You Can't Deny It: How Shaggy Pioneered Reggae's Pop Crossover With "It Wasn't Me"

Today is the 15-year anniversary of "It Wasn't Me" crowning the Hot 100 on Feb. 3 for two weeks.

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Complex Original

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If there's a recurring theme to Shaggy's career, it's that you can't count him out. Since signing with Virgin Records in 1993, the reggae-cum-pop artist has consistently sidestepped hurdles, from getting dropped by the imprint shortly after scoring numerous high-charting singles (including the Hot 100 topper "Mr. Boombastic" in 1995) to parlaying the hit single "Luv Me, Luv Me" with Janet Jackson that was promotionally botched into the first true reggae crossover album, Hot Shot, in 2000.

Native to Jamaica, Shaggy (born Orville Burrell) is most notable for being one of the first artists to facilitate the integration of reggae and dancehall sounds and conventions into the arteries of mainstream pop culture. His debut single, "Oh Carolina," set the stage for "In the Summertime" and "Mr. Boombastic," which both peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. But they were merely a warm-up for his white-hot streak in the early aughts, beginning with the chart-topping "It Wasn't Me," featuring RikRok and its summit-reaching follow-up "Angel," from Hot Shot, an album recorded in a basement between deals that went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide.

But even then, "It Wasn't Me" could have been a footnote in pop culture. Downtrodden after Virgin dropped him in the wake of Princess Diana's death, which put a stop on marketing strategies around new records, Shaggy holed up and recorded what would eventually become Hot Shot, trying to shove off "It Wasn't Me" to other artists at the behest of his management. Released in August 2000, the LP wobbled at first; it took a Hawaiian DJ who downloaded his album off of a file-sharing site to mine "It Wasn't Me" and "Angel" from the tracklist and give it spins, spawning a early-era viral campaign that thrusted him from would-be reggae-pop scion to a true pioneer, one who changed the face of the hybrid genre and paved the way for island-borne music in a contemporary setting.

With the 15-year anniversary of "It Wasn't Me" crowning the Hot 100 on February 3 for two weeks, the 47 year old, who recently netted the indie hit, "Habibi (I Need Your Love)," and is currently working his Pitbull-assisted single, "Only Love," broke down how his initial home label ditched him just as he came off the peak of success, parlayed it into the next biggest moment of his career and ultimately shifted the discourse of reggae-rooted confections. To this day.

You'd been with Virgin and had this huge success and then your label dropped you. Did you feel pressure going into Hot Shot knowing that you had to make yet another first impression?
I'm one of those artists that nobody ever sees coming. We started with Virgin in 1993. If you look at the climate of that time in reggae and you were to pick the top five people that'd have a shot at having mainstream success, I was nowhere in that equation at all. But I wrote "Oh Carolina" and it was one of the highest deals ever in dancehall or reggae history, about a million pounds at that time, which was unheard of. It's the same thing when I was dropped from Virgin. It was almost because there was no track record of people having very long careers in dancehall or reggae. Then, I put one album out [1997'sMidnite Lover] and incidentally, the day that they put the first single out, "Piece of My Heart," was the same day that Princess Diana died. Radio just stopped playing records. It was all about [Elton John's] "Candle in the Wind" at that time and nothing was being programmed. It just crippled the project, and they fired me. It was a real hurt. They were my family. And then they signed Beenie Man. He was like the new flavor of the month, and that really hurt also. At that point, I had sold millions of records with them, and Beenie Man had sold aluminum, and yet he's the new guy? 

I'm one of those artists that nobody ever sees coming. 

I got a call from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and they were doing a movie [soundtrack] called How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and the lady who wrote the movie, who the story's about, when she was being courted by the guy, the song that they fucked to was "Mr. Boombastic." [Laughs] She was like, "Whatever you do with this movie, make sure Shaggy's on it, because when my man who was courting me, that was the record." Jam and Lewis brought me a record called "Ooh Boy, I Love You So," and I liked the record and I went ahead and spit the verses. There was a hook, and I asked who was going to sing it, and they said, "Janet or Mariah." I was over the moon. These were two solid superstars. They started to play me every song that was on that album, and my face just fell to the ground. But out of nowhere, they started to play "Luv Me, Luv Me" with Janet. She had done it and didn't give us any single rights and the record jumped off and she didn't want to be nowhere, not even on the video or anything. I worked the record and got them to No. 1., and had a bidding war again between Atlantic Records and MCA, which I took. We did another movie soundtrack called For the Love of the Game, a song called "Hope," which my manager was really pushing. He produced it and everything, and the record didn't work. [Then-MCA head] Jay Boberg said, "I'm sending you back to Jam and Lewis and I want them to find the next hit records." I found a lot of hit records before that. I said I can't afford Jam and Lewis. That's $150,000 a record. Jay said he'd work something out, and they did, but it was like $150,000 for two records, which was my entire fucking budget. They said, “We'll pay, but when the record hits, we'll take the money back.” We did a record. But at that time, I turned the album in and they said to me, "I don't hear a hit." That record I turned in had "Angel" and "It Wasn't Me" on it. They said Jam and Lewis had to be the people who made the record. I went with them and did a record called "Dance and Shout." They did a nice video, threw a lot of money behind it and the song I did for $2,000 in my basement popped its head up. That was the beginning of "It Wasn't Me."

