- Words Ryan Cahill
We meet the man that mainstreamed Dancehall.
I’ve just walked into an empty hotel foyer inside one of Central London’s swanky hotels. It’s the kind of space that blurs the line between quirky reception area and extravagant exhibition show-space. There’s an elaborate hot-pink chaise lounge, and I questioning whether I’m actually allowed to sit on it, or if it’s just here for appearance purposes.
Before I get the chance to make my mind up, someone approaches me, confirms my identity and I’m ushered towards a huge frosted glass door. It’s slid open in a semi-dramatic manner, as if to reveal an extravagant utopia sitting just beyond. I guess to some degree, it kind of is. In the middle of the room there’s an oversized pool table, grand golden lamps hang from the ceiling and there are randomly places ornate vases of epic proportion positioned around the room. OPULENCE! The feature wall is made entirely of contemporary stained glass, sending coloured light shimmering on the marble floor beneath me. There’s almost something familiar about the space, it’s kinda like being on the set of a music video that’s played every half hour on MTV… which is ironic given I’m here to meet one of music’s biggest icons, Sean Paul.
As it goes, he needs no introduction. His reputation totally proceeds him, cemented by collaborations with some of the worlds biggest stars, and let’s face it, he essentially retains the title as the man that mainstreamed Dancehall.
"Shot & Wine" by Sean Paul ft. Stefflon Don
When I lock eyes with him, he’s melting into a large armchair, his signature designer sunglasses resting on his forehead (Throughout our time together, I find myself glaring at them, in awe that they manage to stay fixed in place for the duration of our chat). Admittedly, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I imagine that a man of his prestige is certain to be totally standoffish and a little bit arrogant, but admittedly I couldn’t be more wrong. As we stumble our way around my thick Yorkshire questioning, it becomes clear that despite a long-haul flight and an exhaustive press schedule, the Dancehall legend is more than happy to deep-dive into his career. No holds barred.
We should probably start with a fact about SP that you definitely won’t be aware of. Despite his Jamaican upbringing, his grandmother is actually from Coventry. “Well, she moved away more than 50 years ago to go to Jamaica, so all my life I’ve been hearing stories about the UK,” he tells me when I mention his link to the mighty Midlands. “But I love London, and the talent! I’ve gotten to work with Ellie Goulding on my EP. And Jess Glynne! I’ve been hearing her name and liking her voice for a long time. I’d be down to work with her!”
His latest musical endeavour sees him teaming up with Stefflon Don, herself a Brit with Jamaican roots. After previously working together on “Jet Plane Trip” from his 2018 EP, Mad Love the Prequel, they’ve joined forces once again for “Shot & Wine”. Despite having a plethora of collaborations under his belt and working with some of the industries most accoladed talents, he admits that working with The Don was probably one of the easiest to date. “She came to Jamaica and said she was going to come and visit me at the studio. I said ‘What about this song?’ and I asked if she would do a verse to it.” He tells me. “We kind of came friends in the biz quicker than a lot of people because of the Jamaican roots. It’s easier to interact. It’s cool.”
"Like Glue" by Sean Paul
When I think about his dedication to creative collaboration, I wonder which have been his most enjoyable experiences. He’s had everyone from Beyonce to Rihanna through his studio doors, and has most recently enjoyed successful link-ups with the likes of Little Mix, Dua Lip and Major Lazer. “Probably Migos, because they surprised me. They were just on the cusp of becoming what they are now; huge!” He enthuses when I quiz him. “They brought weed and girls, it was just fun. A really memorable experience. The three of them have very different distinctive styles, and for them to be family adds to the vibe for me.” He also cites Rihanna as another favoured collaborator, telling me that, rather than making him travel to LA as is usually the case when it comes to his collaborations, Bad Gal RiRi journeyed to Jamaica to fully absorb herself in the culture. “‘Break it Off’ was a huge song in Dancehall and it did go quite a way by itself on the Billboard charts. She came out with us, she went to the beach, she got to see the Bob Marley Museum, which she wanted to see from when she was young. I got to show her how we live.”
But after all the success and excess that he’s enjoyed in his career thus far, it’s evident that his priorities have shifted in recent years. His marriage and the birth of his baby boy have changed his perspective somewhat. “Being away from your fam’ a lot does take a toll on me, especially with me having a son and my father passed last year.” He highlights some of the low points of fame. “Even coming away now just feeling the cold, I wish I was at home. So those are low points but I think you get yourself through them.”
"Temperature" by Sean Paul
While the lowlights might be hard to handle, he can’t seem to avoid the highlights. The success of his collaborations and his undying dedication to Dancehall have made him one of the most respected acts in the industry, and have earned him a handful of accolades including a Grammy, American Music Award and four MOBO Awards. But 19 years on from the release of his game-changing debut, Stage One, how does it feel looking back on all he’s achieved? “I didn’t know how far I would go in the biz,” he confesses. “I’m just trying to be innovative. I won the American Music Award, and it was shocking to me. I was speaking to millions of people that day. I went straight backstage to the bathroom and [threw] cold water all over my face. For Best Pop Male Act, I beaten Kanye West and Justin Timberlake who were huge stars at the time, so that was shocking. Things like that are like ‘wow’ to me.”
While he’s still thriving as an artist, he’s also keen to pursue a career that is more behind-the-scenes, honing in on his lifelong goal of being an established producer. “In music, especially in the Dancehall world, I’ve done it all. I feel where I should go next from here is actually mentoring and producing young acts from Jamaica, as well as producing myself.” I mention that by mentoring and supporting new talent in Jamaica, he aids in ensuring that great Jamaican talents continue to break through into the mainstream. It brings me nicely onto my final question, what exactly is the legacy that Sean Paul hopes to leave when he hangs up his designer shades and retires #duttypaul. “I want to be known for producing, and having, Dancehall songs that are anthems that people have to play and it gets everyone on the dance floor. I think that is a legacy that is there and when I look back, is already solidified. However looking to the future I want to be able to produce tracks like that myself. All the tracks I’ve been on I’ve written 100%, like “Temperature”, but I didn’t produce that track so I’m looking to broaden my horizons to be a hit producer as well as the artists.”