Busy Signal: The Difference Of Busy

Within five years, Busy Signal has risen from obscurity to take his place at the forefront of Jamaican dancehall music. That’s because whilst Vybz Kartel courts the most controversy and the likes of Sean Paul and Beenie Man are better known internationally, it’s Busy who continues to push back the boundaries and release the more interesting material.

His latest album, D. O. B, stands for either “Difference Of Busy” or “Dominance Of Busy,” according to preference. Both fit and the former even more so since there’s hardly a track on it that sounds the same, or doesn’t challenge what we may think about where dancehall music’s headed next. Just like Sean Paul, Busy takes it upon himself to support young Jamaican producers whenever he can. This is what gives so much of his music its progressive, cutting edge and especially whenever he teams up with Stephen McGregor, who produced the tracks How Yuh Bad So and Hairdresser Shop.

“Before Stephen, we had the same beat for years!” Busy exclaims. “He changed it up and that was long overdue because it’s a new generation now. It’s not the era of King Stitt or Papa San. It’s not the era of Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton. It’s not the era of Chakademus & Pliers. It’s a new era and we have so many new producers now, plus studio is so different these days because there are millions of sounds you can use. The way people produce, it’s all about using different plug-ins and frequencies and that’s why we’re hearing all these different elements coming into dancehall now. There’s a whole bunch of stuff we can incorporate into our music and that’s given a real facelift to dancehall. It’s made it more exciting, I think.”

The truth of this statement is unmistakable. Picante for example, bears Spanish influences, whilst recent single Jafrican T’ing is a genre-defying fusion of African and Caribbean styles. DJ Karim is another of Busy’s regular collaborators. He has a track on the latest album called Opera that sounds just like classical music, as Busy chats about how he, “change up the style like transmission.” This much is true, since we never know what to expect next! One minute he’s delivering soul-baring reality songs like Nah Go A Jail Again, and then making chart and club-friendly hits like Unknown Number the next. He’s also a decent producer in his own right, dating back to his first album, Step Out, from 2006. His own label is called Turf Muzik, and apart from including Nuh Boy Caan Buy Wi Out as an acapella, so “the DJs can have a treat with it and put it on different rhythms and everything,” he also had a hand in producing Busy Latino, which is a wonderful mix of Jamaican dancehall and Latin music.

Whilst he doesn’t play any instruments professionally, he’s got an ear for music and knows what he wants to hear. Typically self-effacing, he also pays credit to the team he has around him and especially Shane Brown, who acts as his manager whilst releasing hits on the Juke Boxx label by the likes of Shaggy, Morgan Heritage, Tarrus Riley and others. It was Shane who produced Unknown Number, Hey Girl, Curfew and those recent cuts of Stalag, including High Grade and Call The Hearse. The pair are presently putting finishing touches to a studio of their own up by Hope Road, not too far from the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston and whilst it’s early days yet, these new facilities could well prove the nerve centre of Jamaican music in future.

In the meantime, Call The Hearse finds Busy chatting about “pure dead body in the street.” As a ghetto youth himself, Busy knows all about the crime and violence plaguing Kingston’s mean streets. On tracks such as Bigger Heads and Who’s To Blame, he leaves us in no doubt as to whom he believes is responsible for such problems, or who ends up paying the cost. With this in mind, there’s a line in Peace Reign – again produced by Shane – where Busy claims, “the good suffers for the bad, right down to the baby” and the reality of that statement is undeniable.

“Some people may listen to that track and think it’s harsh, but that’s how it is,” Busy explains. “It’s reality and we see it firsthand everyday because there’s no denying the crime or the poverty we have down here.”

Although born in St. Ann’s and raised in Brown’s Town, Busy – real name Reanno Gordon – spent time in Tivoli Gardens as a youngster and therefore has much to say about what happened in Kingston’s most notorious ghetto the other month, when security forces massacred many of the inhabitants.
“Yeah, I used to live there and so it was heartbreaking to see what happened there because the politicians, they are the ones that build it. This thing was set up way before my birth. It was from Seaga time and then Jim Brown coming right the way up to Dudus,” he begins. “It wasn’t just from the other day and yet Tivoli Gardens has been cleaned up over the years. For a long time there was no crime and violence; nobody would rob you or take anything… They were having parties at Passa Passa and people could go there to enjoy themselves, knowing that nobody was going to be breaking into their cars or trying to rape them. There was a whole different thing going on there that had nothing to do with politics and all of that corruption.

