Sean Paul Explains Why Dancehall Has Always Been Big

And how the sound has helped him maintain a career for over 16 years.

A photo posted by SEAN PAUL (@duttypaul) on

It takes a lot of work to make a hit, but it takes near-genius to make dozens of them. That’s why The FADER has spent the past week looking at the career and stories behind Sean Paul, a Kingston, Jamaica-born dancehall artist turned international star. Paul’s six-album discography spans almost two decades, and a myriad of sounds, but — as Kardinal Offishall told me — no matter how far into the pop world he’s veered (this year he put out singles with Sia and Little Mix) he’s always kept it dancehall.


Paul still lives in Jamaica, and its perhaps this insistence on maintaining his identity that’s kept him ahead of the curve: he was collaborating on soca, reggaeton, and afropop tracks before it became cool. Now that these rhythms are becoming new inspiration for another generation of artists, we called up Sean Paul on tour in Toulouse, France to talk about what it means to be the ultimate crossover artist, his different audiences, and why Drake is dividing Jamaica.

Stage One, your first record, came out 16 years ago. Did you think you’d still be making No. 1 singles?

You know, I thought I was going to be a producer when I was 15-years-old. I convinced my mom to buy me a little keyboard and I started to make riddims, and then when I was about 17 or 18 I started to write lyrics for these riddims. I really, really liked Super Cat's style and Shabba Ranks, of course, so I didn't think I was gonna be the next thing. And when I wrote my first song, I thought, Wow, how am I gonna keep this up? It took, like, two weeks in terms of just procrastinating and wanting to finish it the right way and be something that people liked. I was still in college at the time; my day would consistent of waking up early for swim training, because I swam for Jamaica and did water polo as well, finishing all of that by 9 at night, and then going to studios.

A lot of my first songs were really conscious music. I was into Tony Rebel, Capleton hadn’t even come out. A couple of the songs I wrote for my demo tape were talking about the ghetto story; I was drawing comparisons between uptown, where I’m from, and downtown. A lot of times people would look at me like, What the fuck you know about this shit? You don't know nothing about it 'cause you're from uptown. Those stories were my heart, but my first producer at the time said, ‘Yo dude, girls like you. If you wanna make a mark, stay to that niche!’ I tried to write a couple songs and it just blew the fuck up.

So no regrets about changing course?

No, but I still dabble with that stuff. I have a song called "Give Thanks For Life," which is out in Jamaica right now. Those songs exist, and they're out there. It’s just people pay more attention to the party songs. But it’s fine because when I was young I spent most of my teenage life at the pool, so on weekends we would all look forward to going out and having, like, 17 beers! Music is a reflection of life, but it's also entertainment and people want to forget their problems. Remember when you were in school? Remember you had all these problems, like, your dad's in prison? Or, you don't have the money that other kids have and so you're feeling kinda alienated, or left out? This music is a relief.

Remember you had all these problems, like, your dad’s in prison? Or, you don’t have the money that other kids have and so you’re feeling kinda alienated, or left out? This music is a relief.

Do you remember the first time you heard your song on the radio?

Yeah. It was called "Baby Girl" and it was late 1996; it came out during Christmastime. I had a bredren who was a DJ and he told me he would play the track on the radio on Saturday. I was being played in the dance, but never on the radio so I went to the beach and had a spliff and a beer — it was about 2 p.m. and there was nobody around me. I sat there, looked out, and it played and I was like, damn. There was no cell phone! I couldn't tweet it! I was looking around to tell somebody, ‘Yo, yo this is my tune!’ but there was nobody there. I remember that feeling of euphoria, knowing that even though I was alone my voice was being heard.

Is it true that you moved to Toronto for a while?

That's an urban myth! It's a rumor. My grandfather moved to Canada in 1976 — he lived in Mississauga — and my brother was born there. So basically, from about 11 years old to 15, I was in Canada for a few weeks. But I represented Jamaica for water polo and swimming growing up, which I am very proud of and I still represent Jamaica right now for music. I have very close ties to Canada, but I've never lived anywhere besides Jamaica.

