One of the year's biggest pop music hits is also one of the unlikeliest. It was recorded three years ago by an unknown artist in an unremarkable studio on the tiny Caribbean island of St. Vincent.
This summer, Kevin Lyttle's "Turn Me On" became an international smash. It went to No. 1 in the States and became a Top 10 single in much of the rest of the world. Lyttle's self-titled debut album, released by Atlantic Records in July, has reached gold here and sold an additional 350,000 copies worldwide.
"I have always prayed to be where I'm at," says Lyttle, an earnest 27-year-old with a friendly smile. "It's a blessing from the Almighty."
But it may take more than a blessing to reach the top. It also takes practice. Lyttle, who performs tonight at Air in downtown Washington, honed his vocal skills long ago by singing in the shower.
This was not the private endeavor it is in most places. Lyttle grew up in a small boathouse he shared with his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. There was no room for washing indoors: The shower and washroom were outside under a mango tree. The semi-open structure was built with concrete blocks and galvanized metal roofing.
There, as water streamed down on him, he strived to hit the high notes in his favorite Boyz II Men songs. "Every time I'm in the shower, I'm in there for, like, an hour and a half," he says. "I was doing that consistently for five, six, seven years strong."
Neighbors and passersby couldn't help but hear him. "People used to be, like, stonin' down the damn shower -- throwin' stones on it and makin' noise and cursin' and sayin' . . . '[We're] fed up, every day it's the same thing with you.' But nobody understood what I wanted to do."
Part of what makes "Turn Me On" an unusual global hit is that it is essentially a soca song. Soca, the up-tempo style of calypso that originated in Trinidad nearly 30 years ago, rarely attracts mainstream audiences outside the Caribbean. But then, "Turn Me On" is also a pop song and an R&B song, with elements of reggae dancehall as well.
"My thing is to create Caribbean music in a way that it becomes appealing to the world in general, not just the Caribbean," says Lyttle. "So what I decided when I did 'Turn Me On' is to do a song that had the feel of everything in the world in terms of music."
In 2003, Lyttle was signed by Atlantic, the same label that teamed with the independent reggae label VP Records to launch the remarkable stardom of reggae dancehall star Sean Paul. The labels also collaborated effectively on promoting two other dancehall artists, Elephant Man and Wayne Wonder.
"Last year we had tremendous success breaking dancehall . . . a genre of music that's been around for decades," says Atlantic Records Co-Chairman Craig Kallman. "Now we're trying to do the same thing for music coming out of the islands of Trinidad, Barbados and St. Vincent."
So far, Atlantic has signed two soca artists -- Lyttle and a more established performer from Barbados known as Rupee. In a move sure to annoy longtime soca fans, Kallman says Atlantic has "branded" their music "the new soul of soca."
Soca was developed in the mid-'70s by a calypsonian known as Lord Shorty. With its galloping 4/4 beats, it is more danceable than calypso and less focused on the satiric commentary that has long characterized that genre. Soca is "jump-up" party music, meant to wind up carnival crowds. Almost every island in the Caribbean has a carnival, and soca is the soundtrack for the annual festivals.
"It's like the national music of all the islands, except Jamaica, which has reggae," says Von Martin, a Trinidadian who lives in Washington and whose "Caribbeana" radio show has been broadcast Saturday nights on WPFW since 1977.
Although reggae dancehall has intermittently worked its way onto the American charts during the past two decades, soca has been less visible outside the Caribbean. Before "Turn Me On," the soca song that garnered the most attention here was Arrow's 1983 "Hot, Hot, Hot," which was later covered by Buster Poindexter.
Far away from his mother's recently rebuilt and refurbished house in St. Vincent, Lyttle sits in an Atlantic Records office in midtown Manhattan, praising the wonders of his homeland. "St. Vincent is a very beautiful country," he says. "We have so much natural attractions. We have the second biggest volcano in the world. We have a lot of black sand beaches because the whole island is volcanic."
He notices a bottle of water on the table. "We have our own spring water, too," he adds.
Growing up, Lyttle listened to calypso and soca, attending carnival with his mother. At home, she had a transistor radio -- "it was all we could afford at the time," he says -- and the government AM radio station played American pop. The music inspired him. "I started singing from the time I know myself," he says. As a teenager, he performed in a dance group originally called the Young Turks and later known as the Creation Culture Club with all of his uncles. "We did cultural dances, folk dances, modern dances -- all the dances that you could possibly think of, we would try to do. I'm pretty much rounded in entertainment because I was a radio announcer also."
He also emceed karaoke nights, worked in a supermarket as a storeroom manager and earned a two-year college degree in electronic engineering. "Any kind of work you wanna do in life, you gotta make sure you have a Plan B, and you gotta make sure that Plan B is always your education," he says. "That's what my mother made me realize."
