Cover Story: Mavado

With hundreds of stitches in his hands, a glock in his waist and the dancehall’s first truly psychedelic voice, Mavado is taking gun talk to outer spaces.

Photographer Andrew Dosumnu
December 01, 2009

It’s somewhere around 1:30AM when we arrive at the weekly dance in Kingston known as Hot Mondays. The selectors are in full gear, yelling over a dancehall song here and there, but mostly over deadstock, gone-but-not-forgotten hip-hop and R&B party jams like Mario’s “Just a Friend.” The beer flows from two bars set up on foldout tables. The strings of Guiness party flags are stretched overhead. The man roaming with the video camera has his mounted mini spotlight on, beaming a live feed of images of the girls at the party in lycra, in leopard print, in big earrings onto a screen on one side of the dance. He zooms in on their pumped up cleavage, or on their crotches, or on their strappy high heels that show off ankle tats. They keep doing their little warm-up gyrations and sip off their drinks, but otherwise pretend he isn’t there. Men walk around with baskets on their chests like beer vendors at baseball games, selling Pringles, candy, juice boxes and sandwich bags of peanuts. Others walk around hocking giant stalks of weed.

Even at this late hour, the party hasn’t started. There aren’t really walls at Hot Mondays—it’s held outside, in the parking lot of an L-shaped, two-story mini stripmall—but if there were, all of us (except for the lone old drunk dancing like he’s made of rubber) would be holding them up. Yet the energy of the dance grows steadily. By 2 AM, selectors Razz and Biggy have transitioned into a reggae-heavy set. By 2:30, the dance is filling up—everyone is still pressed to the outside of the lot, but the would-be walls are five, six, seven people deep, and a thick crowd surrounds the speakers across the lot from the turntables. Everyone starts to get a little looser, a little high, a little drunk.

Around that time, Mavado, dressed in “full black,” his hair pulled back into a tiny ponytail, walks up with his modest crew and points up at the balcony overlooking the lot, before diving into the crowd surrounding the speakers to greet people. The vibe of the party ramps up a notch. We follow him up the stairs, past the men holding automatic weapons and wearing bulletproof vests marked POLICE, pause as he talks briefly with Elephant Man, and finally take our place on the balcony. Someone quickly hustles a small plastic patio table up the stairs, puts it beside Mavado and slaps a case of Guiness on top—instant VIP.

Most hip-hop, R&B and dancehall artists have a call sign—an affiliation or catchphrase they say in the first few moments of a song—and Mavado might have the catchiest trademark out right now in any genre. “Anyway!” he sings in his haunted, gangster-soul voice. “Gangsta fi liiife, bwoy! Anywaaaaayeeeeeee.” 

Sometime after 3, Razz and Biggy, who have been stringing the steadily swelling crowd along, building the tension in anticipation for the first run of shit hot right now songs, let the first “Anyway!” of the night slip. Mavado’s crew instantly erupts with shouts of “Bwa! Bwa! Bwa!”, hands in the air like they’re licking off shots, lighters aflame as Mavado’s newest single on Kingston radio drops and the first super-hype crew of male dancers steps out. Their fluid, choreographed forward-dip-slide routine thrusts them into the spotlight of the one man DVD crew, synchronized as they move to Mavado’s hook: I was dreamin!/ I was floatin!/ On a thousand dollar bill!/ If you touch my paper!/ Fuck my dream up!/ Ya gonna get kiiiiilled!

After a verse and a chorus, Razz and Biggy suddenly cut the song. Having sufficiently teased the crowd, they ease back down into a one-drop set. Finally, after working back into dancehall, it’s a multiple-rewind version of the Game’s Junior Reid-sampling “One Blood” that pushes the dancers into an unstoppable frenzy. It’s just before 4 AM and time to send them to the moon with a big blast that will hurtle the party past the point of no return, each song giving way only to faster and faster bashment until the Tuesday morning sun comes up. As the harried mess of “One Blood” fades out, the knockout punch that pushes through the frenzied clash of sounds is that twisted, psychedelic clarion call: ANYWAY!!!! GANSTA FOR LIFE, BWOY!!!! ANYWAAYEEEEEE!!! More shouts of “BWA! BWA! BWA!” More lighters aflame. The dancehall goes crazy.

