Sean Paul and Shaggy have a lot in common. Both were born in the Jamaican capital city, Kingston. They’re of a similar vintage – Shaggy’s 51, Paul 46 – and both successfully sold dancehall and reggae fusion to a mainstream audience long before it became commonplace.
They’ve also returned to the pointy end of the charts in recent years. Shaggy has always struggled to match the heights of his 2000 release Hot Shot (yes, it’s the one with ‘It Wasn’t Me’). But he finally made it back to the top ten with the 2018 record, 44/876 – a collaborative record with white reggae elder statesman Sting.
Paul, too, fell out of favour not long after releasing a commercial sensation; in his case it was 2005’s hit-packed collection The Trinity. But he’s re-entered the pop conversation courtesy of a huge 2016 where he featured on singles by Sia, Clean Bandit, and Little Mix.
Although they did it in contrasting fashion, the pair’s concurrent return to the spotlight is the latest instance of a creative and commercial symbiosis that dates back two decades. Ahead of a run of dual headline shows across Australia, we look at how the careers of Sean Paul and Shaggy have moved in curious harmony.
Shaggy’s breakout success
Shaggy served in the US marine corps in the late 1980s before shifting focus to music in the early ‘90s. His debut record, Pure Pleasure, surfaced in 1993, led by the single ‘Oh Carolina’. The single – a digital dancehall take on the Folkes Brothers’ landmark ska song – was a top five hit in Australia.
“I think I am the guy that no one ever saw coming at all,” Shaggy told iHeart Radio earlier this year. “And I’m still today the guy that no one sees coming.”
Shaggy’s major international breakthrough came with the 1995 single ‘Boombastic’ and the album of the same name. The record’s first single was another dancehall revamp, this time of ‘In The Summertime’ by British rock outfit Mungo Jerry, but the title track is what made Shaggy a household name.
‘Boombastic’ cemented its popularity after featuring in a Levi’s commercial, while the remix became a mainstream radio favourite.
“When we released ‘Boombastic’ in 1995 we couldn’t get it played on mainstream radio,” Shaggy told WIPO Magazine in 2007. “It was only by sampling [Marvin Gaye’s] ‘Let’s Get it On’ in the remix that we started getting airplay.”
His next album, 1997’s Midnite Lover, failed to leave an impression, but 2000’s Hot Shot conquered the globe. Shaggy had successive US and ARIA number ones with the infidelity-toasting ‘It Wasn’t Me’ and the reggae fusion pastiche ‘Angel’, which is built around Steve Miller Band’s ‘The Joker’ and Chip Taylor’s ‘Angel Of The Morning’.
Shaggy’s success paves the way for Sean Paul
Hot Shot sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, leading major labels to hunt for more dancehall acts with crossover appeal. In Sean Paul – a middle class Jamaican who was once a promising water polo player – they found their dream man.
Paul’s debut record, Stage One, came out in 2000. It was a Jamaican production through and through, which arose after Paul was spotted on the Kingston open mic scene. But his next release, 2002’s Dutty Rock, made Paul one of the hottest names in naughties pop music.
The record was released via New York reggae and dancehall specialists VP and eminent major label Atlantic Records. Dutty Rock moves away from Paul’s dancehall puritanism, bringing in producers Mark Ronson (on ‘International Affair’) and The Neptunes (on ‘Bubble’), plus guests Busta Rhymes and Rahzel, in a concerted attempt at crossover success.
The move paid off with the record shifting six million copies, and in 2003 Paul featured on ‘Baby Boy’ from Beyoncé’s debut solo album.
Shaggy and Sean Paul go back to the dancehall
Paul’s commercial momentum carried over to his third record, The Trinity, but gone were the big US producers and featured guests. It was a conscious effort to re-engage with the Kingston music scene that shaped him.
Paul told The Guardian in 2005 that working in America “just didn’t feel right,” and he wanted to “give the shine back to Jamaica.”
He elaborated further on the conundrum of being an international superstar while staying true to his origins.
“I feel like I’m in the pop world but I’m a dancehall artist and that’s my music,” he said. “This music is the everyday ideas, problems, likes and dislikes of the Jamaican youth. But now the world is paying so much attention it has become pop in that it’s popular.”
Shaggy followed Hot Shot with the Ali G collaboration ‘Me Julie’ and the solo single ‘Hey Sexy Lady’, the latter of which features Paul on the remix. His next couple of LPs were uneven and poorly received, however, failing to prolong the momentum of his chart-topping heyday.
This led Shaggy to seek credit from his Jamaican brethren with 2007’s Intoxication.
“I knew I had to come out with something that was going to win my core audience back,” Shaggy said to WIPA. “A monster underground local hit that they could play in any dancehall.”
Sean Paul and Shaggy’s friendship
Along with being two of Jamaican music’s biggest contemporary exports, Paul and Shaggy are friends, mutual admirers, and occasional collaborators. Sean Paul has appeared at multiple instalments of Shaggy’s biennial benefit concert, Shaggy and Friends. In 2016, Paul donated one million Jamaican dollars to the cause.
“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 said.
Shaggy weighed in on the discussion the following year, taking a more circumspect stance. “If Drake want to do ten million reggae songs, let him do it,” he said.
Plus, along with Paul’s appearance on the ‘Hey Sexy Lady’ remix, the pair have featured on a couple of charity singles together – Shaggy & Friends’ ‘Save A Life’ and the Caribbean tribute for Haiti, ‘Rise Again’.
Sean Paul and Shaggy in 2019
Shaggy followed the Sting record with his 12th solo record, Wah Gwaan?!, in early 2019. It’s an upbeat, high energy record that toys with current pop trends and makes it clear Mr. Boombastic is not finished yet.
Sean Paul’s stellar 2016 ignited a comprehensive return to public regard. His 2018 EP, Mad Love the Prequel, delivered a slew of singles featuring the likes of Dua Lipa, Major Lazer, Migos, and David Guetta. Collaborations with Wiley, J Balvin, and DJ Snake have followed.
Dancehall sounds have well and truly infiltrated Western pop music in the last decade. The influence is evident in Rihanna’s ‘Work’, Bieber’s ‘Sorry’, Major Lazer’s ‘Lean On’, and Drake’s ‘One Dance’. Shaggy and Paul are the two artists most responsible for bringing it into the mainstream. And while some question their authenticity, they remain key players in 2019.
Australians looking to see Sean Paul and Shaggy live can catch their co-headlining tour early next year.