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Hip-Hop News: Reggae Beat Inspiring Missy to Beyonce to No Doubt
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Posted by Robert
Rap News Network
3/13/2004 2:50:29 PM

Tags and topics realted to this article include Sean Paul, Missy Elliott, Wu-Tang Clan and Beyonce.

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Music studios here, low on frills and high on voltage, are the nerve centers of Jamaica. Anywhere on the island -- even in Kingston, a car-loving city that scoffs at public domain -- music blares. From car windows, office buildings and beach huts comes the mélange of sounds you'd expect (roots reggae, dancehall, hip-hop) and ones that might surprise you (American country music, anything by Celine Dion).

Pulling up to Donovan Bennett's studio in the fairly humble neighborhood called Mona, I smell status: The small street is heavy with big cars, including that music-industry trophy, the Escalade. This colossal entity, says my companion, a local journalist, might belong to Sean Paul, who owns one and is as likely as any other dancehall artist to drop in at Bennett's studio.

Paul, it turns out, isn't in the studio today; neither is customary caller Elephant Man, who's in Los Angeles shooting his latest music video. Bennett, 26, goes by "Vendetta" and is the rising young star behind the revival of the reggae sound that's now a requisite staple of virtually any American pop star -- from Missy Elliott to Beyoncé to No Doubt. He's working today with Vybz Kartel, a 26-year-old lyricist who is dancehall's hottest commodity but who hasn't yet crossed over to the mainstream U.S. market. Kartel, born Adidja Palmer, takes an assertive stance at the mike. He sports the Diesel-esque style -- straight-leg distressed jeans, fitted button-down shirt, platinum pendant -- popular among the dancehall set, and holds his two favorite props: a plump joint of marijuana and a notebook of song lyrics he's about to deliver, rapid-fire and sharply articulated. Kartel dubs his signature style "new millennium dancehall": a hybrid of Jamaican patois and hip-hop slang.

Kartel is big in Jamaica, and Bennett can help make him big in America. But since Bennett is increasingly big in both countries, you wonder if these casual recording sessions will continue much longer. Bennett has lately produced American tracks by the Wu Tang Clan and Alicia Keys, as well as a good chunk of a reggae album currently finding favor in the American market: Elephant Man's "Good 2 Go," which debuted in Billboard's top 100 and featured the MTV-friendly single "Pon Di River."

Bennett, his hair in long, braided cornrows, sits serenely in his chair, like a kid at his PlayStation: intensely involved in his game but still in autopilot mode, and maybe a little bored. He leans forward only to deliver scant commands: "Pronounce it 'Yale,' not 'Yay-all"; or, "ride the riddim better," the dancehall equivalent of "stay on the beat." Bordering on shy, Bennett is the epitome of a behind-the-scenes man.

Bennett plays the "riddim," the unique beat that the song will be centered on. This riddim is called "Chrome," a catchy confection of drums and steady electronic accents that is already a success: Big-name artists have recorded songs over it, and this week it backed the No. 1 song on Jamaican reggae charts ("In Her Heart" by Capleton, a Rastafarian known for his fiery delivery). Though Bennett didn't make "Chrome," the man who did -- a middling artist called Alozade -- asked Bennett to produce this, with Kartel on vocals.

For his 2003 debut album, "Up 2 Di Time," Kartel teamed up with Bennett; before that he made his name as a lyricist, ghost-writing for other artists. The track he delivers today is a meticulously rhymed, uproarious ditty in which he and Alozade are jailbirds. In real life, both have indeed served prison time; Kartel's December arrest on weapons and assault charges was reggae's talk of the town for weeks.

"It's just another Biggie and Tupac thing," he says of his arrest, which was prompted by an altercation with a veteran dancehall artist he'd been feuding with. I remind Kartel that the "thing" of which he speaks didn't have a particularly happy ending: N

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