA
When I first heard him, it was obviously just voice, because I didn't have any idea of how him look. - Damian Marley

As both a radio personality and club and concert promoter, “original rude boy” Dahved Levy has been a key ambassador of Caribbean music to the mainstream. He was instrumental in convincing Sony/Epic they had the grassroots club and radio support to sign a dancehall artist—and in exposing Shabba to some of his career-defining collaborators.

I was in a place called The Underground when I linked up with Shabba—we must have brought him in four or five times to perform. The Underground was my club at 17th and Broadway. We did hip-hop in there—myself, DJ Red Alert and the whole crew—but it was getting too out of control. Every week you got LL Cool J, you got this one, you got that one, and it was just growing, growing, growing. At one point you had 5,000 people in the street and the place only holds 2,000. They wanted to do something different. One of the owners was a guy called Maurice Brahms, the owner of Bond’s International Casino [of The Clash concert series fame]. He approached me and we got a Caribbean Fridays there and started to do well.

I remember going to [seminal NY reggae label] Witty’s, they had a store on Utica Avenue. Witty’s had a close relationship with Shabba, and we started to play the records in the Underground. You had “Mauma Man,” you had a plethora of records from Shabba Ranks. “Roots and Culture,” “Just Reality”—those were very important records for Shabba because at that time everyone looked at him as the man with the nasty mouth. It was very important for him to show that there was a different side to him, and start speaking about what he thought about. “Reality” took him to a different level with a diff erent genre of people who loved reggae music.

At that time, he used to move with a partner of his called Twitch. Little Twitch would perform songs that they had together, but then Shabba started moving more on his own, so we brought him to perform. He would be in some trouble here and there—Witty’s used to have to go and get him from places for me. But he liked The Underground, he liked the fact that we put him around people from outside the dancehall world. When he performed, he performed for Eddie Murphy, for KRS-One’s party, for the Bobby Brown party and the big calypso shows. This is what made The Underground unique because it was an equal mix of Jamaicans, Trinis, Bajans, Lucians, Guyanese, Haitians, white, black, Japanese.

Shabba started to do a lot of hip-hop shows, KRS would bring him to the stage. I was doing a lot of stuff with radio, so being around me, he would be around a lot of DJs and they were all very impressed with his unique style—his look, how he wore his pants, the ankle chain around his wrist, how he cut his hair—nobody had style like that! But the two biggest artists who brought people to The Underground then was Lieutenant Stitchie and Tiger. In fact, the record labels were interested in Tiger first. He had his little problems and that did not pan out in that way. Then it went to Lt. Stitchie—Stitchie got signed to Atlantic Records.

The person who actually approached me about Shabba was a lady called Beverly Griffi th, she worked with New Kids on the Block at the time. She came to me and said, “They’re looking to sign a dancehall artist—who you got?” So I sent them a Supercat, I sent in a Shabba, I sent in a Tiger. I sent in all the top guys at that time that I thought had the crossover appeal. All the interest came back to Shabba. I sat down and spoke to them and said, “You know… this guy can do it.”

The Underground was gonna be closed in 1990, because the Zeckendorf Towers were going up. The people spending all that money for their multi-million dollar condos didn’t want to see all the people in the street when they step out their door in the morning. I asked the guy from The Underground if I could get one more night to do Shabba—just one more night! We got it. Last night at The Underground, the place was packed. I invited all the Sony artists, all the execs down, the same lady from NKOTB. The place holds 2,500 and we had about 3,000 people in it. And Shabba did it. Performed all his hits—awesome. But the execs still were not convinced. They said Dahved, “We want to see Shabba in an arena.” We decided to go to Barbados with Shabba and Risto Benji, the guy who he started with in Jamaica, his original sparring partner. We had Shabba with Risto and the local artists in Barbados, and he brought out 15 or 20,000 people. They saw Shabba standing on stage, commanding the crowd… in a stadium like that, imagine? That was it. Boom. Signed.

