Once known as Vybz Kartel's protégé, Popcaan is now a boss in his own right. And with his powerful debut album, he's out to prove that he's more than just a raving king.
This past Easter the diminutive dancehall star Popcaan turned up at an outdoor stage show in Ocho Rios and drove the crowd wild singing hits like "Unruly Rave," “Party Shot,” and “Only Man She Want.” Then his DJ dropped "Everything Nice," the first single from his debut album Where We Come From, due to be released June 10th on Brooklyn-based Mixpak Records.
The slow-burner, produced by New York DJ and beatmaker Dubbel Dutch, was a marked contrast to the more uptempo tracks that have made Popcaan a huge star in Jamaica since his former mentor Vybz Kartel was jailed for murder charges in 2011. Kartel made Popcaan (born Andre Sutherland in 1988) a household name by making him part of his Portmore Empire crew and including him on the 2009 worldwide smash "Clarks." But much has changed since then.
Back in Ochi, Popcaan sings only the first line of his introspective new song and then dashes off the stage, leaving the crowd to finish singing each and every word of the tune. "That's one of the biggest songs in Jamaica," he says later, decked out (of course) in some custom Clarks Desert Boots. "And it's not even on the chart. When people see them thing there them just say, 'Yo, why them fight Popcaan so much?'"
William Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he wrote "Uneasy is the head that wears the crown." Stepping out from under Kartel's wing hasn't been easy. Although he bigs up the "World Boss" every time he steps on stage, some have accused Papi of disloyalty for linking with former Kartel rival Mavado, collaborating with Snoop and Pusha T, or politicking with Drake and the OVO crew—as if a youth from a place called Gangster City should not make a better life for himself and his family.
Like many Jamaican artists before him, Popcaan's experiencing some tension between his local fans and a newfound international audience. But his debut album is a powerful piece of work that might just bridge that gap, even as it presents a whole different side of the artist formerly known as "The Raving King." In his first major interview for the record, Popcaan talks about Where We Come From, and where he's going. Here comes the Unruly Boss, straight up—or as he would put it, "traight."
Interview by Reshma B
Photography by Olivia Seally
So you say you made this album on crackers and water?
Yeah man. If you notice, in a whole lot of tracks me say, "pon crackers and water me grow." Them call it water crackers because it tough, and it just crumbles. Me eat up crackers and water, and just build the lyrics same time.
Hey, whatever floats your boat I guess. How long did it actually take to finish the album?
A few months. Even when me used to talk about the album me never start recording anything as yet you know.
When I saw you at Sumfest last year you said the album was going to show a different side to Popcaan. Now that I've heard it I see what you mean. Congratulations on a great piece of work.
Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
The album is called Where We Come From. What does that mean? Where does Popcaan come from?
Popcaan is from Jamaica you know, a parish in Jamaica called St. Thomas. I was born in that parish and after a certain time I moved to Portmore with my mother. But even while I’m in Portmore, St. Thomas was always my home state.
I notice you called the album “Where we come from”—not "Where I come from." Who are you representing when you say “we”?
I’m representing my whole community, you know. People who have been through it with me. It’s not really my story alone. It have a lot to do with friends, friends who passed on, friends who are there same way, and a whole heap of people can relate to that story. I wouldn’t be so selfish and say "where I am from." Even people out in the world who don’t know Popcaan, me can bet there’s something on the album that they can relate to as well.
You are known as the "Raving King" and you're still in the dancehall juggling, but this album has a different feel. You mentioned it was going to be "uplifting."
Yeah, definitely. I have tracks that even the name is uplifting. "Hold On," "Free At Last"... you know what I mean? Those are some nice little quotes at the moment. It’s definitely an uplifting album for people.
Last night I went to Quad [nightclub in Kingston] and when "Everything Nice" came on the whole place was jumping. It looks like everyone is feeling that song. Listening to the lyrics I noticed that everything you say in the song is actually not nice: you’re saying "RIP to a loved one" and talking about how the bills stack up. What is the concept behind that song?
