Yellowman was arguably the first legitimate superstar from the Jamaican dancehall scene—he broke out with the 1983 album Zungguzungguguzungguzeng—and his influence has been so extensive it's hard to imagine what the music would sound like if he'd never existed. His 80s output bridged the previous decade's roots-reggae sound and the electronics that would come to replace it, and his vivid lyrics—full of drugs, violence, and raunchy sex—established a template for the generations of gangsta-minded "slack" vocalists who have followed in his wake. (To his credit, though, he hasn't contributed to the rabid homophobia that his descendants have ingrained into dancehall culture—perhaps because he's endured more than his fair share of discrimination as an albino.) He's had an equal albeit less direct influence on hip-hop, where he's been quoted, sampled, or shouted out by a who's who of rap royalty, including Eazy-E, Ice Cube, KRS-One, and both Biggie and Tupac.
Interviewing Yellowman for this week's Artist on Artist is one of his many American fans, Chicago dancehall torchbearer MC Zulu, who's advocated for the genre for years despite its failure to gain much of a foothold around these parts. Where Yellowman's music still has one foot in the 70s, Zulu is planted firmly in the present, frequently collaborating with boundary-pushing underground electronic artists—his set with local EDM oddball Chrissy Murderbot at last summer's Pitchfork Music Festival was the surprise success of the weekend. —Miles Raymer
I think one of the greatest choruses in dancehall overall—it stands out because it kind of suggests a story that might be going on—is "Nobody move, nobody get hurt." Every time I write a song, I always think about that: how can I suggest a situation without really saying it. Have you always gone from that standpoint when you wrote a song? Yeah, because in Jamaica, they got a squad, a force that they call Eradication. So, I don't know if you remember that song—
"Operation Eradication." Right. Yeah.
Actually, where did that come from? It come from just the police force, you know. Because it was a police force—so, like, some police get the license to kill, you know?
I'd like to ask what kind of influences you've had outside music—Operation Eradication being one of them, and the police. What are some other things? Well, "I'm getting married in the morning," you know? Even on that song called "Mr. Chin"—
Uh-huh. Because in Jamaica, back in the 70s, the 80s, it was the Chinese own all the business. And whenever they wanted to raise the price of the food items, they hide it. They hide the goods, and let it look like it's scarce.
Oh, so create a demand. Right. You get everything easy now, they stop hiding the goods, because they hike up the price. Because the government involved in it. Because the Chinese, they own the groceries, the supermarket. That's why I sing, "Mr. Chin, boy you fi sell the right thing," you know?
In the rest of the world, we don't have it boiled down to a certain race or a different kind of people or what have you. Here, it's more of a thing of class, where people who have money fight against everyone else. It's like the haves versus the have-nots. Right. It be like that in Jamaica—they take advantage of the people because it's a third world country, you know.
I'm sure there are some businesspeople who aren't Chinese who partake in that kind of abuse of the public trust. Yeah, well, I think they abuse the people because they know they have the goods. But they keep it scarce. Back in the 70s and the 80s, the Chinese people owned the establishment. They own the milk factory, the orange juice, you know. And they are friends with the GraceKennedy Group. All those business groups.
Do you see a lot of influence in today's reggae artists that you may have caused? A lot of artists both locally and internationally. Because rap music was influenced by dancehall—back in the 80s, groups like Run-DMC, people like Doug E. Fresh, Ice-T, Ice Cube . . .
I remember Eazy-E's "Nobody move, nobody get hurt." Right. People like Nelly, people like Notorious B.I.G, people like Young MC.