All The Peace And Love, Minus The Dreadlocks
On the last track of his new album Reggae Music Again, Busy Signal delivers a spoken manifesto explaining why a hardcore dancehall artist would record an all-roots reggae album out of nowhere.
“I just want the world to feel this from me, not being a rasta-man with dreads. It’s not about locks,” he says on the track, called “Busy Thoughts: My Intention,” “Just showing the respect to this culture, this music.”
It may seem strange for an artist to justify his musical decisions on his album, but Busy Signal’s choice to make a roots record is a pretty unconventional move in the context of the Jamaican music scene. Up until now, Busy has been best known for sexed-up club hits like 2008’s “Tic Toc” (below) and high energy dancehall bangers like “Wine Pon Di Edge.” In Jamaica, he rolls with Bounty Killer’s powerful Alliance crew, the deejay collective that includes heavyweights like Serani and Elephant Man.
Reggae Music Again shows a very different side of Busy Signal. Over dubby basslines and rich backup harmonies, Busy Signal rhymes about topics ranging from the dangers of skin bleaching (on “Run Weh”) to the underlying causes leading to Jamaica’s chronic poverty (on “Modern Day Slavery”). There’s even a devotional track on the album, titled “Jah Love.” With his big sunglasses, club-ready leather jackets and shiny wristwatches, he looks more like a rapper than a rasta, yet roots reggae has a big influence on his life and music.
“I’ve always been a roots fan,” says Busy Signal, speaking with me over the phone from Jamaica. “I think it has more lifespan and longevity than dancehall. It’s a realer, more soulful type of music in terms of what they are saying.”
A big part of what makes Busy Signal’s reggae turn possible is that he is one of the few dancehall artists out there today who can sing at a high level as well as rap. It’s a talent he cultivated as a child at church. Busy Signal, whose real name is Reanno Gordon, grew up with what he calls a “poor, churchgoing background.” His religious mother moved around the country a lot with him as a youth, living in rough communities like the infamous Tivoli Gardens in Kingston. The experience of living in the ghetto honed the social critiques that appear on the tracks of Reggae Music Again.
“Jamaica is not all about the coconuts and the sea-breeze all the time,” says Busy Signal. “Lack of jobs, young youth idling, a lot of them fatherless and motherless — a lot of things breed poverty, and poverty breeds crime.”
Busy Signal admits to being involved in “street things” as a young man in Jamaica, and was briefly locked up in the United States on conspiracy charges. The experience shook him up, and he returned to Jamaica determined to focus on his music career. He released his first album, Step Out, in 2005 and scored a national hit with a gangsterly single of the same name.
Compared to some of his peers, Busy has been fairly conscious of widening his musical horizons beyond dancehall – this is a guy who claims to draw inspiration from the unlikely trio of Luciano Pavarotti, reggaeton, and Enya, after all – so it’s not too surprising that he was open to doing a roots album. The seed for Busy’s reggae project was planted when he decided to record a few roots songs for his 2010 album D.O.B. He received good responses and decided to go deeper into the concept.
“It’s a smart move,” says Sergio Gomez, a writer for Europe’s Reggae Vibes magazine, in an interview over email. “This 100% reggae album will help him gain new supporters worldwide but mostly in Europe where people love the good old roots music more than the hype dancehall.”
It’s easy to see Busy’s reggae experiment as a cynical business move. Although roots reggae has very little impact these days in the Jamaican market, it’s big business in many places around the world. Japan, France, Germany, and even Dubai are flush with reggae fans who buy records and attend festivals. The way Busy talks about the album in terms of “growing his fan base” makes it clear that he’s keeping at least one eye on his bank account. At the same time, the album is a gamble, running the risk of alienating his core of dancehall fans.
Busy Signal shrugs off the criticisms, saying it’s just something he wanted to do. He prepared for recording the album by doing some deep listening to classic cuts ranging from Black Uhuru to old-school Sizzla. He partnered up with legendary saxophonist and producer Dean Fraser and went into Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studios to record with some the island’s most badass players.
“It was an overwhelming feeling, just being in there,” says Busy Signal, who claims to make up his songs on the spot in the recording studio. “Just listening to the different sounds in all the different rooms, knowing the history of what happened here. I was just overwhelmed by everything basically.”
Listen closely to the tracks on Reggae Music Again, with their splashes of auto-tune and high-speed raps beside guitar chops and one-drops, and you can almost hear that history in progress.
Listen to the first single off Reggae Music Again, “Come Over”:
(All photos courtesy of VP Records)