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Potent Talks: Sean Paul, On the Art of Collaboration

Potent Talks: Sean Paul, On the Art of Collaboration

Potent Talks is a series featuring inspiring conversations with creatives from the region and diaspora.

If my very Pentecostal mother knew that 5-year-old me was watching the “Just Gimme Di Light” music video, I’d be in huge trouble. However, the moment she finds out that Sean Paul and I sat down to talk, I’d get the biggest beam of congratulations followed by a strong warning that “the rapture STILL is at hand”. 

A summation of my introduction to dancehall. 

My exposure to the genre was primarily through sound systems in the Jamaican inner city. I’d feel the bass through the speakers syncopating with my heartbeat and it created such a neverending connection. I wasn’t allowed to consume it actively, but those passive moments of enjoyment really set the pace for my love today. In fact, the only time I was ever allowed to watch some of dancehall’s greats was during the summertime visits to my Auntie Fiona’s house where 106 and Park was staple black programming. That’s where I discovered Dutty Paul.

It has always been the opening lines for me. When you heard the voice you knew exactly who it was and in Toronto, for some, it is the staple that signifies the start of “Gyal Time”, a time to just.. bubble.

Boomers had the likes of Super Cat, Patra, Shabba etc. So automatically, the natural progression would give us Gen Z’s and Millennials the likes of the artist that penned hits like “Still In Love” and chart topping collabs such as “Cheap Thrills”.

Sean Paul has been and continues to be instrumental to dancehall culture. His work on the international scene along with many other prolific dancehall artists, has set the pace for the upcoming generation of dancehall artists. His reputation speaks for itself and makes evident the indelible impact he’s made on dancehall as a globally-recognized, Jamaican-made product. 

Fortunately, I had the pleasure of having an e-sit down on the heels of his latest release “Dynamite” , an incredible collaboration with music star and Sean Paul’s co-hit maker, Sia.

The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Potent: Who were your earlier influences when starting your career?

Sean Paul [SP]: Definitely Supa Cat, I call him my father in the biz. Shabba Ranks, Major Worries and Papa San, that’s dancehall. LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Run DMC, Rackim, for Hip Hop. And there’s others too, but those are the main characters that kinda when I’m forming the basis of what rhythm I pick, which kinda flow, which kinda lyrics, it kinda blem up with those artists. 

Potent: We’ve seen Sean Paul transition through many eras, from braids to a clean cut, what goes into making your brand so timeless? 

SP: [laughs] Look mi a look inna di mirror and try something yunnuh. That’s it. It’s not really a big consultancy or a big plan either, it’s like how my mood feels. I guess maybe there came a time where I was wearing my braids for seven years and I just got really tired of seeing myself like that. Other people were like, “yo, why yuh shave yuh hair.” I guess it’s just what pleases me still. 

Photo Credit: Destine Media PR

Potent: Yeah I guess that’s why the transitions look and feel so natural. But, what makes a good collab artist and why do you think you’re so sought after?

SP: I think Dancehall in general is a collaborative ting. The artist demself need the producer. There’s few producers who is artist demself like Leftside or Stephen McGregor, Serani etc. A lotta dem have worked on this last album “Live and Living”. But, there’s a lot more artists who need to collab, they don’t really know how fi beat a riddim or be an engineer. So they have the lyrics and they have the voice, and the flow. So it’s a collaborative effort, plus when everybody start out in this biz, even if it’s a high school or prep school level, people always want to hear yuh versatility, so yuh challenge from the beginning. Is like, “Can yuh go on dis riddim?”, “Can you go on that riddim?”, “Can you flow bout this?”, “Can yuh spit bout dat?”. So I think that in itself lends Dancehall artists to be great collab artists. 

Potent: So what you’re saying is that it moves from a more domestic kinda vibe and transcends to the international scene where it makes it easier for dancehall artistes to collab with other artists because they had the training in Jamaica?

SP: Yea! It’s from that level as a youngster where people waan hear yuh versatility nuh matta what. Yuh spit a wicked lyrics, dem a seh, “Alright do sumn pon this riddim then, you know what I mean?” [laughs] It’s always a challenge. But, a good collab artist is just somebody who can listen and learn, you know, and adapt. 

Potent: You created a hit with Sia once before, what inspired the collaboration on “Dynamite”?

