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Sean Paul 3
Nine Songs
Sean Paul

From collaborating with Beyoncé to the joy of discovering The Beatles and reggae, the dancehall legend talks Kitty Richardson through the songs that made him.

31 July 2020, 07:00 | Words by Kitty Richardson

The phenomena of the lockdown health kick is nothing new, even four-time Grammy-nominated Sean Paul is climbing on the bandwagon … sort of.

“I’m ingesting my weed now!” he grins, sitting on the steps of his home in Kingston, Jamaica. “I did this a while ago, for five years, before my son was born. I kinda liked it but then got back into smoking, funnily enough, just after Levi was born. I was like ‘Yeah! Congratulatory spliff!’ Then damn, I just couldn’t stop...”

Sean's decision to quit isn’t just in support of better respiratory health. Despite the colossal success of latest single “Calling On Me” with Tove Lo, he’s going through a rough patch creatively, and hopes that cleaner lungs might help the cogs start turning again.

“I’m constantly creating,” he says. “So what’s happening to me now is kinda new. I don’t think I’ve had a time like this, where for nine weeks I haven’t wanted to do nothing. And I’m kinda scared about that.” Sat next to Paul is his Akai sampler, complete with mini Marshall amp and a diddy keyboard. He hits a trigger and a soft dancehall shuffle plays.

“It can go anywhere as it runs on a battery, which is why I like it so much. And this little speaker gives me a real nice sound. I’ve just picked this up and started to do stuff. So, I’m getting back into it slowly, taking it day by day. The one great thing about all of this is to be able to spend more time with my kids and my wife, as I’m travelling all the time. It’s good to be here.”

Sean was born in Kingston, and his love for his hometown is palpable. As we steer through his Nine Songs, he laments that – despite having offered – most musicians rarely come out to visit, instead preferring to collaborate online or fly him out to a State-side studio.

“But Rihanna came to Jamaica. I got to show her the clubs, and the beach, and the street dancers and the Bob Marley museum.” Sean’s collaboration with RiRi, “Break It Off”, was an album track that dropped just before “Umbrella” exploded her into the charts – and one he tried to squeeze into his nine picks. “This track wasn’t pushed at all, but it went to number nine on the Billboard charts, which not a lot of people know. I took her to the studio to come say hi to the dudes one of the nights [she was over] and it was really organic. That’s how I like it – not too much red tape.”

“People always ask me questions about Jamaica. But it’ll never be the same for me to just tell these stories to you. If you’re here, I can show you – we can taste the street food together.”

Sean’s other picks are unequivocally Big Tunes, probably since it would have only been the most tenacious American and US hits that made it onto the Jamaican airwaves. They’re flanked by the reggae and dancehall classics that carved out Kingston’s place in musical history. “Different songs affected me at different times, and different genres helped me develop my musical mind. There are the songs that I really love. And now there are songs that my son’s got me into.”

Levi, now three, and brother to baby Remi, is a bit bored of his dad’s back-to-back Skype calls, and boulders in a few times to instigate playtime. “Recently he’s just been singing [Kool and the Gang]’s “Celebration” over and over – I remember vibing to that when I was five, y’know?” Sean gives his son’s hair a ruffle, explaining that dad will be busy for a little while. “I mean, I could pick nine hip-hop songs… but when you’re talking about every song ever, there’s just such a lot. We could go on forever if you want!”

“Ting-A-Ling” by Shabba Ranks

“Shabba was a DJ that I looked up to in the Jamaica from the early ‘80s. Someone who was larger than life and had such a distinctive voice. The name, and the persona, and the big voice were something to be revered.

“I think “Ting A Ling” was the song that broke him internationally. In Jamaica he’d been successful for a good few years, and I’d classed him as a top-class DJ and MC. But when he released this, it reminded us of the first-time days - it brought a brand new freshness to his career for me. It’s a such a hardcore, fast-kicking dancehall song. It really got people I knew up in a frenzy, dancing, busting shots – bwah bwah bwah!

