A Conversation with Shaggy: Gone Global – Shaggy’s Way

By Deika Morrison

Leveraging technology to communicate across borders, Shaggy and I had a chat – him in New York on tour, me in Jamaica with my MacBook Pro – about his global career – past, present and future – as well insights he had to share for artists who want to go global.

Photo credit: Adrian Creary

Without a doubt, international reggae-pop superstar Shaggy is making a unique mark across the globe.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica as Orville Richard Burrell, he moved with his family to Brooklyn, New York at 18 years old and later served in the United States Marine Corps. So although not deliberate, his early years set the stage for a career that would be global and marked with discipline necessary for success. And that success has included two multi-platinum albums, eight No. 1 hits, twelve top-10 singles worldwide, a diamond-selling album and a Grammy for Best Reggae Album.

Shaggy’s first global hit was his remix of the old ska classic “Oh Carolina” which appeared on his first album, “Pure Pleasure” released in 1993. Looking back, it is not surprising that Shaggy’s first hit would be a twist on a pure Jamaican music form as his signature style has been to “globalize” authentic Jamaican music.

When I asked him why he thought his music had been so well received across the globe – regardless of culture, language, location etc. – he didn’t hesitate. “You can’t walk your music into other people’s cultures and expect to be accepted. In the 1960’s Chris Blackwell brought in special American musicians to play with The Wailers to help their music crossover. I did the same thing in a modern way using samples – for example, “Oh Carolina” sampled Duane Eddy’s “Peter Gunn” and “Mr. Boombastic” sampled Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”. Integrating what was familiar, accepted and popular created a ‘diluted’ form of a new Jamaican sound that could cross over more easily.”

This powerful technique helped in another way other than just popular acceptance – it had a direct impact on dollars and cents. “In the global music business, there is only one reggae slot and a lot of people competing for airplay in that slot. Reggae-infused sounds have many more options. It is a better business decision purely on the way the global music industry works ” Shaggy explained.

For up and coming artists, this understanding of how the global music industry works is critical to achieve international success.

 When I asked Shaggy about what Jamaican music industry professionals need to think about if they want to be popular and more importantly, paid, Shaggy noted: “We are a minority music form, the underdog. We have to work ten times harder than everyone else to make music that is ten times better and promoted ten times better with a fraction of the budget that others have.”

Shaggy is the only certified Diamond-selling Dancehall Reggae artist. Shaggy fourth album “Hotshot” went Diamond worldwide and Platinum 6 times in the United States. Notable singles from that album included number one hits “It Wasn’t Me” and “Angel”. Shaggy has won numerous awards, including the Grammy for Best Reggae Album for “Boombastic”, his second album that went certified platinum.

 Working harder also means working smarter. “You have to keep up with the times. How I promoted “Oh Carolina” is not how I can promote a record today. For example, social media wasn’t around then but it is now and it is key. You have to be innovative and relevant. “

 Shaggy and I discussed how sometimes it is hard for artists to keep up with the times when it means bringing in new team members, which sometimes causes friction with your loyal longstanding team. Shaggy readily acknowledged that and noted “You have to make hard decisions that are good for you and the business, and not driven by emotion.”

 Is working hard and promoting innovatively enough? No, says Shaggy because the global music industry is all about branding. For example, just look at Dr. Dre who reportedly now makes more money from the Beats By Dre brand than his music. Players in the Jamaican music industry have to think about how they can move global brands and how they themselves are brands.

 Shaggy was firm. “We are yet to be seen as viable for moving global brands in a big way. Think about Gwen Stefani, for instance, as an American female pop artist with a reggae song. A corporate boardroom can more easily agree to have a Gwen Stefani represent their brands than a Jamaican. Why? No Jamaican artist has done it yet and we have to ensure that the whole image – the package – that we project is one that multi-million dollar brands will want to be associated with. Today’s global industry is not just about talent and records. You have to be able to move brands. Let’s face it: If your image is violence and weed smoking, you can’t represent family brands. ”

Photo credit: Adrian Creary

 Part of this understanding of branding requires sensitivity to how we express ourselves to the world. Shaggy explained, “We have to realize that things we do that are culturally “normal” to us can be misinterpreted. Look at Usain Bolt beating his chest when he crossed the finished line at the Olympics. Jamaicans got it right away and we didn’t think anything of it. Other people paused. So we have to think about how our actions are interpreted.”

