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Jamaica's hottest producer didn't exactly set New York on fire during his last visit. After sharing some studio time with Wayne Wonder, Donovan "Don Vendetta" Bennett found himself lost when he drove through Brooklyn during a record-setting cold snap and there wasn't a helpful pedestrian in sight.
"Is it possible for you to call me [back] in like ten minutes?" he asked me politely, interrupting our cell phone interview. "We have to figure out where we are.... Up here it's cold, man."
There's no reason for Vendetta to be used to a chill like that. Virtually everything he has made in the last two years has set the yard ablaze. Currently his Good to Go riddim, with its rich guitar rhythm and speedy beat, is so massive that, as he put it when our interview resumed, "you don't even have to deejay. Just play the riddim and the place picks up, people start to dance."
The same could be said of his Mad Ants, Krazy, and Egyptian riddims. On 2002's Mad Ants, then-newcomers Vybz Kartel and Wayne Marshall joined him to usher in "New Millennium," marking the first hit in the yard for deejay, singer, and producer and the beginning of a beautiful three-way friendship. Soon afterward, Krazy, with its multitracked synths and sticky melody, went smash for both Elephant Man ("Krazy") and Wayne Wonder ("Crazy Feeling"), luring two more top-shelf talents into Vendetta's loyal inner circle. Vendetta's fedora-clad Don Corleon Productions logo, with its implication that he's the new Don of the dancehall, began to seem more revelatory than playful. Each new artist that he works with, from deejay Predator to singer Nicky B, seems to bear a musical offering that audiences can't refuse.
By last summer, Vendetta's tracks were scorching American radio and hip-hop clubs. Chief among the crossover standouts were Vybz Kartel's "Sweet to the Belly," voiced over the hype yet sultry Egyptian riddim; and Elephant Man's giddy "Pon Di River, Pon Di Bank." As if that weren't enough, Vendetta scored Sizzla Kalonji's career-revitalizing Rise to the Occasion (and generously shared production credits with Sizzla). Although the album moves at bedroom, not dance-floor, speed, it bears all the hallmarks of the Vendetta sound with its thick synths, clever syncopation, and organic flourishes like tablas and guitars. It's mesmerizing in its tone and construction, consistently delivering a simple, striking effect as it employs more layers than a chicken farm.
Which all only leads to one question. What's a guy like Vendetta really doing in New York? He didn't endure airplane food and brown snow just to record with fellow Jamaican Wayne Wonder, did he?
He's going pop, isn't he?
Well, to understand Vendetta's future, it might help to dig deeper into his past. He is the cousin of Third World guitarist Rupert Bent and nephew of singer Lorna Bennett, the latter whose "Breakfast in Bed" was a hit in Jamaica in 1972, then again for pop act UB40 in 1988. As such, he has long understood the craftsmanship necessary to make honest music and the pride that comes from watching it reach mass acceptance.
By age thirteen he had formed his first sound system. At sixteen, however, he postponed his music career, moving to Miami to study electronics and marine engineering at a local college. "I love Miami. It show me a lotta love," he enthused. Even so, in those days, "Mostly me stay in my room. I was paying attention to schoolwork and stuff," he added.
On returning to Kingston four years later, he formed the Vendetta Sound System and developed a reputation for putting out killer mix CDs. His blends included exclusive dub plates -- vocal freestyles from rising artists matched with hot riddims -- that weren't available anywhere else. Two artists that debuted on these plates were Kartel and Marshall.
"I discovered Vybz Kartel," boasted Vendetta. "I told him, I'm doing a new mix CD, so I need him to be on [it]. So he came and did two songs. I remixed them onto rap riddims, and [instantly] there was a big buzz about him: 'Who's that guy on the Vendetta mix tape?' And then when I started my first dancehall riddim, he was the first guy voiced on that -- Mad Ants."
Vendetta described recording "Sweet to the Belly" with Kartel: "The reason that song was a monster is that when I was creating that riddim, Kartel was right beside me. I finish the drum pattern, lay the bass, and I'm looking for one more thing in the riddim, you know?" Searching through a CD of Indian singing, Vendetta found a line of sexy humming and massaged it into place, only to glance up and catch Kartel giggling. "I say 'What, why you laughing?'" he recalled. In response Kartel began to sing the chorus of the song, coining the term "sweet to the belly" for the tingly feeling the music produced in him.
Their rapport convinced Vendetta to give Kartel exclusive rights to the sample. "The girl not moaning in the rest of [the versions of the Egyptian riddim], only Kartel's," he said, "because after Kartel build a concept around it, I couldn't use it back." That didn't stop the riddim from gathering momentum, though: Its latest incarnations are a Hot 97 remix of Kelis's "Milkshake," and a track to debut on Sean Paul's next album, all produced by Vendetta.
Still, despite his many triumphs, the question looms: Is dancehall domination enough for Vendetta? When asked this point blank, he eagerly spilled his intentions to conquer bigger markets. His soft voice and gentle demeanor belying the scope of his plans, he mentioned that he wants to work with Eminem (alongside Kartel) and Ludacris. Crossover success, he feels, is essential to boosting dancehall's credibility in America. "I'm going to be the first Jamaican who really done it the real way," he predicted. "Because put it this way, anything I put my mind to, I'm gonna do. If I'm gonna make pop records, I'm gonna do it."
He insisted, however, that his mission is not to be confused with selling out or watering down reggae: "Put it this way: [If] people water down [their styles to sell music], they don't have creativity, you understand?" he said. "I'm coming up with some new shit."