Shaggy: They say in the military you learn to fire a gun. I learned to balance my cheque book

“I’ve always known I’m the underdog,” says Shaggy. “I’ve always known that, you know, I don’t have the privileges. So I have to do things that are shock value.”
Two decades ago, that shock value came in singing about being “caught butt naked” with the girl next door. In 2020, it’s Christmas songs, TikTok fame – recent hit, Banana, with Conkarah, has been streamed more than a billion times and sparked a viral dance challenge (the true measure of success in 2020) – and his friendship with Sting.

Achieving hits after almost 30 years means he has had to keep pushing forward, but that attitude was there even when he first started making music back in the early 1990s, he says. The landscape was very different back then. While reggae, dancehall and reggaeton have seen a huge rise in popularity in recent years, when Shaggy entered the scene with Oh Carolina in 1993, the UK chart was being topped by Take That and Meat Loaf and, erm, Mr Blobby.

Image: Shaggy won his first Grammy for best reggae album for Boombastic in 1996
He says he always wanted to surprise. “Like, when you heard Oh Carolina in 1993 there was nothing on the radio that sounded like it. And you’re like, ‘what the hell is this?’ But it was infectious.”
With 40 million albums sold, the star is happy to still be part of the current soundtrack at the ripe old age of 52. Banana was at one point “the number one song on TikTok, which is a very youthful format, so to be doing all of this, you know, after almost 30 years in the game and still be this relevant is a blessing,” he says. “I don’t take that very lightly at all.”

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Shaggy, real name Orville Richard Burrell, is sitting in a studio, straw hat on, chatting to Sky News on Zoom. The star lives in Jamaica and we are here because he has just released a Caribbean-soaked Christmas album, which is quite possibly the tonic 2020 needs. Would he agree? “I figure if this is what I need right now, the world must need it also.”

Before music, it might come as a surprise to some to learn that the star was in the Marines from 1988 to 1991, and served in Iraq during the Gulf War. On the surface, it may seem an unlikely career move to chart-topper, but the time spent in the military served him well for an industry which did not afford him the same privileges as other artists, he says.

Image: Shaggy is celebrating Christmas in the Caribbean with a festive album. Pic: William Richards Photography
“It had an impact on me being in the music business because the military was preparing me for everything to do with being successful, and I knew that I was going to have it harder than the average artist because of the fact that the genre I was in didn’t give me the privileges that other genres did. You know what I’m saying? So if a record company would put marketing money behind a pop act, they’re not going to do that on a reggae act because there’s no track record of reggae or dancehall working lucratively for them [at that time] to invest that kind of money.”
So Shaggy grafted. He worked really, really hard, he says, although over the years he has “learned the difference between working hard and working smart”. Now he tries to work smart. But at the time, “if I had to go to an interview at 6am, I’m there from 5am, you know, and… I’m charming the hell out of people…
“The military prepared me for that. So I would get up really early in the morning, I would work really, really late. And it’s just that kind of discipline. People say you go to the military to learn to fire a gun – I went to the military to learn to balance my cheque book. That’s what that taught me to do.”

Image: The star has formed a lasting friendship with Sting and released a collaborative album with him in 2018
After Oh Carolina, another smash came in 1995 in the form of Boombastic, one of a number of instantly recognisable tracks made famous initially by Levi’s adverts in that era. “There was nothing on the radio that sounded like it and sounds like it to this day,” he says. It Wasn’t Me, a “unique hybrid” of reggae and hip hop that no one could quite put their finger on, he says, came five years later, disrupting the charts at peak “Britney Spears and NSYNC moment”.
While proud of his successes he says he prefers not to reflect on the past. “You know, a wise man told me that the windshield is this big and the rear-view mirror is this small, so why focus on the rear-view mirror? I’m really excited about what is coming next. I surround myself with really young producers, I’m fascinated by technology, I’m always listening to new music and trying to create some sort of a hybrid fusion, so to speak, moving forward.”
However, he is happy enough to chat about his early years and aware that to many it is those hits he will always be known for. “Mr Boombastic was the first reggae or dancehall record to debut at number one. We did that twice again with Angel and It Wasn’t Me and with the Hot Shot album. And those were in a time where no one… the mainstream just did not play reggae or dancehall. And we broke those barriers down and opened up and made this genre become a genre that was a lucrative genre.
“So in looking at all of that, it created room for other genres, you know, reggaeton came from dancehall, Afrobeat came from dancehall also. And of course, hip hop came from reggae and dancehall. So it’s been quite a journey.”

Image: The star (left) with Rayvon, who he collaborated with on tracks including In The Summertime and Angel, and also features on the Christmas record
The singer describes It Wasn’t Me as “one of those songs that has a life of its own”. Fans – Prince Harry included (more on this later) – will always ask him about it.
“I think the great thing about it was it was so relatable,” he laughs, although, as a father of five and happily married man, perhaps not so much now. “People do come up to you [to talk about the song]. I think the problem will be when they stop doing that, you know.”
In 2020, Shaggy is concentrating on his collaborations. Christmas In The Islands, the festive album, is full of them, with artists including old pal Rayvon, Joss Stone, Ne-Yo, Beenie Man and Sting on board. They were all “pretty cool” but if he has to pick a favourite, it’s Stone. “And I’ll tell you why: because when I sent the record into Joss, when she sent it back she changed the melody and kind of made it mad jazzy. And I was like, okay, this is different.”

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However, he also says Sting is his “absolute favourite to work with and be around”. Their 2018 collaborative album, 44/876, made headlines when it was announced, mainly because of what was perceived as the odd couple nature of the pairing.
“Nobody understood what I was doing with this rocker, you know, but we were on to something that was unique,” he says. “When people look at it on paper, they’re like, Sting and Shaggy?! How does this… but Sting and I knew that it worked and we knew we had something special and we were determined to… let the world see what we saw. And we took it to a gold record and winning a Grammy and having one of the most successful tours that year, you know, but it took us to believing.
“And when you get to doing music this long, you’re looking for that thing that is unique and that thing that excites you. Because I make music selfishly, I make it to please me first and hope that it connects. I’m not a fan of the status quo… that does nothing for me.”
Around the time of the album’s release, the duo were among several artists who performed at the Royal Albert Hall for the Queen’s 92nd birthday.
He says he thinks Her Majesty is a fan. “I know Prince Harry is,” he says. “We met in Jamaica and he was like, ‘It Wasn’t Me’, and, you know, give me the whole thing. But I saw the Queen briefly [at the Royal Albert Hall event] and, you know, she looked up and smiled at me and all of that.” He was “this close” to her, he says, gesturing to show just how close. “I was like, wow.”

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Before he goes, I ask for Shaggy’s words of wisdom for 2021.
“Well, first of all, let’s try and survive 2020,” he laughs. “It’s not over yet.”
“But just go into 2021 with a lot of optimism, with positivity, and try to achieve joy and try to achieve… we’re all in pursuit of happiness at the end of the day. When we go, we don’t go with anything that we’ve accomplished here. So if we could create great memories with the people we love, then we have now shaped the next generation – and maybe it won’t be as dysfunctional.”
Shaggy’s Christmas In The Islands is out now

Source : Sky News