Shaggy isn't your typical performer. After all, how many dancehall-reggae artists can you name who fought in Kuwait as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps?
Of course, armed conflict with Iraqi soldiers wasn't part of the plan when Shaggy--born Orville Richard Burrell--enlisted in the Corps. "I thought it would be like summer camp," he admits. Laughing, he points out, "Some people do twenty years in the military and never see a day of combat--I did four and got sent off to war. It's just destiny, I guess."
If that's true, fate has been kinder of late. Shaggy's latest album, Boombastic (on the Virgin imprint), has earned gold-record status, and the disc's lead single, "Boombastic/ In the Summertime," has done even better; it's sold more than a million copies and remains in the Billboard Top 20 after more than five months in release. In addition, Shaggy has gotten the chance to tour in locations as far-flung as Slovenia, learning en route that dancehall--a harder, faster style of reggae that developed after Bob Marley's death in 1981--transcends language barriers. "The motto of Jamaica is `Out of many, one people,'" he says, in a deep, raspy voice that would impress instructors at the Darth Vader School of Elocution. "That means no matter what nationality you are, you're considered Jamaican. That's the concept that I have with reggae music."
Other popular dancehall singers such as Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks take a different approach; their work is crammed with lyrics glorifying guns, drugs and sex. Shaggy is proud not to be following in their footsteps. "I'm here to promote nothing but a smile on people's faces," he says. "I'm not here to send a particular message to anyone, because there's nothing I can tell you that you don't already know."
Instead, Shaggy prefers to blend genres to create a reggae sound you've never heard. "Oh Carolina," a remake of the Prince Buster ska classic that put him on the dancehall map in 1993, is a prime example: The tune grafts the rapid, talky style and driving rhythms of dancehall with the genial good spirits of pre-Rastafarian Jamaican music of the Sixties. Likewise, Boombastic includes touches of hip-hop, R&B and even lounge music amid the reggae sounds. "Reggae is like a plague," he explains. "If you have rock music and you put a reggae piano going straight through it, then it's not rock anymore--it just becomes reggae. If you have hip-hop beats and guys talking Jamaican patois, then it's not rap music anymore--it's reggae music. That's how strong the music is. Whatever element of reggae that you put in any particular song, it just becomes reggae."
The vocalist comes by his love of reggae naturally: He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and has been recording reggae tunes ever since he moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, at the age of eighteen. He began his career as a DJ. "It broadened my music and developed my ear," he states. "It also taught me what would drop in what club and what wouldn't."
Soon afterward, Shaggy used what he'd learned to create music of his own. Although he insists that "the whole recording thing was basically a hobby back then," he quickly made a name for himself: His single "Mampie" reached the top of the New York reggae charts, and a followup, "Big Up," did just as well. Unfortunately, though, the songs weren't huge financial successes. "At some point in your life you have to make a living--you have to be able to pay the rent," he says. But he quickly discovered that working outside the music field wasn't much fun. "The job thing wasn't working out," he reveals. "I kept getting fired--so I checked myself into a job I couldn't get fired from."
Hence Shaggy's stint with the Marines. But even while riding in an Army jeep in Kuwait, he was able to keep in touch with the music he loves. "There's a radio station that's broadcast from London that's so powerful you can pick it up from Kuwait," he recalls. "They were broadcasting a reggae show that only played underground reggae hits, and mine just happened to be one of them."
As it turns out, Shaggy's songs had grown more popular during his absence. After returning to the States (he was stationed at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina), he decided to capitalize: Most weekends, he drove to New York City to record.
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The result of these sessions was Shaggy's debut album, Pure Pleasure, which vaulted the vet to reggae stardom. But his notoriety hasn't changed his angle on reggae. "I make music the way I actually like to be," he comments. "I like to have fun, I like to live life and I like to enjoy life. My music just reflects my personality.
"If you come home from work and I make you feel happy, joyous and merry," he continues, "then I've done my job."
Shaggy. 8 p.m., Tuesday, October 24, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $12.50/$15 day of show, 830-TIXS or 322-2308.