“Wha gwaan Popcaan?” The first words uttered on the 2010 smash hit “Clarks” introduced the world to Vybz Kartel’s top protégé. Those same three words can be read as both a question (“What’s going on?”) and the answer to that question (“Papi.”)
Although he played more of a supporting role on “Clarks”—a song whose international success was credited with causing a spike in sales of the British shoe—the rising reggae star Popcaan has been on a roll ever since the summer of 2011. Thanks to hits like “Ravin,” “Party Shot,” and “Only Man She Want” Popcaan's distinctive voice and up-to-the-minute Portmore slang can now be heard all around the globe.
But who is this man they call Hotskull? He stands just five feet five inches tall, yet there’s no doubt that Popcaan looms large in the dancehall business right now—and he's poised to make the jump from Jamaican sensation to worldwide star. “Just check any party,” he confirms. “You can see it pon the charts. You can hear it pon the radio.”
Written by Rob Kenner (@boomshots)
Growing Up In Portmore
Growing Up In Portmore
Born Andrae Sutherland in the mountainous Jamaican parish of St. Thomas, Popcaan and his family relocated to the city of Portmore when he was 7. Papi was raised in a housing scheme [what Americans would call housing projects] called Three West, also known as “Gangsta City.”
Located to the west of Kingston, Portmore was built on reclaimed swamp land during the 1960s in an effort to alleviate overcrowding in Jamaica’s capital. It grew rapidly to become a major city like MoBay and Kingston. “Everybody in Jamaica have family who live in Portmore,” says Popcaan. “Me nuh know ’bout no other place inna Jamaica, but me sure ’bout Portmore.”
There’s always temptation to do all kind of things, but it’s all about what you choose. You know I mean? The things you choose pay off. If you choose to do wrong, you get paid fe wrong.
“Well ya dun know me grow up inna the garrison,” says Popcaan, using a Jamaican term for a ghetto community with its own power structure—something like a gangster government. “Nuff interference ah come in. It did turn ugly—you know I mean? In school days, we haffi stop going to school full time and all that. But we always do music and we always write songs and write lyrics.”
Papi describes Portmore as an uptown garrison with its own unique style. “Yeah, Portmore is an uptown gangsta city,” he says. “Them youth deh dress different and have some different style ah Portmore. My scheme is called Gangsta City, and because of everything weh happen around we inna the community, me do that song ‘Gangsta City.’”
The lyrics to the tune say it all: “I’m from a place where dog eat dog / Mi know ’bout living weh hard / From me born me see people ah starve... I’m from a place where blood spill / Nuff innocent youth get kill.”
“Ya dun know growing up wasn’t so easy. For most youths in Jamaica, and for most of the artists same way inna the business, them life rough growing up. There’s always temptation to do all kind of things, but it’s all about what you choose. You know I mean? The things you choose pay off. If you choose to do wrong, you get paid fe wrong. If you choose to go be a doctor, you get paid fe be a doctor."
As he struggled to steer clear of the negativity that surrounded him, Popcaan considered joining the Jamaica Defense Force. “Me did like soldier life yunno,” he recalls. “Yeah, me love the way how them suit look and the whole militancy ’bout them. Yeah. So me say me woulda be a soldier.” He took the entrance exam, but ultimately opted for music over the military life.
Popcaan's affinity for music manifested from an early age. He was a stand-out at high school concerts but he had to stop attending school because of the street drama that took the lives of many friends—including his bredren Scumpy, who gave him the name Popcaan.
“A man has to know what kind of decision to make in life,” Popcaan explains. “Me choose music, but nuff of my friends lose their life living other lives. We just use those things as an example. Can’t make the same mistake as my friends made.”
Linking With Kartel
As a youth in Portmore, Popcaan used to hear the music of Adidja Palmer, then known as Adi Banton, who hailed from the nearby housing scheme of Waterford. Adi eventually took on the name Vybz Kartel (a.k.a. Di Teacha a.k.a. Di Werlboss) and his scheme came to be known as Gaza.
“Vybz Kartel was our idol growing up throughout school days,” Popcaan explains. “He has always been our artist. Even before Vybz Kartel get so big in Jamaica and the world, the whole Portmore know him and rate him. So that is the link between Vybz Kartel and we.”
Vybz Kartel was our idol growing up throughout school days. Even before Vybz Kartel get so big in Jamaica and the world, the whole Portmore know him and rate him.
