His uncle was a drummer for reggae singer Jimmy Cliff, but it was dancehall's microphone chanting over rhythm tracks that fascinated little Beenie. At the age of 5, inspired by his idols Yellowman and Josey Wales, he sneaked out of the house and made his way to a local dancehall.
"Me as a 5-year-old little kid in a dancehall grabbin' some big guy's pants, pullin' them like this" -- Beenie mimes tugging on a giant's pants leg. "He thought I was a kid that lost, so he tried to say, 'Okay, who's your parent?' And I was like, 'Nah, I wanna piece of the mike.' He give me the mike and that was it. It was a wrap."
At the age of 8, little Beenie Man released his first single, "Too Fancy," which described his school days and included the line "Mi take mi lunch money sometime and buy sensi."
Two years later, he recorded his debut album, "The Invincible Beenie Man, Ten-Year-Old Deejay Wonder," and over the next decade he continued to perform. He was not a big star yet, but the music was enough to keep him out of trouble.
"A lot of kids turn to gun. Gun is never a good thing to turn to, 'cause either you end up in prison or you end up getting killed, yunno. I've seen a lot of my friends just die for nothing, for just being around guns. So yunno, music really saved my life. God give me a talent to save my life, and yunno, I was put here for a purpose."
In 1991, at the age of 21, Beenie Man performed at a concert in Kingston honoring Nelson Mandela, when he made a misstep that could have cost him his career. He performed "Green Arm," about people with malodorous armpits. "I think I sing the wrong song at the wrong time," he says. The audience booed him offstage.
"I never felt it. I just came off the stage and said, 'Love, respect, manners, I see you next time.' " But he swore to himself that he would never be booed off the stage again. He disappeared for a year or so, and when he came back, it was with a string of extraordinary hits -- including "Slam," "World Dance," "Modelling," "Stop Live in a de Pass," that turned him into a superstar at home and earned him a cult following elsewhere when they were released on the 1995 album "Blessed." Unlike many dancehall deejays of the time, Beenie Man didn't growl. Instead he singsonged his way through chants and rhymes, punctuating them with squeaks, squawks and signature phrases -- "Oh, na, na, na, na!" and "God knows!"
"Slam," which suggests that ghetto girls are sexually superior to their uptown counterparts, caused some controversy in Jamaica, where distinctions between uptown and downtown are sharply drawn. The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper damned it as "one of the most spectacular lies of the 1990s." Beenie Man chuckles. "The uptown girls not gonna like to know that the ghetto girls can have sex better than them," he says.
Does he really think that's true?
He shrugs and smiles. "Not really. It's just things like that sells. Controversies always work. Trust me."
The most enduring tempest of his career has to do with his on-again, off-again feud with another dancehall star, Bounty Killer, which dates back to the early '90s, when Bounty Killer accused Beenie of lifting his style. Since then, the two have gone after each other onstage and on record, most famously in a 1993 "clash" at the annual Sting dancehall festival.
When "Who Am I" became a huge hit for Beenie Man, Bounty Killer raised a stink about the song's lyrics, seemingly just wordplay about a BMW: "Zim zimma, who got the keys to my bimma / Who am I, the girls dem sugar /How can I make love to a fella/ In a rush, pass mi da keys to my truck." At issue was the ambiguous line "How can I make love to a fella." It all came down to punctuation -- did "in a rush" modify "make love to a fella" or the request for the keys? No big deal anywhere but in Jamaica, where homosexuality is illegal and performers often record and perform songs with homophobic lyrics.
"That was started by player haters tryin' to be haters," Beenie says now. "How can I make love to a fella in a rush? I don't make love to fellas, whether in a rush or take time or outside or nuttin'. You know, I'm 'de girls dem sugar,' that's what I do."
Several years later, it was Beenie Man's turn to take the low road when Bounty Killer appeared on No Doubt's "Hey Baby." In the song's video, drummer Adrian Young appears naked, anathema for hard-core dancehall fans. Bounty Killer "gave me a hard time -- for nuttin' . . . for nuttin' whatsoever," says Beenie Man. "For all the years this man be cussing me, calling me all different type of names, callin' me a gay, everyt'ing in the world that he think would hurt me. And then -- boom! Here you come with a naked man in your video. That's crazy, yunno. The hard-core bad boy Bounty Killer with a naked man in his video. That's funny."
© 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)