Well, I’m just trying to show people that in life you have ups and downs, but at the end of the day you have life—and life is the greatest. You can do something to make your life better, to make yourself a better man, to make yourself a better woman. When me say "everything is nice," nuff people could wake up and them don’t know how them ah go pay their light bill today. But within that moment, if them hear "Everything Nice" come on them just say, 'You know me ah go find a way to pay my light bill later.' Or regardless how we say RIP to a loved one—'Tthat was a sad time for us but you dun know everything nice same way.' Because as me say, life is the greatest. Traight.
You ended up doing a remix with Mavado on that track. What was it like working with him? A few years back you would never have imagined that.
Yeah. Definitely not.
So how did that come about?
Well, it’s really and truly a growth. It showed maturity for a young youth like me to make a choice like that. Because people in the street ah go speculate and say this and that but to me it’s a wise move. People pon the road they feel like we are really harsh enemies. Even when I was doing the video with Snoop, when Mavado was to do his part they was like, "Is everything going to be OK with you and Mavado?" I was like, Yeah man, it’s OK. Everything is nice.
People like to see me and Mavado doing something together. Beause it’s always a segregation thing within dancehall, and we as a new generation of music now, we have to try to put the music in a different direction.
Me and Mavado go pon a few shows together in Jamaica too and rock the crowd and everybody ah jump, so obviously the people like to see me and Mavado doing something together. Because it’s always a segregation thing within dancehall, and we as a new generation of music now, we have to try to put the music in a different direction. Nuff youth look up to Popcaan and me influence enough youth so me just show the youths me and Mavado nah live like wild people. Ah money right now and good livity. You know what I mean? Yeah—traight.
Your music plays worldwide now—not just within Jamaica. What sorts of pressures come with being an international dancehall artist?
First pressure is… most of my own people them don’t really embrace Popcaan. But people in the outside world, them show more love and more interest in Popcaan music. More than even people in our homeland and our industry here.
More than in Jamaica?
Yeah, because sometimes me do major things and to certain people it’s like I’m on the same level. But to be recognized outside of Jamaica is a great feeling and everything nice same way. But tell you the truth now, the pressure part is mostly from my home. Yeah.
Mavado has talked about the difficulty of balancing international success and the local dancehall scene.
Yeah, it’s different.
Some Jamaican people say he’s "gone foreign."
Is that the case for you?
Yeah, because a lot of people are happy to see Mavado where him is, and lot of people aren’t. But you can’t please everybody. Mavado chose to go up on an international level—well, Mavado's music chose him to go up on an international level. Just like me. And after Mavado, Popcaan is the next international act out of Jamaica. People should just be happy when them see youth like we reach pon certain level and embrace them. We work so hard to reach the peak, and when we're there upon the peak we can draw up a lot more youth upon the peak too. We just need more love when we in the streets.
In your music, you talk about "bad mind" all the time. Is that what you're talking about?
Yeah, yeah. Well you dun know if you go out and do well pon the show you are going to have somebody say "Him no do well." You still have enough people who don't like "Everything Nice." That’s one of the biggest songs in Jamaica. And it’s not even on the chart. You know what I mean? When people see them thing there, them just say "Yo, why them fight Popcaan so much?"
It causes some curiosity as to what’s going on.
Yeah, and we don’t like negative energy. Sometimes me don’t even think about certain things you know what I mean? Honestly I don’t sing for the charts and those things. I just do music for my fans. Because music is not all about chart topping, you know. Your music should always speak for itself.
One of the songs a lot of people can relate to is "The System." Just break that down for us because not a lot of people are aware of what Jamaican youths have to go through.
Well in Jamaica, and in the world, most people face the same type of sufferation. That’s why so many people gravitate to "The System." And if you notice in the video, me walk through the ghetto and show you, this is the way we live in the ghetto every day. You don't see everybody dress up in a pretty clothes. If you go at the stop light you see youth ah wipe the car glass and them thing there for money. At least 25 youth at every stop light in Jamaica and all of them do the same thing to get the money. If you go Africa, you see youth a wipe glass same way. So everybody in the world have to face the system and have to live with the system. If you’re going in the ghetto, you see so much youths pon the corner, every day. Them no have jobs. A lot of them don’t even have a steady home. So me have to always sing songs like "The System" because me no see nothing change. It’s always that way every day. If youths don't turn to music like myself, they can’t make it out. A lot of youths have education and them still upon them corner every day. It’s a waste. So that’s why you hear me say, white people ah bawl, Indian people ah bawl, black people ah bawl. You know what I mean? It’s the world. You can't play blind to the situation.
