“You hear it? Classic,” Sister Nancy said to me from across the table, a wide smile spreading across her face as the sound of her ringtone filled the small, sunlit conference room. The colorful tones were that of her international, time-tested reggae hit “Bam Bam,” and there’s perhaps no better word than “classic” to describe it. Originally recorded as a last-minute addition to complete the artist’s debut One Two, the song became immensely popular outside of Jamaica, and especially in the U.S., appearing in the opening scenes of Hype Williams’s 1998 street-tough opus Belly and, more recently, sampled by Kanye West on the Rihanna-assisted track “Famous.”
The 55-year-old living legend, who now resides in Paterson, New Jersey, was born Ophlin Russell and grew up in St. Andrew, Jamaica in a devoutly religious household. She took a liking to music early on, an obsession and passion she attributes to her older brother Brigadier Jerry. With his guidance and a pinch of resolve, Sister Nancy became the sole woman reggae artist of her time: performing at dancehalls as part of several sound systems, eventually earning the role of stable DJ, and gaining popularity. All of which allowed her the opportunity to record her first, and only, full solo album in 1982.
The album enjoyed modest success in Jamaica — its standout tracks were "One Two" and "Transport Connection" — but it wasn’t until Sister Nancy moved stateside in 1996 that she was made aware of the true reach and popularity of her music, particularly “Bam Bam.” Decades later, in 2014, after never having been compensated for the track’s success, as she watched a Reebok commercial that sampled her generation-defining hit, she decided to finally take action. “I was in my living room. And I said, 'No.'"
On a recent afternoon this past spring, the Jamaican icon sat down with The FADER to chat about her soundsystem beginnings, being a pioneering woman in reggae, the full story behind “Bam Bam,” and what lies ahead.
What was your upbringing like?
I have a lot of brothers and sisters, and my mother and father. We were just one big happy, humble, stable family. God-fearing people who go to church. I'm still the same as when my life began. My father was a revivalist pastor. He played a part in the church, most of my brothers and sisters — the older ones, they played a part in church. I didn't get too much of it, but they did.
My mother came to the U.S. in 1978 to see if she could do better things for her children because Jamaica's really rough. It was rough at that time but it seems rougher now. She was kind of a single parent. I grew up with both parents but my father was sickly, so she was the one who worked. She would have to make decisions, so she came here in 1978 and we followed her in 1996.
Every parent wanted a good education for their children. I went to school, I could have done more, but what I did was what I wanted — and that was music. I have the opportunity of using it to educate people. You can learn from the music, at least in my era, that's what a lot of people would do, go to school and listen to the music to get by.
I did go to school and finish. I didn't go to the graduation [ceremony], because when the time came for me to graduate from school, my mother was living [in the U.S.] and she sent money to buy the dress and this and that, but I was on my way to Negril to DJ, so the graduation happened but I wasn't there.
How did you get your start?
My music career started when I followed my brother, Brigadier Jerry, who also is a part of this [journey], and who makes it possible for me. I followed suit in everything he does. Up to today, I still do it. I loved what he was doing and I said, “I want to do it too.” He is my main motivator, mentor, everything. It started from him. I started from 1976, and in 1979, that was when I got my first record. I said, “Yes, I can do this.” That was the time I really acknowledged myself as an artist, individual from my brother.
l DJ'd in sound systems. I started in sound system Chalice. Moved from there to Blackstar, and occasionally DJ'd with my brother. Then I went to Stereophonic, because most of the sound systems then had stable DJs, so I worked with a lot of sounds. But Stereophonic, I was a stable DJ for them along with General Echo and Madoo, and a lot of other people. I started my career in sound systems in 1976. That's where my career started, in the dancehall.
Your brother was obviously very supportive of your career, but as a woman in reggae, were there others who would try to stop you or bring you down?
I wouldn't say "bring down," but yeah, people discourage you. They tell you that you're not good. That, "Your voice don't sound good" or "Your voice is too fine, too weak." It wasn't for them to tell me that. I just knew this is what I wanted to do and I'm not gonna stop. I just do what my mind and heart tell me, and that was, "Do it, I'm going to do it."
At one point, you left music. Why?
I got married in 1985, 1986, and I cooled off for a time, because at that time, a lot of women were coming into the business. It was a time to give other people a chance to experience the glory. So I eased off to try a family life, but I returned two years after and still dominated. It was like I wasn't even on a break, like I was there all the time.
From what circumstances did the opportunity to record your album One Two arise?
I was on Stereophonic, and so was my sound. I was the stable DJ and was the only female DJ at the dancehall at the time. In Jamaica, back in the days, when you go to a dance and you DJ, it's the crowd that decides if you're ready to do the recording. If I go tonight with this lyrics and the crowd [reacts positively], and then I go tomorrow and they do the same, the producer will come check [the dance] out and say, "I want you to do that song on a record for me." So that's how I started voice recording for Techniques Records’s Winston Riley. And then, to General Echo, who was there as another one of my mentors, too, I say: "Take me to the studio." So he takes me to the studio and I met Riley and I did "Money Can't Buy Love" and "One Two," and then "One Two" turned out to be a big hit in Jamaica. After that, [Riley] asked me a couple months after, if I'm interested to do an album. And I said, "I don't know if I'm ready for an album yet," because I didn’t have the lyrics for ten songs. I thought, my brother is full of lyrics. We can use some of him and use some of mine and finish the album, which I did.
