A Star Is Buddz

When you think of dancehall music, it's safe to assume that the island of Bermuda isn't the first locale that leaps to mind. In fact, though Bermuda is often mistaken as a Caribbean island, its closest neighbor is actually North Carolina. Other Bermuda oddities include the Bermuda Triangle, Bermuda shorts, and the alternative chick singer Heather Nova, a native.

You may now add to that list the dancehall anthem "Come Around," which is sure to receive the acclaim Damian Marley's "Welcome to Jamrock" did last year. The song is performed by a Bermudian who goes by the handle Collie Buddz. Oh, and did we forget to mention that Buddz is white?

No matter. The song is a monster, from the roots-infused horn intro to the pumped-up basslines. "Finally the herbs come around," sings Buddz, whose stage name doubles as slang for a seasonal high-grade marijuana. His voice resembles Jamaican dancehall staples such as I-Wayne and Wayne Wonder, with a booster shot of rudeboy swagger.

The single has been making steady inroads in the states since its release six months ago. With recent remixes from hip-hop heavyweights Young Buck (of G-Unit) and Busta Rhymes, the song has infiltrated the nation's top radio and music channel playlists. Overseas it's already a megahit, sung word for word in such non-English-speaking countries as Germany, Holland, and Japan. Buddz just finished a European tour, which culminated with him scoring the number one spot on BBC Radio's UK dancehall chart.

Even in Jamaica, natives are feeling this blazed-out crooner, whom they tend to believe is one of them. "People think I'm either a Rasta man or a Chiney, and when they find that I'm from Bermuda, they still don't think I'm white," Buddz says, via telephone from his home in Bermey. He offers a hearty laugh. "But when they do find out, they got nothing but respect, 'cause the music speaks for itself."

His self-titled debut is set to release July 3 on Sony BMG. The disc is full of radio-friendly tracks, a mix of club bangers and sultry ballads such as the follow-up single, "Mamacita," which allows Buddz to run his game over a sultry island beat.

At 25 years old, Buddz (real name Colin Harper) is a budding dancehall star, one who takes his music very seriously. Born in New Orleans, Buddz was just six when he moved to the main island of Bermuda with his mother, a native, and older brother Matthew. He attributes most of his training — musical and otherwise — to his brother, nicknamed Smokey: "My dad passed when I was four so Smokey was my father figure; he pretty much raised me."

Specifically Buddz cites his brother's obsessive habit of obtaining the newest reggae and dancehall 45s from the islands. "My brother would get all the latest singles by guys like Buju Banton, Bounty Killa, Capleton.... I'd come home from school and just sit there listening and vibing out."

His diet, in fact, was basically all reggae and dancehall. "There was nothing else growing up," he points out. "I mean, we didn't even listen to hip-hop; it was all whatever's coming out of Jamaica."

He eventually found a knack for the art of verse, with much of his inspiration coming from the Kilimanjaro Sound Systems Series. Now legendary in dancehall circles, Kilimanjaro was a Jamaican crew that hosted lyrical battles between elite vocalists, which Buddz and his mates would fervently emulate. "It was just every day after school, me and my brethrens would be in a circle, doing our own clash with one another, my brother on the turntables; it became a tradition."

David Roache, a childhood friend of Buddz and a reggae artist himself, recalls those days locked up in the Harper basement, listening to Smokey's mixtapes, along with the Kilamanjaro albums. "I can remember finding it hard to understand the words. I always asked Colin or Smokey for the lyrics." By the time they were thirteen, Roache and Buddz were rolling deep in the reggae scene. "We used to play riddims and freestyle over the top," he recalls. "Back in those days, Collie wasn't the best but he definitely had potential."

He also had considerable drive. Buddz did his earliest recordings as a teenager, singing over the riddims of local DJs and releasing the results as one-off vinyl singles called dubplates. Each session sharpened his tongue for the next one. What began as a teenage infatuation gradually evolved into a calling. After high school Buddz left Bermuda to study audio engineering at Full Sail Academy in Orlando. After four years of behind-the-board training, Collie returned to his native island and started his own studio with Smokey. There, Buddz found himself serving not only as a singer/songwriter but as a producer as well. "He did it all: produced, engineered, and chatted lyrics," Roache says. "It must have been a good combination because the songs that were coming out of that studio blew my mind. By the time he got signed it was a long time overdue."

His signing was the result of an unexpected meeting with Theo Sedlmayr, a high-powered hip-hop attorney who represents A-list troublemakers like 50 Cent and Eminem, and who had heard some of Buddz's music and been won over. Sedlmayr quickly made an introductory phone call to famed A&R guru Dino Delvaille, who was serving as the head A&R for Sony Urban at the time.

Delvaille, being Jamaican himself, was skeptical about signing a white boy from Bermuda who specialized in dancehall. But his doubts dissolved when he heard Collie's raw talents. He signed Buddz — then all of 23 — to Sony BMG.

"When I got signed, I hadn't even done a real live show yet," Collie notes. "It's been this big learning process ever since."

When the riddim for "Come Around" was presented to Delvaille, he decided to give his new talent a shot, rather than farm out the track to a bigger name like Beenie Man or Elephant Man. Buddz returned the favor by laying down the track in just two days.

Naturally the buzz has been growing since the single broke. The folks at MTVNews, for instance, have already tagged Buddz as the next Sean Paul, for reasons that probably don't go much deeper than both artists' chosen genre (dancehall) and relatively pale pigmentation. Other mags have trotted out headlines such as "The Eminem of Reggae" and "The White Marley."

When asked if the comparison is annoying, Buddz humbly replies, "I take it as a compliment. People always want to associate you with something that they're already familiar with but yeah, the comparison is most likely 'cause I'm white." That being said, he feels inclined to add, "I don't sound anything like Sean Paul."

Still, he's not so nave as to deny that his skin color has played a key role in his inking a record deal. "Oh, most definitely I know that there's a lot of youths out there who have been doing this much longer than me and maybe even better, but have never been offered an opportunity like this." He pauses, momentarily sounding a bit guilt-stricken. "But I gotta eat too, you know."

Regardless of how he got signed, Buddz is eager to let his music speak for itself, as it did during a recent gig in Jamaica. The crowd "all went mad," he recalls, when he appeared onstage. "But Jamaicans know what's up; they know good music and that's all that matters."

This week local dancehall aficionados will get a chance to render their own judgment, as Buddz will be part of Miami's annual dancehall jamboree. "Best of the Best 2007" will feature the cream of the genre's crop: Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, Capleton, Movado, and, of course, Buddz.

Yes, Buddz's skills will indeed be tested in front of 15,000-plus, a crowd that's not afraid to vocalize its displeasure with an act. Nervous? "Definitely gonna be sweating up there, no doubt, but I'm ready, Miami!"

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Esther Park