SP: Well, um, when the song [Cheap Thrills] went number one I was shocked, because I thought she had had more number ones before that. “Chandelier” was a big tune to me but she send mi a big flowaz, and seh “Thank you for my first number one!”, and I was like “Wow”. So, I said, “Let’s do an original song one day”. Because that song, “Cheap Thrills” was actually the remix that I did, that went to number one. It took me a few years to find the vibes. I think we did that song in 2016, and then it was about 2017 I kinda start demoing this idea, to tell the truth, and it just a come to fruition now. 

Potent: It’s a great song by the way. I enjoyed the music video. Hopefully another number one. 

SP: I call it a feel-good tune. You know, for me, when I hear the chords and when I hear her voice and what I’m doing on it, it just feels catchy and you know, like a good vibe. 

Potent: So how involved in the process are you? I know definitely you do your own songwriting but from producing to even the shooting of the music video, how involved are you?

SP: Over the years I’ve gotten a lot more into the production of the tings. Back in the day, I would voice for seh, Tony Kelly or German (Jeremy) Harding or Don Corleon and I’d just leave it up to dem. But now, I’m like, sometime only you care the most about your work. I’ve also been getting a lot more involved in video production as well. Not on every video. There’s some that I leave up to the director, like this one for Dynamite, I didn’t have a lot of input. When I picked the treatment from Storm I was like this one feels like the best one. I don’t want to be the person who’s doing everything, because it takes away from the stuff that you are naturally talented at. 

Potent: So what made you choose the treatment that basically shows a futuristic Jamaica?

SP: I personally don’t want to see Jamaica with taller buildings than the mountains behind it. [laughs], that’s the only thing that bothered me. But what stood out to me when I read the treatment was that dancehall is a powerful force that will last for a long time. 2062 would be a hundred years since our independence, that’s when ska music started to become popular, then it moved to rocksteady, reggae, and dub and what we have as dancehall now. I just kinda feel that it’s been, over the years, one of the longest-lasting genres and one of the most powerful that helped to spawn music like hip hop, reggaeton, even afrobeat. For me, it was the statement that it’s so powerful and did all these things that will last that long in the future.  

Potent: My next question speaks to collaborations with artists who are not [music] artists. Tell me about the collaborations you’ve made with choreographers like Tanisha Scott or directors like Director X?

SP: Well, me working with Director X was just the treatment. Everybody that heard “Gimme Di Light” wanted me in the bush, with some rasta and a chalice. When I saw X’s treatment he simply was like you’re gonna be in a world of your own. And when I saw that treatment I was like this is more like it to me. What I love about a lot of things that has happened in my career is that it has been natural, I don’t try to force a lot of the things. 

With Tanisha, I keep running back to her because she grew up in Toronto but her mother is Jamaican. And she’s heavily involved with the whole dance culture there which was heavily influenced by what people like Bogle did. It’s just a symbiotic relationship. The natural links dem is sumn that ah artist pays more attention to than when somebody put you in a room to work with a next person and you don’t really have a connection with them. It’s better for your art when it’s just a natural thing.

Official Music Video: Sean Paul – I’m Still in Love With You

Official Music Video: Sean Paul – Gimme The Light

Potent: Great perspective to look at it from. Now, your sound has its beginnings in hardcore dancehall, how do you avoid compromising your sound with your collabs across genres? 

SP: The rhythm tells me what to do. So when I get a hardcore rhythm, the song is more in that direction. When I get a rhythm that’s more, with the pretty chords, then it turns out to be a song like “She Doesn’t Mind” or “Other Side Of Love”. For me, there’s in-betweens as well. Like “Got To Love You” some people heard it and said it was kinda watered down and some people abroad seh it’s a dope song but it’s too dancehall for them. And that’s what I’ve faced all my life. People hear it say, “he pronounces everything, that’s why he works”. And then I’ll go abroad and hear people saying “I can’t understand a word that this dude says”. I think that I don’t really fit in a box. So it’s kinda hard to pinpoint exactly why I’m on this fence here but it’s just a balancing act that I have to keep up with.

Potent: You answered two of my final questions with one answer [laughs]. Now, you’ve had a lot of collabs with artists who people dream of collaborating with but who is your dream collab?

SP: Alicia Keys is one of them who for me, it’s been forever. Next person I’d love to do a song with is Shakira. She actually recorded a song with me and the song came out with Becky G. But you know,  I still have a great respect for her. She’s a great voice and a great artist. I also want to work with a band called 21 Pilots. Both me and mi son love their songs. And I’d also like to work with Billie Eilish, I feel a vibe in the way her brother mixes the music and I’d just want to see what could come of that. There are some songs on “Scorcher” which sound to me like it could be in that type of space. But we’ll wait and see whappen.

Follow Sean Paul on IG: @DuttyPaul.

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