Words of Wisdom From The Brooklyn Dude who Rose The Ranks of Jamaican Dancehall
Before Jamaican dancehall legend Vybz Kartel was charged with murder in 2011, he was already making headlines around the world. Yes, for his flamboyant press wrangling, yes, for his so-called ‘skin bleaching soap’, and of course for his hilarious reality show Teacher’s Pet, but most importantly, for the tight, modern dancehall production on the unique album Kingston Story. The latter was brought to you by an unlikely soul: Dre Skull.
This guy, based in Brooklyn, has basically achieved the impossible. He penetrated the Jamaican music scene from the ground up, built the multi-genre label Mixpak, and eventually scored a chart-topping dancehall track with Vybz, “Yuh Love.”
These days he’s hanging with the dancehall heavyweights from Beenie Man to Natalie Storm, both of whom appear on his latest Mixpak release, “Loudspeaker Riddim.” Dre is also slated to work with Diplo on Snoop Dogg’s upcoming album, infusing his signature Jamaican feel.
I talked to Dre Skull about Vybz’ arrest, the state of dancehall, and how hard it is for non-Jamaicans to speak Patois.
So you actually wrote a lot of the stuff on Loudspeaker Riddim a long time ago, correct? What’s the holdup?
The early version of that riddim was basically done sometime in 2009, and there were a few different iterations on it. Basically what you’re hearing was more or less done back then, but I didn’t have all the vocalists back then.
Well for one, I have a lot, a lot, a lot of unreleased music just sitting on my computer, so in terms of getting a release out, there’s a lot of different elements. First, the first vocals I got on it were with Natalie Storm. She recorded the track “Rock the Runway” which I loved. At that time I was trying to do a deal with her for Mixpak, so I was waiting on that account. Then they lost the files and there was a computer crash, and there was a holdup with that. In the end, we never ended up doing a record deal, and so then I actually shopped that around for awhile, thinking that might be a good hook for someone like a Rihanna . . . it definitely went to her camp, but never heard back on that. And then in addition to that wait, I got really caught up with doing Kingston Story with Kartel,which took all my time. Once that was done I looked at what I had sitting around and thought it was still working really well for me even after all this time, so I took it to Kingston in October and brought in Popcaan and Beenie Man. Later I was able to get Machel Montano on it. It’s kind of a long convoluted story of how it all came together. Usually isn’t that complicated, but this time it was.
Were you already in touch with Beenie Man?
No. Actually I’ve wanted to work with Beenie Man for a long time but it was something that just came together when I was in Kingston in October. One thing I’ve learned over the years is sometimes it’s better to work out the plan once you land, cause you never know who’s going to be on the island and who’s gonna be available or not.
The only solid plan I had in October when I went down was to work with Popcaan. Once I landed, I tried to reach out to different artists directly through their management to try to see what we could do. It all came together quickly. I was able to get in touch and the next day I went to his studio, that’s kinda how it often goes when I work with people in dancehall.
Who wrote the lyrics?
Beenie Man wrote his lyrics. I write the music and bring it in for him to write the lyrics. I walked him through how I pictured the song working structurally but that’s not that big of a deal. I like to be in the studio with vocalists whenever possible, and I like to give input if people are looking for it and give a little guidance, and sometimes I will get involved on what I think will be a good subject matter. In this case he took it and ran.
How’s your Patois?
I make very little effort to speak Patois. I mean, over repeated trips my ability to understand has increased, but I’ve never really worked at being able to speak Patois.
You were pretty active in the performance art scene. In what capacity?
As an artist, I would do different, Deitch gallery, MOMA, performed at PS1, it was really just different places, kinda incorporating music, video, art, and live performance. It really really varied widely. I wouldn’t say there’s one typical type of performance.
Was there a particular artist or album that struck you when you were first getting into dancehall?
Good question. I don’t know that there was just one. I think . . . hmm . . . I don’t know if I can say there’s just one, but there’s always been, you know, to some degree, dancehall crossing over on rap radio. That’s probably my early exposure, and then also just there’s just different rappers who will break out with the fake Patois, and then a lot of rappers who have Caribbean roots. But you know, I think that I just heard it through US radio, and from being a fan of rap music – like Super Cat on a Biggie track. But then the other angle was more the dub reggae side of things, from listening to someone like Lee Perry, and as a fan of Lee Perry and that sort of work. So it was a bit like my love for rap and for dub reggae converged naturally towards dancehall.
A lot of vitriol in dancehall. Before you produced Vybz and when you were becoming a name, as an outsider what was the reaction to you?
