Sean Paul might go pop, but will he ever fully crossover?
___“Reggae isn't as popular in America as it should be,” said Sean Paul. The artist is one of reggae's biggest stars in this country and this week he opens for Mariah Carey at Madison Square Garden as part of her national tour. His 2002 Diwali-riddim, runaway international hit single “Get Busy” and its perfectly matched, raw dancehall-party themed video, pushed pure underground Jamaican-bred dancehall to crossover to American pop audiences.
___But its success and that of other Sean Paul hits, including “Like Glue,” “Gimme The Light,” “Temperature” and “Baby Boy” (with Beyoncé) would not have been as profound without their TV exposure, according to the artist. “In this country if it is not on MTV or BET, they just don't know about it...Kids need to learn to look beyond that to discover new music.”
___But pop audiences simply don't stray too far to dig for new sounds. Consequently, Sean Paul has shrewdly planned his current tour, opening for pop diva Mariah, as a virtual video montage. “It's a 45-minute show, and I want to keep it in the range of the videos they've seen,” said Paul, noting that he does push the envelope a bit by incorporating “one or two songs” not on video. But such are the lengths that a reggae artist must endure to get noticed in America.
___Sean Paul follows a long line of reggae artists who have had success (often fleeting) in America, including Shabba Ranks, Beenie Man, Yellowman and Super Cat. (Remember “Don Dada” and “Them No Worry Me.” Even in the '80s, Third World, who scored their biggest hit with the blatant crossover “Now That We've Found Love,” didn't last that long on the American pop radar. Ironically, reggae, as one of the most prolific forms of popular music today, just barely comes and goes in terms of mass popularity in the United States. Sean Paul remembers four or five years ago how, “A lot of people used to always ask me 'How does it feel to be bringing back reggae and dancehall?' And I said 'Well it never went anywhere!' You know what I mean?”
___Born Sean Paul Henriques in Kingston, Jamaica, he grew up listening to all types of reggae, including roots, plus lots of American hip-hop. “I was very into rap until about 1994 and then got tired of it,” he said, noting that around that same time he was seriously starting to DJ (“DJ” meaning “emcee” in Jamaican reggae slanguage). But the distance between reggae and rap is never too far. Paul sees dancehall as a first cousin to hip-hop. He puts reggaeton in the same family tree and has collaborated with reggaeton's biggest star, Daddy Yankee.
___“Reggaeton is just like dancehall and hip-hop. It is where kids rap to tell you about their life; about their dreams and aspirations. It is the generational gap music,” he said. “Reggaeton sounds a lot like dancehall did back in 1993.”
___Whether in the long run reggaeton, with its built-in Spanish speaking fan base in the United States, will succeed more on the scale of hip-hop or suffer the same fate of dancehall reggae, still remains to be seen.