When he appeared on MTV next to Maxi Priest—dutty, ugly, nasty, stinkin Shabba Ranks (as he referred to himself!)—that told the music fraternity that you didn’t have to look like Bobby Brown, Al B. Sure, Teddy Riley and Guy. Even in an interview with Shabba recently I asked him, “How did you feel about that show [In Living Color] where they said “Ugly Man Shabba?” He said he was honored, because they only did that to superstars. And he was right, if you did not make it big they would not mess with you. The impact was so huge it got other labels interested in signing dancehall artists and eventually Columbia went on to sign Supercat. Tiger was signed then to Columbia. Terror Fabulous was signed to Atlantic. People started to get jobs in the industry to promote these records, so it opened up doors. VP Records was now challenged to step their game up, because now they’re not the only game in town.

I remember when he returned to Jamaica to do some major concert there, everyone was in the room from Police Laing to former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, everyone. It was amazing. He did that a few times—he returned for a big celebration after he won his fi rst Grammy, he returned home with Eddie Murphy at one point to shoot [the video for “I Was a King”]. Eddie Murphy is the biggest box office star at the time, so imagine that this guy from Waterhouse, considered in some instances a troublemaker, was able to go from that to… whew! So huge. Doing shows like that,doing Grammys, sitting down with Arsenio Hall, it has never been done before. No one to this point in my knowledge has been able to. Sean Paul was very successful, Shaggy was very successful, Jr. Gong has had success. But with Shabba’s success, in his time he was on every magazine and every major show. I believe everyone wanted a piece of Shabba—politically, socially, entertainmentwise—everyone wanted a piece.

I’m a huge fan of Shabba. [The basis of reggaeton] is in Shabba’s “Dem Bow” beat, but the way we flow is not trying to emulate because it’s impossible. I really fell in love with “Mr. Loverman.” I loved the video. I used to relax and watch it when I was working at a liquor store, and I used to play it a lot on a [video request] channel in Puerto Rico called The Box. Shabba was the fi rst one I ever saw on TV doing dancehall the right way with a video for that time. He opened a lot of doors for all the people who followed. – Tego Calderón

Damian Marley: My first memories of when I heard him would be whatever the equivalent is of a mixtape in Jamaica. It was like live recordings of when soundsystems would go out and play. My original memories were hearing him on stolen cassettes and that kind of thing in the late ’80s. I was very young at the time and I would say he already had a few songs that were bubbling by then. He didn’t really launch off huge as yet, but he was hot in the dancehall circuits. That would have been like ’88.

When I first heard him, it was obviously just his voice, because I didn’t have any idea of how him look or anything like that. It was just how him sound, how him flow, his delivery. Over the years, Shabba Ranks, to me, he’s like a real superstar. Always in character. It’s not like when he goes on stage or when he goes into an interview and you see him riding in the elevator on the way down from the interview. He’s always in character, you know? He’s the first person I really encountered, especially in dancehall music, who had a bigger than life persona and you really feel it when you’re around him.

I opened up a few concerts for him and few concerts he brought me out and we did a thing and it was kind of one of those things where he looked out for me when I was a kid. I was more a fan of his and I’m beside him, but I was more watching him than beside him, you know what I mean? Because this was Shabba Ranks, you know? He already had one gold album, at least, in America. That was at the height of his career, basically.

Every now and then me shout him. One of the last solo concerts I did in New York, he came out and watch the show. And I actually called him up for one for a change. It was “Jamrock” and he came out and jammed a few bars. New York went wild. They went nuts. I went wild myself. Even now when I’m around him, it just brings me back to when I was a boy watching Sunsplash, before I even really met him. Watching some of the early concerts that I watched before I was doing concerts with him. It was great, Sunsplash was ’91. He basically arrived in a helicopter. So when they announced him on stage, he was flying around the venue. Nobody in Jamaica ever did it like that before. So he came, and that was actually right before he signed to Epic. But he had definitely arrived as Jamaica’s biggest artist at that point. Yeah man, it was just crazy. The sun was just about to come out when he hit the stage and it was nuts. 

He’s still the standard of what all voices are judged by. If you auditioning a new dancehall act in Jamaica, Shabba Ranks’ tone is still a standard that you judge everything by. Basically, every dancehall artist since his time, you can hear some infl uence of him in their music. If there’s a Mount Rushmore of dancehall, it’s him.

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Cover Story: Shabba Ranks