Canadian Reggae: Who Knew?

By Greg Sandow
Updated April 02, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s irresistible, it’s incomprehensible, and it’s a No. 1 hit. We’re talking about ”Informer,” a happily propulsive little tune that has to be the most unlikely smash in years because (a) it’s dancehall music, the decidedly non-hit-oriented blend of rap and reggae introduced to the mainstream by Shabba Ranks, (b) it’s sung at machine-gun speed in a bewildering Jamaican patois, and (c) it was recorded by, of all things, a working-class white guy from Toronto who calls himself Snow.

Snow (a.k.a. 23-year-old Darren O’Brien) never expected his record to be big. ”I didn’t think nobody would understand it,” he very reasonably says. His video even has subtitles — though not because MTV demanded them, says Sylvia Rhone, chairman and CEO of Snow’s record label, Atco East/West. The translation got added, she says, only to make the already successful clip more ”endearing.”

In real life, there’s no trace of a Jamaican accent. So how did he learn his patois? ”I grew up (in a housing project) surrounded by Jamaicans,” says Snow, who got into all kinds of trouble growing up, finally landing in jail last May for assault committed in a barroom brawl. He recorded ”Informer” while free on bail, then got sentenced to eight months, watching the first broadcast of his video in a prison lounge. ”I don’t do crime no more,” he fervently swears.

Is Snow a reggae version of Vanilla Ice, a white wannabe with no credibility? No way, says Rhone, and to prove it she launched his career with a successful pre-”Informer” single aimed only at hard-core rap and reggae fans — and without one word ”about how he was white, green, or black.” Which was fine with Snow. ”I’m not no race,” he says, rejecting all labels, as if he could have shared any culture he liked: ”I wanted to be Chinese when I was a kid. Then I wanted to be in Kiss.”