Lyttle was employed as a customs and excise officer in the spring of 2001 when he recorded "Turn Me On" in St. Vincent's Sky Studio with a local producer. "I had to get sponsors to help me to pay for it because it cost, like, $1,300 to do the song, which I was already funding out of my own pocket," he says. "But because it's a small island and everybody knows everybody, you could walk up to these . . . little businesses and say, 'Yo, I need $100. I'll put your name on the CD to give your company some promotions.' "
As "Turn Me On" became a carnival hit throughout the West Indies, Caribbean radio deejays in New York and other U.S. cities started playing it, and soon Lyttle was playing shows here. "They were sending for me to come and perform in these little clubs in Brooklyn, and that helped my popularity a lot in America," he says.
"I personally as an artist had to go out there and represent," he says. "[People] wanna know where this song comes from. People say it's Jamaica, people sayin' it's Trinidad, they thinkin' it's American artist. 'Cause the song sounds too good to come out of a small island."
It wasn't long before his shows were drawing Americans alongside people from the Caribbean. In 2002, a Providence, R.I., hip-hop station that had given "Turn Me On" regular rotation added Lyttle to a promotional concert headlined by 50 Cent. When Lyttle performed "Turn Me On," it seemed like the audience knew every word. Within weeks, says Lyttle, the major labels started calling.
Lyttle says he chose Atlantic because of its experience with Caribbean music. The label suggested a remix of "Turn Me On" featuring dancehall artist Spragga Benz, and it is that version that is featured on MTV and on most radio stations.
"That remix is just me being cautious and the label being cautious about urban America liking the music to be heavy-hitting," says Lyttle. "The remix has more bass line, it has more bottom end. It doesn't have as much high end as the original, which is very much more closer to soca. . . . To make sure that we were able to make the song appeal to everybody, we did that version."
When Lyttle first went to Trinidad in late 2001, "Turn Me On" was extremely popular with audiences, but Lyttle found that he was not so popular with the island's musical establishment.
He says when he performed, technicians deliberately messed with the sound mix. "All you could hear on the monitors is music; you can't hear your voice," he says.
He says other performers would try to usurp him. "They would go onstage and perform my song before me. Some better singers -- guys who have more experience than me and have powerful, stronger voices -- would go up there and sing the song and sing it out and get the crowd going crazy. And then they call me up on stage with my [little] wimpy voice and turn down me mike . . . to embarrass me."
Lyttle now dismisses those incidents as "professional rivalries," but his tremendous crossover success has resulted in new scrutiny -- and new resentments.
"I find it so strange how American labels will take some of the least talented Caribbean artists, sign them up, promote their music like hell and leave some of the most talented artists ignored," says Tony Carr, who spins soca on his "Rhythms of the World" radio show Thursday nights on Washington's WPFW 89.3-FM.
"I'm glad for the guy," says Carr. "But I don't think he's a great stage performer. His claim to fame is a song that's been out -- what, three or four years. I'm looking for the second CD. If it doesn't do well, it'll be interesting to see how Atlantic Records treats it."
Some soca fans are disappointed by Lyttle's willingness to dilute the music with elements of American R&B and pop. "This music . . . is much different from the traditional calypso and soca that we have at home," says WPFW's Martin. "The traditional soca folks don't like it. But what you're looking at is a form that is trying to emerge on a world stage. And on a world stage where you have plural societies with each cultural form trying to emerge, you're gonna have a blend."
If Lyttle has abandoned some of soca's soul, notes Martin, perhaps that's not entirely his fault. "The old calypsonians are not getting these people to sit down and talk to them, so a fellow like Kevin Lyttle has to find his own way," says Martin. "I feel sorry for Kevin because Kevin ain't know nothing. He doesn't know the history. The old calypsonians need to teach these young people."
Lyttle bristles at the notion that perhaps he is promoting soca lite. " 'Turn Me On' was a No. 1 hard-core soca song," he says. "It didn't become a soca hit in America before it became a soca hit in the Caribbean. It was the biggest soca song in the carnivals for 2001-2002."
He suspects that he's getting these criticisms mostly because he's not from Trinidad. "All of the islands is very proud of what they have, and Trinidad is the place that started soca," he says. "Trinidadians deserve respect because they're the inventors of this music. But what I want . . . Trinidad to realize is that soca music not only belongs to Trinidad, it belongs to the rest of the Caribbean."
Some Trinidadians dismiss other Caribbean countries as "small islands," he explains. "They say we the small islanders. But I always say to them, 'small ax cut down big tree.' That's always been St. Vincent's motto."