Do you think Jamaica gets enough credit for influencing pop music?

I'm proud of what Rihanna is doing, and Justin Bieber too. But back in the day we influenced people in pop culture too — it's not only nowadays! Remember “Sign” by Ace of Base? Big Mountain...they did “Baby I Love Your Way,” and "Hotstepper," by Ini Kamoze, was big in the early ’90s. People have to also remember these things go in circles. But there is a big debate in Jamaica right now about Drake. One side thinks he is taking our stuff and not giving credit, and the other side thinks he’s the only rapper that’s even talking about Jamaica right now.

What side are you on?


Well, I agree with the point that people must be given credit. But on the other side, yeah, the kid's doing what he feels and that's dope. Drake messing with dancehall and afrobeat is, I think, a testament to how big our genres have gotten.

Afrobeat is new to a lot of people; but you were up on it earlier than most. Are you often thinking about how to work within new global rhythms?

I have my ears up and people in the camp who are checking for things. But I was actually introduced to afrobeat in Atlanta, about four or five years ago. A promoter booked me for this show, and they’re playing dancehall, then they started playing hip-hop — but then they played soca, which I’d never heard in a hip-hop club in Atlanta. And then the promoter said, ‘Watch,’ and they started to play afrobeat and it was crazy. This music was news to me at the time: it reminded me of what Kevin Lyttle and Rupee were trying to do with soca but Afrocentric, a step further, and sounding even more modern than what we were doing. It’s never a conscious decision to be like, ‘Oh I know this music's gonna break.’ I just always liked it. This music has made it possible for me to perform in over 20 African countries; I’ve been to Uganda and Rwanda. So it’s amazing that these worlds can come together. But also, it goes both ways: Machel Montano and I did “One Wine” in 2015, which is really a dancehall EDM track.

I love that some of the newest soca is pretty much techno; it’s been very interesting to follow. How has access to the internet and technology changed the music industry in Jamaica, since you first started?

I started out getting my songs played as for radio DJs, but especially the street dudes. I looked toward giving street dudes my new music because even if no one bought it, I would get popular and make money by doing stage shows — so I had to give my music out. Back in those days, I'd record on a 24 track reel: you had to have your song down pat, like, sing it one time else you were wasting studio time and tape. Riddims were an economic thing, as opposed to paying for a band: the tape could hold a certain amounts of tracks, so there's one producer and he has many artists on. That struck such a vibe in Jamaica, because it was cool to hear that many people with different perspectives. You could have one guy singing about a girl with a fat ass, and another person singing something more conscious — and it’s on the same riddim.

But I remember years when "Get Busy" was a big song for me, and "Temperature," and "Gimme The Light." Those three songs had to be remixed by foreign mixers from America, so that it could sound as big as whatever Justin Timberlake song was playing on the radio in the States. Technology reached us slow, and we kind of suffered. And I think younger producers in Jamaica have been in search of new things. All these new pop songs are samples of old dancehall tracks from the ’90s so it’s been disappointing, personally, to see that coming from outside. “Work” by Rihanna is bumping on the radio, and that beat she’s on is called the Sail Away riddim — I had a song on it in 1998 called “Fit and Legit.

Do you ever think about legacy even though you're still making music?

I want more songs out there. I want to continue. America has already moved away from me: the last time I had a song on the major charts in America was in "Give It Up To Me" with Keyshia Cole in 2007. But after the States, France started playing the fuck out of me, and Germany too. So I've had a lucrative career in Europe. If I do a New York show and play “Deport Dem,” everyone will go ahhh! But when I sing “She Doesn’t Mind” people don’t know it even though it's a hit everywhere else: Japan, Australia, Germany. It went to friggin’ number one in England! But then I’ll go to Switzerland and no one knows “Deport Dem.” So I'm thankful that I've had a lot of years and that different territories have supported me when I needed it. I'm already happy doing what I like since 1994. I've never looked back.

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Sean Paul Explains Why Dancehall Has Always Been Big