The former U.S. Marine brings dancehall to the masses
Credit: Noam Galai/WireImage

It’s two days before Super Bowl Sunday, and Tampa is in a tizzy of anticipation. Rabid football fans (along with hookers, bookies, and assorted other opportunists) have descended on the area, lending the town a gleeful Mardi Gras vibe. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know a New York Giant from the Jolly Green Giant — the hysteria is contagious.

Amid the mania, non-sports fan and visiting pop luminary Shaggy, in town to tape an appearance for MTV’s Rock ‘N Jock, has caught the fever. He’s also suffering from the chills, stomach problems, and a general feeling of malaise, but he’s got work to do. So when the time comes for him to crawl out of his trailer and perform his hit “It Wasn’t Me” in front of a horde of teens at Raymond James Stadium, he shrugs off his sickness, trots on stage, and gets down to business.

MTV has corralled the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders to act as backing booty-shakers and hired the Bethune-Cookman College marching band to provide a booming instrumental coda to the bawdy tune (which advises those caught flagrante delicto to borrow a page from Bill “I Never Had Sex With That Woman” Clinton’s book). Shaggy and Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent, featured vocalist on and cowriter of “It Wasn’t Me,” stamp their personas indelibly on the proceedings, exuding energy and charisma like the de facto superstars they’ve recently become.

The MTV crew tapes two takes, then Shaggy is outta there, professing uninterest in the fun, food, and festivities on tap. He’s got a hot date — with a bed and a vial of antibiotics.

There hasn’t been a major reggae superstar since Bob Marley. Not really. As Shaggy (né Orville Richard Burrell), 32, points out: ”If you look at reggae and dancehall artists in general, there isn’t really a big success story. A Shabba Ranks or a Yellowman might have a hit, but there’s never a follow up. There’s no consistency.”

Shaggy, who divides his time between a home in Jamaica and one in Valley Stream, Long Island, is in the process of changing that. In fact, with his current quadruple platinum album, the aptly titled ”Hotshot,” having nestled at the top of the Billboard pop chart, some might argue that he’s already accomplished his goal of reintroducing the mainstream to reggae. It’s a dream the Jamaica native — who can articulate with the gravitas of James Earl Jones or slip into an impossible to parse rude boy patois at will — has been working toward since he arrived in Brooklyn, at the age of 18.

After launching his career with a couple of local dancehall hits, he joined the Marines just in time for the Gulf War. By the time he returned to civilian life in the early ’90s, a deal with Virgin Records was in the offing. In short order, the single ”Oh Carolina” became the calling card for his first album, 1993’s ”Pure Pleasure.” Two years later, he scored a hit with ”Boombastic,” from the CD of the same name, which won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album in ’96.

His upward momentum hit a snag, however, with 1997’s ”Midnite Lover,” a commercial flop that Shaggy believes led to his being dropped by Virgin. The label’s vice president of A&R Gemma Corfield says: ”His third album wasn’t successful, and much to my chagrin [Virgin] cut him loose when they decided to do roster trimming” — a decision she now admits was ”terrible.”

Shaggy is even more emphatic: ”It was a slap in the face.” The stinging sensation didn’t last long, however. Shortly after Shaggy parted with Virgin, MCA Records asked him to do some promotional work for ”Luv Me, Luv Me,” a tune he’d recorded with Janet Jackson for the ”How Stella Got Her Groove Back” soundtrack. ”I did these radio station interviews in different markets,” says Shaggy, ”and MCA saw that wherever Shaggy went, records got sold. So they asked me to do an album for them, and I said, Why not?”

”Hotshot” has now yielded a second hit: ”Angel” — which improbably grafts Merrilee Rush’s starry eyed 1968 ballad ”Angel of the Morning” onto the bass line of Steve Miller’s 1973 stoner anthem ”The Joker” — is moving rapidly up the singles chart.

Shaggy knows he’s in a position of strength (”How many artists do you know that get [sacked] by one label and come back three or four times bigger on another?”), and he intends to capitalize on it by building an empire. He’s already started a label, Big Yard, for which his cohorts and fellow West Indian homeboys RikRok and Rayvon — a.k.a. Bruce Brewster, who shares vocal chores with Shaggy on ”Angel” — are both working on solo albums. All three are under the aegis of Shaggy’s longtime manager, Robert Livingston, who believes the time is right for ”happy reggae type sounds” to take over the airwaves. ”When you’ve got good, danceable songs that make people feel good, anything is possible,” says Livingston.

Not everyone is dancing for joy, though. Some reggae purists take a dim view of Shaggy’s music, dismissing it as a pop bastardization of the real stuff — more smooth boy than rude boy. And he readily admits he’s no Rasta: Though his sobriquet derives from the shaggy dog hairstyle he wore in his youth, he’s never sported dreadlocks and he has no interest in spreading the Gospel According to Haile Selassie.

”I’ve been criticized for doing so called crossover music,” Shaggy says. ”But I never claimed to be a pure dancehall artist. I just do what sounds good to me, and people seem to like it. I want to take it as far as I can.”

”We really hope to emulate the Latin music [explosion],” seconds RikRok. ”[Latin music] wasn’t popular until they diluted it a bit and made it possible for the average non- Latino person to understand it. Hopefully, we can do that with reggae and dancehall.”

If the cultural co- option of reggae is inevitable, Shaggy is more than happy to lead the pack. He’s certainly a new type of reggae archetype, one who rarely smokes ganja, either socially or sacramentally (”If someone gives me a blunt, I just thank them and give it to someone who smokes”), and has no political agenda beyond getting what’s due him and his. ”Right now, I want to concentrate on helping RikRok and Rayvon with their albums,” he says. ”My own [next album] can wait. Anyway, I think ‘Hotshot’ is gonna carry us through next year.” He pauses. ”Way through next year.”