As Popcaan details in his song “Dream,” he had to overcome a lot of naysayers as he pursued his musical ambitions. His life was once “bitter like vinegar” and people used to tell him he wouldn’t live to see the age of 17. But everything turned around when—at the age of 17—Popcaan was flexing at a local party and caught Kartel’s eye.
“Instantly me rise start swell/From me go link up Vybz Kartel/Him carry me go Sting last year and him carry me Sumfest as well/Anytime me a roll in the streets de music ah ring like bell/Me mother bills alright and me daughter can tell.”
Like Biggie said in “Juicy,” for Popcaan “it was all a dream.” Ever since Kartel recruited the aspiring artist to his Portmore Empire—becoming not just a producer and a mentor, but even at times a father figure—Popcaan’s dreams have become a reality. “Ya dun know, Addi ah me daddy,” Popcaan says.
Besides showing him the ropes of the music game, Kartel brought him onstage at major shows like Sting and Reggae Sumfest. In 2009 he voiced his first big songs like the x-rated “Wine” on the Gal Farm riddim and the thug’s anthem “My War,” making it clear he would be an artist to watch.
As other artists moved away from the Gaza camp, Papi proved his dedication time and again, solidifying his position as Kartel’s right hand man. “It’s a family thing,” he explains. “Me nah too like the friend thing, cause friends will sell you out. Big up Vybz Kartel. Loyalty over royalty.”
We follow Jay-Z along the way like how we follow Vybz Kartel.
In addition to dancehall legends like Buju Banton and Super Cat, Papi gives maximum respect to Sizzla Kalonji. “Yeah, Sizzla ah me artist otherwise from Vybz Kartel,” he says. “A very great artist that—me rate Sizzla Kalonji. You see me?” Like Sizzla, Papi has the ability to transition from singing hooks to spitting hardcore rhymes. “Me have the fine voice so it bring out some different kind of melodies,” he adds.
Like many young Jamaicans, Papi is also a hip-hop fan. “Ya dun know Jay-Z ah me favorite rapper, seen? Yeah mon—from ever since Jay-Z and Nas beefing and them ting deh. So big up to Jay-Z. Jigga ah the boss. Uzeet? Ya dun know we follow Jay-Z along the way like how we follow Vybz Kartel.”
“When me say Clarks, my whole life change,” says Popcaan of the song he recorded with Kartel and Gaza Slim on ZJ Chrome’s Mad Collab riddim. Popcaan says the idea of making a tune about the popular footwear was a spontaneous decision. The song went on to become their biggest international hit to date.
”Ya know say we wear straight Clarks pon The Gaza—we and Vybz Kartel. And we only wear real Clarks around here. We are not like some artists,” he adds with a laugh.
All the slang in the song came out of every day conversation. “Me always say 'Pawdy' and 'Hot Skull' and them ting deh,” Papi says. “So just by talking every day, the whole idea for the song forward out. Just like ‘Hot Grabba’” [a tobacco leaf some people blend into their spliff]. “Vybz Kartel don’t smoke grabba. Me smoke all the grabba. So the things me do inspire Vybz Kartel to build a song and things that Vybz Kartel do inspire me same way. That’s the way it is."
One year after the song came out, worldwide sales of Clarks topped $160 million for the first time—although the makers of Clarks have never acknowledged the influence of the dancehall track, they did produce a couple of desert boots in Jamaican colors.
“Sales are still through the roof,” says Popcaan. “The roof stop and it’s still goin’ on now.” Although the song’s music video might as well have been an ad for the shoe, Popcaan and Kartel were never been approached to make an official commercial. “Me nah go follow up that,” he says. “If it so happen then it will.”
Beyond Gaza vs. Gully
Beyond Gaza vs. Gully
Popcaan says the long-simmering rivalry between Kartel’s Gaza camp and Mavado’s Gully squad is now a thing of the past.
“The was a music thing,” Papi explains, “but ya dun know Vybz Kartel and Mavado them influential. So the youths them go to school, and you have some youth who say Gaza, and some who say Gully. And them just take it serious and sometime them all ah fight. Big people too—not just schoolers. Yeah so it get serious to a level where people feel like Kartel and Mavado ah 100% enemy.
”Them did have to make some form of peace and put down the war ting,” he adds. “Gaza and Gully war different from every other war throughout dancehall music. Lyrical war. Ya dun know, them ting deh build dancehall music still.”
Popcaan says he’s been encouraged to start a little beef as a way of building hype. “Right now nuff people tell me to do them ting—have rival and all that,” he reveals. “But that never really build me from first. You see me? Me never did have a rival and it wasn’t a rivalry that put me where me at right now. So maybe if me do that now, ah just for fun or to work out.”