In America—or in New York anyway—the record labels and one or two newspapers and magazines that consistently touch on reggae, for obvious reasons, tend to frame new, breakthrough artists in terms of “will he or won’t he?” crossover potential, with Sean Paul as the standard bearer. It is a completely outmoded framework—one that denies the on-the-ground reality of the music and the inroads it has made around the world over the last three decades or so, far beyond the studios and dances and live shows in Kingston. Yet even with only one bonafide superstar, reggae has taken a firm hold in America: on so-called “urban” radio, in record shops where 45s hit shelves in New York, San Francisco and Toronto just three days after they appear in Kingston, on the internet’s file-sharing sites, in mega-clubs frequented by the diasporas of the islands, and in basement dive bars (with turntables) that are frequented by the indie music freak illuminati.

In this environment, what makes Mavado really special is really simple: his sound. It is druggy, haunted and versatile—a new incarnation of the classic singjay style that stands out because, in a dancehall divided by conscious, sweet-sounding one-drop singers and furiously chatting, firestarter deejays, even while Mavado sings, he sounds hard, pained, shrouded in turmoil and gangster as fuck. Mavado’s voice and inflection are such that, when he calls out “Gangsta fi life,” you don’t have to know anything about his biography to believe him—and it’s this radical, spaced-out psychedelia version of gangster that is his revolution. If Bounty Killer and his outsized gun talk successor Vybz Kartel sound like they kill their enemies in chaotic and furious wars in the city streets, Mavado sounds like he kills his enemies with a poisonous snake left hidden in their bedsheets. Already, it’s a distinction that is not only exciting dancehall obsessives, but also serving as a potential entry point for new listeners who get lost somewhere in the heavy-handed, million bpm violence of the prototypical gun talk sound.

On New York radio, Mavado’s sleeper hit “Weh Dem A Do,” with its odd pacing, handclaps and ghoulish rather than aggressive threats, has almost furtively become the song of the moment. The DJs and on air personalities don’t seem to know the first thing about Mavado (including whether or not his name is “Movado” or “Mavado”), but, after they play “Weh Dem A Do,” they compulsively do their best “Anyway!!!” impression. In Kingston, Mavado has only recently gone from being a nearly anonymous member of Bounty Killer’s stable of talent known as the Alliance, to being the freshest, most exciting new star, and his presence in town is inescapable. His name is on every other lightpost on every street, in advertisements promoting upcoming live shows like “Full Clip” (named after his hit combination with the other new young-gun deejay Busy Signal), “Full Black” (for which you pay a reduced cover charge if you show up wearing Kingston’s most gangster color), and “Hot Mondays Red Carpet 5th Anniversary” (which he is hosting). Every one of the handful of tunes he’s informally released—even those that sound sloppy, out of tune and unfinished—are in steady rotation at the radio stations, and he recently had a severe confrontation with the city’s notoriously confrontational police which has cemented his infamous reputation on the streets, given credence to his claims of “Gangsta fi life,” and landed him headlines in the local papers.

Mavado’s star has risen in tandem with that of a young, Kingston-based production trio known as Daseca, who voiced him over their “Anger Management” riddim for his breakthrough hit “Real McCoy,” and have since teamed up with him for basically all of his tunes so far, with the notable exception of “Weh Dem A Do.” On the muggy, hot, late fall Monday when we are to meet up with Mavado in his notorious neighborhood of Cassava Piece, we first stop by Daseca Studios to hear some unreleased music.

As we loiter with the trio in the parking lot of their nondescript office complex, a Toyota pulls up and, without fanfare, Mavado gets out of the passenger seat while Busy Signal climbs out from behind the wheel. As the members of Daseca mug for a few photos, Busy and Mavado stand by and crack on Daseca’s clothes, their poses, their green self-consciousness, the two deejays carrying themselves in person as they carry themselves on record: Busy is animated, smiling and bubbly, while Mavado keeps largely quiet, the crown of his head tilted down as he gingerly eats grapes and pineapple from a black plastic bag while trying to keep the acidic juices from running onto his heavily bandaged hand. Down by the knuckles, freshly dressed cuts run out from under the white dressings, and you can see the threads of stitches and the tiny knots where each is tied.