I told Winston this and he took me to the studio, and I did [the album] step by step, three [songs] today, two tomorrow, but I did nine. And I only had one tune left for the album, because the album is ten tunes. That's how I come by with "Bam Bam," the tenth song. I went to the studio, I was working with Yellowman at the time. Yellowman was voicing another tune, and I went with him to the studio that specific day and he was voicing a “Bam Bam” because he also have a "Bam Bam." And when he voiced his "Bam Bam" I sat in the studio and I say, "You know what, I have a "’Bam Bam’ too."
So I called Mr. Riley and I said, "I want to finish the album today. Come for me up here and carry me to Channel One [Studio], I'm going to finish the album." And him say, "Nancy, what you gonna put on it? You never have anything yesterday, you never have anything day before. What lyrics you gonna put on there?" I say, "Bam Bam." And he come get me and drive me to the studio, and me just do it like that. Just do it. After I freestyle it, I'm going to write it.
“I know that [taking legal action] was the right thing for me to do. I’m glad I did it, because it’s paying off, and I stopped working because of that, too.”
When did you realize your album was starting to get popular in Jamaica?
In those times, I never heard "Bam Bam" play one time in Jamaica. I only heard "One Two" and “Transport Connection,” them were the only tunes they used to play in Jamaica. Those were the only two I heard while I was there. It was when I migrated [to the U.S.] in 1996, that I knew how big "Bam Bam" is. I didn't know, I never had a clue because the producer never wanted me to know. He knew because he was traveling, and I was not. Because of "One Two," I started to travel to England, Canada, different places, but there I didn't hear about "Bam Bam" either.
Why do you think the producer kept that information from you?
Because I'm gonna ask him for money. Because when I did "Bam Bam" I didn't get any money. Back in the days, they don't pay you. You just want your voice to be heard, you just want to hear your record play on the radio, and you feel good. So him never want me to know, didn't want to give me anything. I still didn't, for 32 years. I didn't get anything for it. Terrible.
During that time, people were also sampling your songs.
In Belly it come, they were doing so much thing, and [the record producer] tried to hide all of that from me. He promised me to give me some money once, and I come here, like 1998 and he tricked me. I parked somewhere for about 12 hours waiting on him and he never turn up.
What did sorting the business side of One Two look like when you first recorded?
I was just focused on the music. I did copyright the album, but I think he went behind my back and took "Bam Bam." Of all the ten songs, I copyrighted all of them under my name, Sister Nancy, and my correct name too, which is Ophlin Russell, and then he took “Bam Bam” from the album, the copyright, changed it totally, so I will get a little money for the rest of the nine songs, but I wouldn't get anything for "Bam Bam."
When were you recently able to get that sorted out? How do you make sure you receive what you’re owed when people sample your song now?
2014, when I saw that Reebok commercial with "Bam Bam," I was in my living room. And I said, "No." I seek legal advice from a lawyer. One of my DJ sistren put me onto someone and they take the case for me. I planned to sue them and everything. The company that owned the record now, Westbury Music in England, they have the catalogs for One Two the album because Mr. Riley gave them the rights. His two sons, they are the ones, with Westbury Music. What the lawyer did was to write them, and deal with them. Because I haven't received anything from the record for 32 years. They told me they couldn't give me back 32 years, so they paid me 10 years out of the 32, and gave me 50 percent rights of the whole album, and publishing, everything. It's a lot better, because at least I get my fair share of royalties, and fair share of everything.
I know that it was the right thing for me to do. I'm glad I did it, because it's paying off, and I stopped working because of that, too. I stopped working two years ago, I was working as a bank accountant for 15 years, because when I came here [to the U.S.] my mother sent me back to school. And I did get a little diploma in accounting, and in 2016 I quit. Now I just do the road. I just perform. I perform mostly every weekend out of every month. I'm gone and I go everywhere in the world.
I know you've talked about people sampling you in songs, but I once read that you wished people would just call you to do the song and record it live.
Yes. I don't understand why they would want to sample the song. Because, most of the time if you wanted to find the artist, they can find the artist. I think it's better if they find you. But, because they don't want to pay artists money and thing, that's why they don't find it. But somewhere, somehow, I'm gonna still get paid.
In the future would you like to be called and sing it on the track? If so, with whom?
Of course! I would like to do it with someone who's worthy of it. I have a lot of artists in mind that I would like to do it with. Alicia Keys. I like Erykah Badu. I hope down the line I will do a track with her. God knows best and time will tell.
Do you feel that you’ve reached your calling? That now you’re fully in the career you always wanted?
No I'm not, because there’s still enough work to do. You see, the record, the reggae music, now takes a different turn. It's not like [it was] when I was prominent in there. When I was in Jamaica, you had roots and culture, you had good clean music that my daughter, or children could some day listen to. Now, if you play the music, you have to skip and cut out, because there's all kind of stuff in the music making it bad — that's not how we started it. You can do it, as they call it "dancehall music," I don't know why they call it dancehall music because the dancehall is a place that people go, it's a venue, it can't be a music. Reggae is the whole music, not dancehall. Just have to clean it up, because the children live what they learn.
Now that you’re able to pursue music full time, what do you have going on?
I'm going to continue performing live, as I have many places to go still. I have [all the dates] in my head. I have a couple compilations that I have done, with other DJs and singers from Brazil and Sweden. I have records to release. I have like five new tunes that I have done that haven't been released yet. I'm gonna do more work, I just have to do what I have to do. I love live performance more than anything in the world, 'cause I know I'm good at it.