ARTICLE DANA DROPPO
PHOTOGRAPHY JOE WILL
A few short years ago, crowning the king of Jamaican dancehall would have been a gratuitous ceremony; no one could challenge Vybz Kartel’s reign. His now-infamous incarceration for the murder of Clive "Lizard" Williams effectively removed Kartel from the running, opening the up top slot to a few contenders. Where We Come From, the debut album from former Kartel protégé and Portmore Empire member Popcaan dropped this week, though, and who will likely take the lead just became a whole lot clearer. The 25-year-old rapper, (or deejay, as he would be called in Jamaica,) made his first big mark on the dancehall world in 2010 as a feature on Kartel’s massive hit “Clarks,” an ode to the crepe-soled Desert boot that drove shoe prices up across the island. At the time of its release tensions still ran high between Kartel’s Gaza camp—Gaza being the name of the housing scheme in Waterford, Portmore where Kartel grew up, and Mavado’s rival Gully camp. The highly public feud dominated Jamaica’s pop culture conversations, as the leaders of both crews exchanged heated dis tracks, and violent attacks and retaliations were linked to associated members.
When Kartel went to jail in 2011, Popcaan, born Andre Jay Sutherland, was already gaining notoriety as a boss in his own right, churning out club-ready hits like “Ravin,” “Party Shot,” and “Only Man She Want.” His distinctive high-pitched croon and flirtatious bravado soon separated him from rising dancehall contemporaries like Tommy Lee, who carved out his following within the darker, gothic underbelly of the genre. Poppy’s lighthearted dance tracks sound more at home with today’s major hip-hop and R&B chart toppers. Case in point, he’s featured on Pusha T’s 2012 hit, “Blocka,” and after he dubbed his crew OVO Unruly (because October’s Very Own tweeted his lyrics), Drake invited him to Toronto—the first bud of a blossoming friendship.
Yesterday, Popcaan released his 13-track debut on New York’s Mixpak Records. The body of work not only proves lyrical prowess and a razor-sharp ear for infectious melodies, it subtly reveals the exceptional vibrancy of Poppy’s worldview. Songs like “Ghetto (Tired of Crying)” and “Hold On,” lament the difficulties of growing up in the harsh and, at times, violent reality of a Jamaican ghetto youth. Still, Popcaan finds a way to appeal to the fundamental human experience of suffering in any form, most notably on “The System.” His lyrical content is radical at its core, but washed in the equally basic pleasures of love, sex, friendship and shared memory. That ability to balance lightness with an honest, direct cry for change is the mark of true and charismatic authority. Faced with a place before that recently occupied podium, the Unruly Boss collaborated with Kartel’s former-rival Mavado for the remix of “Everything Nice.” More than merely a masterful summer smash, the peacemaking gesture distinguishes Popcaan from his mentor, setting a new tone for dancehall artists coming up under his Unruly gang and beyond.
We’re very excited about your debut album release on Mixpak Records. This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with label head Dre Skull. He produced your 2011 track, “Get Gyal Easy.” How did you first link up with him?
P Vybz Kartel introduced me to Dre Skull, like 2010 while Dre Skull was working on Vybz Kartel’s album, which is Kingston Story. From that time Dre Skull always want to link. In 2011 Dre Skull decide to do some work, at that time we record six new one, “Get Gyal Easy,” and so on. From there on, Dre Skull start to do some serious work.
What makes the Mixpak crew special?
P The Mixpak crew have a total different vision of music from most people I work with every day still. Them bring a different thing to the table because Dre Skull is a man, him always have some good ideas. When Dre Skull build a beat there is a big difference. There’s a lot of things that Popcaan admire ‘bout Mixpak crew. Dre Skull and everybody. Big up Mixpak.
How do you work on music together remotely?
P Yeah he always send me riddims. I say ‘nuff riddims when I have enough to choose from. I choose one and lay the words pon de melody.
How do you know it’s the one for you?
P Well, Popcaan is an artist [laughs]. We have a lot of soul, nuh mean? When me hear a beat, some will reach my soul. It just call me out. You see me? Me want a riddim that sounds happy, because me love happiness, me is a happy person. Don’t like sad things around me, and sad people. It is really and truly in the style of Popcaan music why me can choose a riddim because me can hear a riddim and tell you which artist will sound good on that riddim. That alone make me can choose a beat for myself very easily.
Where did you record?
P Some of the album record at King Jammy’s, some record at Jamie Roberts’ [aka Young Vibez] studio, Shocking Vibes.
Your love songs’ lyrics are raw, but tender at the same time. Is “Waiting So Long,” about someone in particular?
P Well that song is like, honestly? It’s not no personal thing or girl. It’s just a song where it flow with the riddim and a few parts in the song really and truly come from experience. Ninety percent of the song was just like free flowing lyrics. Sometimes we have a one girl where we really and truly dedicate certain things to her. That is one of those songs where, if one of my friends is in a problem with a girl, if he play it for the girl, it can rectify the situation.
So “Waiting So Long” is an ‘I’m Sorry’ song?
P Well it’s really and truly a song for flattering girls.
So what does it take in a woman for you to write a song that’s really dedicated to her?
P It take the realness of a woman. For me a wait for a girl so long and anticipate, it must be a special girl. Really and truly, the girl them sometimes bring good and bring bad. Like my cousin right now stressing over a girl, he’s asleep in a chair over there [laughs]. Cuz, what you do?
He needs to play her “Waiting So Long,” clearly. Your love songs balance playful flattery with some real feelings. Drake does something similar in his own way. You guys have been supportive of one another, how did you link up?
P Drizzy Drake listened to my mixtape and people start to tell me Drake tweet me lyrics. After that he invite me to a party in Canada.
