Skin-Bleaching, Sex, Strip Clubs...And Foreign Debt
Enter the astonishing mind of the most controversial man in dancehall as he talks about capitalizing on fame, writing a book, and why he never made a dime off that song about shoes.
Vybz Kartel isn’t just the biggest star in dancehall. These days, it seems like he’s the only one. The 35-year-old deejay from the gritty Kingston suburb of Portmore has dominated the Jamaican music conversation for the last year to such an extent that even his headline-grabbing (and only recently resolved) feud with long-time rival Mavadonow seems a distant memory.
Fueling the phenomenon is a striking, Michael Jackson-like visual transformation that has seen him lighten his skin several shades, his hair suddenly long with extensions. A master of spin, Kartel first chalked his new coloring up to air conditioning and cake soap, a powerful cleanser used to wash clothes. Without actually copping to what most people suspect—that he bleaches his skin— he’s defended the practice by likening it to tanning white people and black women who straighten their hair. Fittingly, one of his biggest recent hits is called “Cake Soap”.
Kartel (aka Adidja Palmer) is also, arguably, Jamaica’s most prolific artist, churning out provocative commentary and lowbrow throwaway tracks with Tupac-like (in)consistency. His latest project, Kingston Story, is different, though. Recorded entirely with a single producer, Brooklyn’s Dre Skull, the result is a rarity for singles-driven dancehall: a proper album with a uniform sonic aesthetic. While the lyrics are primarily sexual in theme, the LP, with its quasi-orchestral rhythms, points to a new, more emotive direction for this most hedonistic of genres. MTV Iggy spoke with Kartel by phone from Jamaica about Kingston Story, his growing business portfolio, and what exactly he’s trying to prove with his outlandish behavior.
You’ve been successful throughout your career releasing singles and occasionally putting those singles on a CD and selling it as an album. What led you to sit down and create a whole album from scratch this time?
Well it was Dre Skull who brought the idea to me and I accepted it because of his track record and ‘cause he wrote a single for me called “Yuh Love.” I was awestruck by this white dude building such a badass dancehall track and when he approached me to do the album, I was like “yeah let’s do it.” I think he flew in like four times and each time we did like four tracks. The rest is history. He’s the one who initiated the whole album thing, though.
I think some people are surprised because he’s not someone with a name in Jamaica who or even much of a name in New York. Have other producers approached you about doing [a project like] this?
I’ve had albums before but to me, I think this is one of the best albums I’ve ever done because it’s in the true sense of an album. It’s a true performance and not just a group of songs put on a CD.
So what does someone need to bring to the table if they want to work with Vybz Kartel?
Just great, great beats and the ability to share the profit. I’m a businessman first and foremost. I’m all about the music business, not just the music.
Are you an artist or a businessman first?
I would say I am both equally because, especially in times like these when record sales aren’t doing as well as they used to, you have to capitalize. Before the fallout with my partner [Corey Todd], I commanded the rum Street Vybz, which is a popular rum in Jamaica; The Building nightclub which was like the only dancehall club in Kingston; I have my Addi’s line of sneakers coming out. I have my Vybz Wear which is belt buckles, dogtags, t-shirts and fitteds and I have my own brand of soap, cake soap.
What would is your primary source of income right now? Is it coming from recording?
I would say equally it’s the rum and the recording because I’ve put out a lot of singles over the years. So my publishing …is good. I’m signed to BMI, I consult my own publishing…I get a decent amount of publishing.
A lot of major American artists want to work with you right now. I remember seeing Nicki Minaj on Twitter saying she wanted you for her album and I heard that Jay-Z was trying to get you but I haven’t seen these collaborations emerge. What are some of the things you’re looking for besides money in an artist? What kind of artist are you looking to work with?
Well Jay-Z is definitely at the top of the list ’cause he’s one of my favorite rappers. Lil’ Wayne also. Wiz Khalifa, I like that kid. But you have to understand that I’m a person in Jamaica without a major record label behind me. I am my own company so a lot of the resources are not readily available to me so I can reach out to a Jay-Z or reach out to a Lil’ Wayne. That’s where Dre Skull comes in–he’s the man who I think can make things happen.
Have Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj reached out to you?
Yeah they have. I was actually on the Def Jam remix of Jay-Z and Pharell [“Frontin’”]. But when Jay-Z reached out to me, I didn’t have any Visa at the time so that plan got totally f**ked because of that. But Dre Skull has been the middle man so to speak who’s an American, who has access to me in Jamaica and he can definitely get access to an international artist. I’m just hoping he can pull it off, man. I think he can. I know he will.
A lot of Jamaican dancehall artists cannot get into major markets due to Visa issues including yourself in the U.S. and England. That’s been detrimental to dancehall in general, but it actually seems like it’s helped you. Is it possible that it’s been a good thing, that you can’t go everywhere?
No it isn’t, but you have to make do with what you have. I recently did Miami’s Best of the Best concert via satellite and that goes to show that Vybz Kartel is in demand. A lot of artists could have been approached, but they weren’t. I was the first dancehall artist to ever do that from Jamaica, to do a show via satellite. And then I’ve got the album which is doing well on iTunes. Once you do good music and have the promotion behind it, everything else is good. It can work.
In lieu of not being able to get into two of the biggest dancehall and Caribbean music markets, what have been some of the major markets you’ve been targeting?
I’ve been to Europe like a trillion times.We’ve been to South America quite a few times and we basically own the Caribbean. When I say own it, I literally mean own it.
Do you think being this public enemy that certain countries don’t want to let in has actually helped you by giving you publicity?
Of course it has. A lot of these artists in Jamaica when they have their U.S. visas and they did like, 5 shows in America, I only had to do one show in the Caribbean or South America to make the money that they’re doing in five shows. Because I am the man in dancehall music, you understand? So it’s not a matter of where I go…as long as I go on a plane, I’m collecting U.S. [dollars]. It is a good look, that persona…yeah I think it has worked for me.
Is all publicity good publicity for you?
In my opinion, for what I do, yeah. Because everything that I do is calculated, planned out, and thought of so I already know the repercussions. I know the good and the bad reactions to what is going to happen and I still do it. I plan all my controversy. I’m just that outrageous person…I am outrageous because I want to be, I am controversial because I want to be.
Photo Credit: Ports Bishop