“We have only a few instances when a song that had made it in Jamaica - the songs we were actually listening to - broke worldwide. And this was the first time I remember it as a kid, dancehall being dope and being something people abroad were also gravitating towards. So I feel my career followed in his footsteps, when “Get Busy” went to number one. That was pretty cool.”

“Let It Be” by The Beatles

“The Beatles are a huge influence on my musical appreciation. They were the first band that my mum introduced me to. And my father, too, he thought they were the best band that ever lived. They both found this music when they were 11 or 12 years old, and that music affected their life. And they passed that love on to me. Bob Marley and The Beatles were the first artists I would check out.

“So, I have a lot of love for many of their songs, and what helped me to pick this song was the message. “Let it be, man.” You can’t solve all your problems in life. This song helped me in that respect. Melody-wise, it’s very calming to me, and the words as well. They give me a refocus, you know what I mean?

“And they came from England. My grandmother [on my mum’s side] is from Coventry and she grew up in Rugby. Now she’s here in Jamaica - been here since the late ‘40s. So that was my mum’s link with this music. Mum used to explain their songs to me as a kid. Well, except “Strawberry Fields” - I never understood that, and then twenty years later, I was smoking and taking mushrooms and I started to appreciate that song waaaaay more.”

“Redemption Song” by Bob Marley

“Marley is an icon and a hero for me. And someone I’ve always felt very close to. I knew his son - he went to school with us. His songs stood out to me, because it wasn’t that ‘regular’ reggae at all. Reggae is something I grew to love, but as a kid, I’d hear that same ‘check-it check-it’ [guitar rhythm] and I thought every reggae beat sounded the same. “Redemption Song” stood out because it was kinda like … rocky, bluesey? And it didn’t have the ‘check-it check-it’ beat. It sounded more like rock and roll.

“Then my mum explained the lyrics to me. As a kid this song let me know that music could go beyond being fun and being entertaining – it could carry a very strong message. And also, the things he spoke about – this was recorded in the 1980s, and it still has so much meaning.

“There was a rumour going round when I was a kid, before Bob Marley actually passed away, that he had died. It was after he’d collapsed in Central Park. And I remember crying, really crying. My mum had to comfort me. I didn’t know him - I’d only seen him maybe once when I was really young - but it felt like such a loss.”

“Under Me Sleng Teng” by Wayne Smith

“It’s a good segue [from Bob Marley], because this was one of the first times we heard reggae music being computerised, and it set off a whole different era.

“My understanding of how this song came about is very funny. [The producers] had a Casio keyboard from Japan, and it had a little drum section on it, with settings for jazz, blues, rock etc. And they also had a setting for reggae. But what the Japanese thought reggae sounded like was very fast - very comical to us at the time. These guys thought this was pretty funny, but when they slowed it down it worked really well. So it turned into to something Casio could have never intended.

“That song had a very big influence on the whole genre, just the style of production, and what could be done to both simulate our sound and take it to another level. The vocals are crazy on it, and when I was checking it out as a kid, it had a big impact on me. It’s also one of those prolific type of riddims that many people sang on. I even ended up, many years later, doing versions for soundsystems, which is pretty cool.”

“Peace Train” by Cat Stevens

“Cat Stevens is a funny one, because my grandmother really doesn’t like him. She doesn’t like his voice – “If you call that singing”, she’d say. But my mum was a huge fan, and I just know all of his stuff.

“I do like “Moon Shadow”, “Father and Son”… a lot of his songs. But “Peace Train” represents something that I really like to hear in music. Especially in my genre, we sing so many negative things to people – yes, sometimes, we’re talking about out lives, but in the long run, I feel music should be about making a joyful noise unto the Lord, you know?

“There’s a line in this song: “Now I've been crying lately / Thinkin' about the world as it is”. That’s been my mood: I have been thinking about the world in general, about poorer people, and what’s happening to families who are living cheque to cheque. It was the same when there was a big earthquake in Haiti - it’s got me depressed in the same way. It seems selfish to want to think about music right now: I know people want to be entertained by me, but I’m more thinking about … just regular people and how they are affected.

