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Sean Paul
Sean Paul

Sean Paul on the appreciation + appropriation of dancehall

With a new album on the way, Sean discusses Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and how they’re inspired by the sound of Jamaica (whether they know it or not)

Sean-a-Paul. Ever since his breakout song “Gimme The Light” in 2002, the Jamaican dancehall don has been taking the sound and spirit of Kingston’s underground music scene global. 14 years on and he’s still making bangers – “Cheap Thrills” (the song he released with Sia in February) has racked up nearly 600 million views on YouTube, demonstrating the enduring appeal of his music. In fact, Sean (real name Sean Paul Ryan Francis Henriques) wrote 200 songs last year, has released over 12 this year and has a collab with Shakira in the pipeline, along with a new album – paying testament to his dedication to his craft.

But Sean Paul’s influence goes far beyond his music – the sound he helped proliferate is now woven into the very fabric of contemporary pop – most obviously through Bajan pop princess Rihanna, who actually performed a dancehall medley at the VMAs in August but also, as he asserts, through the likes of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. Here, Sean discusses his upcoming album, how he feels about mainstream music’s appreciation (or appropriation, depending on your take) of dancehall and why the genre is inextricably tied to the people and parties of Jamaica.

Did you always want to be a musician?

Sean Paul: No. I remember telling my brother I knew that I was supposed to do something big, I knew that a lot of people are supposed to know my name but I didn’t know why that was. He was just like ‘Yo, that’s why you are who you are, I’ve never had those thoughts.’ I thought everybody did, I thought everybody aspired to that. So growing up, when I was about 15, I thought I’d be a producer. But I went to a few music classes and kinda stopped. I didn’t like the whole mathematics of it. I just wanted to play what I felt.

How would you describe dancehall to an alien?

Sean Paul: (laughs) That’s a funny question. How would I describe it to an alien? Reggae and dancehall are the only types of music that use a three-beat-drum pattern. It’s weird. I never knew that growing up, but I heard it in an interview. I checked it myself and I was like, ‘Damn, it’s true.’ Hip hop has four beats. So it’s the only type of music like that, and it just stands out. And it really reflects the life of Jamaican people, it’s their story. You can’t do dancehall music and not reflect life of Jamaican people.

“(Dancehall) really reflects the life of Jamaican people, it’s their story. You can’t do dancehall music and not reflect life of Jamaican people” – Sean Paul

There’s a lot of dancehall in the mainstream now, with Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Drake. What do you think about that?

Sean Paul: Dancehall was such an underground thing when I started. It was popular in my country but it was underground for the rest of the world. We were playing every club, but not on the radio stations, not on the TV stations. (Now it’s on songs) by artists such as Rihanna – in her first song and her one of her recent songs (‘Work’); Skrillex and this kid BloodPop, who did that riddim for Justin Bieber’s song ‘Sorry’; Diplo, Major Lazer, and Drake. I feel proud of that. I mean, I’m not the one who started (dancehall). It’s something that’s embedded within me, in the culture and the place that I grew up in. (I remember) seeing artists that I love, and thinking that the world should know these people. That kind of led me to wanting to do music – to modernise dancehall. Like I love the culture and the history of dancehall and reggae, but I always wanted to push the envelope of it and modernise the sound. I’m still doing that today, trying sound authentic but also different.

Do you think these people respect dancehall’s heritage, or acknowledge it, enough?

Sean Paul: I don’t always think they do. I don’t even think that sometimes the people know that they’re singing a dancehall-based riddim or song. Like Taylor Swift’s song ‘Shake It Off’, the verse has a three-beat-drum pattern – that’s dancehall. Reggae and dancehall are the only types of music in the world that have a three-beat-drum pattern, instead of four. People like Drake have come to Jamaica, but he’s such a big star that I don’t think he’s had time to really soak in the environment. I’m not saying you have to (do that), but it’s nice to see.

When people ask me what’s my favourite collaboration I always say Rihanna, and it’s funny because she was one of the only ones that came to Jamaica. I’ve worked with so many artists. Even people with Jamaican affiliation like Busta Rhymes, did everything abroad. I was sent ‘Baby Boy’ over the internet and I didn’t meet Blu Cantrell till way after the song. So it was nice to see Rihanna come to Jamaica like, ‘Yo, you don’t understand, in Barbados we really look up to the music scene here.’ So that was cool – I like it when people do that, but I’m not saying that they have to. I don’t think Justin Bieber was like ‘Oh shit, that’s dancehall, you think they’re gonna be upset?’ He was just like ‘Let’s do it, that sounds wicked. I love it, let’s do it’ and you can’t blame people for that.

And what up-and-coming dancehall artists do you really rate?

Sean Paul: I think one of my favourites right now is Chi Ching Ching. I see great potential in him. He was a dancer first, but decided to do a song and it just broke. He had nothing doing – he was on a salary of 2,500 Jamaican dollars, which is absolutely nothing. He had a baby on the way, and was like, ‘I better go in the streets’. And just going in the streets, dancing with the crew, getting little gigs here and there, and it started breaking off. So big up to Ching, I hope this song thing really goes.

Can you tell me about your new album?

Sean Paul: New album, yeah. I would say it’s coming out by next year. Right now my plan is to put out a couple singles. Earlier this year we put out a single called ‘Trumpets’, which has been doing pretty well. I just released ‘Crick Neck’ with Chi Ching Ching. (I’ve also done) a nice collab with Shakira, which I’ve been wanting to do for a long, long time. That’s a big tune. It’s called ‘Mad Love’, it’s produced by David Guetta. (This time around) I wanted to work with all kind of different producers, so I’ve worked with Don Corleone, Afrojack, David Guetta, Ian Kirkpatrick, Sermstyle (a kid from here) and The Beatfreaks.

When everybody said dancehall was dead I just kept remembering when they didn’t even know dancehall, it was alive in my hometown. I was doing it. And I’m going to keep doing it. So everything (on this album) is dancehall-oriented, some is more on the poppy side, some is more in the grimey side. I was thinking about naming the album 'Give Me Something', cos in every song I'm begging for pum-pum. Sorry about that (laughs). I feel in general that my music is for parties – it’s for romance and love and it’s for, as I said before, getting wild and crazy.

“When everybody said dancehall was dead I just kept remembering when they didn’t even know dancehall, it was alive in my hometown. I was doing it” – Sean Paul

When I was a kid, I used to look forward to the weekend. I used to swim everyday for the national team at the stadium and all of that group of friends would go out at the weekend. I would look forward to it, man, just to wile out. I didn’t think about the problems that I had in school or in my personal life. That’s where I come from when I’m making music. I want to do music that turns you up in the club and turns you up when you’re in the gym. Turn up time music mostly.

I read that you wrote 200 songs last year. How do you stay inspired?

Sean Paul: I just go into the studio – I am inspired – I’m never out of there for more than a few days. You know, it’s an on-going process. I’ll be in the studio for four days, staying up almost 24 hours each time. Then I’ll have like three days off and by the third evening I’m itching to go back to the studio – I wanna hear some new riddims.