Two Paths to Crossing Over 

Shaggy

Cubby Bear, October 29

Terence Trent D'Arby

Metro, October 29

Since reggae artist Shabba Ranks's mainstream success three years ago, dancehall has been searching for its next ambassador. At first, fans had pinned their hopes on Buju Banton and Terror Fabulous. But Banton has pushed aside crossover dreams and firmly ensconced himself in Rastafarian culture, aiming his latest album, Til Shiloh, specifically at Jamaican reggae fans. And Fabulous hasn't been seen on pop charts since last year's hit, "Action."

Then came Shaggy. A Brooklyn-based Jamaican and ex-marine, Shaggy is the antithesis of what usually makes a dancehall star: He's neither a rude boy nor a true ladies man--not hard yet not smooth. He treats "slack," overtly sexual topics, with humor. None of his tunes contain gun talk or violence. But with his self-effacing, somewhat cartoonish stance and "lover's rock" lyrics peppered with wiseass wit, the 27-year-old now reigns supreme on American radio, record charts, and dance floors with his recent hit, "Boombastic." It was unlikely that a charming jester like Shaggy would go beyond novelty hits like his 1993 crossover song, "Oh Carolina." But he's claiming a larger audience with a combination of charisma, varied musical approaches, and polished cross-cultural abilities.

True to form, Shaggy strolled onstage at the Cubby Bear in a baggy black-and-white shirt and black pants, mugging and admonishing his dancehall fans to "rela-a-x." Whether doing a silly song like "Oh Carolina" or a sexy one like "Boombastic," Shaggy showed the crowd that he doesn't take himself too seriously. When he slowly started "wining," or gyrating his pelvis, to the slow rhythms of "Boombastic," the women started screaming. But then Shaggy quickly turned their screams to laughter by stopping in midtwist and throwing them a comical expression. He even poked fun at "Oh Carolina" with "Jenny," a send-up masked as a love song: "Carolina she left me and gone / Went to number one and now she kicked up a storm...She was a top ten lady from the time she was born / Now she went and played me / Now my love is gone."

The Boombastic album is filled with a clever blend of hard-core dancehall rhythms, fluid slower songs helped along by dancehall crooners Wayne Wonder and Rayvon, and hip-hop mixes featuring such MCs as Grand Puba and Budda Junky Swan. It's an album clearly aimed for crossover appeal, but since Shaggy's lived in the hip-hop hotbed of Brooklyn since he was 18 he may represent part of a larger trend. While always creative in its use of sampled material, hip-hop has recently started to integrate the sounds of other genres. Newer tunes reveal a debt to jazz, rock jams, 70s R & B, and other influences. Caribbean music has long been overlooked, though its impact has been profound--after all, Jamaican DJs showed New Yorkers how to use a turntable as a musical instrument, and "toasting," an obvious precursor to rap, has been around since the 60s.

Shaggy's convincingly combined both the American and Jamaican influences that have shaped him. "Why You Treat Me So Bad," a sizzling tune that joins Grand Puba's flowing New York rapping with Shaggy's gruff patois, would be equally at home in a dance hall or on a hip-hop radio station. "In the Summertime," a cover of Mungo Jerry's 60s ditty, is catchy enough for pop radio but still has the beat requisite for dancehall fans. "Something Different," his duet with Wonder, is in the more mellow, traditional reggae vein but isn't sappy or watered down with pop sensibilities.

As a Jamaican-born American citizen, Shaggy has wittily mastered the musical cultures of both countries--acting as a bridge between two worlds. That's one thing you couldn't say about Terence Trent D'Arby, who was playing the same night down the street at Metro. D'Arby first hit it big in England, but he's had a harder time in the U.S. because he wants to be both a soul singer and a rock 'n' roller. Consequently he's stuck in a commercial no-man's-land.

But D'Arby always thought of himself as an artist rather than a pop star. His lyrics focus on spiritual concerns even though his music is geared toward physical movement. Ever since the succcess of his debut album, 1987's Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby, he's been upstaged by his well-deserved reputation for mercurial behavior. Back then he made the cover of Rolling Stone, but the story carried the headline "A Legend in His Own Mind." Five years ago he walked off the Metro stage after only two songs, but this time it was obvious that he'd come to perform.

D'Arby may appear conceited, but he has lots of talent to spare. He can sing, dance, and play exceedingly well. At his recent Metro outing, he reeled through tunes from his latest album, Vibrator. He shimmied, twirled, and glided as he tackled the music with suppleness. Joined by two band members in apple hats, D'Arby clearly was borrowing from such 60s and 70s icons as James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. Under the psychedelic light show, the concert took on the feel of a funky "happening," with spirituality and sex mixed into a heady blend.

In Vibrator D'Arby switches back and forth between up-tempo, funky rockers and touching, delicate ballads. His loose-limbed moves and gruffly sensuous voice convey a multilayered message with subtlety and power. In the title cut he belts out, "Beautiful child of God and man / There's a messiah inside of you / At times you feel like your life don't mean / A damn thing / But beware of the reflections that sorrows bring." But then his philosophical leanings give way to the lustful verses of "Supermodel Sandwich": "Babes on babes sticky finger wave / We don't need a man but my ego couldn't understand / So I raised my glass and grabbed a piece of aspirin / But if you've got a friend tell her she can join in."

Whatever the slant, D'Arby's tunes are the product of a thinking man. His words may be full of self-involved righteousness or just about the possibilities of a "supermodel sandwich," but he follows his own mind, challenging listeners to go beyond the familiar. He doesn't fit into any single category, so record execs don't know how to market him. His music is too rock-oriented for urban radio, too ambiguous for pop radio, and too funk-filled for alternative radio. He's too androgynous for the sex-symbol, free-spirited love-thang status of a Lenny Kravitz. So what do you do with D'Arby? It's a challenge that he revels in, seemingly content to dwell in his own category, defying any attempt to package him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Silverman.

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