“All of that is gone now, and nobody knows what is going to happen. For the time being they’ve stationed some soldiers there and also a lot of police but they’ve got to move out sometime, and then there will be other people come in taking over from Dudus. That’s the way it’s always been over the years. People fill in the slots, take over the vacancies and that’s the way it goes. We’ll see new faces emerge saying, ‘A me a run this now,’ and they’ll build up the same thing again. I’m interested to see what will happen when voting time come around though because politics is what caused all of this and whenever it come to that time again, then hopefully we’re going to see something new. Tivoli Gardens has been a stronghold for the JLP side from ever since. It’s always been a JLP area and whosoever wants to vote for a different party would have to leave, because they wouldn’t be allowed, and that’s how it’s been over the years. People’s votes don’t have any meaning. It’s been forced on them and the government doesn’t want people to be able to think or act for themselves, but to keep voting in the same way as before. It’s like a tradition but there’s some young people coming up now who would like it change it, because they don’t want that anymore. They want to be free and make up their own minds, and to have a say in it. They know it’s wrong, and they know it’s the government to blame.”
Did you have family and friends caught up in the violence?
“Yes, I had this cousin living there and they still can’t find him even up ‘til now because there are a lot of bodies unaccounted for and a lot of them, you can’t even figure out who is who or what is what. That’s because people were burnt… There were a lot of different things happening down there. It’s gruesome, but the security forces went into Tivoli Gardens, kill all those people and then claim to have found four guns. I don’t understand that. That don’t add up but when they do the real check now, they find that there were over a hundred and seventy people killed and just seventeen guns discovered. It’s so corrupt and it wasn’t just Tivoli Gardens either, but Denham Town and some parts of Spanish Town as well. It was just crazy. If the same thing had happened anywhere else, it would be called “ethnic cleansing.” That’s the only term I can think of.”

After leaving Brown’s Town for Kingston, his mother struggled to raise him and his three brothers, yet still managed to maintain a stable home environment despite their father’s absence. Financial pressures meant they were always moving around, from Tivoli Gardens, Stand Pipe and Papine to Spanish Town. Busy started out singing in church alongside his mother – in fact the first time he held a microphone was to sing gospel – and he still attends church with her sometimes, hence the occasional gospel/dancehall song like El Shadhi. The name Busy Signal came after a friend remarked on his irrepressible enthusiasm for music. As his dee-jay career began to unfold, he spent time around Kilimanjaro and Renaissance, gaining experience by voicing the occasional dub plate and learning how to project his voice. He also began to write lyrics and shortly afterwards, recorded his debut for Renaissance on a cut of the Tunda Clap rhythm called Shake It Fast, shared with a singer called Kenny. It was followed by tracks like Up Into The Club, Step Out and It’s All Because Of You, featuring Tami Chyn. This was circa 2005/6. His progress proved both rapid and impressive, and before long his name was on everyone’s lips as an artist possessed of remarkable story-telling abilities, as well as impeccable mic skills.

On that first album, he’s heard mixing it with Bounty Killer [whom he describes as “a big brother”] and Mavado – no mean feat for a newcomer, but it was These Are The Days and Nah Go A Jail Again, with lyrics inspired by the five months he’d spent in a US jail, that put him on the map. Both will appear on his next set, Loaded, released in 2008 and which included other highlights such as Unknown Number, Cool It Baby and Real Jamaican, shared with Michael Rose. Apart from a lyrical tour-de-force with Bounty Killer, this latest album is free of guest stars. Instead, it’s Busy himself providing the variety as he skips through a bewildering array of different styles.

“That’s because I listen to anything, and I do mean anything,” he says, laughing. “I listen to Madonna and all kinds of music that people would think is outside the box – singers like Pavarotti and songs by lots of people you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I also listen to reggaeton and some other styles of music that reggae gave birth to. That’s because the people who take our music and do something different with it, sometimes they get wider exposure than us and we can learn a lot from them, so I listen to the way they flow and the beats they use, and I just try and see and hear what they are doing. That’s very important I think, but otherwise I listen to hip hop, soul and r & b, as well as all kinds of Jamaican music.”

Which may explain why he choose to cover the Phil Collins’ song One More Night
“Yes, because I’m always listening to those kinds of songs, and wanting to complement them by doing them in my own style and turning them into reggae music,” he explains. “Not necessarily by doing them in dancehall, because I can give them more longevity by singing them over reggae or a smooth, rub-a-dub beat, like we did with Night Shift or Sweet Love, which I did like that as well. It’s just something I’ve taken on for myself, to show my appreciation for songs I genuinely love.

“I mean I’m a dancehall artist yes and I know that people expect certain things from me but I prefer to do the unexpected basically. That’s why you’ll hear me singing tracks like those, only sometimes I get the impression I’m not supposed to do things like that. If there was a law for dancehall, I would probably be breaking it because you wouldn’t believe the number of people who say to me, ‘Why are you doing songs like those? What do you think you’re doing man?’ Well, I want to go beyond that. I want to operate outside of the box, like I said. I remember way back when I came out with These Are The Days and Nah Go A Jail, some people didn’t accept it at first but those songs were so real, they couldn’t deny it or go around it. They came from my own experience and people didn’t expect that, coming from a youngster like myself. As an artist it’s tempting to keep on doing the things that work but you have to do what you feel and to be yourself, even if it does upset people sometimes…”

John Masouri

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About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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