Mr. Vegas Talks "Sweet Jamaica" and Sweet Jamaica
Though little acknowledged in the broader music world, the singer is a Jamaican icon thanks to "Heads High," "Hot Wuk," "Bruk it Down," and other hits known for inspiring female dancers to remarkable feats of flexibility.
Out Tuesday on his own MV Music imprint, new double-disc album Sweet Jamaica (sample some via largeup.okayplayer.com) is timed to coincide with this summer's 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence.
It's easily one of the best reggae albums in years -- specifically the first disc, with its inspired reworkings of Jamaican "festival songs," like Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" and Jimmy Cliff's "You Can Make it If You Really Try." The release is also a crowning achievement for Vegas, which should see him embraced by a much wider audience. Recently, we here at Crossfade spoke with Vegas about "Sweet Jamaica" and Sweet Jamaica -- the album and the place -- as he prepared for an appearance at this Sunday's Best of the Best concert during Memorial Day weekend.
Crossfade: Why was it important for you to acknowledge Jamaica's history with this album?
Mr. Vegas: [Jamaican producer] Mikey Bennett had approached me about going in a different lane. He could hear my sound fitting songs like [Toots and the Maytals'] "Sweet and Dandy" and [Hopetown Lewis'] "Take It Easy." We started recording, and it just felt like the type of music that helped set the foundation of [Jamaican] music. At the same time it is our 50th anniversary of reggae music and our 50th anniversary of independence this year.
The whole trajectory of Jamaican music starting with ska to rocksteady to reggae coincides with independence. Did you learn a lot about Jamaica's music history while working on this project?
Of course. When you do these kind of tracks it opens your eyes to where the music is coming from. Especially our festival songs like "Cherry Oh Baby" that we use on the album, coming from Eric Donaldson. Our festival was a great pastime before. I don't think it's the same as before.
Some of these songs aren't covers but new songs premised around these songs, like Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" became "Gimme the Light." How do you pay respect to these songs and actually do something new?
When you're doing an album and you want to be taken seriously you don't want to have just covers on your album because there's less creativity when you just cover everything. The inspiration is there but we didn't want to just copy everything. And of course it's not easy covering Jimmy Cliff. If we do something and it sounds a bit karaoke and not up to par, we're not doing any justice to the original.
You covered the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," too..
When I listened to it first it was Desmond Dekker's version that I heard. But when Iistened to the Beatles' version, if you were not a person that is educated about music you could have easily thought that was a Jamaican group singing. You would have thought it was someone in Jamaica, the way they were singing about the market downtown. We're just bringing it forward to show how huge reggae music is, for even the Beatles to be singing on a reggae vibe.
How do you come up with a good dance song? Do you develop it with a choreographer?
I just look around or I'm on the Internet looking at different dances and dancers. Sometimes I just envision things in my head. Here in Jamaica, you have dancers who create dances. If you are a good composer, you're going to maybe have a hit song telling people just how the dance is done. Everyone is going to do the dance to your song. A song like "Bruk it Down," or "Party Tun Up," I'm just envisioning what will make females go crazy. Sometimes it's just a fiction I have in my mind, sometimes it's things I see in reality.
What is the difference, as a singer, between making reggae and dancehall?
The reggae side of the album took over one year to put together. It has to be properly mixed by a great engineer. It can't just be put into a Pro Tools and EQ'ed. A dancehall track you could basically cut a beat from somewhere, or play something and loop it. You can't loop a reggae track that is live. You have to play from start to finish.
If you could show us one thing that makes Jamaica sweet what would it be?
Just coming to Jamaica to be a part of a live audience at a live concert on a good reggae night with Beres Hammond and Barrington Levy. It's something that you would love to be a part of. You can go a few yards from where you're standing and get some jerk chicken and some good Jamaican food. You would have to be here to get that atmosphere. It's different when you see a reggae artist outside of Jamaica. It's what's in the air, the smell of the air.
Now that you've done your research, what do you think is the greatest song in Jamaican history?
Ooh. The greatest song in our history is basically "One Love" from Bob Marley. Arguably that is one of our biggest songs. That's my opinion. When someone from Jamaica is telling the whole world, "One Love," you can't beat that.
Best of the Best Concert. With Mr. Vegas, DJ Khaled, Ace Hood, Meek Mill, French Montana, 2 Chainz, and others. Sunday, May 27. Bicentennial Park, 1075 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. General admission tickets cost $44.95 plus fees. Call 305-498-9488 or visit bestofthebestconcert.com.
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