ROCK: Warning: sexual swear words: Philip Sweeney meets Shaggy, Desert Storm vet turned reggae star

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The Independent Culture
APART from the clubs, which he's taken to instantly, Orville Richard Burrell, alias Shaggy, is finding the details of London life strangely unfamiliar. The rough brown lump sugar on the Soho cafe table elicits a look of surprised caution, as if he's unsure whether to put it in his coffee or give it a wide berth. Shaggy is slight and youthful, and his light, American-accented voice carries just a hint of Jamaican undertow, totally unlike the baritone Kingston patois of his record. 'In Britain you use a whole different bunch of slang words that don't mean anything in New York,' he's saying, 'for instance you have this word 'banker' . . .' 'Not 'banker' - 'wanker',' interrupts Robert Livingston, his producer / manager, one ear still to his mobile phone.

We're talking about the 'Raas Bumba Claat' version of Shaggy's hit record 'Oh Carolina'. Its sudden British chart success (this week's highest climber at No 18) comes after two months at the top of the New York reggae charts. It's a raucous, lurching juggernaut of a track, all sidling bass, rattling bongos, chiming bells, honking sax and a raggedly monotone male chorus which, Shaggy informs me, 'weren't no trained singers, just a bunch of friends in the studio.'

The success of 'Oh Carolina' is attributable to its insidious and novel rhythm, which broke the pattern, in dancehall reggae, of nine months of marginally distinguishable variations on the bogle dance beat initiated by Buju Bantur. Another important factor is the familiarity of the old ska song which Shaggy's record in fact re-works, and of which a crackly six- second sample constitutes the opening shot. The Folkes Brothers' original 'Oh Carolina' came out in 1967, the year before Shaggy's birth in Kingston. Shaggy could only remember occasional snatches of the old lyric when his friend and colleague, the sound boffin Sting (no relation), played him a cassette of the rhythm track in his car last July.

But Shaggy doesn't hang around. 'I'm not very athletic, but the one thing I can run is my mouth'. Twenty minutes brisk 'chatting' in the studio soon established the new version of the ode to Caroline, the girl who 'rock her body and move just like a squirrel'.

Or at least, one of the new versions. Headlining Shaggy's best-selling maxi-single is the standard 'radio version' of 'Oh Carolina'; backing it up is a faster 'Uptown 10001 version' aimed at the more conventional dance end of the reggae / hip hop club-going spectrum. Most popular with young Jamaicans, however, is the 'Raas Bumba Claat version', in which the mysterious phrase in question replaces the words 'palave (show off), jump and prance'. The words 'Raas Bumba Claat', as Shaggy skirts around explaining, are sexual swear words, to borrow Simon Bates' phrase, and their substitution in the chorus of the old ska classic constitutes makes for a Jamaican dancehall equivalent of a rugby song.

'Slack' or 'X-rated' lyrics have been a feature of Shaggy's short hit career (earlier No 1s were 'Mampie', 'Big Up' and 'Big Hood'), but one he intends to abandon as he builds on his new mass market success. 'My next single is gonna be a pure romantic love song . . . but real heavy.' He's been on a winning streak since he left the US Marines in '91, after a four-year term that included five months manning a howitzer in the Gulf during Desert Storm. Military life doesn't really suit him, though he joined voluntarily - he's still a Jamaican citizen - and he left busted down to the ranks from Corporal for making rather too many unauthorized, nine-hour return trips from his North Carolina base to perform with the sound systems in New York clubs like The Underground and Dynasty.

Shaggy is the biggest individual success among a vanguard of young New York Jamaicans centred round the record label Signet and the Long Island studio HF&C. Sting, an Italian / Jamaican rhythm creator who accompanied Shaggy to London, is another key figure. Reggae DJ David Rodigan came across him scrutinizing the contents of a north London reggae shop for anything he hadn't heard. Self-confident, ambitious and at the sharp end where dancehall reggae and new black American musics come together, the New Yorkers are seeing their ideas bear fruit. In Jamaica, the Carolina beat is vying with the new local butterfly dance, and the bogle is as stale as yesterday morning's johnny cakes. 'There are eight or nine Jamaican copies of the Carolina sound now,' affirms Shaggy, 'but we don't listen to them. We haven't got time.'

(Photograph omitted)