For an entertainer, being popular does not automatically equate to being influential to the same degree. And, here, I am using influence in reference to impact on the subsequent generation of persons who take up a microphone and try to ram a dancehall.
The thought came as I reflected on the popular music of the 1980s into early 1990s with Supercat and Shabba Ranks, then the 1990s with Bounty Killer and Beenie Man. In the first case, with his double Grammy awards and slew of dancehall and radio hits (think ‘Love Punaany Bad’ and ‘Ting-a-ling’), then the hip-hop smashes such as ‘Slow and Sexy’ the self-styled dancehall emperor, big dutty stinking Shabba, is undoubtedly more popular. Of the man who did ‘Vineyard Style’, ‘Boops’ and is the distinctive crossover voice on the ‘Jump’ remix with Kris Kross, as well as his own ‘Ghetto Red Hot’ and ‘Don Dada’ hip-hop remixes is no celebrity slouch. But Shabba hit a wave of global popularity that eclipsed all others in dancehall during that era.
But, it is Supercat who had the aura that no publicity campaign can create. From the snappy dressing to hurling a bottle back into the 1991 Sting crowd, tough talk and more than a hint that the badness was not only on stage, the Wild Apache is a legend. And his voice has transcended generations into Damion ‘Junior Gong’ Marley and Sean Paul (and there is at least one other, whom I can’t quite remember). It is uncanny how much like the Don Dada they sound. Sure, Shabba’s gruff tones have some resonance in Buju Banton’s delivery, but it is nowhere near the level of similarity. Popularity goes to Shabba, influence goes to Supercat.
A Grammy award also figures in Beenie Man’s popularity, but with his constant smiles, dancing and ladies appeal – including the garments that he deejayed about them tearing off – the self-styled king of the dancehall is, globally, way more popular than Bounty Killer. Hands down. But it is Rodney Price who is by far the more influential, as those he has taken under his wing, officially in the alliance, or given a strength from time to time, is literally unending. The man in black with a scowl to match can claim Vybz Kartel, Movado, Wayne Marshall, Baby Cham, Scare Dem Crew, Aidonia and so many more. And, then, there would be those who his musical offspring have gone on to raise, from the Gaza Camp to JOP. It is literally endless. Popularity to Beenie Man, influence to Bounty Killer.
So, it begs the question, what makes for the level of influence in those who, despite being very well-known, were not the most popular in their generation of deejays? It comes down to being different, and not different as in being an extreme of the same, but different as in being truly original. This often means extended public criticism – outside of dancehall fans, Bounty Killer was not the most beloved deejay in the wider society during his ‘people dead!’ days. But he was uncompromising. Supercat’s bad man persona is too real to be fake, which automatically excludes him from the level of media attention that Shabba Ranks revelled in. But Supercat was uncompromising.
To put it another way, the influential persons have been more consistent than those who were more popular than they were. To hear and see them in any setting is to get the same public viewpoints, same manner of dress despite what is currently deemed fashionable, same commitment to what they consider their true selves. No hair extensions for Bounty Killer, no long crotch pants for Supercat. Read what you want to into that.
Of course, something could be said for them not being adaptable and hence not reaching the levels of success that they could have, and there is much merit to that. But to live to see your own extended legacy must be a wonderful thing.
On that note, September 11 will be yet another anniversary of Peter Tosh being killed in 1987. Could the argument about being popular vs being influential be extended to two of the Wailers? Could Bob be exponentially more popular, but the Stepping Razor be more influential? Think about Bushman, think about the fire of Capleton. Sure, many a Marley sounds like Bob, but isn’t it only them? Think about it.
Mel Cooke covered Jamaican entertainment as a print journalist for almost two decades, overlapping with his MPhil research on dancehall and experiential marketing with the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI, Mona, where he is now working on a PhD while lecturing in the Bachelor of Arts, Communication Arts and Technology (BACAT) programme at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech, Ja.).