Elephant Man: Rogue male

Elephant Man leads the herd of new Jamaican stars. Chris Mugan meets the rough diamond of ragga
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The Independent Culture

First, there was Sean Paul; then, Wayne Wonder. Now, the larger-than-life Elephant Man completes a triumvirate set to spearhead reggae's return to global recognition. Its latest rise in popularity has been driven in part by US music's love of all things Jamaican; stars of the island's dancehall movement have guested on some of the biggest R&B and hip hop releases of the past year.

Unfortunately, Elephant Man seems to have picked up the American predilection for being difficult. An interview is put off by half an hour, then an hour, then an Atlantic Records minion comes to tell me that the artist, nicknamed "energy god" by his fans, is apparently "flaking". "Ele's locked himself in his room. He only went to bed at 6am and he has to go to the studio. His manager's over there now, but we might have to call it off,' she says.

Oh no you don't, for Ele's time is now. His track "Pon Di River, Pon Di Bank" was this year's essential anthem at the Notting Hill Carnival. Last month, Ele's dense patois and uncompromising dancehall rhythms crashed into the Top 30. You may only be able to decipher a portion of the single's lyrics, yet its infectious beats and forceful delivery prove irresistible. The same can be said of forthcoming album Good 2 Go, Ele's first for major label Atlantic after he launched his career on reggae imprint Greensleeves. Good 2 Go sees him take his music to another level, with the standard dancehall rhythms you hear at Jamaican parties tweaked to better fit the melodies.

"It's the same Elephant, but we've stepped up the beats," he finally explains en route from hotel to studio. "We sit down and spend more time. I had plans for Good 2 Go, my mind was clear. I had nothing to do but go in the studio and put some good sounds together. I'm making a big move, and representing dancehall to the fullest."

Good 2 Go is an unashamed party record, with only the occasional reference to the violence that plagues parts of Kingston. This is something of a departure for an artist whose last album Log On featured eight tracks that referred to the World Trade Centre attack.

"I sing: 'Who you think he is when he trade a gun for borrow', for there's a lot of guys who like to borrow guns and bad you up and all that stuff, but we want people to know they just gotta enjoy themselves, live their lives to the fullest and do what you do best and don't let nobody tell you nothing.''

Part of the plan involves corralling US rappers to guest on his album, calling in favours from artists he has collaborated with in the past, most notably Wu Tang Clan's in-house intellectual Killah Priest. "You want people all over to buy the album, you don't want being in one circle all your life. I might win some of their fans, just like they might win some of my fans. They were cool, nice people, easy to get along with, like working with Jamaican producers and artists. They showed a lot of love."

After years of insularity spent honing their heavy dancehall sound, the island's artists are once again looking outward, to their benefit and that of dance music generally. This is a regular occurrence, much like a comet passing. Just as Chaka Demus & Pliers could do no wrong in the early Nineties, Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder are now sweeping all before them. Wonder's smooth croons translate well to an audience familiar with R&B, and Paul is identifiably a singjay - combining a rap-style delivery with more tuneful vocals. (Uncommonly among dancehall acts, he hails from uptown - well off - Kingston and, accordingly, his style is readily accessible.)

The early Nineties also saw dancehall star Shabba Ranks score huge hits, and now the 2003 version is here in the form of Ele. Named O'Neil Bryan, Ele hails from the Seaview Gardens district. It may sound like a resort where your grandmother could live, but it is, in fact, one of the city's toughest neighbourhoods. "It's one of the hardcore ghettos, where kids are growing up with knives, and there's a lot of gunshots. There was no money to buy no food and all dem stuff, but we could catch fishes and eat cane."

His sound may seem the polar opposite to that of Wonder and Paul, but Ele considers them allies in taking Jamaican music beyond its shores. "We're all Jamaican, we're all doing the same work and we all love dancing. Sean Paul takes a break, then someone else comes in. We're not giving them no space, just doing the music and keeping it constant."

And he is only too aware that reggae revivals such as the current outbreak can be short-lived. "We just want to keep the dancehall movement going. We don't want it to fall off and we don't want nobody saying it was in the limelight and then it leaves."

Despite its deprivations, Seaview has nurtured a good deal of Jamaican talent over the years. Veteran dancehall star Bounty Killer acted as a mentor to the young O'Neil, who sang outside the local studio, while Shabba himself was a neighbour. "He lived next door to me in Seaview Gardens. I loved his voice, it was so nice, it was like hearing a nightingale, that big rumble tumblin' out."

US music was also an important influence. Ele was brought up on Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston, but identifies readily with the gangsta rap of Tupac and, above all, Biggie Smalls. "We'd die for Biggie,we love him for the gangsta lyrics and he was smooth. When you hear him, you think he's a slim kid, not a big, fat guy." O'Neil himself weighs in at a strapping 180lb, but most of the time lives up to the "energy man" tag. Reviews of his live shows regularly report him climbing lighting rigs.

In the past, reggae has often struggled to maintain its momentum on the world stage, but Elephant Man is in trim and ready for the long haul.

'Good 2 Go' is out now on Atlantic Records