Beenie Man Veered Off the Pure Dancehall Track, but Now The Jamaican Singer Is on a Familiar -- and Rewarding -- Course
By Alona Wartofsky
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page N01
Back in January, reggae dancehall star Beenie Man was driving from his home in Kingston, Jamaica, to a gig in nearby Mandeville when he came upon a treacherous squiggle.
He had recently returned to the island from the United States, so he didn't know about ongoing construction in the area. "They dig this ditch in the road, don't cover it up or nuttin', and make this S in the road," he says. "There's no light to show you that the road is turned off, there's no detour sign or nuttin'. So I drove straight off the road in a ditch."
Was he speeding?
"Whether you're speeding or not, there should have been a sign," he says, which means, of course, that he was. "It's a highway. You're supposed to speed on the highway. You're supposed to just press gas and relax."
After the crash, he was unconscious for something like seven hours. He woke up to find himself connected to an array of tubes. "Tube here, a tube there, a tube in my neck, tubes everywhere." Among other injuries, his lungs were punctured, several ribs were broken, and his nose was fractured. And his beloved Hummer, featured in a video for his hit song "Dude," was destroyed.
Seven months later, the only lingering reminder of the accident is a limp that's hardly noticeable when he performs. But sometimes, he wonders about other non-physical effects of his near-death experience. "Too much -- it changed me too much," he says. "I'm getting soft."
But not so soft. During the three weeks he spent in the hospital, Beenie Man wrote most of his new album, "Back to Basics," his best in years. His two previous albums for Virgin Records, 1999's "Art and Life" and 2002's "Tropical Storm," adhered to the major labels' conventional wisdom that the stripped-down digital style of reggae known as dancehall would fare better with American audiences if it were tempered with elements of radio-friendly hip-hop and R&B. To put it kindly, neither album presented Beenie Man at his best.
"Those two albums was actually made by Virgin. . . . They have too much mixture," he says. "This one was made by me. This one is a full dancehall album."
It's been nearly seven years since Beenie Man's "Who Am I" became the first pure dancehall track to cross over into the American mainstream without any help from a major label, but for most of that time the majors encouraged reggae artists to soften their sound. The phenomenal success of Sean Paul's 2002 "Dutty Rock" album, with its worldwide sales of 5 million, proved once and for all that dancehall does not need to be watered down to appeal broadly. Since then, dancehall stars ranging from crooner Wayne Wonder to the seemingly unhinged chanter Elephant Man have conquered the pop and R&B charts here.
"Back to Basics," released by Virgin last month, debuted at No. 9 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. Its first single, "Dude," has enjoyed an unusually long life span, more than nine months and counting, instead of pop music's usual two or three. Now the label is starting to work the album's second single, the aptly titled "King of the Dancehall."
Man on a Mission
Stifling a series of huge yawns in the Manhattan offices of Virgin Records, Beenie Man flips through a Japanese magazine profile of him, attempts to speak in what he thinks sounds like Japanese -- "aska squee, aska squee" -- and cheerfully greets the label's cubicle dwellers who helped get radio airplay across the country for "Dude."
Beenie Man, who performs at the Crossroads in Bladensburg next Sunday, has interesting hair. His dreads are pulled back in a neat ponytail. His goatee is somewhat scraggly, and the unruly hairs along the top of his mustache reach up to the tip of his nose. His eyelashes are absurdly and beautifully long.
He yawns again, this time audibly. Last night he went to a party in Brooklyn. His publicist asks whether he performed.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Songs about touchy subjects have brought Beenie Man attention -- and record sales. "Controversies always work," he says. "Trust me."
(Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)