Life lessons from the Shaggy school of reggae

Reggae singer Shaggy will be headlining the final Raggamuffin reggae festival in Auckland on February 18.
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Reggae singer Shaggy will be headlining the final Raggamuffin reggae festival in Auckland on February 18.

"You don't know your reggae."

Ouch. I never claimed to be a reggae expert, but somehow getting rebuked by Shaggy - headlining what will now be the final Raggamuffin concert at Auckland's Trusts Arena this February 18 - still hurts.

The truth is, I've always enjoyed my reggae.

Like several hundred thousand other Kiwis, I own a battered and much-abused 20-year-old copy of Bob Marley's Legend album - certified at an incredible 20 times platinum here in New Zealand. It's hideously scratched, but still plays without skipping if you don't turn the bass up too high.

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I was at the very first Raggamuffin in 2008, back when it was homed in Rotorua. UB40, Maxi Priest, The Wailers and Arrested Development topped the bill, supported by local reggae acts Katchafire, The Black Seeds, The Midnights and House Of Shem.

I remember the first time I saw Katchafire. It was 2003, at a little bar near the motorway in Manukau, just a hop, skip and jump from Rainbow's End.

I also remember how, when they came to the end of their set, the crowd was so hungry for more a hat was whipped round to get them to play for another hour. I dropped a fiver in myself, to join not only various other crumpled notes but also a couple of tightly rolled joints as well.

Hell, the first bit of writing I ever tried to get printed in a newspaper was a review of a Zimbabwean friend's reggae band. It never made it to print - it wasn't exactly unbiased reporting - but the band did end up using my words on their Myspace page. (Shout-out to Nu Culture and the Peel brothers.)

And after a brief stint behind the bar at the local pub in Kaitaia some years back, I've seen the immediate effects of reggae music firsthand. Situation getting a bit aggro? Chuck some Marley on the jukebox. Need to get the party started? Try UB40. Works every time up north.

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(OK, I'm exaggerating slightly here, but have you ever tried maintaining a state of aggression while Uncle Bob sings his sweet way through Three Little Birds? Can't be done.)

But back to Shaggy. (Now that I've somewhat defensively established my reggae appreciation credentials.)

While his music does without doubt fall broadly into the reggae category, Shaggy has always incorporated elements from other genres into his songs. Dancehall of course, but there are also pop, hip-hop and RnB stylings to be heard within his tunes.

Talking to him on the phone from New York - a task made occasionally more difficult by both the typically terrible US phone line and Shaggy's accent - this was the point I was (perhaps clumsily) trying to get across when I asked him how he'd describe what he does musically.

"I'm a reggae singer," he replied simply. (And maybe with just a hint of annoyance.)

"What would you categorise Jimmy Cliff as?" he continued. "Would you call him a reggae singer?"

"Definitely," I said.

"And would you say Many Rivers To Cross is a reggae song?"

"Yes," I answered - although somewhat hesitantly this time, sensing Shaggy was setting some kind of trap but unable to stop myself.

"Then you don't know your reggae."

Like I said, ouch. It was like that moment in White Men Can't Jump when Wesley Snipes tells Woody Harrelson that just because he listens to Jimi Hendrix, "doesn't mean you're hearing him".

Woody brushes it off, but you can see a part of him recognises that Wesley might just be right. Deep down inside, I know Shaggy is right too.

"You listen to the sounds of Many Rivers To Cross, those are RnB sounds," he says, continuing the lesson. "There's not a reggae beat behind it. It's a ballad."

"Many rivers to cross…" he croons, while I can't resist humming along. (Only later do I realise that, in a way, I was jamming with one of the best-selling contemporary reggae artists on the planet.)

"There's an organ going through the whole bit. There's no reggae in it. Right?"

"Now you look at a song like Reggae Nights, which is done by Jimmy Cliff. Reggae nights…" (Again Shaggy and I jam.)

"You listen to the beat of it, it's not even a reggae beat. Right? What you don't even know is that it was actually not produced by a reggae producer, it was produced by Kool & The Gang. You see what I'm saying?"

Thoroughly chastised, I can only mumble my concurrence. But Shaggy isn't quite finished just yet.

"So, what I do is reggae. I just do it in a different way. But reggae is a broad brand - you know what I mean? It's the first and last music."

"You've got to remember now, everything evolves from reggae - hip-hop was also the birthchild of reggae music. Right? Kool Herc brought it from Jamaica and played it in the Bronx, and that was the birth of hip-hop. It's the first music and it is the last music. Everything."

"Remember now, back in the days, the rockers - you know, all those rock boys, from the Rolling Stones all the way down to Eric Clapton, they all came to Jamaica and adapted the sound of Jamaican music into their rock sound. Which is why you have I Shot The Sheriff by Eric Clapton. Which is why Peter Tosh was signed by the Rolling Stones. You know what I'm saying?"

Here endeth the lesson, though not the interview. Despite what was maybe a slightly rough start, Shaggy and I still have a lot to talk about.

We cover his Jamaican roots: "I've been living there all my life man. I have a home in New York but I've always maintained my home in Jamaica. My children are there, my wife is there, everything's there. It's the best place in the world."

How his time as a US marine (he saw action during the Gulf War) influenced his music career: "Everything from the Marines translates to working in the music business. The music business is the hardest business that you've ever done - it takes more discipline than anything else."

"There's a discipline that it takes for you to be in a place where there is cocaine and weed and drugs and all of that and don't do it. There's a discipline it takes to wake up at five o'clock in the morning and know that you're going to have to do a radio show, go straight on till midnight, do the after party and then jump on the plane and be back in another city to do another radio show early in the morning again. It's discipline - and that all comes from being in the military."

Fan encounters: "There have been many crazy fan encounters man - some of them are too crazy for me to tell you, you can't learn 'em - know what I'm saying? It's just great to be admired by people because of my music. I have been approached by fans whose children's names are Shaggy or Boombastic, and I've been introduced to fans who have my name tattooed on their body. It's a beautiful thing man, when you can affect people's lives that way."

And finally, how he feels when he gets up on stage: "I'm the luckiest man in the world. This is the greatest job ever. And those are the feelings that I have to this day."

"I'm a guy from the inner city, I come from the ghettos. My parents had nothing. My grandparents had nothing. I lived in a yard, where we had one room and the bathroom was outdoors. You know what I'm saying?"

"I was hungry most of my time going to school. Now I'm living in a 10,000 square-foot home in one of the most affluent areas of Jamaica. I can raise my kids, I can give them everything they want, I can help my family, I can do things - all because of the talent that was given to me."

"I am the luckiest person in the world. I count my blessings every single day."

Raggamuffin, Saturday Feb 18, Trusts Arena, Auckland, raggamuffin.co.nz

 - Sunday Star Times

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