"I put out a record at the age of nineteen and I have had a brutal education in the way the system works," Buju complains. "A brutal education."
Even Banton's masterpiece, 'Til Shiloh, fell victim to that system. By the time he released that album in 1995, the young rudie had converted to Rastafarianism. His new faith charged his brash dancehall delivery, backed by a live band, with breathtaking roots conviction. Nominated for a Grammy and acclaimed by many critics as one of the best reggae albums of all time, 'Til Shiloh stalled at number 148 on the Billboard album charts in large part because Buju's label at that time, Loose Cannon, lost its deal with parent company and now-defunct major label Polygram. "All that breakup was starting to happen around the time his album came out," remembers former Loose Cannon employee Aaron Talbert. "The followup suffered. A lot of what happens to these records is about the commitment of dollars."
Currently director of sales at VP Records and project director for Friends for Life, Talbert sees better days ahead. "Reggae music is making strides [in the mainstream] once again," the Detroit native observes. The recent evolution of hip-hop production has stoked a new appreciation for dancehall in the United States. "You can credit Timbaland with borrowing from reggae," says Talbert of the hit-making hip-hop producer with a gift for working the open spaces in a beat much like dancehall's riddim wizards do. "I don't want to say that hip-hop is biting from reggae, but the sounds are merging more. It's less a hip-hop-reggae thing than a contemporary urban feel."
That emerging urban feel helped the decade-old VP label land its first album in the Billboard pop charts with Sean Paul's platinum-certified Dutty Rock. Eager to tap the trend, Atlantic Records formed a partnership with indie VP to amp up the promotion and distribution of what the Atlantic folks are calling the "dancehall hip-hop niche." While Atlantic jumped on the buzz created by Sean Paul's single "Gimme the Light" after it was released, Friends for Life is the first album to be handled entirely through the VP/Atlantic partnership.
"[Buju] seemed like he would be perfect for us," Talbert reveals. "With a new deal like this you [as a record company] want to put your best stuff forward and really deliver."
On another no-video-shoot afternoon in Miami, Buju Banton keeps hitting the repeat button on the stereo of my Volkswagen Passat. Then he leans back into the passenger seat, half closes his eyes, and sings along to his new song "Up Ye Mighty Race." Moved by his own tribute to Jamaican-born African nationalist hero Marcus Garvey, the reggae star throws his head back and grins a beatific grin. As we follow his friend's mint green Cadillac Escalade through the maze of one-way downtown streets to Garcia's Seafood Grille & Fish Market on the Miami River, an ominous bass line pulses from the speakers like the beat of a broken heart or the march of a wounded army. Liberty and democracy are truly expensive/Can even cost your life, Buju cries, shaking his dreads. Pumped by his own message, he laughs, "This is my favorite song on the album." Then he hits the repeat button again.
The sing-along comes to an end when Buju spies an upscale auto accessories store on a side street as we creep through the lunch-hour congestion. "I'll have to remember this and come back," he says to himself. He likes fast cars, he says, to get his adrenaline going. Otherwise his life is so boring. "Don't you think that's boring?" he demands. "Answering questions all day?" Point taken.
A few minutes later, when I point out the Historical Museum of Southern Florida on our right, he launches into a lecture on the plunder of Third World treasures by European and North American museums. Our own historical museum actually showcases the living Caribbean musical cultures of South Florida, but that is beside Buju's point.