Recently Vybz Kartel get life in prison. So me have to sing about youths who are in captivity but want freedom. And them nah go get freedom till them do them sentence.
The first song on your new album is called "Hold On," and the concept is "you will soon be free." What does that song mean?
Well, that song really is for the masses because there’s a lot of youth in captivity. Recently Vybz Kartel get life in prison. So me have to sing about youths who are in captivity but want freedom. And them nah go get freedom till them do them sentence and whatever time them supposed to do. So me have to just tell them through my music, "just hold it." One day we’ll be free, you know? And in that song I talk about my friends Bummer Tay and Scumpy, who pass on. If me see Bummer's mother today, she will mention his name to me. "Andre, me hope him deh inna heaven you know. Me hope him alright." And him dead. So them memories live on and their mothers hope say one day their souls will be free at last. That is what she say every day.
As me tell you it’s just real things that happen around me sometime me just put inna me music. Me just try put the positive thing them inna the music because me no really spread no negative message. Because it reach pon a level right now where,people start take music and make it look like it’s not really what it is. If you sing about gun them say you a gun man. Cause you have some youth that have to just DJ about gun because them a clash artist. Them songs ah go always sing but we now, with the influence that we have, we just try make the thing as positive as possible. You know what I mean? Yeah.
So when you say "Hold On" you’re saying even if you are not alive anymore there will come a point where your soul will be free. That's pretty deep.
There’s a lot of spirit out there you know. So you have to be aware of spirit. If me go to my bed and dream of somebody who pass on, obviously them spirit a visit me?
OK, so me feel like my friend them can hear me spiritually when me sing. So me still give them advice same way.
Do they ever give you advice? Do they ever pull your hair or tap you on the shoulder?
No, no time. Them know to keep them distance still you know, but me talk to them same way, for life. [Pours out some liquor on the floor.] Sorry about your carpet.
I feel like I have to do a bit as well. [Pours more liquor on the floor.] On another serious topic you mentioned Kartel's life sentence. How do you feel about that?
Honestly I can’t explain my feeling really. It’s not a good feeling seeing Vybz Kartel going like that because Vybz Kartel bring me out inna the music pon the level and me always respect Vybz Kartel. What happened to him, me never really expect that because it was all about music, you know what I mean? And me not sure where him find so much time to do so much idle things you know? Yeah. Honestly.
On the track "Where We Come From," you talk about how you guys went around shelling down the world.
Yeah man, me and Vybz Kartel go all over the world go shell it weh.
I really enjoyed that song "Hustle." It’s not the first time you worked with Pusha T.
No, no, no. Big up Pusha T. Anytime anywhere you know.
When you worked on "Blocka" did you actually meet Pusha or was that all done via email?
Yeah! We drive around all over Jamaica. Pusha cameramen have some clippings with my crazy driving. Me and Pusha T was really having an energy you know. We went to the party and went to the go-go club [strip club] and everywhere. We was moving.
Just to get off topic for a second, what is this fascination with go-go clubs in Jamaica? Every time I come here, I go to Quad and then after a while they push everybody down into the go-go section.
Well, honestly, I don’t go to go-go club very often… But that night we did go to a go-go club.
Your first night ever, right?
No, that was like my third time. But first time to that place, Lucky 38.
Anyway so we were talking about Pusha…
Yeah, Pusha T. Me rate Pusha T you know. I respect Pusha. When I asked Pusha T to do that track he did it very swiftly.
Me rate Pusha T you know. I respect Pusha. When I asked Pusha T to do that track he did it very swiftly.
So no diva moves. He was like "yes" right away?