At first no reaction. [laughs] Being ignored would be the easy answer. I think that we live in such a digital world where most people are hearing music for the first time on YouTube, so they don’t necessarily know who produced what, in many ways the music gets to speak for itself. When I was first starting out with dancehall stuff, I wasn’t being looked at as an outsider ’cause there wasn’t even enough interest. But as time went on, in a way I got lucky because my second Jamaican collaboration was Kartel’s “Yuh Love,” and that song became hugely popular so that helped me quite a bit. That kind of opened the doors for me.
Do you think dancehall has gained more traction outside of the Caribbean in recent years, producers like yourself and Mad Decent and the like?
Yeah… I mean it’s kind of like, the way I see it, there are two counter strains at work. One is that the major label support for dancehall has collapsed in the last decade or the last five years, and then there’s kind of an insurgence within Jamaica and outside Jamaica that are kind of counteracting that. Mad Decent’s a great example.
I think it’s kind of interesting. In a way it’s kind of the story of what’s happening to the music industry at large. But I think dancehall and/or dancehall-inspired music is kind of reaching more disparate listeners than ever before. At the same time the support for dancehall on, say, Hot 97 and from major radio in the US and on major labels is at an all-time low. But I think there may be a change happening now and kind of going forward. I feel subtly that the work of the underground supporting dancehall and dancehall-inspired sound is starting to feedback and effect what people are thanking about at the major labels…whether it’s Kanye or Nas’ recent use of reggae samples, or different things that I’ve heard about where certain major label artists are going to … there might be a resurgence. I’m interested to see where that goes.
I’m hoping to see either a major rapper or a major label sign a dancehall artist to their camp. Movado has his deal with DJ Khaled, and that’s cool, and it feels like that could be happening more and more. That would be great for dancehall and Jamaican artists.
Working with Diplo on Snoop’s album. Would you say this is the breaking moment for you? What should we expect in terms of release date ?
Diplo brought me into produce the new Snoop album with him and Ariel Rechtshaid and it’s been very cool to be involved. It’s an album inspired by Jamaican music. I’m not exactly sure on a release date. I was down in Jamaica working on the recording in February, we were down there for 17 days or something like that . . . hopefully the record will be done relatively soon. I’m not sure of the timing, but it’s been really exciting to be involved with the project.
When you heard about the trial and everything what did that mean for you? And the album?
The way the news kinda rolled out, first he was arrested, then there weren’t any charges announced. He’s been locked up and held without charges a number of times over the last 2 years, so I thought it would be more of the same and he’d be released. I had no idea the severity of the charges or that he would be held for as long as he’s being held now. Initially it was just an arrest with no word on the charges, and we were like 6 days away from shooting a video for the single “Half on a Baby?” Then when I heard the severity of the charges, it was obviously upsetting and concerning. In terms of the the effect on the album, for awhile I would have to say that the media exposure from his situation kinda raised the awareness. For example we had, a magazine from India asking us for photos and stuff like that– magazines that were not even music magazines. There was a fascination around the world with the case . . . it is kind of a strange situation with one of the biggest stars in Jamaica being arrested like this, so I can understand. But you know, for awhile you could say that it gave exposure, but ultimately I think him being locked up, if he was out doing promo that would probably help the album. On a human level, obviously I’d much rather have him not involved in these circumstances.
Are you still in touch with him?
I have not been able to speak with him directly. I’ve been trying to see about the ability to visit him but it’s been complicated. I e-mailed with his lawyer, and I’m trying to have a conversation. I’m scheduled to go to Jamaica next week so I’m trying to see if that’s a possibility but it seems difficult. I asked his lawyer to give him a message but I haven’t heard back.
How’d you hook up with Hard Nips? What made you decide to make them one of the few if the only? Rock artist on Mixpak?
I’ve known them for awhile…before they were in a band. Probably went to their early shows. Basically though, I thought they were interesting. They have a great live show, great name, great concept all round. It wasn’t a hard decision, Mixpak is anything goes.
Last year you told us ‘I’ve literally spent a year trying to get Uncle Murda for a verse.’ any progress?
I’ve kinda given up on that sadly. I can’t remember what I told you last year, but there were different managers/ex-managers to navigate and it proved impossible. I’m still a fan, but I think I’ve given up on that for now.
First I’m dropping Loudspeaker Riddim with Popcaan, Beenie Man, Natalie Storm and Machel Montano. Then another riddim release in July with a bunch of artists. After that I have a single with Pusha T that might come out in August or September.