When Shaggy's first recordings hit the streets in 1991, the struggling dance-hall artist was preoccupied with dodging Scuds and piloting a Humvee as a Marine in Operation Desert Storm. It wasn't the first time the armed service had interfered with his music career. When Shaggy was stationed at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune after the Gulf War, he would often have to drive 18 hours to his hometown of Brooklyn for recording sessions and nightclub gigs.
That dedication paid off when the Jamaica-born vocalist hooked up with the renowned East Coast reggae artist DJ Sting in 1993. The two promptly released the sleeper hit "Oh Carolina," a cover of the Prince Buster ska classic that lingered for months as a regional success in Brooklyn before suddenly shooting up the charts to international recognition, receiving heavy radio and club play from London to Tel Aviv.
Shaggy, who took his stage name from the Scooby Doo cartoon character, is currently on tour in support of his latest album, Boombastic. The album's title track--a street-smart journey through several styles of modern reggae--was one of the summer's biggest radio hits, and the single was recently picked up by Levi Strauss for a worldwide advertising campaign. Not since Black Uhuru has a reggae act enjoyed such success. Reggae traditionalists, however, deride much of Shaggy's work as too candy-coated with pop influence to be considered true reggae music.
Nevertheless, at 27, theartist born Orville Richard Burrell has made the transition from rude boy ragamuffin toself-described "Reggae Ambassador." In a recent interview, Shaggy explained his diplomatic crusade; laid out his views on gun-toting lyrics (which are just as prevalent in dance-hall reggae as in gangsta rap); and described what it's like to be the one who popularized jah music with the Melrose Place demographic.
New Times: What led you to join the Marines?
Shaggy: Hard times. When you live in a place like Flatbush, Brooklyn, and you're trying to get a job, life is hard. I kept checking into jobs and kept getting knocked down, so I checked myself into the one I could get, and that was the Marines.
NT: Did you ever fear for your life in Iraq?
S: No, being in the Gulf was real comfortable. It wasn't a tense atmosphere. I was relaxed. I mean, the war only went on for three days--the rest was just most of the guys sitting around playing cards.
NT: How do you feel about your crossover appeal? Do you write your music with pop success in mind?
S: I write my music for people. I used to do "Big Up" and tunes like those. But I never got any respect or credibility for those songs 'cause they sounded just like everything else that was coming out of Jamaica. I just want to have a different sound--a Shaggy sound. When I did "Oh Carolina," I was strictly interested in the underground market, until it went pop. I just roll with the punches.
NT: What's your view on reggae getting popular outside its traditional audience?
S: It's good. No music can stay underground forever. Reggae music needs overexposure at this point. It's been around too damn long and hasn't received its rightful due.
NT: And how do you feel about the fact that your videos get play on MTV while reggae greats like Yellowman and Buju Banton get no airtime at all?
S: Well, we know about the gay-bashing lyric situation with Buju. But with Yellowman, his timing was just off. The music is changing. It is now getting a little bit more open. Look at Ini Kamoze, he gets played on MTV all the time.
NT: Do you condone the gun-toting lyrics in dance-hall and rap?
S: I don't condemn anybody who writes and performs gun lyrics. They are just being a voice for the ghetto. And if the guys up in the big chairs who are elected wanna make a beef out of it, then fine. I'm all for hard-core lyrics. It should be marketed, it should be said, people should talk about it. Because there's guys like [Bob] Dole that are being elected have yet to go to a ghetto. So you need rappers to actually talk about it...
NT: What are your lyrics about?
S: My lyrics are about life. It's just about having a good time. I'm here to promote nothing else but to put a smile on your face.
NT: What exactly does "Boombastic" mean?
S: It's just a slang word used in Jamaica. It could mean whatever you want it to. When I say in a song "Mr. Lover, lover," it means I am a boombastic lover, a fantastic lover.
NT: It seems like your looks get mentioned about as much as your music. Any comment?
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S: People say I'm a sex symbol. I'm not trying to be a sex symbol. People market artists by telling them to keep their shirt open, to hold their breath so their muscles can flex and all that stuff. If people find that sexy, so be it. But at the end of the day, you're gonna find people going to your show because they like how you look, and not because they give a hell about what you're saying. I'm not trying to get with all that.
NT: Your music is on Beverly Hills, 90210 now. How do you feel about a program that doesn't feature an actor of color using your music?
S: Well, hey, it just did by using my music. It's a slow process, but we are getting there. We're breaking down barriers across the borders. That's why I'm the ambassador. Reggae is the music that has no barriers. Jamaica's motto is no matter what color, what race, what creed you are, you're just Jamaican. The same with reggae. You don't gotta be black, you ain't gotta be African American, you ain't gotta be any particular color to listen to reggae. If we want to categorize it and put it in a format, then that's sad. We are trying to avoid that. Because if we don't, we'll be discrediting everything that Bob Marley worked so hard to achieve.Shaggy is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, October 17, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Brian and Tony Gold, and Rayvon. Showtime is 8p.m.