Sean Paul hasn’t left Jamaica for 18 months. In ordinary times, the ambassador for dancehall jets around the world enthusiastically encouraging us all to shake our things. But thanks to the pandemic, even an invitation to Cardi B’s recent birthday party in Las Vegas couldn’t pry him off the island. “I was like, ‘Yo, I’m not travelling right now’,” says the 48-year-old with a shake of his head. “That was a big decision, but I did send dubplates so at least I was there in essence, and I got to tell her happy birthday through the dub.”
While missing out on that lavish bash may have been disappointing, Paul has been enjoying spending more time than usual in his homeland. He worries, though, about the island’s future. “I’ve seen climate change first-hand here,” he says into his iPhone, standing outside his house in Kingston with bright sunlight glinting off his chunky black shades. “There are beaches I know that have receded 20 feet. In some places there’s no sand, there’s no beach anymore.” He tries to do what he can. He’s recently started funding a water trust that helps small farmers keep their crops irrigated even during droughts. He likes to help out the little guy. “In my experience, when anything becomes too industrial you lose the quality,” he says. “Even with music.”
Paul has an alchemical talent for turning dancehall riddims into global smash hits, and this year, robbed of the ability to tour, he’s thrown himself into making as much new music as possible. In March, he released Live N Livin, a record that celebrated the local scene and exclusively featured fellow Jamaican musicians like Buju Banton, Busy Signal and Jesse Royal. His next record, Scorcha, was initially slated to drop in May but has now been pushed back until early next year, reportedly due to the difficulty of clearing rights for the many international stars set to join Paul on the album. It’s quite the guest list: former No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani, LA rapper Ty Dolla Sign and British singer-songwriter Raye all rub shoulders with Jamaican musical royalty like Damian Marley and Stylo G. “Scorcha is more of an international approach to making the riddims and the songs,” says Paul of the difference between the two records. “It’s still dancehall music, but I think it’s more suited for the palate of my international audience.”
To whet our appetite, Paul has just released “Dynamite”, a feel-good dancefloor-filler that sees him reunite with Australian pop maven Sia. They last collaborated in 2016 on a remix of her song “Cheap Thrills”, which went to number one in 15 countries and has now been streamed more than 1.5 billion times on YouTube alone. It arrived at a fortuitous time for Paul. He badly needed a hit. He’d been an international superstar since 2002 breakthrough album Dutty Rock, but tastes had changed in the following decade and for a while it looked like Paul had been left behind. His 2014 album Full Frequency sold fewer than 5,000 copies in the US, and the following year he left his record label. Appearing on Sia’s tune helped him reclaim his place at the summit of pop, and this time out Paul is looking to repeat the trick with a tune of his own.
“It’s more of my song this time,” he explains. “She’s on the hook and then it’s my verses.” He says the pair had always planned to follow up “Cheap Thrills”, and that when he sent Sia a work-in-progress version of “Dynamite”, she messaged back immediately to tell him he had another hit on his hands. High praise indeed coming from someone who knows a thing or two about lighting up the charts. “You know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Paul with a laugh. “So I’m glad to have beholders like Sia near me.”
As natural as he is on the mic, as a child Paul’s first love was swimming. Born in Kingston in 1973, he had champion swimmers for parents (Garth and Frances Henriques), and they made sure their son was always at home in the water. Paul went on to represent Jamaica at water polo, just as his father and grandfather had before him. He argues swimming has helped fuel his creativity – and his vocal power. “Well it gave me big lungs!” he says with a laugh. “When I’m swimming, it’s like a trance. Your heart is flowing and your brain is receiving new oxygen and fresh blood all the time when you’re training, so funnily enough I think it does help.”
His parents also introduced the young Paul to the music of reggae greats like Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Toots and the Maytals. When the latter’s frontman Toots Hibbert died in September 2020 after contracting Covid, Paul felt it like a death in the family. “I cried like a baby about Toots,” he says. “He was one of my mom’s favourite artists from the early Sixties. She always marvelled and said, ‘Look at his voice! Look how he’s holding his microphone way out from his chest and you can still hear him amazingly!’” Later on, Paul got to know Toots and says he regrets they never made music together. “When I would see him on tour in Europe, he would always embrace me and express [a wish] to do a song with me,” he says. “We never got to do it, so that’s the reason I cried. He’s someone who I really revered as a person. When you spoke to him, you felt nothing but joy.”
