Beenie Man raises one eyebrow. "What? Everywhere there's a mike I'm supposed to perform? I dance, too, you know, and I drink."
But mostly, he performs. Beenie Man, now 32, has been chanting on microphones in Kingston dancehalls since he was 5. He's charted a whopping total of 62 No. 1 hits in Jamaica, with occasional crossover success here. After "Who Am I," Beenie Man became a go-to guy for pop, hip-hop and R&B artists looking to boost their street credentials by collaborating with dancehall artists. He's recorded with Janet Jackson, Wyclef Jean, Lil' Kim, Mya and Kelis.
Dancehall is fiercely competitive and its core audience is both fickle and unforgiving, which is why few artists are able to hang on to the kind of success that Beenie Man has sustained for 13 years. It's easy to explain his long run: For one thing, he is prodigiously talented, clever at wordplay and brilliant at placing his voice within spare rhythm tracks. For another, he is daring, stretching beyond the parameters of dancehall to other genres. His exceptional 1997 album on the small VP Records label, "Many Moods of Moses," one of the greatest single-artist dancehall albums ever, included traditional reggae, gospel and a country track recorded in Nashville with Garth Brooks' backup band.
But perhaps most important, even when he has courted international audiences, Beenie Man has always been careful to cater to his core audience back home in Jamaica. He releases a seven-inch single there every two weeks, and regularly turns out dub plates or "specials," recordings made expressly for mobile sound systems. These homegrown industries are more important to Jamaicans than the American major labels and the albums they release.
"Jamaica don't pay your album no mind, yunno, they pay what you doin' in Jamaica mind," he says. "If they see you on the TV, well great. He's on BET, he's on MTV, he's on VH1. . . . But what you do in Jamaica, that's what count. You could be the biggest thing in America, if you not doing nothing in Jamaica, you're not remembered."
There's another secret to Beenie Man's success: One of his favorite song subjects, sex, is also of great interest to many listeners. Like many Beenie Man tracks before it, "Dude" celebrates Beenie's sexual prowess -- "You want a proper fix, call me / You want to get your kicks, call me," he announces as the song opens. And in the chorus, a young woman who goes by "Ms. Thing" praises Beenie as "a dude with the wickedest slam" and "a one, two, three holler man."
Set to an infectiously chirpy rhythm track known as "Fiesta," "Dude" worked its way to the mainstream the same way as dancehall crossovers before it, including Sean Paul's breakthrough hit, "Gimme the Light." First it was played in Jamaican dancehalls as a seven-inch single. Then hip-hop clubs and hip-hop radio stations on the East Coast picked it up; by December it was getting airplay on New York's influential Hot 97 and Miami's Power 96. From there it went to what's known in the industry as "rhythm" stations, such as Washington's WPGC 95.5-FM.
"It pretty much peaked around June, but as it's peaking in some areas, it keeps growing in others -- Top 40 radio has just discovered it," says Beenie Man's manager, Patrick Moxey. "BET got the video, played it to death, and dropped it as MTV was just discovering it."
It's very possible that Sean Paul's international success gave Beenie Man the freedom to make his current album the way he wanted to, but that's something the self-proclaimed "King of the Dancehall" isn't ready to admit. He says he had planned "Back to Basics" before "Dutty Rock" had become a hit.
Beenie Man's manager, Moxey, is more circumspect. "I think Sean Paul's success opened a lot of doors for reggae music and for Beenie Man included," he says.
Moxey says that Beenie Man was the only dancehall artist signed to a major label for four years before Sean Paul broke through. "When Beenie Man was keeping the torch for reggae alive with the mainstream, that helped Sean Paul get a leg up as well. Sean Paul walking in the door and having this smash . . . has helped make a legitimate slot now at every urban rhythm and Top 40 station for a reggae record on their playlist, and that's definitely helping all reggae artists."
The Beenie Baby
His real name is Anthony Moses Davis, and he grew up in Craig Town, an impoverished neighborhood in the Kingston district called Waterhouse. "It's like a typical ghetto," Beenie says. "There's always sufferation, there's always people there without jobs who getting frustrated, try to do a [little] robbery or do anything else to make ends meet."
His family was large and sprawling. "Too much. I got like 14 brothers. I got like 10 sisters . . . because of my pops -- he's a village rooster." His father was also a devout Rastafarian, Ethiopian Orthodox, as was his paternal grandfather.
His mother dubbed her son Beenie Man -- "beenie" is patois for little -- because her son was both precocious and opinionated beyond his years. "I was always into arguments with older people, trying to tell them things," he says. "I was a small kid, but I had so much knowledge. So little, and he's already a man."
© 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)