When it came time for you to put "Luv Me, Luv Me" on Hot Shot, you had to replace Janet because it wasn't cleared. Who was responsible for that?
I couldn't figure it out what it was. Because remember now, the song was commissioned by Jam and Lewis. That's her people. It's not like I came to them, they came to me. I did this record, we're working this record, she didn't want to come in the video, so that's a clear indication that it came from her and her camp. I went ahead and worked the record anyway. I went on every radio station by myself and rocked it. When it came time to license it for the album, we couldn't get a clearance, and I think it came from her side. That song wasn't really owned by MCA, it was owned by Universal because the movie [How Stella] came out at Universal. So the actual composition itself wasn't owned by Virgin. I don't think it was Virgin who didn't give her the clearance. I think it came from her, unless the label was telling her not to do it, which could have been the situation. Because you have to remember, right after that, they did a record with Beenie Man on Virgin, produced by Neptunes, and the video was done by Dave Meyers.

The song was "Feel It Boy," right?
Right. It was massive money. The video was $2 million, I know that. [Former Virgin executive] Patrick Moxey was the one who commissioned all of that. The record stiffed. [Janet] was all up in the video, the whole nine yards, it didn't do anything. And my record, which she didn't support and wanted nothing to do with, became a massive No. 1. You're right, that it could have been the Virgin side telling her not to do it, because they had the Beenie song set up. I had to get Samantha Cole, a young singer at the time, to do it over and sing with my producer who produced "Angel" and "It Wasn't Me." He took the vocals and really voiced her to make her sound as close to Janet as possible. 

[The label] wanted me to get rid of that record so much that they tried to get me to get me to give it away. 

Is it safe to say you wouldn't have made Hot Shot without the demise of the Virgin deal?
Everything was built into the character of it. I went through angry stages, depression stages, so many different emotions where the record was concerned. When I was doing Hot Shot, I didn't even have an album deal. When I signed with MCA and turned that album in, I didn't make the album. I did it in [by myself] front of a computer for fucking two, three years. "It Wasn't Me" was a record that was just there. My manager never liked it. He tried everything not to put it on. The crazy story was, we did an interpolation of War's "Smile Happy," and when they looked at us, we were supposed to clear it but because Jam and Lewis had eaten up all the budget, we knew that if we said we had to clear a sample, they would tell us to take it off and didn't have the money to pay for it. My producer and I, we lied and said there's no sample. They didn't know, it was a fucking B-side record. When it actually blew up and became a massive hit, they sued the fuck out us. We lost a shit load of publishing. But that was the sacrifice we had to make to get the record done, to get it on the record.

My manager hated it. At that time, my A&R was Randy Jackson. For some reason, they moved him and took him off the project and gave me this German dude named Hans Haedelt. The record company sent him with a fucking huge bag of weed. They were like, "You're in charge of Shaggy now. Here's five pounds of weed, go there and get fucking friendly with him." He walked into my studio with this whole bag of weed and I'm like, "I don't smoke." [Laughs] But he heard "It Wasn't Me" and said, "I think it's a fucking hit." We ended up keeping it on the record because of that, because my manager was so dead set against it. They wanted me to get rid of that record so much that they tried to get me to get me to give it away. You ever heard of Tanto and Devonte? Their A&R from Sony heard the record and said it's not a hit. He basically started singing another song he thought was a hit, which coincidentally, I had written that. The song he's singing, "Say Wooee," I was a co-writer on that record. Then I tried to give Notch from the Born Jamericans, and he voiced it. And Wayne Wonder. But RikRok, he and I wrote it together, and he was never a singer, but his demo, the tone that he had on it, the producer loved it and no one was topping that sound. He called him back in there and worked with him for hours until he perfected it. We kind of went with that.

