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.
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."
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."
Americans unfamiliar with the island's institutionalized and often virulent homophobia may be puzzled by this kind of back-and-forth, but in Jamaica, it makes headlines.
"I think Jamaica is not a world dat open to the rest of the world, it's enclosed. It's not like me that go out in the world and know that, okay, gay people are born to be gay. . . . This is their ways; you cannot change it. There's nothing they can do to help themselves, yunno. Just like a man love woman, you got man love man," he says.
"But Jamaica is a spiritual country, like I explain it to you how my grandfather explain it to me. My grandfather said, 'If a man make love to a man, the life that we know cease to exist because man cannot have kids. And if a woman make love to a woman, a woman cannot get a woman pregnant, so life as we know cease to exist. There'd be no life."
Perhaps this emphasis on the creation of life is an outgrowth of the extreme poverty endured by so many Jamaicans. "So many people are dying, too," says Beenie. "I think that's a big part of it."
Slightly more than a month after the car accident, Paul Tyrell, Beenie Man's longtime road manager and executive director of his Shocking Vibes production company, was murdered in a drive-by shooting. According to newspaper accounts, Beenie Man was so deeply shaken by the news that he was readmitted to the hospital.
Asked about it now, Beenie Man has little to say. "Nuttin' I can tell you about it, yunno, more than people try to bring you down, so they try to kill people around you. That's how Jamaica stay at times," he says quietly.
Is he worried about his own safety?
"In Jamaica, it's not good to fear, to have fear. When you think about fear, things happen to you."
Calm Amid the Storm
Beenie Man may embroil himself in controversies big and small, but he's also earned a measure of respectability. In Kingston, he was painted alongside Bob Marley on a sidewalk mural. He has received a doctorate from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, hence the title of his 1999 album, "The Doctor." "I had a whole little cap and gown, everything," he says. "It was great. Then we had a show after."
In Craig Town, he has built schools and organized football competitions. "We fix up the community," he says. "We have everything to keep the community going."
Last December, just a few weeks before Beenie Man's accident, the annual Sting concert collapsed into violence. As the audience hurled bottles at the performers, Vibz Kartel, an up-and-coming artist, physically assaulted dancehall veteran Ninjaman onstage. According to published reports, more than 20 people were injured in the melee that ensued both on and off stage.
Amid the chaos, Beenie Man took the stage and calmed the crowd.
"I just walk on the stage and stop everyt'ing. But I know I can do that because Jamaica love me. Yeah, it's like I'm getting the same love that they used to give Dennis Brown or Bob Marley in Jamaica," says Beenie Man. "So when the people love you, you have to show your powers."
By stepping on the stage that night, Beenie Man may have been taking his life in his hands. But he was willing to take that risk.
"This is dancehall music," he says. "You have to save the music. It's not save the show, it's save the music."