Culture
JM | Oct 23, 2020

Sean Paul did it his way and took dancehall to the world

Al Edwards

Al Edwards / Our Today

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Reading Time: 6 minutes
Chart-topping Jamaican deejay, Sean Paul. (Photo: Grammy.com)

Grammy-winning dancehall artiste Sean Paul has built a stellar career spanning two and half decades during which he has sold close to 30 million records and taken dancehall music across the world. 

How was this done? Hard work, tenacity, staying true to his dancehall roots and being able to make himself an exporter of Jamaican music culture. 

His success with the genre of dancehall has made him perhaps the most notable entertainer to come out of Jamaica since this new century. Where many local acts take a parochial approach to their craft, Sean Paul operates from a wider aperture. He has remained constant during the transition to the music business’s digital paradigm which has seen a dramatic fall in record sales. 

The medium by which he gets his product to the world makes little difference-his appeal is universal. Bob Marley was an ambassador for reggae music, an extremely gifted lyricist whose enunciation was clearly understood by all. Dancehall music today is more difficult to sell to the world, as many of its purveyors are not clearly understood and do make the required effort to market themselves beyond Jamaica. 

Sean Paul figured it out and has popularised dancehall worldwide. He has collaborated with some of the biggest names including Beyonce, Rihanna, Pharell Williams, Dua Lipa, Keyshia Cole, Estelle, Eve, Sia, and Clean Bandit.

If you need great dancehall flavouring and hooks, he is the man to go to and that has been the case for a good few years now. Speaking with the BBC, Sean Paul gave an insight into his broad appeal.

Sean Paul arriving at the Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex in Kiev, Ukraine with collaborator Dua Lipa to perform their smash hit single “No Lie” at the 2018 UEFA Champions League finals.

“I’m able to speak in a little tongue where someone can understand me. Sometimes a lot of people gravitate towards my music and say ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying’ but they get the gist of it. “People speaking in hardcore patois, it’s kind of hard for people to understand, so that’s a big factor.” Summer Eldemire, writing for Fader, also has a take on the phenomenon that is Sean Paul. “ We loved him because he represented Jamaica – he was a real dancehall artiste that by his second album had also figured out the tricky act of also appealing to a global market. It was genius.” 

There are those in Jamaica, including many dancehall and reggae acts who readily put Sean Paul’s achievement down to class divide and ‘shadism’. That is not giving him the credit he so rightly deserves. In so many instances an artiste who breaks big on the international scene doesn’t get the love from his or her homeland. Rihanna is revered and adored in Barbados and she is not a purveyor of Barbadian music.

Sean Paul champions dancehall, an indigenous art form, and he gets a grudging nod. The first American jazz artistes gained recognition when they toured and made their reputations in Europe. Think Sidney Bechet (1920s), Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins (1930s). Later on, you had the likes of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. To get the picture, check out Bertrand Tavernier’s brilliant movie featuring Dexter Gordon, Round Midnight.

Photo: Hapilos Music

With six studio albums under his belt, Sean Paul now has a roster of hits that are party classics all over the world. Temperature, Gimme The Light, Like Glue, Never Gonna Be The Same, Get Busy, Got 2 Luv U, Infiltrate, Rockabye, and many more can be heard in Kenya, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Germany, New York, Miami, London – everywhere you go. When Sean Paul burst onto the scene in Jamaica back in the mid-90s, he had a unique style and didn’t deviate too far from the dancehall template.

As his career has grown he has taken risks and synthesised dancehall cleverly to what’s in vogue, as demonstrated by his Tomahawk Technique album. 

Artwork from Sean Paul’s commercially successful 2012 project ‘Tomahawk Technique’. The genre-smashing LP was his fifth studio album. (Photo: Amazon Music)

He signed with Atlantic back in 2002 when he was sizzling but, like many corporations over time, they take talent for granted. A long-term career is characterised by peaks and troughs as in the case of Frank Sinatra. What endures is talent which girders appeal.

All too often executives forget that. In 2014 Atlantic cut Sean Paul loose, no longer seeing him as an asset. Why wasn’t he valued and appreciated? Couldn’t they see what dancehall packaged with the right aplomb could do? Sean Paul went on to answer those questions. Sinatra for years was on Capitol Records and decided to go his own way and formed Reprise. 

Some great artistes have the acumen, skill and tenacity to pull this off (Herb Albert, Diddy, Prince, Jay-Z, The Beatles). Sean Paul did just that forming, his own company Dutty Rock Productions, making his own recordings, videos and signing acts.

“It is better that I feel what I want to release; if the public doesn’t want it, at least I know I put my best into it.”

—Sean Paul

Since he made the move to control his own destiny he has had more success than Atlantic brought him. He determines and controls what he releases. Not many dancehall artistes can say that products from their own company, score big across the world. Sean Paul can. “It is better that I feel what I want to release; if the public doesn’t want it, at least I know I put my best into it,” said Sean Paul about going his own way. This speaks volumes about his character and work ethic.

The self-proclaimed ‘gyal dem Skillarchy’ in the flesh. (Photo: Spotify)

He has become a superstar on the international scene but has not forgotten his Jamaican dancehall and reggae brethren, collaborating with Alkaline, Wayne Marshall, Chi Ching Ching, Elephant Man, Beenie Man and Konshens.

Speaking on what dancehall means to him, Sean Paul said in a Billboard interview: “It’s a culture that I love and grew up with – it made me who I am today. I never dreamed it would be so big. I owe it all to dancehall and there is no way I could turn my back on the culture.

“Sometimes the trends take a turn as we go through different generations but I still support what the kids and producers do because (the genre) means that much to me. I still live in Jamaica and take part in the history, so I try to blend it as much as possible.”

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, Sean Paul is still working, having recently released Bad Inna Bed produced by Troy ‘Troyton’ Hinds and knocked out a rallying cry during this time of lockdown entitled Calling On Me, a tune to lift the spirits.

Last year he was awarded the Jamaican Order of Distinction, for his contribution to the global popularity and promotion of reggae music. How fitting – his life and career is one of distinction.

His music has now transcended generations and he continues to be relevant with audiences. His art comes from his heart.

“Take another step on towards my destiny,
But the memories still remain.
Deep inna mi brain, inna my soul I hold the key,
Said it never gonna be the same.
Throughout life and beyond all eternity,
Yo, we keep burnin up the flame”

– Lyrics from ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’ by Sean Paul

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