Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Published: August 13, 2006

Earlier this year all of Jamaica seemed to be listening to the same song. That song was “Ghetto Story,” by a rising star known as Cham, who told a vivid tale of poverty and crime. Over an electronic beat composed of a few sharp buzzes, Cham started at the beginning:

I remember those days when Hell was my home
When me and Mama bed was a big piece a foam
And me never like bathe and my hair never comb
When Mama gone a work, me go street, go roam

“Ghetto Story” was an unlikely candidate for cross-over success. Too many words, too many local references, too much slang. It’s a crime narrative, not a dance song.

And yet “Ghetto Story” just won’t go away. The New York hip-hop radio station Hot 97 started playing it, betting that listeners would get sucked in by Cham’s fervid voice, even if they didn’t catch all the words. A low-budget music video found its way onto MTV. Cham recorded a remix with Akon, and then another one with Alicia Keys, who sang about the old New York: “Hookers and ho’s/On 11th Avenue, selling bodies for dope.” Cham’s record company, Atlantic, commissioned a new music video, one that doesn’t look like a straight-to-DVD crime flick. All this is buildup for Tuesday, when Cham’s second album, also called “Ghetto Story,” will arrive in stores.

Reached in a hotel in Rochester, where he was working his way through a not particularly glamorous American promotional tour, Cham said he was surprised by the success of his single. “It was the biggest song in Jamaica after, like, two days,” he said. “Then it went from Jamaica to New York, and it started to rip New York to pieces. Then to London. And I said: ‘Oh. I see what’s going on.’ ’’

But will people buy the album? As Cham knows better than anyone, he’s merely the latest in a long line of reggae stars trying to figure out how to convert momentum and a major-label budget into a viable career. Sean Paul has done it, partly because he never really seemed like part of Jamaica’s rough-and-tumble reggae scene. But others, from Damian Marley (last year’s great reggae hope) to Elephant Man (who was, briefly, an unlikely hip-hop star) to the respected veteran Beenie Man (whose new album is due later this month), have had a harder time negotiating the American pop charts.

It’s not entirely the audience’s fault either. If there’s one thing more fickle than the American record-buying public, it’s the Jamaican reggae scene. And the story of reggae in the last few years has largely been a story of false starts, minor triumphs and — most frustrating of all — self-sabotage.

By the time Bob Marley died, in 1981, he was far and away the most beloved musician in the history of reggae, but he was hardly a representative figure. Reggae fans were already embracing a new form, dancehall reggae. It had fewer notes: the music consisted of stripped-down tracks, known as riddims. And it had more words: singers were gradually adopting more conversational styles.

In 1985 a pioneering electronic riddim called “Sleng Teng,” composed by King Jammy, helped push dancehall into the computer age. Since then, as electronic beats and forcefully declaimed lyrics have become the norm, dancehall has grown closer in sound and spirit to hip-hop, just as hip-hop had borrowed many of its sounds and strategies from early dancehall. As it happens, Cham’s “Ghetto Story” is in part a tribute to that first wave of computer-generated dancehall. It’s based on an old-fashioned electronic riddim called “85,” in homage to that watershed year. The “85” riddim is the work of Dave Kelly, a brilliant producer who could (but wouldn’t) claim to be the Dr. Dre of dancehall.

Mr. Kelly has been making reggae hits since the early 1990’s, when he worked with the ferocious dancehall roarer Buju Banton. And he has been paying close attention over the last decade, as the genre has endured a handful of triumphs and a fistful of setbacks, while steadily pumping out wild, weird singles.

Speaking from Florida, where he lives when he’s not in Jamaica, Mr. Kelly said that the growing American success of the “Ghetto Story” might be a good sign for a genre that could use one. “I’m optimistic,” he said, “because I think it’s getting to the point where people are realizing that dancehall reggae is more then a catchy hook or a dance move.”

He was referring indirectly to the reggae boom of 2002-3. That was when Sean Paul was taking off, when Elephant Man’s frenetic club hit “Pon de River Pon de Bank” could be seen on BET, when the dancehall crooner Wayne Wonder was enjoying a surprise pop hit with “No Letting Go.” Reggae was on the verge of a major breakthrough. But since then reggae has gone back underground, and Jamaican tastes have changed.