The success of "Ravin," Popcaan’s solo breakthrough on 2011’s Summertime Riddim, has taken his career to another level. “Since ‘Ravin’ me get more focused and more listening from the people,” Papi explains. “It’s not like me just start build bad song or anything. Me just get everybody attention when me say ‘Ravin.’”
It’s not like me just start build bad song or anything. Me just get everybody attention when me say ‘Ravin.’
The song was produced by Kartel’s own label, Adijaheim Records. “The Werlboss produced that and ‘Summertime,’ two big hit records,” Popcaan says. “His song dropped from about May or June. My tune release later on—in July or dem time deh. Yeah. So big up to the Welrboss every time.”
“Me hear the riddim and just sing a song say ‘Up inna the club we gone again.’ You know I mean? That’s how the whole idea come about. So is a song me just build pon the spot when me hear the riddim.”
Popcaan’s infectious party jam is all about having a good time while standing up on your own two feet. “When me say ‘me nah beg people inna the ravin,’” Papi explains, “I’m talking about, me nah go to the party and ask somebody fi buy me a drink—or drink from somebody else’s table. You know I mean? You have to be independent. You nah beg nobody for nuttin’ at all.” As someone who went from sufferer to star, Papi makes a point of providing for himself. “Inna the raving me haffi spend out me saving,” he says. “But me nah beg.”
Popcaan explains that a Jamaican rave is a little bit different from the techno raves in the UK or the U.S.A. “We can rave anywher. In the club. Pool party. Ah just ravin. Yeah. And you have the Rasta rave weh the dread them attend to. And there’s a church rave pon a Sunday. [Laughs.] When the Christian them go ah church, the Christian deh ah rave and praise Jesus. You know I mean?”
And what about the Gaza rave? “Well the Gaza rave now… We just party different. We nah fi go ah club or pool party or nowhere special fi party. We keep we party with all five people. From we have our music we just party. We nah fi have a selector and them ting deh. We just a play music inna we car and hold a vibes.”
Now known as “The Ravin King,” Popcaan followed up this past November with "Party Shot (Ravin Part 2)" on T.J. Records’ Smudge riddim. “Me and TJ have a very good chemistry as you can see,” he adds, “cause we do a whole heap of hit songs.”
In Jamaica we say ‘Yo, the party bad, mad, the party shot, the party buck, the party tun up.’ It’s just exaggerating to say how nice the party is.
“The party shot like a M16,” Popcaan says with a laugh. “That mean the party is a good party. Yeah, the party mad. Me ah teach you—when me say party ‘buck’ or party ‘shot’ or when the party ‘tun up,’ all of them mean the same thing. Like how in Jamaica we say ‘Yo, the party bad, mad, the party shot, the party buck, the party tun up,’ it’s just exaggerating to say how nice the party is, you know I mean?”
Since the release of “Ravin” everything in Popcaan’s life tun up, but he’s not letting the sudden success go to his head. “Ya dun know people just rate the music. Uzeet? Is just music do everything yunno. You know I mean? Yeah, music is the key to everything. So we never get hype and never jump outta weself same way. Just write song—you see me? Yeah man... I just do work, and the hard work paid off.”
Only Man She Want
“Only Man She Want”
Popcaan’s latest smash, “Only Man She Want,” tells the story of a married woman who risks everything because she cannot resist Papi’s charms. The tune—which is featured on the compilation Certified Boomshots Vol. 1 (21st/Hapilos)—has been in heavy rotation from New York to London since its release earlier this year. “It’s going crazy worldwide,” says Popcaan. “It’s a very big song. So big up to the people who support the music same way.
The girl dem crazy yunno. It can happen to anybody. It’s not just me.
Popcaan says the song was inspired by a true story: “‘Only Man She Want’ is a real song. The man want to do a bag a things to his woman. Him wan’ box her. Him wan’ shoot her. Him wan’ chop her. But she still want Papi.”
“As me tell you before, them song just happen offa real life experience,” Popcaan explains. “I know everybody can’t put it through the music like how me do it or like how Kartel ah do it or Beenie Man or one of them artist. Yeah, we sing real things. You see me? Just like how me say ‘Wifey pop up pon me and catch me…’ Dog, it’s just real things. You know I mean? The girl dem crazy yunno. It can happen to anybody. It’s not just me. That’s why so much people can relate to that song.”
Asked if the song might lead to his own reality show—much like his mentor Vybz Kartel—Papi is in full agreement. “Yeah man,” he says. “Soon and very soon. My life is full of drama.”
