The end of October is a scary time in any given year, with witches, ghosts and monster movies everywhere you turn. It’s scarier than ever in 2020, even though most of the usual Halloween parties and trick-or-treat outings have been canceled. Turns out that a real-life virus and a mysterious short-fingered orange man are way more frightening than goblins and Jack-o’-Lanterns. Thankfully we have plenty of good music to get us through the fright nights between now and Election Day. (In the spirit of the season, here’s a Halloween Reggae Playlist for your socially distanced listening pleasure.)
Dancehall’s bravest badmen are hard at work in the studio to keep us supplied with musical thrills and chills, and if you’re looking for this month’s wickedest selections, you’ve come to the right place. It’s Murda!
Popcaan x Preme ft. Wiz Khalifa
Jamaica is a small island with an outsized impact on the world. “We likkle but we tallawah” is the local phrase that sums it up best. “Likkle” means “little,” of course, while “tallawah” is a patois term describing someone who’s “strong-willed, fearless and not to be taken lightly.” All of which is a good description for Popcaan, the 5-foot-6 musical giant who looms larger than ever over the global dancehall scene.
“I’m from a place where dog eat dog/Mi know ’bout living weh hard,” Popcaan sang on “Gangster City,” which was released back in 2010. He’s come a very long way since then. Born Andrae Sutherland in the Jamaican parish of St. Thomas, he and his mom eventually moved to Portmore, where he impressed dancehall star Vybz Kartel, who made him a part of his musical camp, the Portmore Empire. Their collaboration “Clarks” brought Popcaan to worldwide attention, and by the following year he was dropping international hits on his own.
Rising up from the streets of Jamaica is no easy feat, but triumphing to become one of the most sought-after influencers in pop culture is a dream only a few are blessed to fulfill. These days everybody, including Drake, wants some of Papi’s swag: He’s collaborated with Snoop, Busta and Pusha T, but has a special connection with the 6 God. “Drizzy Drake ah me linky,” Poppy told me in 2015, a few years before he officially signed with OVO. “You done know is a lot of people Drake make zoom in on Popcaan music.”
Over the last 11 months Popcaan’s been on a roll, releasing three complete projects starting last December with Vanquish. He made the lockdown livelier with his blazing Fixtape — “it’s not a bloodclaat mixtape,” Kartel states on the intro — which includes the infectious single “Twist & Turn” featuring Drake and PartyNextDoor. Just two weeks ago Popcaan blessed us with Link Up, a six-song EP created with Canadian rapper Preme. On the first track, “Wining Queen,” Popcaan sings one of his dreamy melodies before Preme and Wiz Khalifa step in to finish the job.
Somehow the Unruly Boss also found time to host Harlem rapper Dave East in Jamaica while they shot a video for their song “Unruly.” Popcaan also appears in the Loski video for “Avengers,” and in animated form in the “Come Over” video by U.K. R&B star Jorja Smith. And his gorgeous guest spot on the remix for “Nobody’s Love” by Maroon 5 is one of his most impressive features yet.
“Di Badness” ft. Konshens
Spragga Benz got the first part of his name from his best friend’s aunt, Aunt Flo, who noticed he was pretty skinny. “Where is your friend,” Flo asked one day, “the spaghetti one?” The name stuck like cooked spaghetti on a wall, morphing over time from spaghetti to spags to sprags. The second part of his name came from LaBenz sound system, which was his passion for many years before he became an artist. “I had no musical training, no knowledge of keys and melody,” Spragga told me in an interview. “Just energy and a lot of things to say.”
With his slim body and his booming voice, Spragga Benz became recognized as one of the most prolific lyricists in dancehall. Known for classics like “She Nuh Ready Yet” and “The Test,” he went on to crossover acclaim with his appearance on Foxy Brown’s “B.K. Anthem.” Late last month, the veteran artist released his eighth and most personal album yet, The Journey Chosen, produced entirely by LMR Pro, the same producer responsible for Kranium’s breakout hit “Nobody Has to Know.” Kranium makes a guest appearance on the new album, as do Wayne Wonder, Jahazeil Myrie (Buju Banton’s son) and Ky-Mani Marley, who co-starred with Spragga in the film Shottas.
“This is the beautiful sounds of reggae music from the island of Jamaica,” Chronixx said during a massive show in Brooklyn a few years ago, when folks could still pack into a park and dance to some sweet reggae music. After the show I caught up with him backstage to chat about what motivates him on his musical mission. “As artists … it’s very important that we channel love within our music, and use our music to teach people and to show people love and compassion,” he said. “The whole humanity is depending on artists to do their part, just like how we depend on scientists and doctors and soldiers and all spiritual workers.”
You can feel that same energy on “Another Youth,” Chronixx’s contribution to Reprise: A Roc Nation Album. “Come see what the system did,” Chronixx sings over a spare beat courtesy of his longtime producer Teflon Zincfence. “Out here weh di youth dem live/So many graves I’ve seen them dig/Another youth gone 6 foot 6.” Chronixx may be better known for uplifting tunes like “Smile Jamaica,” but sometimes there isn’t much to smile about, and those songs must be sung. Chronixx holds nothing back, blazing a fire on the corrupt system that imports weapons onto an island that has too many guns and no gun factory.