After the boom the Jamaican charts filled up with old-fashioned roots-reggae songs, which weren’t quite as compatible with American hip-hop. And this year two of the biggest (and best) Jamaican hits — “Badman Forward, Badman Pull Up,” by Ding Dong, a dancer, and “Dutty Wine,” by Tony Matterhorn, a D.J. — aren’t really songs at all: they are dancing guides, with yelled instructions in place of lyrics. Try explaining all that to a casual pop fan, looking for the next Sean Paul.

In recent years reggae stars have also had to reckon with a controversy of their own making. Many of the top performers have recorded songs with antigay lyrics. In 2004 gay-rights activists started an awareness campaign, and concerts by Beenie Man and other dancehall stars were canceled in Europe and America.

The furor seemed to die down after the top reggae stars privately agreed to avoid recording violent antigay rhetoric in the future. But the effect lingered: nonfans all over the world now think of dancehall as the genre with the antigay lyrics. And last month Beenie Man learned that the anger hasn’t subsided: his AIDS benefit concert, scheduled for New York, had to be canceled after an outcry.

This is what Beenie Man is facing as he promotes his new album — and umpteenth crossover attempt — “Undisputed” (Virgin), which is due on Aug. 29. The album focuses on playful sex songs, and it includes the Jamaican hit “Hmm Hmm” (produced by Tony, Mr. Kelly’s half-brother), which cleverly uses those hums in place of a common Jamaican vulgarity.

But elsewhere Beenie Man sounds a bit flat, as if his frustrating recent years had sapped his usual wit and verve. Outside Jamaica his long career seems more like a trail of damning evidence; an abject apology might help, but it would be a gamble: Jamaican fans would likely view it as an unacceptable capitulation.

Maybe all that makes Cham (formerly Baby Cham) the ideal reggae star for this complicated moment. He’s a clean-cut but versatile vocalist, equally capable of unleashing a barrage of threats or delivering a bouquet of lover-man promises. He sounds equally at home on an American radio station or in a Jamaican club. He has avoided the antigay lyrics that helped derail Beenie Man’s career. And with Mr. Kelly in his corner, Cham has a steady supply of simple but elegant electronic beats.

“Ghetto Story” begins with half a dozen hard, brash, unimpeachable tracks. In “Tic Toc” he turns a nursery rhyme into a warning: “Tic, toc, tic goes the clock/Informers dance to the sound of my Glock.” While he doesn’t pretend to have an American accent (as some hit-hungry reggae stars have done), he delivers many of his lyrics slowly (by dancehall standards), so Americans can follow along.

“You have to find some way without watering down the lyrics, to break the language barrier,” he said. And to that end, he often lets his voice crack, like an adolescent’s, when he gets worked up. It’s a nonverbal cue that is never lost in translation.

There are a few missteps around the album’s halfway point. The thug-love choruses and hip-hop beats seem like an unnecessary concession to hip-hop listeners; besides, Cham never sounds better than when he’s got an old-fashioned digital dancehall beat to work with. Which raises a question. Is the focus on crossing over a mistake? Shouldn’t reggae stars be satisfied to make music that reggae fans like?

Part of the problem is the obvious economic one: You can’t make much money from CD’s in Jamaica. Mr. Kelly says he gave away about a thousand copies of the “85” compilation (which includes the “Ghetto Story” single) on the island.

“We’re not even trying to sell records in Jamaica,” he said. Instead he wants to keep Jamaican listeners satisfied (Cham recently did a free tour of the island) while reaping the rewards in America and overseas.

Now all Cham needs is for “Ghetto Story” to keep climbing in popularity, and for the next single to do just as well; it’s a tall order but not an impossible one. He knows that, in a globalized music economy, real success depends on attracting listeners who don’t know — or care to know — about the genre’s rich history.

Staying home isn’t an option. “You just sit in Jamaica, making records that mash up Jamaica? It doesn’t come like that,” he said. “So I’m willing to do the work.”

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