Survival Dude

The past few months have delivered a dramatic sequence of events in the life of Beenie Man, whose 24-year career has experienced vertiginous peaks and abysmal valleys.

Following the tepid response from dancehall fans to his 2002 "crossover" collaboration with Janet Jackson and the Neptunes, "Feel It Boy" (which nevertheless managed to hit the U.S. Top 40 pop charts), Beenie Man returned to his hardcore roots with the number-one song in Jamaica for 2003, "Dude," a pairing with seventeen-year-old newcomer Ms. Thing. Throughout their delightfully risqué duet, his sexual braggadocio ("You want a proper fix, call me/You want to get your kicks call me") provides the counterpoint to her desires, which she delivers in the mantra, "I want a dude with the wickedest slam/I want a one, two, three hour man." On December 26, he was lauded for bravely taking the stage during Sting, Jamaica's annual dancehall concert; his charismatic performance restored calm to an unruly crowd that had moments earlier demonstrated its restlessness by hurling glass bottles and sporadically firing gunshots.

At the start of 2004, in the predawn hours of Thursday, January 15, Beenie Man narrowly escaped death. While driving alone to the popular Kingston dancehall session Passa Passa Wednesdays on the newly constructed Mandela Highway, he misjudged a corner detour and his Hummer H2 somersaulted into a ditch. He was rushed to the hospital, where he went through two operations to repair a collapsed lung and two broken ribs; the (theoretically) indestructible Hummer was reduced to a pile of twisted metal.

A few weeks later on Tuesday, February 24, Beenie Man's road manager, Paul Tyrell, was murdered outside of Shocking Vibes (the Kingston record/management company founded by his manager, Patrick Roberts) after a gunman fired two shots through his car windshield. When Beenie Man reached the crime scene, he collapsed and was promptly readmitted to the hospital for observation.

"The accident and the death of Paul Tyrell, it have to make the bond with the Creator stronger," reflects Beenie Man. "Right through the accident I was saying, God help me, and he did. Life is everything and once you have life, you just go along brave and smile, like Jesus did, so I can get to cope with it all. We have to go along because the music has to keep on playing and there is work that has to be done."

After several weeks of rest, and as "Dude" steadily climbs up the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, Beenie Man has resumed his rigorous touring and recording schedule. His against-all-odds triumph over the winter's tumultuous tragedies doesn't surprise anyone familiar with his career. In dancehall, where an artist's popularity often wanes faster than he can record his next single, he is the music's preeminent survivor. He has been hungry, homeless, and professionally written off, but his abundant natural talent and musical audacity have kept him at the top of the reggae charts.

Born Moses Davis on August 22, 1973 in the musically rich, economically poor, and politically volatile Kingston enclave known as Waterhouse, Beenie Man started toasting at five years old on his uncle's sound system. The precociously talented child (nicknamed Beenie, which is patois for small) won several local talent contests and caught the attention of Patrick Roberts, who subsequently became his manager. He recorded his first single, "Too Fancy," at eight; cut his first album, The Invincible Beenie Man, The 10 Year Old DJ Wonder; and spent the next few years refining his vocal skills with various sound systems and performing on stage shows.

At an April 11, 1991, Jamaican concert honoring Nelson Mandela's release from prison and subsequent whirlwind tour, Beenie Man performed a song comparing supporters of apartheid to people with smelly armpits. He was booed off the stage and maligned by most of the dancehall fraternity. Retreating to the Jamaican countryside to concentrate on his writing, he reemerged a year later with a newfound determination that was reflected in a spate of boom shots. "Dropping so low made me work harder to reach higher," he says. "After that incident, I knew I was gonna come run this place."

With the 1994 singles "Modeling" and "World Dance," Beenie Man ascended from moderate popularity to reggae stardom. The lyrics to his 1995 single "Slam" (written and produced by Dave Kelly), which compared the "slamming" skills of privileged women with that of their impoverished counterparts ("Gimme the gal wid de wickedest slam/The kinda gal that know how to love up she man ... you haffe get a slam from a real ghetto girl"), were examined by Jamaican newspapers for their implications within the island's class-conscious society. He dominated the rest of the decade by releasing a succession of hits (including his first U.S. Top 40 single, "Who Am I?") and earning accolades for his versatile, energetic live performances.

"Beenie Man has songs for the old and young and for men and women. He even has gospel and calypso songs," comments Ms. Thing. "So people just love him."

Ms. Thing was studying cosmetology at Kingston's Tivoli Gardens High School when dancehall artist Baby Cham introduced her to Dave Kelly, who wrote and produced "Dude"; he "voiced" her on it alongside Beenie Man. The neophyte was absolutely thrilled with the opportunity to work with a performer of Beenie Man's stature. "Beenie Man bus' as an artist before I was born," she says. "Respect to him. He has the recognition, so as a young artist it feels good to represent, work with him, and reach so far."

"Ms. Thing was a Dave Kelly artist, and he wanted her to bus' so I am the man for that," Beenie Man declares. "So he put us together and 'Dude' become a smash hit in Jamaica; now it's a hit all over the world."

Throughout his long career Beenie Man's many hits have brought a diversity of styles to the dancehall. He delivered cool vocals over a jazzy sax riff for the number-one Jamaican single "Nuff Gal"; he journeyed to Nashville to collaborate with Garth Brooks's band (and adopted a Southern twang) on the country and western ditty "Ain't Gonna Figure It Yet"; and traveled to Trinidad to record the Carnival soca anthem "Jump And Wine." Those efforts, which he recorded before signing with Virgin Records in 2000, displayed an artistic daring and a genuine fondness for all types of music. They stand in stark contrast, however, to his major-label output, which has seemed to be influenced by the crossover pressures (and imposed duets) that reggae artists typically face.

But after the breakout Billboard success of "Dude," Beenie Man promises that his next Virgin album -- Back to Basics, scheduled for release in July -- will be "a back-to-basics dancehall album."

"Even with the VP releases I did hip-hop, jazz, and C&W, so this next album is like the ultimate dancehall album to me," Beenie Man explains. He hastens to add, "I am the one that make dancehall international -- me, Shabba Ranks, then Sean Paul, then everybody else. Dancehall has the market right now to really reach the people, so time for me to give them dancehall, the roots rock reggae, the full dancehall way."

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