Yeah, and I asked a lot of people—not really a lot of people, but a few people for features. And I never really get it. But big up to them same way.
Pusha is a real ghetto youth as well.
Mmm-hmm. So you dun know he feel ghetto youth pain, cause him been through it like myself. No disrespect to the uptown youths still.
Listen, everyone’s got their struggle I’m sure.
Yeah them car need insurance. And they need a new tire.
Lots of things to get through.
Not really. [Laughs]
Of course "Blocka" was sampled on Kanye’s Yeezus album. What do you think of this whole fusion at the moment between hip hop and dancehall?
It’s great. I love it. Yeah and more and more. Jay Z sampled Sizzla….
And Mavado was on Rick Ross's new album.
Yeah, and Jay Z do a new track and say Mavado name in it same way. Them always zoom in pon our thing and me love that you know. Because people always say dancehall dead. Honestly, if anybody was to say dancehall dead, it mean them is a living dead. Yeah. That Popcaan say.
Would you say dancehall is actually going to a next level?
Yeah it’s on a next level for sure… Dancehall artists always collab with international artists. It’s nothing new you know. But in this time I see it happen more than then. So there’s no way dancehall can dead.
Where’s your favorite place in the world to perform when you’re not in Jamaica?
Have you seen that YouTube clip of that Canadian guy doing an acoustic version of your songs?
Oh, he’s from Canada? Yeah, I saw it. I even hear ZJ Liquid play it on the radio [in Jamaica]. That’s nice you know. Big him up. He uses very proper patois. Sometimes talking to a dancehall artist, people can’t even understand half the things them saying. And me, sometime me talk pure madness you know.
Jay Z do a new track and say Mavado name in it same way. Them always zoom in pon our thing and me love that you know. Because people always say dancehall dead. Honestly, if anybody was to say dancehall dead, it mean them is a living dead. Yeah. That Popcaan say.
So why do you like Canada so much?
Yeah T. Dot… and the whole Canada. I’ve been to a lot of spots in Canada so I get a lot of love. Yeah, and you know Drizzy Drake ah me linky. Big up Drizzy Drake anywhere him deh, cause them man they say OVO unruly, so it’s a good feeling. Because there’s a lot of artists in Jamaica. And my label name Unruly Entertainment and him say "OVO unruly," so you dun know it’s a lot of people Drake even make zoom in pon Popcaan music too. So big up Drizzy.
That’s a super big compliment too.
Yeah, we always there at OVO office you know.
If you could collab with any international artist, who would it be?
Drake same way man. Yeah man. People been asking for it, you know. But time is the master.
You talk about your label being Unruly. Why did you choose to record your debut album with Mixpak?
[Mixpak founder] Dre Skull have a different vision to music and me like that vision that Dre Skull have. We invite a few producers for help with the album but me and Dre Skull have a wicked chemistry. And it’s not like we always in the studio together. Him can stay wherever him is and send a riddim to me, it’s automatically a hit song. Yeah. straight. There’s no song I record with Dre Skull that is not a big song. None. Traight big tune.
So it’s all about energy and relationships?
Yes, definitely it’s about energy. It’s about the way you take your work serious. When Dre Skull do a track, it’s a record. Yeah.
So after the world gets to hear this album, what’s next for Popcaan?
Well, the next thing is Popcaan and the Unrulies, you know what I mean? The Unruly artists. Them is next in line. So we ah go start produce artists and sign new artists.
Do you have anyone signed right now?
No, not yet. We’re still in search of artists right now. I have a thing called Clash Wednesday at the studio where young artists come through and clash and whoever win, we put them up against somebody else. So at the end of that battle, we know who is the best artist.
And even girls too, you know. Yeah man, I will have a lot of girls. My camp is going to be full with girl artists.
You actually came from that environment where you used to work within a camp. Do you have your A group and B group and C group?
Well, I couldn’t talk for nobody else but myself. I was always in the A group.
That’s all that matters right?
You just keep raising that bar.
Yes, always. So I have to get 100 percent instead of 99. No A minus—A plus. Traight.
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