 But consider this. Shaggy continued, “On the other hand, we have to have confidence in ourselves and believe that we are superstars because the odds will always be against us. We have to realize that Jamaica is a global brand with immense power. So nobody is saying don’t be Jamaican. Definitely be Jamaican, but realize how the industry works.”

 So how is Shaggy doing all of this? In the last four years, we have seen a “reinvention of Shaggy” as he explains it. It’s no secret that he changed management and personnel virtually “walking away” from what he had built. “I needed to move in a different direction with the times” he explained. “It was difficult but I draw inspiration from people like Dr. Dre and Tina Turner who started over”.

 Ranch Entertainment was re-launched with a specific strategy. Shaggy wanted to produce an authentic reggae sound with street credentials and so collaborated with Sly and Robbie to produce Out of Many One Music featuring Damian Marley, Beres Hammond, Cocoa Tea, Chronixx, Konshens, Tarrus Riley, Peetah Morgan and Tessanne Chin.

 As he moves on to the next album, the plan was always to do pop next. He explains, “It makes sense. I’ve partnered with Ne-Yo and Tango. We are collaborating with international artists and some of the original people who worked on Hot Shot album. We are seven songs in and target release for the end of the year.” 

And his next move is logical, given that it’s just a manifestation of what I will call ‘Shaggy’s Way” – a model of partner-ship and collaboration with other cultures, sounds, voices that is inclusive in its reach across the globe. It didn’t have a name but it is his signature style that has brought him global success.

 An integral part of what I call “Shaggy’s Way” is what he does for others.

 First, there are the children of Jamaica. Shaggy’s work with his Make a Difference Foundation has become one of the biggest reasons why Shaggy is so loved, certainly in Jamaica. “I have a lifetime commitment to Bustamante Children’s Hospital. No matter what, if I can help I will. Rebecca and I want to do other projects for Jamaican children but we think the best way to approach that right now, given commitment constraints is to leverage the resources we have at Shaggy Foundation to help other organizations. We have ideas and will work with people on good projects.”

 It is not surprising that this would be the next step for the Shaggy Foundation. After all, it is that same inclusiveness and collaboration that has raised more than US$1 Million for Bustamante Hospital, the only pediatric hospital in the English-speaking Caribbean, through the star-studded Shaggy and Friends Benefit Concert.

 Second, there are up and coming artists. The most famous and recent ex-ample is Tessanne Chin on the Voice. Shaggy is the one who used his contacts to get her an audition, mentored her throughout the entire competition and called on colleague music superstars to voice their support for her as part of the effort to get out the vote.

 When I asked if he would encourage other Jamaicans to enter televised reality competitions, Shaggy didn’t hesitate “Absolutely. The exposure is great. You don’t even have to win. There’s no downside. A lot of people get exposed to your talent in the process, including the Diaspora which is key for long-term support”.

He cautioned though that The Voice has been done by Tessanne in such a remarkable unprecedented way so it might be best – to avoid comparison – to try other programs. And it doesn’t have to be music – cooking and fashion are just two examples of televised reality shows that provide an incredible opportunity for Jamaican talent.

At the end of the day, Shaggy is a nation builder doing his part through his music, his charity and helping however he can. His final words were a message to Jamaicans:  “Tessanne’s  performance  on  The  Voice  was  historic”, Shaggy explained.  “She is the first non-US citizen to compete. The Voice heard her talent and changed the rules for her.  And Jamaicans rallied support to make it one of the best seasons ever in the history of The Voice in terms of ratings and viewers.”

Insightfully, Shaggy noted, “We all have to appreciate how incredibly powerful we are as a united force. And we have to help ourselves. No one will take Jamaica as seriously as we do because we live it and have lived it – whether you live in Jamaica now or in the Diaspora. Jamaicans for Jamaica.”

I couldn’t agree more.

For more about Shaggy visit shaggyonline.com.

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