“And so songs like this, we don’t do enough of. I’ve done a few myself; “Give Thanks for Life” from 2015, “Hold On" and the song that I did with Tove Lo. Those three, I feel like even though people are sad right now, they fit the mood.”

“Wear Yu Size” by Lt. Stitchie

“We poke fun at each other in Jamaican culture. It’s very vibrant that way… and sometimes pretty politically incorrect? We’re perhaps a bit more blunt with the truth. For example, if you’re fat, we’ll call you ‘fatta’, if you’re thin you’ll be called skinny. I had a few friends growing up called ‘froggy’… because they looked like a frog, I guess?

“This song is poking fun at ladies who want to have smaller feet because they think that makes them more beautiful. It had a really stupid video with it, where a woman goes to the mall and she’s trying to squeeze her foot into this tiny shoe. And the song is about a guy who takes this woman out on a date - she’s miserable and he has no idea what is wrong with her.

“I remember a lot of dudes when I was younger joking that they wanted a woman with big feet. I mean, my mum’s got big feet – I love ‘em!”

“Mud Up” by Super Cat

“‘Mud up’ means messed up. I was about 14 years on when I first heard this and it taught me about gold-diggers, that’s what it did! My opinion of ladies had always been very high - and not that it made me have a poor opinion of ladies - but it taught me that there were some ladies who I’d … perhaps not have a positive opinion of.

“It’s a dope song, in parts of it he’s just spitting straight lyrics, he’s not talking about the girl, he’s just talking about himself. It’s definitely more of a dude’s song. You have ladies singing ‘If you like it then you should have put a ring on it’ – we have to have ours too!

“And it’s true: sometimes you find people that, especially when you’re popular, don’t want to show you their real face. That’d be the type of lady’s singing about: women that don’t have real love for you, but only love what you can provide.”

“Gimme the Light” by Sean Paul

“After this point in my career, the rest is history. I was a young artist in Jamaica, my career was about four years old, in terms of actually putting records out. I was getting a little bit of money, and people were shouting me and saying they’d like to pay me to record.

“Around that time, I was sent this riddim by this guy. He had 800 bucks for me to record on it, and yeah… I really needed it. I was also travelling and out almost every weekend - very busy - so when I went into the studio, I had a melody for the chorus, but no topic. And this was one of the first times I wrote a song without actually physically writing it down.

“In the early days, I was often writing in competition with other people, so I’d prefer to write things down and make sure it was good enough. But when I wrote this song, I started to understand the importance of latching on to the rhythm - writing more free. The song was just about what I did last weekend in the club, popping bottles of Mo’ and I just freestyled it. So it was important for me for two reasons: because it became my international hit, but also because it represents the way I started to write songs after that. It was a pivotal moment.”

“Baby Boy” by Beyoncé ft. Sean Paul

“At this point in my career - and for a dancehall cat from Jamaica - I was receiving a lot of accolades. And I’d known Beyoncé for a couple of years. She’d done a show out here, and I think Destiny’s Child might have opened for me. Anyway! I heard about her doing her own solo album in the press, but when her management came to me directly and said she wanted to do a song, I was over the moon. I really thought it would be a cool combo.

“And so, I got the riddim, and I went round the back of my house in the car to listen to it. We have a mango tree there, and as I was working out the lyrics, a mango fell off the tree and straight through the car window, into my lap. And I was like “Woah - it’s a sweet song man!”. I knew it was going to be a hit from that moment.

“After I sent the song to her, she asked me to come to Miami to finish it off. And then the song came out and blows up. “Get Busy” had been a number one, but honestly, I thought it was a fluke. I thought I was going to be know as the Get Busy Guy forever, and then this song spent nine weeks at number one. Crazy. It was just an amazing time to be receiving so much blessing.”

"Calling On Me" is out now.
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