LargeUp Interview: Talking ‘Sweet Jamaica’ with Mr. Vegas

February 2, 2012

Words by Jesse Serwer—

Over the last 15 years, Mr. Vegas has probably been the most consistent dancehall artist. While never attaining the household-name status of a Sean Paul or Elephant Man, the singjay has pumped out hit after hit—not the disposable kind but classics we’ll be hearing for decades to come, like “Heads High” and “Tek Weh Yuh Self.”

As his dance-themed “Bruk It Down” is gaining ground and getting spins on Hot 97, Vegas is taking a step back and celebrating 50 years of independence with Sweet Jamaica, an album of vintage-style reggae originals and updates of classics like Alton Ellis’ “You Make Me So Very Happy,” out Feb. 21. We’ve heard the album, and can honestly say we don’t expect to hear a better reggae album for the rest of this year. It’s a release, we think, that might just cement Vegas’ place as one of Jamaica’s great artists. Sample some of it in our exclusive album preview. For an even fuller picture, tune into the newly launched Radio Lily tonight from 8 to 10 PM ET, to hear an intimate acoustic performance/listening session from Vegas, live and direct from Miss Lily’s Variety.

But FIRST… we present a wide-ranging discussion with the man himself on Sweet Jamaica, the late, great Alton Ellis, and making music that means something.

LargeUp: So why did you want to do a reggae album that was kind of going back to older vibes?
Vegas: I just think I’m an old school guy. I think I grew up on songs from Barrington Levy and Tenor Saw and those songs mean so much to me. Those Gregory Isaacs and those Dennis Brown [songs], that music has so much soul. You can feel the energy in the music. Even when it plays now, when you put on a Dennis Brown [record] or a Barrington Levy, you can feel that drum roll, you can feel that voice coming through the music. You know that they were having fun with the music. I’m just trying to get a balance. I just want to make an example, I want to show people, let me do a reggae album and show you that it can be done and I will use my last bread to promote it. Watching Alton Ellis do his last live performance on video, I see that man on stage and he gave it, up to the last day. The last performance, he gave it his all. He had to sit on a box, he could not stand. He knew basically that his end was drawing near, that he was not well but he was out there giving his last to something that he enjoys. So this whole album, Sweet Jamaica, it’s showing those artists and letting them know that just because we jump on stage and sing “Hot Wuk” and “Tek Wuh Yuhself” and “Gallis,” there are [current] artists around that really respect these artists.

LU: At the same time, you are still making songs on current dancehall riddims, and you have this other CD with some of your recent singles. Do you feel that the dancehall songs that you’re doing now, and the riddims that you are working with, have the same timeless feel as the dancehall songs that you first broke out with in the 90’s had?
Vegas: When I produce something, if you listen to a track like “Bruk it Down” or “Certain Law,” that is straight from those original Steelie and Clevie vibes. So we use musicians when I have the choice to.  Of course, we’re not going to alienate the producers that’s around now like the Stephen McGregors and the Seranis and all those people, but, as I said before, I have to keep a balance. When I started doing music in ’97, I was around people like Cutty Ranks and Spragga Benz who I got inspiration from, so I’ve just stuck with that type of music. But you might hear me do something on a Stephen McGregor riddim. I’m not trying to stop these kids from producing what they’re producing. We did a double album because we didn’t want people to feel like, “Oh, they just stopped doing dancehall” or whatever. I see myself as a reggae artist. When I go to Europe and other places, I’m a reggae artist. People don’t know what dancehall is different from reggae music. If you get nominated for a Grammy, you’re going to be in the reggae category. They don’t have a dancehall category. I was nominated for the Soul Train Awards, it was the reggae category.

LU: “Heads High” is a song that has just gone international to a level where you will hear it at people’s weddings, for instance, from all over the world. Do you hear any current music coming out of Jamaica that can attain that level?
Vegas: I think Gyptian “Hold Yuh,” Serani “No Games”… are gonna be around for a long time. Yuh know, we [Jamaican artists] always find ourselves in the mix of things. Sometimes, we don’t find anything for a little while. We still keep supporting the good producers. If Clevie produces something, I have to go vibe with Clevie, cause I know what he can bring. Tony Kelly, we know what they can bring. I don’t have any doubt that we’ll find another “Heads High” or another “No Games” or another Gyptian tune. I do think when a lot of artists get a break to go on a major label, they start working with all these foreign-based producers, and hip-hop producers, because we are trying to fit. We believe that if it sounds international then it is international. I always stick to my formula that, if it breaks in Jamaica, and you, as an American, likes it, you like it because you like the original thing that’s coming from Jamaica. If you wanna hear some hip-hop sounding thing, you would choose to listen to Beyonce or whoever.

A lot of these artists, when they get a break, they just kind of step out of line and do songs with crossover artists and use crossover producers’ beats, and they totally forget about the  producers here in Jamaica that even recorded you in the first place, so that the song can get on Hot 97 and on BET and so forth. They totally forget about that vibe. And you can’t buy a hit now. It doesn’t matter how much you try. A song will pop up from Matterhorn’s bedroom like “Dutty Wine” and come and blow away a song that you spent thousands to produce.

LU: If you could do your career over differently, what would you do differently?
Vegas: I would have learned to play some folk instruments.

