Sean Paul has barely stepped over the threshold of Westlake Recording Studios, located in the sprawl of West Hollywood, when he politely makes the request. Knowing of Paul’s life-long love affair with marijuana, his muse for many a club hit over the years, I presume this is a smoke-free way to enjoy the herb. But when Ritchie his security guard comes back moments later, it is with a cold-pressed kale concoction in hand.
That’s quite the clean-living transformation, I remark. Sean Paul grins and leans back, relaxed, against a grand piano. Gone are his signature cornrows (or, later, his not-so-signature mohawk), and he has given up smoking weed due to asthma. It turns out that I wasn’t far wrong after all. “Oh, I still like to get high, it helps with the creativity,” he says. “Except now I just have it in tea.
Life has clearly changed since the early 2000s, when Sean Paul Henriques brought the booty-bouncing rhythms of dancehall out of the Kingston clubs and onto the world stage. The Jamaican artist was once the go-to man for dancefloor dynamite, songs that urged us all to “shake that booty non-stop, when the beat drops just keep swinging it”. Get Busy, Gimme The Light, the Beyoncé-featuring Baby Boy, Breathe with R&B singer Blu Cantrell – these songs became commonplace, at carnival, in a bougie Chelsea bar or a suburban Oceana club. Back then he was among the world’s pop elite.
But while his 2002 album Dutty Rock launched dancehall into the mainstream, musical tastes inevitably moved on. And though Paul himself has been critical of some of dancehall’s homophobic content, there was out-cry over the derogatory lyrics of contemporaries like Beenie Man and Elephant Man. Soon the genre fell out of favour and out of the charts. Paul’s 2005 follow-up The Trinity was popular among fans but panned by critics, and he recalls his fade from global fame a little remorsefully.
“Since about 2009, I was fighting that worry that I wasn’t relevant no more,” he says, as we sit in the windowless womb of a studio. “It does stress you out at times. I was like, ‘I was up here and now I’m nothing to people.’” His last album, 2014’s Full Frequency, sold fewer than 5,000 copies in the US. In 2015, the Grammy award-winning performer left his label and became an independent artist for the first time in a decade.
Over the past year, however, dancehall has been dutty wining its way back into the worldwide consciousness. Diplo, long in debt to dancehall’s digital rhythms, brought them to an even wider audience as Major Lazer. Last year, Lazer’s track Lean On became the most streamed single of all time, albeit one that’s since been given the dubious title of “tropical pop”. Then came Justin Bieber’s mega-hit Sorry, which teamed a skeletal dancehall beat with pure pop and was an accompanied by dancehall moves in the dancing video. Never one to be left out, Drake openly drew on dancehall throughout Views From The Six. Dancehall talent Assassin, meanwhile, made his mark both on Kanye’s Yeezus and, more recently, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.
It’s an international resurgence that Sean Paul has witnessed with both amusement and scepticism. He’s even detected dancehall influences in artists who might be considered unlikely adopters of Jamaican riddims. “You can definitely hear it in Taylor Swift,” he says. “You know that song…?” He launches into a high-pitched rendition of the chorus of Shake It Off. “See, there’s definitely dancehall in there.”
One thing was for sure, though: if dancehall was coming back, so was he. Sean Paul still lives in Jamaica, but we meet in LA because this is where he has come to work on his new album. The surprise success of Cheap Thrills, his recent chart-topper with one-woman pop hit machine Sia– which not only reacquainted the star with the top of the charts but also landed Sia her first Billboard number one – has spurred him to finish his new material quickly. As the 43-year-old says himself, no one is better placed to “bring back some authentic dancehall”.
He is outspoken about the new generation of artists who’ve appropriated the sound of dancehall without acknowledging its roots. “It is a sore point when people like Drake or Bieber or other artists come and do dancehall-orientated music but don’t credit where dancehall came from and they don’t necessarily understand it,” he says, shaking his head. “A lot of people get upset, they get sour. And I know artists back in Jamaica that don’t like Major Lazer because they think they do the same thing that Drake and Kanye did – they take and take and don’t credit.”
While Paul says he’s a fan of Drake (“I love some of his songs but I don’t think he’s the best rapper”) the bashment hooks and patois phrases used in Views From The Six are seen by Paul as less of a homage to dancehall and more of an exploitation. He’s not alone. In May, respected dancehall figure Mr Vegas openly attacked Drake as a fake for not fully crediting his Jamaican influences.
A major problem, Paul adds, is that many of the authentic dancehall artists in the Caribbean who gain popularity online can’t get visas to travel in the US, both to tour and work with producers, because they have convictions on their records. One crossover artist Popcaan, for example, who appeared on Views From The Six and has also worked with Jamie xx, has, according to Billboard, struggled to work in America because of past marijuana-related offences.
Sean Paul is equally dismissive of “tropical house”, a music genre which began as a way to describe the soft, Balearic-infused synth of DJs like Kygo but has since been attached to tracks which clearly draw from dancehall. Rolling Stone’s review of Rihanna’s Work described it as “a tropical house-flavored track featuring Drake” while a Wall Street Journal article described how Bieber’s What Do You Mean? was pioneering the “Caribbean, beach-party vibe” of tropical house in the mainstream. It’s no surprise that the genre has been accused of whitewashing Jamaican influences out of popular music.
But Paul does acknowledge that major label artists have adapted the dancehall sound for current tastes, and those are styles he has to look to, too, if he wants relevancy again. “Dancehall is back but this time it’s also infused with Afrobeat, with hip-hop, with trap, and that’s fine with me,” he says. “Sure, I would like what we do in Jamaica, that authentic dancehall, to be on top, but it simply isn’t. So I want this album to bridge that gap.”
Over the past year, he’s penned more than 200 tracks, both on his own and in collaboration with musicians and producers back in Jamaica, and recruited a series of starry producers, such as Blood, who was behind Bieber’s Sorry. There’s a track with Wiz Khalifa as well as another with one of this year’s breakthrough pop stars, yet to be announced. It doesn’t sound too far off familiar Sean Paul territory, only with more EDM drops.
Paul’s attitude is more one of pragmatism than puritanism when it comes to making sure this album repeats his successes of a decade ago. He’ll seemingly work with anyone who is up for it. “I just worked with Clean Bandit, and another English pop group… what are they called?” There is an awkward pause as he tries to remember. “Oh yeah, Little Mix.”
The one constant is Paul’s ole purpose to make people dance: he’s the first to admit he makes party music because it was one of the few levellers he had as a child. Growing up in a middle-class suburb in Kingston, Paul was just 13 when his dad was sentenced to 15 years in jail for drugs offences. As a result, his mum worked two jobs to keep the family afloat.
“Music provided a sense of equality with everyone, and a release on the weekends when I didn’t think about dad in prison, or mum having to struggle, or me feeling like an outcast,” he says. “It was just like, ‘This song is fucking dope, and that girl’s hot, let me wine on her.’ That’s what I want my music to keep doing.”
Now that he’s married, and with a baby on the way, Sean Paul may no longer be the lothario we once knew (“South American girls, Europe girls, Harlem girls, Jamaica girls, Down Under girls” – he really did love us all), but his talent for getting bodies sweaty on a dancefloor has not softened. As Blood takes to the desk and begins blasting out one of the new beats recorded in Jamaica, the urge to shake that thing is undeniable, no matter that we’re in a cramped studio. And that, right there, is why we still need Sean Paul.