The idea for "It Wasn't Me" came to you when you were watching Eddie Murphy's Raw. Did you ever hear from Eddie after the song blew up?
I was in the Bahamas on vacation with my wife and one of my best friends and we were at a club and [Charlie] Murphy was doing some comedy shit and Eddie was there. We were all in the VIP and Eddie came back and I was like, "You know I took that from you." He was like, "Word? Oh shit!" He was joking about it, it was when he was supposed to do the Oscars and it didn't happen, a bunch of shit, and he was telling me about that situation, crazy shit. That's the only conversation I had with Eddie about it.

The thing about Shaggy's records are those records are very timeless. You're talking to me about 'It Wasn't Me' that released in 2000. If you dropped it in the club right now, it still gets one of the biggest reactions.

A Hawaiian DJ downloaded it from a file-sharing site, picked "It Wasn't Me" from the tracklist and gave it its initial spins. That's a very turn-of-the-century type way for a song to take off. Are you still surprised it hit this way?
It wasn't shocking to me, to be honest with you. You know when you know records are hit? I just knew that was a special record. "Mr. Boombastic" was a B-side of "Summertime." I'm used to people not getting it. I'll make amazing music, but it's convincing people that it's amazing—that's the problem. [Justin] Bieber has this tropical house sound and that's the new wave of reggae, and I'm like, "That's not going to be here a year from now. It's a record with a shelf life. It's not timeless." The thing about Shaggy's records are those records are very timeless. You're talking to me about "It Wasn't Me" that released in 2000. If you dropped it in the club right now, it still gets one of the biggest reactions. You could play that DJ Mustard beat with that clap, and that clap is for that time. For me making "It Wasn't Me," at that time, we were in a Britney Spears, *NSYNC kind of mode. "Wasn't Me" doesn't sound anything like that, which is the same with "Mr. Boombastic." At that point, they're not going to pick it. It has to jump out by itself. So it wasn't a surprise that it jumped out, because I knew it was a reactive record. It was just about whether or not people would be able to play it. This guy, it just so happens that this DJ in Hawaii had an ear and he picked "It Wasn't Me" and "Angel." He blew up both of those records.

What do you think is the scope of Hot Shot's importance in pop, in terms of bridging the gap between reggae and pop, and how has the industry evolved and adapted to it since then?
I think the closest success to us would have been Sean Paul. I put it like this. Being the first is normally never a good thing. I broke it open, I made it cool, I made it bigger, and then everybody was like, he sold too much, he's too pop, he's too this. Then there's Sean Paul, he's the real guy. He's the cooler guy. They went with it. It couldn't have happened without me breaking it open, because nobody paid attention. Labels didn't think dancehall made sense. And incidentally, Craig Kallman at the time was trying to do that deal with me, and he lost on the deal because he went and asked his boss at the time, Roger Aimes, and matched the offer with MCA to get the Shaggy record because he had heard the album. Roger said no, it's reggae, you'll never make your money back. There's no reggae album that had ever sold a million records. He lost me. So when he was bidding for Sean Paul against Virgin, Craig went back to Roger and said, you fucked up on Shaggy, you have to let me sign him. Sean Paul got the deal. Craig sent me a pool table as a gift that said, "Thanks for making my boss look like an asshole." It really happened on account of what we had done, but you just get the backlash of it. Sean would have been the closest to bridge the gap to what we did, but to answer your question, it was very instrumental in the development. Right after that, there was a big dancehall movement with the Diwali and all of that came from what Hot Shot did. It gave the record labels the confidence that this genre of music can sell numbers. It was a heyday for them at that point.

What do you consider to be your legacy in the canon of pop music, not just speaking to your influence in carrying over reggae to pop?
I have not started to do the damage I'm supposed to do yet. If you asked me this two years ago or a year ago, I wouldn't have that answer for you. We have an opportunity and a window right now to really do damage in reggae and in this genre of music on the pop charts right. If I just package it right and make some really incredible records, if you do your research, you realize I'm record-driven, not tabloid-driven. You don't hear that I'm fucking Jennifer Lopez. It's always, "Oh shit, he caught one." James Brown had a conversation with me, analyzing my whole shit, and he said "I've seen them come, I've seen them go, but you are the truth." He says as long as you have your talent, you'll be a rich man. Rely on it, because it's the only thing that will never fail you because it was given to you from a higher being. I took those words with me and traveled with those words, and it's the same thing I do. I always rely on my talent to always find the record. We sold over 10 million records. The record company made over $150 million. Come on, bro. Those odds for me, if you ask me what it is, I'm so not done. You see how long I've been quiet? I had to change management and get a new team, and the team I have now, they're fired up. Leaders don't manage—we inspire. Managers managers. Right now, I have the whole team locked in and believe me, I'll just let it drop and you'll see it. It's amazing what we're doing. Again, it's always against the grain.

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