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Meeting the man who got Drake into dancehall

Popcaan talks the longevity of dancehall, notorious clashes and his mentor Vybz Kartel

The framework of pop has been taking a shaking in the last few years – or maybe more of a grinding, a dutty wining, as dancehall nonchalantly inundated the charts. Major Lazer produced digestable dancehall for the masses, and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” was lauded as a ‘tropical house’ hit – an awkward genre that consistently whitewashes and sidelines what’s truly West Indian influences – and shied away from repping the obvious inspiration dancehall had on its creation. Rihanna’s ANTI brought her back to Bajan roots that haven’t been so explicit since 2005’s “Pon De Replay”, and “Work”, featuring dancehall’s biggest fan Drake, brought patois to a curious - sometimes wilfully ignorant - audience. The OVO boss has been dabbling with the Caribbean genre since his 2015 mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and a verse on Big Sean’s “Blessings” made use of the Jamaican slang phrase 'Way up', a direct reference to a certain musician hailing from the Island, to which Views incidentally owes a lot to. Although Popcaan doesn’t need a longwinded introduction: he’s the face of a standalone movement, and he's been anticipating landing in the UK for far too long.

We haven’t had that tidal wave of dancehall hit the mainstream since the early 2000s with the likes of Sean Paul and Gyptian, but Popcaan’s leading a charge that won’t craft themselves to fit the pop narrative, as they strive for a Caribbean collective success story of their own without clambering up the mainstream music elite. Alongside peers like Assassin, who made his mark on Yeezus and Kendrick's To Pimp a Butterfly, he's been quietly, but assertively making his mark, with vocals on Pusha T's "Blocka" and Jamie XX's "I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times)" summer banger. “I’m always waiting for that moment,” says the St. Thomas-born artist. “My grandmother is telling me that nothing happens before the time that it’s s’posed to, so guess it’s the right time now, is it?” He hasn’t spent any of that time idle though, and a lot of it has centred around clashing.

Clashing is what David Rodigan refers to as “a glorified boxing match”: musical collectives deliver blow after blow on the crews they’re up against, thrashing out firey dubplates and crowd-rippling riddims, and the audience decides the winner. The take-no-prisoners soundscape is more or less home for Popcaan, used to facing off at his own Unruly Clash back in Jamaica, which he founded himself as a way to glean and build up local talent.

“I try to expose the talent because there’s a lot of talented artists in Jamaica which don’t get the chance to be heard or even seen you know,” he explains. “One time I was chilling with a very good friend from England in a car, and like five youths came up to me, telling me they were artists. I was like ‘Ok, let’s check if you are real artists’. I took their CD and made them clash with each other right there and then. Then we did Unruly – I never invited anybody or anything, but the kids just get packed in there. We took it to the next level with a stage and prizes, but clashing is a natural thing and I’ve got a lot of love for it.”

Otherwise known as Andre Sutherland, the musician grew up in the rural areas surrounding Portmore, St Catherine. He cites the likes of Ninjaman, Bounty Killer, Beenie Man and Merciless as his clash heroes. In particular, deejays Merciless and Kilimanjaro:  “Yeah, they on da ting” he asserts. His musical family is pretty rag-tag, ranging from his boy “Drizzy Drake” to Jamie XX, Snoop Dogg and Young Thug. Recalling the first time he worked with Snoop Dogg, he laughs that it could have all been a hazy, stoned out dream it felt so unreal. And he’s hyped to be facing up against British acts at Culture Clash when we first speak, “I still tellin’ you mate, boy betta know blud” he drawls, playfully poking fun at a dialect that’s foreign to him. Now London, with its notorious Brixton clashes and as a homestead for the plethora of acts he’s worked with so far, seems like a fitting place for Pop to have his British debut.

The 24-year-old entered this year's Red Bull Culture Clash as an underdog. He led Brooklyn-based label Mixpak against Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang, UK garage stars including So Solid Crew and Wiley’s grime collective Eskimo Dance. A baying London audience was not on his side, and each crew took turns with their swipes: “Who the fuck are Mixpak?”, then referencing the decision to cut Pop from Drake’s Views, “Weren’t you dropped by Drake Poppy?” UKG exclaimed to a cringing crowd.

But against the odds, Popcaan led the Mixpak collective to a victorious performance, featuring a Drake dub of “One Dance” that more or less destroyed the O2. The group performance was testament to dancehall's ability to transcend and transform itself: they reworked the classics, like Tony Matterhorn’s "Dutty Wine" and produced thoughtful dubs of Beyoncé’s "Ring The Alarm" and "No Games" by Serani. Their playlist stayed true to their Jamaican vibe, but with a refreshing, future-facing perspective, not to forget the deadly remixing of Section Boyz "Lock Arff". The label seamlessly brings together the likes of Palmistry, dancehall king Vybz Kartel, Murlo and Popcaan, which signed him back in 2014. Popcaan cites Vybz as one of his major mentors, who scouted and shaped him into who he is as an artist today. “I had the opportunity to change my life, ya no?” he says. “And Vybz Kartel was like one of my idols too, so it was a very good feeling being around him on a day-to-day basis still. He’s like family, and we share the same work ethics, you know? Yeah, me and Vybz Kartel. Tight.”

Arguably, Jamaican artists’ visas troubles could be why dancehall hasn’t been given its rightful pedestal in mainstream music, as musicians struggle to connect with an audience they can’t physically reach. Popcaan has had his fair share of these troubles getting across the water, mostly due to past offences involving marijuana. However, he believes the genre’s message is there, and it has the global reach that it needs without diluting itself to be popular on a worldwide stage. “I share my life story with my fans and I don’t try to be a PR stunt, I do everything with music man. I don’t know if my voice has a lot to do with it or not,” he says.

“My album, Where We Come From, had a lot of people thinking it was a pop album, it was a dance album, and it was a reggae album. I’m just being real you know? Maybe growing up in the countryside had something to do with it. I have to do major things in the city, but being by the river with nature is me and people get that.”

Dancehall has a very special storytelling technique: thematically, artists explore the troubles of parenthood and bereavement as much as they do partying and harking after a lover. And it has a serious power as a pillar of the Jamaican community. Popcaan explains how conscious he is of what his music divulges and dissects. “Even before we get famous, like me friends are always asking me for advice, so I realised when I was young that I’m a leader, you know? He says. “Now I be careful with the way I influence people, you know.

While I’m doing my music still, I choose not to say certain things because your words are very powerful today – so I don’t say about certain things like ‘go to jail and die young’. Those things to me are fiction and I’m always trying to educate my audience in the best way that I can. Everywhere I go still, people say ‘your music inspired me to do this’ and they feel the situations I sing. It’s no made-up story, it’s straight.”

Though he was cut from sections of Drakes Views, his influence was still paramount to the record’s fruition. The sunset-dappled beat of “Controlla”, his faint hook from “Love Yuh Bad” in Drizzy’s “Too Good” are what pushed the Canadian artist to a new level with a perspective wider than just the 6. There’s no hard feelings either, as he describes Aubrey as “me brother, who I got the utmost respect for”. And though Pop’s keen to carve his own path in music with another highly-anticipated album – “a total bomb” – later this year, further creative collaborations are still in the works. He playfully hints at partnerships with UK artists, and hopes to work with Rihanna. What’s clear for Popcaan though, is that his contribution to dancehall will never waver when it comes to staying true to its roots. “We from down Jamaica, but we cooler than the Eskimos,” he laughs.