Tony Kelly doesn't look like the king of the dancehall. A soft-spoken man in his late thirties, he could be anybody enjoying an early-afternoon lunch at Segafredo's on South Beach's Lincoln Road, casually watching the tourists and other pedestrians stroll by. Save for the large, expensive Cartier Roadster watch on his wrist, his look (jeans and dress shirt) doesn't bespeak excess, and it isn't as if he's smoking a blunt at his table, shouting out "irie" and "bumbaclot" to the passersby.
Despite considerable gains -- nowadays, everyone knows what a riddim is, and Gwen Stefani's cover of Louchie Lou and Michie One's "Rich Girl" is currently blazing up the charts -- dancehall is still considered to be something of a novelty genre, and its producers don't inspire as much fan boy idolatry that, say, a hip-hop producer such as Just Blaze does. But if you listen to the radio or go to nightclubs, you've probably heard a Tony Kelly track. Remember Sean Paul's "Like Glue," which hit the Billboard Top 20 in 2003? How about Tanto Metro and Devonte's "Everyone Falls In Love"?
It may be presumptuous for Kelly to call himself "King of the Dancehall" after a recent single he recorded with Beenie Man, since there are a few other producers, from Scatta Burrell (the inescapable Coolie Dance riddim) to his own brother Dave Kelly (Wayne Wonder's "No Letting Go," Beenie Man's "Dude"), who could lay claim to that title. Nevertheless, Kelly is responsible for a lot of hits.
Which leads to the real reason Kelly is here today. He wants to get more media exposure for himself because he realizes that being a "name" producer will help bring him larger fees from labels and artists for his beats and more clout within the music industry. He wants to establish his new label, K...licious Music, as a force to be reckoned with, land a solid distribution deal with a major (though Kelly may decide to initially "go independent"), and turn its first artist, R&B singer-songwriter Xavier Aeon, into a star as bright as the others he has worked with.
"My initial way of it was, öYo, I want to be behind the music,'" he says in a steady, patois-inflected voice. "In order for people to know what I'm doing and for me to step to the next phase easier, I have to let people know who I am." Toward that end, he has pressed up a modest CD-R, King of the Dancehall, to give to the press. The disc collects clean versions of his biggest American smashes, from the aforementioned cuts to Patra's 1993 standout "Worker Man," and its memorably kittenish chorus: "I want a real teddy bear/Don't matter how big, I don't care." It's as if he wants to gently nudge you and say, hey, I helped make these songs a success, too.
One song he may be hesitant to discuss, though, is T.O.K.'s "Chi Chi Man," which stands alongside Buju Banton's "Boom Bye Bye" as an oft-played celebration of gay bashing. Several gay rights groups protested the prevalence of homophobic attitudes within Jamaican dancehall culture last year, and many performers found their progress towards the mainstream pop market perilously interrupted as a result. Beenie Man, for example, was removed from the lineup for one of MTV's Video Music Awards block parties in downtown Miami this past August.
When asked what he thinks of the role played by "Chi Chi Man" in the controversy, Kelly gives a complicated and somewhat unsatisfactory answer, the inevitable result of choosing his words too carefully. "The thing is, it's gone too far. You have the right to say whatever, but y'know, you don't have to say things that are harmful," he begins. But then he adds, "Jamaica is a hard place. It's like ghetto. You stay hard. So you are going to say stuff the hardest way .... Them saying öfire this,' it's not really meaning like they gonna light somebody on fire.
"When I did that song, it did not mean gays, but someone who was not living right. When you're a robber, you're a chi chi man. You kill people, you're a chi chi man," he continues. "In Jamaicans' eyes, gay is illegal, killing is illegal, stealing is illegal." He alleges that T.O.K. misrepresented the meaning of the song in interviews, making it more of a specific attack against homosexuals. "They killed my song!" he cries. But he accepts the subsequent public outcry and concert cancellations: "You can't incite violence on people and then expect people to sit and not protest."
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On "Chi Chi Man," T.O.K. raves, "From dem a par inna chi chi man car/Blaze di fire mek we bun dem!" One member, Alexx, raps, "Dem bwoy deh flex too bizarre." As noxious as the words are, Kelly's skittish pitter-patter rhythms helped make it a major club hit. Last summer, you couldn't go to a hip-hop event without hearing the DJ spin it.
Kelly says he got his first break at age sixteen as an assistant studio engineer at Tuff Gong Studios. "In Jamaica, engineers get a wonderful training that you don't get anywhere else," he says. "It's more like you are training to be a producer. Most of the producers were really like executive producers; they bring in the money. But [engineers] have to tell the artist, öYou're singing in the wrong key,'" doing the hands-on tweaking that producers in the States are usually accredited with.
In the late Eighties, he toured with Ziggy Marley during the latter's Conscious Party peak, then went on the road with reggae balladeer Maxi Priest. For both artists, he was a jack-of-all-trades, from playing multiple instruments to DJing and dancing. Understandably, he soon chose to return to the comforts of the studio, and first earned stateside attention with Patra's first album, Queen of the Pack.
Kelly currently splits his time between Davie, where he lives with his wife, and his hometown of Kingston, Jamaica. Why doesn't he live in New York or London, to name two other dancehall hot spots? "Nah ... I don't like cold," he says dismissively. "Miami is the place for me."