Friction In The Gaza Camp
Friction In The Gaza Camp
In late 2011 Kartel’s business partner Corey Todd broke away from the Gaza camp, taking in-house producer Not Nice and singer Jah Vinci along with him. Popcaan says he was not troubled by their departure.
“That was never a difficult time for me," he says, "because them never really serve no purpose pon the Gaza still, you know I mean? [Laughs.] Jah Vinci especially so. Yeah him have a good voice, but he’s a lazy boy. As for the rest of them who left Gaza, ya dun know, a man feel like him can do a thing so them just do it. Me can’t tell a man what to do. Me wish them good luck. But me still deh ya same way. Me know what me have to do, so me just do it.”
As his mentor sits in jail awaiting trial on two different murder charges, Popcaan stays on the alert for trouble. “Yeah people always ah fight we,” he says. “People always ah do bad things, especially when you’re on the top and them ting deh.
People just try and mix me up in all kind of things, you see me? Bad mind get extra active.
"It no different for me. People just try and mix me up in all kind of things, you see me? Bad mind get extra active. [Laughs.] But them ting deh you haffi overcome. Yeah, you haffi overcome dem obstacles. And you haffi know what you ah do same way. You have to just be careful and make the right choices and stay out of problem.
As he copes with the distractions of stardom, Popcaan is doing his best to stay focused on his craft. “Music is the key to everything,” he says. “So we never get hype and never jump outta weself same way. Just write song—you see me? Yeah man... I just do work, and the hard work is paying off.”
Chromatic Sound & The New Mixtape
Chromatic Sound & The New Mixtape
At the end of this month, Popcaan will release a mixtape called Yiy Change, produced in association with Chromatic Sound. The follow-up to his 2010 tape Hot Skull, Fry Yiy, Boil Brainz, Papi says the new music will reflect his evolution as an artist. “Ya dun know, this one is for the fans who support Popcaan over the years.”
Popcaan credits Chromatic sound system for supporting his musical dreams over the years. In fact it was at a Chromatic dance where he first linked with Kartel. “Big up Creep and Niko,” says Papi. [Creep can be seen at right in the above photo.] “Chromatic response for Popcaan still—Chromatic & Coppershot. Them sound deh always support me. Them go out and play me music. They make remix with me and them ting deh. Sometimes I wasn’t even aware of it. Me just hear it.”
Now that Popcaan is making his dancehall dreams come true, he’s determined to keep that momentum going and taking his talents to the world. Although he has not been able to travel to the U.S. in some time, Papi tells his American fans to keep the faith. “You can expect fi see Popcaan in the States later this year,” he says, “around ‘Best of the Best’ time.”
Shortly after Kartel’s arrest last October, rumors began to spread that Popcaan was about to break away from the Gaza Empire. But he was quick to counteract the loose talk, issuing a statement in an attempt to clear the air: “Remember me say Gaza for life and mi no have no further comment.”
Popcaan explains that the whole misunderstanding began because he took on a new agent to book shows, and people thought he was changing to new management. “Them ting deh ah just silly rumors,” he says. “You know I mean? Between me and Kartel is the same. Me just have a different booking agent for myself and them take it the wrong way.”
We have to keep focused and make sure the Gaza stay alive. But everything good same way. The Gaza still stand tall.
Meanwhile Popcaan continues to hold it down for Gaza while Kartel fights his legal battles. “We no get a chance to keep in close touch with Teacha because Jamaican jails—you can’t call on the phone and them ting deh. You know I mean? We have to line up an official day to see the Werlboss. But you done know we have to keep focused and make sure the Gaza stay alive. But everything good same way. The Gaza still stand tall—as you can see, right?”
Despite the pressure on Kartel, and the defection of other artists, Papi dismisses any talk about the end of Gaza. “Gaza no ending yunno. Yeah. Cause any day Gaza end ah when Werlboss music dem stop play. And me no know ah which day that. Remember Tupac and Biggie? They’re not alive today, but every party you can hear them song play same way. Yeah. So Gaza will forever be around.”
Unlike Big and Pac, Kartel is very much alive—although he's facing not one but two murder cases. “With the Werlboss case, me can’t give you much information pon that,” Popcaan says. “Me’s on the outside looking in, you know I mean? We haffi just watch the moves and hear what’s up. But the Werlboss been through a lot of fight yunno. Them man can beat anything. So ya dun know the Werlboss ah go beat it. There is no such thing as losing with the Werlboss.”