MUSIC / A ragga to riches story: Suddenly, everbody wants a piece of ragga. Michael Odell watches the A&R men scramble, but wonders how long it will last

Michael Odell
Wednesday 14 April 1993 23:02

'FRIDAY teatime, Island thought they had him,' an employee of the Virgin record company said. 'By Friday evening, we'd put over a million on the table by fax and snatched him out of Island's hands.'

It's the kind of fiscal powerplay that music business observers love. The news that Shaggy, the American ragga artist, had been signed by Virgin for a reported pounds 1.2m - and by fax] - was the latest salvo in the British industry's ragga signing wars. Ragga artists recently occupied the top three singles chart placings (Shaggy, Shabba Ranks and Snow) and the record companies are mobilising their A&R teams in the quest for the next big ragga DJ. 'Shaggy is the tip of the iceberg,' Paul Conroy, managing director of Virgin, who wrested Shaggy from the opposition, said.

But while nearly all A&R departments will say they are in the market for ragga, all are wary of letting the media hype force up the signing fees.

The world's largest record company is Polygram, which owns the labels A&M, Island, Polydor, London and Big Life. Theoretically, each label signs and develops acts independently. But Polygram executives are in a position to manage any bidding war between its own labels, and thus keep the price down. In the latest excitement, though, things haven't quite worked out that way.

One Polygram A&R executive said: 'There is a standard agreement that we don't gazump each other. But A&R men being what they are, they don't necessarily comply. It's dog eat dog. Nobody wants to see the best acts go to another label.'

Next in line in the talent headhunt is General Levy, a 21- year-old north London ragga DJ. He released his debut album, The Wickeder General, on the small, independent reggae label Fashion this year. Levy's breakneck, hiccuping style is unique and since he avoids a preoccupation with sex or firearms (something of a staple for Jamaican DJs), he is a perfect candidate for British pop cross-over.

His manager, Erskine Thompson, takes a fairly analytical view of what needs to happen before the industry buys ragga wholesale.

'The first thing is that the business will have to start treating it like a normal music rather than as something special. From the other side, the people involved in ragga will have to stop treating it as a special emotional music and treat it as a business.'

Easier said than done. Pride and honour are hard won in dancehall reggae. No sooner had Shabba Ranks, the disputed reggae 'don', been signed to Columbia Records' ground-breaking American ragga department in 1990 than he was being lambasted by rivals like Ninjaman for selling out. Jamaican dancehall DJs carry the hopes of a dispossessed underclass in a way it is sometimes difficult for Europeans to understand. This is a musical culture that expects vying DJs to clash: it is hard to imagine, say, Phil Collins and Cliff Richard battling for lyrical supremacy in front of a baying crowd, saluting them with live ammunition.

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This behaviour is not confined to Jamaica. On Monday night, at the Hammersmith Palais in London, a fan was shot in the back. (The victim will be discharged from hospital soon.) How smoothly can the mainstream record companies buy into this?

General Levy believes ragga has as much to say to the 'yoot' of Trenchtown as to those in Tring, Hertfordshire. He repeats the old cliche: 'Ragga isn't just a music, it's a lifestyle. The thing about ragga music is that it don't bow to anything else.'

In America, ragga has had a large, ready-made rap audience to tap into. But in Britain, the feeling is that, despite the flurry of interest, ragga could suffer the same fate as British rap. As rap flourished in the late 1980s, every major had a British rapper on its books. Nearly all have been dropped. There is concern that the British industry does not know how to develop black music.

'I hope all the ragga DJs get signed and make some money,' the Prezedent, a south London ragga DJ, said. 'But if it's like rap, they'll get signed, get dropped and it'll mess their careers up. Everyone smells the money, but we don't know if it'll work out.'

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