Dancehall great Beenie Man isn’t one to shy away from a challenge, not even from booing fans.
Whenever the Kingston, Jamaica, reggae star – born Moses Davis – needs a friendly reminder of how far he has come, he just thinks back to his first U.S. performance.
“The worst thing that ever happened to me was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Beenie said recently. “I left Jamaica in 1991 on April 2 and I went to the states to perform and I got booed by like 100,000, but those same 100,000 people turned me into a DJ for six years straight. It was a disappointment, but it was for good, because if I had not got booed, I wouldn’t be the artist I am today. You take the negative and make it positive, you’ll be a stronger man.”
Only a dauntless artist could come up with “Art and Life,” Beenie’s debut Shocking Vibes/Virgin album (released June 20). The old-school toaster serves up a smorgasbord of styles and rhythms – from dancehall reggae and hip-hop to country and gospel.
“When you dig deeply, you find art and life,” Beenie said. “To represent me, I’m like water. Water takes the shape of anything. My spirit flows like water. I love Latin music, dancehall, hip-hop, R&B and just try to make the art and life perfect. If you just do dancehall only, then you will be known only as a dancehall artist.
“There’s different strokes for different folks, so you have to mix the priority of music because music is the extension of your vocabulary. If it’s narrow, then your music will be narrow. If it’s wide, you will reach out to all different types of people. That’s the message I’m trying to get across. I’m a dancehall artist, but I’m not going to limit my music.”
Apparently, America’s listening. In July, “Art and Life” debuted at No. 68 on Billboard’s pop chart and after five weeks is still going strong, holding steady at No. 89. Impressive numbers, considering that reggae music – outside Bob Marley – rarely makes a dent on the charts.
Beenie’s forte is appealing to R&B audiences, which were introduced to his rapid-fire rhythm skills with the 1998 hit “Who Am I? and its contagious line “Zim zimma, who got the keys to my Beemer?”
He has his followers: Wyclef Jean contributes to the first single, the hip-hall-ish “Love Me Now”; Mya offers her crooning touch on “Girls Dem Sugar” and Kelis helps celebrate “Jamaica Way.” Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval plays atop Beenie’s English-Spanish raps on “Tumble,” and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ Steve Perry is featured on “Ola.”
“I like to mix the old-school music with the new-school music and give it my own dancehall vibe,” Beenie said. “Unless the people know you, hear your vibes and hear what you have to say, then you can become original. You will have to introduce yourself to the public, so they can get to know you and get to respond to you.
“An artist paints a picture, but a picture also paints an artist. This is why ‘Art and Life’ is the album which I feel will take me to another level.”
Though he’s only 26, Beenie has spent a large chunk of his life reaching that level.
“I’ve been doing music professionally since age 5,” he said. “There’s only a few things you know when you’re born in the ghetto. When you reach 3 years of age, you know the direction of your life. That’s different from somebody who lives with their parents or grandparents who have your life planned out. In the ghetto, we didn’t have our life planned out for us; we had to do it ourselves. We had to have our own plan.
“I was never brought up in a proper home. My mom never had money, my pop never had money. I started taking care of my parents since I was 11, and today I’m still doing that. But I didn’t live a hard life for too long, because a hard life is not having food, not having shoes and not going to school. That never happened to me. I always went to school, I always had a pair of shoes.
“Survival, that’s what the ghetto means. Ghetto doesn’t really mean poverty and staying poor; ghetto means get out. Once you see a chance to get out, get out, but don’t forget the slum. Don’t forget where you’re coming from.”
Beenie hasn’t forgotten. He has given back to Kingston, helping to build a school for youths to learn a trade. He hopes they can find their direction, like he did early on.
At age 10, he cut “The Invisible Beenie Man, Ten-Year-old Boy Wonder” with producer Bunny “Striker” Lee. By his teens, he was collaborating with reggae legends Sly and Robbie, Luciano and Barrington Levy.
His autobiographical album, “The Many Moods of Moses,” launched him internationally in 1997. The Grammy-nominated album featured “Who Am I? and the country track, “Ain’t Gonna Figure It Yet.”
“This album is my best album,” Beenie said of “Art and Life.” “I cannot tell you how it will do. If I could peak through to the future, I would take a peak and tell you, but I just hope this album does the best for me. I’ve been nominated for Grammys two times now, and those albums did very well. This album, with Virgin behind it and the monster that Virgin is, I just know this album’s going to be the greatest.”
Beenie Man, who was named 1999’s top reggae artist by ASCAP and the top-selling reggae artist by Billboard, will perform at BET’s block party in the heart of New York’s Harlem on Sept. 9. The show, which celebrates the cable channel moving its headquarters from Washington to Harlem, will be broadcast live from 9 to 11 p.m.
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “Third World’s ‘Now That We Found Love,’ and I learned to sing it and play the drums and the rhythms. I set up my own paint cans on the fence and got two pieces of stick and that’s where I started my music.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. It was called ‘Hot Shot,’ a dancehall reggae show, in like 1984. At that time, they were so huge.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “DMX’s last CD. I love his vibes and mantra. He believes in the hard-core hip-hop world, and I believe in the dancehall world. We have the same thinking about music. I respect a man who loves his music, his work, and dedicates his life to his music.”
BWF (before we forget): For more on Beenie Man, visit www.virginrecords.com.
More updates: Celine Dion, Bob Dylan, Field Music, Rex Orange County, Everything But the Girl, etc