In 1982, when Paul was nine, his father and another man crash-landed in the Florida Everglades in a Cherokee Six “ganja plane” stuffed with 700lb of cannabis. “It impacted my life terribly,” says Paul. “For two weeks, we didn’t know if he was alive or dead. He was in the water in the Everglades at two o’clock in the morning. Eventually, coastguards picked him up and he caught a case in the States.” Garth Henriques was deported back to Jamaica, and was imprisoned on an unrelated charge just before Paul turned 13. He died in 2018.
Paul is a lifelong advocate of cannabis’s beneficial properties – many of his songs reference and celebrate it – and says he thinks of those like his father who were criminalised by their involvement with the drug whenever he hears about cannabis legalisation advancing around the world. “Cannabis had been decriminalised here in Jamaica, but there’s still an overwhelming number of people who are in prison because they were smoking a spliff or had an ounce bag,” he points out. “I’ve seen the same politicians and lawyers and doctors that used to say, ‘It’s a maddening thing, it’s going to drive you crazy, it’s a gateway drug, don’t do it’ now turn around and say how beneficial it is. Politicians are taking money from big businessmen and forcing out the real farmers who cultivated the good stuff.” With a smile, he returns to his earlier point about industrial-scale production lowering quality. “For me, dispensaries are a good thing,” he says, “But almost all their weed tastes like cardboard.”
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He adds that he’s getting into the legal cannabis business himself, and believes he’s spotted a gap in the market: healthy edibles. “Edibles can help a lot if a person can’t smoke, but if that person is sick with diabetes then these edibles are gonna kill him because they’re full of sugar!” he points out. “I’m in the process of trying to make edibles that are more healthy, and for now I’m also developing my own strain of smokes that people can enjoy.”
After his father was sent to prison, Paul filled up his life with water polo. He played on the Jamaican national team until he was 21, travelling to compete in Trinidad, Barbados and the Bahamas as well as to the United States and Mexico. Wherever he went, he heard Jamaican dancehall. “I wouldn’t hear it on the radio, but every time I’d go to the clubs I would hear our music there,” he remembers. “I realised it was a huge international underground music scene, but when I started, all I wanted to do was make songs that Jamaican people would love.”
Paul began MCing when he was 21, performing at local barbecues and small parties around Kingston. “That was late in terms of people getting into music in Jamaica,” he points out. “A lot of people get into DJing and dancehall music in their teens. I didn’t get recorded until I was 24.” He made up for his late start by being a fast learner. He’d hang around studios, soaking up as much knowledge as he could, and in 2000, at 27, released his debut record Stage One. “It did well,” he recalls. “And then we did Dutty Rock… which blew me up all over the world!”
Dutty Rock, released in November 2002, produced a staggering string of global hits, including “Get Busy”, “Gimme The Light”, “Like Glue” and “I’m Still In Love With You”. These were songs that corralled the wild energy of dancehall into familiar pop structures, all topped by Paul’s unmistakable vocals. You know a Sean Paul tune the moment you hear it. At the same time, he had another massive hit collaborating on “Breathe” with Blu Cantrell, and suddenly found himself so in demand that in March 2003, Beyoncé flew him to Miami to add a verse to her tune “Baby Boy”, which became yet another chart-topper.
It was the hottest of hot streaks, and to hear Paul tell it, his hits seemed to just flow out of each other. Dancefloor-filler “Like Glue”, for example, started life as a brief intro for “Gimme The Light”. “I remember being in a hotel room in Boston, I’m smoking and I’m like, ‘I gotta find a new intro for Gimme The Light,” says Paul. “I came up with this hook, then I went to the studio back at home and the producer Tony Kelly was like, ‘Yo, I’ve got this big riddim, I’ll let you hear it’. As he played it, that melody that I was singing came into my head and it just worked on the riddim. Things like that don’t happen all the time, so it’s a great feeling when you have something and it just matches perfectly and really works.”
While touring with his water polo team had clued him in to the fact that dancehall could be popular around the world, nothing prepared him for quite how the world embraced Sean Paul and his music. “I didn’t think I would become what I am today, but I embraced it fully when it started to happen,” he says. The role of international ambassador for dancehall suited him pretty well. “I started to take the mindset that I have a responsibility to the music, and when you’re given that opportunity you really need to step it up.” That wicked grin is back. “So I did.”
‘Dynamite’ by Sean Paul feat. Sia is out now
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