How was it?
P I’m in love with Canada, especially T-dot. But me love a lot of places in Canada.
How did you get into singing—was it in church with your family?
P Yeah, man. Grandma used to have me inna di church. It’s a thing I was born with. Entertainment is Popcaan, that’s it.
How did that transition to rapping?
P I always deejayed at school. In the corridors I would catch people before they went in to the classroom. After a time certain things happened in my life, truly I had to start taking things to a different level. At that time I lost one of my very close friends. Things changed a bit, so I had to adjust for different changes in life. I started taking music very seriously. I had to take things to another level, because I used to get visions about ‘nuff tings. I was like a chosen one among a lot of people. I had to just do my part and take on a new role. You see me?
Is your music a testament to the people that you’ve lost?
P Always, must always pay respect to me friends that me lost, because every time when me lose a friend it teach me a lot of things towards life. I have lost a lot of friends along the way. At this point now, with everything I’ve gained me have to pay respect to my friend. Even me friend who give me the name Popcaan passed. Even those friends are always involved inna the things we do. We have enough memory we can’t erase of the youth.
You are the Unruly Boss. What does “unruly” mean?
P Unruly it really and truly mean Popcaan. ‘Cause from the day me know myself I have a sense of them things there. I’ve always been an unruly person. Certain things, certain talk me not take on. And at this time in my life and everything, I was about to start a record label. At first I was going to call it Gangster City. But them say “That word cannot be registered,” you know? We had to go in the lab again. We did a song set where me say, “me unruly.” One day I was listening to that song and the idea just came to me to start saying “unruly.” Me start spreading it inna de street.
Is Popcaan a soccer reference?
P Yeah man.
You still play?
P Yeah man.
Are you ready for world cup?
P Yeah, Argentina’s going to win the world cup.
You sure about that?
P That’s my sight from morning and I’m not going to switch to evening now.
What position would you play?
P The spot I play on the field is defense. Defending my home. I always kill the other side. My side is the best side, by far. Last night every side that test my side lose.
Well they better learn.
P They better learn! I’m going to get Rasta with their asses now.
“The System” is a very powerful song. What is the system?
Well the system is our leaders, the heads of government and them other people them help build this big system. Really and truly there is nothing that the system do for ghetto youth. They pray. From before Popcaan even exist, they pray. The system did nothing for the ghetto youth. I take it the realest way. So me say, let me put them things on my record. I travel all over, it’s a worldwide struggle, see me? African people, white people, black people, Indian people, Chinese, everybody has their struggles that face them. That is one of the biggest songs them singing in Europe, where there is so much white people, because really and truly white people bawl for real.
P It’s not only in Europe. It’s in the Caribbean, but definitely not in Jamaica. The system alone don’t like that speech. Obviously they’re not going to make it reach where for reach. The message is already out there. The system don’t do nothing for the ghetto youth.
So you’re saying there’s censorship over music like that?
P Well, yeah. ‘Cause our own people only embrace dancehall and reggae artists. Look pon hip-hop culture, everyday you have a new artist who busts and he just gets bigger and expands and the world know it. Jamaica has so many talented people, and they not even want to shoot them up. They try to shoot them out of the world and out of the industry. Instead they could build some youths and get them visa to fly to America and help spread the message. What Toots [Hibbert] and Bob Marley were spreading before.
On “Hold On,” you say “One day we’ll be free at last.” If that day came tomorrow what would freedom look like?
P I couldn’t tell you what the freedom will look like. But I can tell you what I believe in, I know that one day everybody will have freedom.
What is freedom for you?
P Freedom for me is a lot of different things you know. It’s being around my friends, laugh everyday, keep myself happy. Freedom is for my friends that are in jail to come out on the road. See me? Freedom is when we have our house, our land, and we have things that we dream to have. Them things that mean freedom to Popcaan. Then we have uptown friends who come to go up in the hills on their quads and dirt bikes, trying to live their life. We go up in the mud on the dirt bikes. Then we go back to our place and change. Then we go out in the drop top and in the Bugatti. Them things that mean freedom to Popcaan. See me? Best life is freedom and happiness.
You have your label, Unruly Entertainment, you’re hosting Unruly Clash Wednesdays, and on “Give Thanks,” you mention teaching the youth. It seems like keeping Jamaican youth united is something that’s important to you.
P Yeah because at first I used to look at life totally different from how I look at it right now. I used to be more ignorant. From my life experience I realized me have to change my life. For all the influence I have I can’t bring foolishness. Bring my friends, my family out into the world, make them see what the world is like. Being in Jamaica, being in the ghetto can feel like everything is stuck. That’s why me want to help them experience it. When we go out in the world, we don’t want any more foolishness. Sometimes talking alone can’t help, you have to carry them and show them, say, Look pon, see me?
Yes. You working with Mavado shows the kind of unity you’re talking about, it’s leading by example.
P Yeah man, because it is a big task when you make a move like that. It’s not an easy thing to do, but me just make it look easy. You have to be a leader. At this time, negativity is not the message of Popcaan I spread.
You’ve become a teacher. When you were younger, Vybz Kartel was a teacher for you. Did his conviction push to you to want to share that message of positivity?
P Well honestly, me learned more lessons about life before me meet Vybz Kartel. Cause like me said, me lose a lot of friends. And the direction where Popcaan really was going to… I chose a different route. He taught me a lot about music. He is not the man who teach me a lot about life.
Now you have your own things to teach.
P Now I have people that depend on me.
It’s your 26th birthday next month, are you going to have a big party?
P A big party, a big, big party. You going to fly out for that party?
I’ll work on the visa.