Again without any fanfare, the deejay Mr Vegas emerges from the upstairs of the office complex and also begins chopping it up with Busy, Mavado and Daseca, then eventually corrals everyone up to a different office on the second floor, which turns out to be Sly and Robbie’s studio. Vegas recently voiced a new Sly and Robbie riddim called “Darker Shade,” and as the riddim plays on loop over the studio monitors, Busy and Mavado begin playfully and only half-seriously volleying little melodies and concepts (“Hey, Busy—where you from?”) back and forth. Vegas asks the engineer to burn two copies of the riddim, and gives one each to Busy and Mavado as we walk back down to our respective cars and head for Cassava Piece.

“Daseca?!” yells Mavado. “Where does ‘Anyway’ come from?” I’m standing in Cassava Piece, interviewing Mavado in an empty, one room cinder block structure that’s right on the gully—the canal that moves water through Kingston. In Jamaica, the words “gully,” “ghetto” and “garrison” are more or less interchangeable, as nobody with any money whatsoever lives on the gully, or in site of it. When you turn off the paved road and onto the dirt and gravel that leads down into the dust bowl at the bottom of Cassava Piece, a spray-painted sign that says “Gangsta Fi Life” welcomes you. An oversized poster for the “Full Black” show with a huge photo of Mavado has been hung on a pole nearby. And we are a few short feet across the narrow lane from a small, fort-like structure that Mavado refers to as “Cubans,” where—around the time when Mavado first met his hero and mentor Bounty Killer at age 14—his crew used to beat out rhythms on a plywood countertop for him to voice.

Fittingly, before any of Mavado’s friends—Daseca, Busy Signal, Mavado’s brother or the local selector known as Foota Hype—have a chance to respond to his query about the source of his mysterious “Anyway”” catchphrase, he answers the question himself. “Outta my mouth it comes from!” he says. “‘Real McCoy’ started it. Remember? Me went inna the studio and the riddim played and me just say, Anyway! Gangsta fi life, bwoy! Just from anger. We stressed out and frustrated and things wicked for we so…Anyway!

Although at this point Mavado has only recorded a small handful of tunes beyond “Real McCoy,” the ever-expanding love he’s receiving in the dancehall is already attracting negative attention and what Mavado would call “wicked vibes” as well. Only days before our interview, the police had come into the garrison looking for him. The specifics are unclear, but some reports have said that a studio engineer who may have surreptitiously spliced a Mavado dub plate was, at some point, assaulted. The police went into Cassava Piece to bring Mavado to the station so he could lodge a statement, but as a scuffle between the police and the deejay broke out, the residents of the neighborhood, in a show of community solidarity straight out of the lyrics from the Busy and Mavado combination “Badman Place,” blocked the authorities from detaining him.

Mavado claims that, when he voluntarily walked to the station later that day (again, much of the neighborhood marched with him), a policeman who had already promised to bring him down attacked him. “The same police,” he says in disbelief. “Inside the station, the man come drape me, so me drape him back. Another police say to him, ‘Yo, let go of the youth.’ Me turn and I walk off down the passage by the likkle glass, and the man him push me from back way. Boom! Me hit the glass and the glass just broke. And me realize that me neck gonna drop pon the glass, so I just put my hand up.”

After he was assaulted—and taken to the hospital to have his fingers stitched back on—the police put two charges on him, accusing him of trying to escape from the station (after he had voluntarily turned himself in) and of breaking the glass. “I guess them try to get you down as ghetto youth,” he says with a shrug, as if to say “anyway.” 

As Mavado again looks at his bandages, the one-word call sign continues to seem less and less mysterious and more and more like a survival technique—a declaration that no other gangster artist has thought to make about the attitude that must preclude the full black dress code, the obsession with guns and the promises to kill you and leave your body where it won’t be discovered once it starts to smell. It’s Anyway! not as a random word or a name for a crew, but as a rallying cry, a motivational statement, a mantra—something to tell yourself at the end of a long day before surrendering to sleep, and again upon waking in the morning; something to help brush off the stress and depression in preparation for whatever another wicked day might bring.

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Posted: December 01, 2009
Cover Story: Mavado