LU: What can you play? Can you play anything?
Vegas: I can mess around on the keyboard a little bit. I’m just getting familiar with hearing and singing in the right key. I speak to a lot of artists these days, and when I see them just starting out…. I can hear where they’re going to have problems because when you get the big song and you work on performance then you’re not gonna have time like myself to go sit with a music teacher and have the time to learn to play a guitar to make sure that when you hit that stage, you’re gonna be singing in the right key. Sometimes what you hear is different than what came out in the studio because you are singing in the wrong key.

LU:  So how did you learn how to sing? Hearing you talk, you don’t sound that much like your voice, so how did you find your singing voice which is very distinct?
Vegas: When I’m having a good day, and my voice is not overworked, like two rehearsals and studio all night, you might hear a higher range  in my voice. But I didn’t learn to sing. I was born with a gift, and I discovered that gift by default. By getting a broken jawbone, and then I went to the studio and could not sing in an R&B style like a Sanchez or a Wayne Wonder that I used to sing before. So then I discovered that sound that I came with on “Heads High” and “Sucky Ducky” and “Nike Air.” And that is what made me stand out like a Barrington Levy or like a Tenor Saw, [so] when you hear that voice you can know that it’s Vegas.

LU: It seems the best advice you could give to a singer would be to find your own distinct voice. That seems lost on most new vocalists yet the biggest new artist out of Jamaica is Popcaan, probably precisely because his voice doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.
Vegas: I’m not gonna knock an artist that sounds like someone and tell them you need to go find your own sound. Let me tell you this. I seen a lot of Jamaican artists who started out sounding like somebody and they gradually found their own style. A lot of artists have a great voice but because they grew up on a certain music, they actually clone whatever they hear so sometimes it’s hard to break them out of that sound. So some people sound like Luther Vandross and when they find their way, then they start changing into their own style. If you can sing, you can sing. I would be glad if I could sound like Michael Jackson right now. I would be the man.

LU: So who is the new Vegas?  Do you see yourself in any artists that are out right now?
Vegas: When I see Vegas, I envision people that I grew up listening to. I don’t look around and see artists sounding like me. I know people make comparisons all the time but I’m not going to try and take too much credit for my sound. I respect people like Khago who started out trying to sound like me and doing dubplates in my name and I respect him for doing an interview and saying Vegas is an inspiration, you know? I respect people like Serani, who I told to sing. Because he was trying to write a song for me and I said, “Yo, you need to sing that song yourself.” The same way I can do an interview and say Barrington Levy is my favorite singer and Tenor Saw. I give credit to my icons and inspirations. I don’t take credit for what is around.

LU: What would you say has been your biggest hindrance in your career if any, as far as being able to get where you see yourself going?
Vegas: I think a lack of promotion from labels. I think I’ve been doing this 16 years by myself, promoting myself, going into dances and giving out my CD,  going to the radio station and giving them my songs. Sometimes people take advantage of my work ethic, and might see me being the guy hanging around the DJs trying to promote a song like “I Am Blessed” or “Gallis” but people don’t know what I did to make it into a hit song. I have to stand around the turntable until DJs play it a few times and it starts catching on, and then I can go on the road and do some shows and promote in a different side of the world. I’ve never had the luxury of having people doing that for me. I accepted the role because I been doing it so long. I still do that til today. I promote my own self. No one promotes me. No one takes my videos and hands them out. No one takes me to the studio and records me. I have to go to a studio and find a good producer or a good beat or go produce myself.

LU: So are you putting out this album yourself completely?
Vegas: Yes. I can’t give up. I have to make an example for all of these artists that you can do it yourself. You have the digital situation now where you don’t have to go to these VPs or these record labels to put it out. What are these record labels going to do that you’re not going to do yourself? If you give them the album, you still have to go and promote yourself because the most they are going to do is distribute your CDs to a few DJs. They’re only going to do that if you sign to them, and if you sign to them and they do that, then you are going to owe them for the rest of your life.

LU: Have you completely ruled out working with bigger record labels? Does it serve any purpose to somebody at this stage in your career?
Vegas: If someone comes around and they’re going to promote Mr. Vegas and help me to reach where I can’t reach myself or if they’re going to allow me to be free to do my work, of course, I would relish the opportunity. But if someone is going to come around and they don’t know what to do with Vegas, it wouldn’t make any sense because I have kids to feed, I have to feed my family. But I am not going to forget the music, like the “Heads High” and the “I Am Blessed” and the “Gallis” that takes me around the world to survive. If someone is going to come along and want me to do a song with all these major sorts of artists or producers, I’m going to have to decide whether this is going to help me to reach the next level or it’s going to be just a hype.

LU: What is your strategy for promoting the album?
Vegas: Online marketing, we didn’t have that when I put Hot It Up out. I am going to surround the album with some form of charity. I just want to promote this record like it means something. I’m putting my all in to this like when we came up to the Heads High album and sold over 200,000 copies independently. Hopefully we can sell some records and donate to some charities and tour through the world. I hope that Sweet Jamaica reggae is going to be a record that’s around for a lifetime. Where I can be doing shows like Barrington Levy and Toots Hibbert and those people that are still doing shows because of good music in their youth.