Shabba Ranks' fast break Underground fans and an aura of sex fuel dancehall success

January 22, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

There's no mistaking the sound of Shabba Ranks.

Sure, there are other dancehall artists working their way onto the American charts, performers like Super Cat, Mad Cobra and the similarly named (but utterly unrelated) Cutty Ranks. But nobody sounds quite like Shabba.

It's the voice that does it. Where other dancehall artists treat the sing-song cadences of dancehall merely as an inducement to dance, Shabba's deep voice and throaty, emphatic delivery make the music seem like something else -- something sexy, exciting, dangerous.

Maybe that's why he's had more success over the last few years, both here and in Jamaica, than all his competitors combined. Where many Jamaican artists are lucky to get any airplay at all, Shabba has put three singles into the Top-40: "Mr. Lover Man," a duet with Maxi Priest called "Housecall," and the current hit "Slow and Sexy," which features Johnny Gill. Not to mention the rap and R&B success he's enjoyed with singles like "Wicked in Bed" and "The Jam." And frankly, that seems only the beginning for Shabba.

Does all this success surprise him? Not really.

"I already had a groundation," he says over the phone, his deep voice sweetened by a thick Jamaican accent. "I had an underground audience in America before I was even signed to Sony/Epic. I had a strong following within the clubs. The people on the street, they know me.

"So when they see that I'm being highlighted and promoted, they supported me. Likewise with new fans. So that's what was causin' the fast-breaking in America."

Of course, it helps that Shabba's audience is muchbroader than the usual reggae constituency. At the moment, he's touring with Bobby Brown, Mary J. Blige and TLC (in fact, he's calling from a tour stop in Augusta, Ga.), and is going over as well with pop-oriented R&B fans as he did with the Caribbean community.

"It's the style, you know?" he says. "It's my style, and the way I approach it myself as an artist out there. Many people could look upon Shabba and say that I look most definitely like a rap act -- the way I carry myself, the way I dress, and everything."

It helps that a growing number of rap acts -- including big stars like KRS-One, Naughty By Nature and Das EFX -- are themselves drawing inspiration from the dancehall scene.

"Most definitely," agrees Shabba. "I would say that many raartists got a touch of dancehall with them. And you're gonna get a lot of more collaboration between dancehall and rap."

Does he see himself as drawing from rap, then? "Put it like this," he answers. "I'm hard core, man. I'm definitely off the street. There ain't no rappers off the street. So I collide with [the rap image].

"It's just street knowledge, man."

Shabba isn't exaggerating about his origins. Born Rexton Rawlston Fernando Gordon in Sturgetown, Jamaica, the 27-year-old performer was among the first to push "toasting" -- the rhythmic, sing-song, Jamaican DJ delivery that was a precursor to rap -- into the harder realm of dancehall. In fact, his earliest hits, particularly "Wicked in Bed" and a duet with the Jamaican singer Krystal called "Twice My Age," were considered quite scandalous in Jamaica, thanks to their "slackness," or sexual content.

Shabba, though, disagrees with his critics on that front. "I don't think that I'm preaching slackness," he says. "But many people say that, that I'm preaching slackness."

He does admit that it was his idea to include a condom in a specially packaged version of his new album, "X-Tra Naked," but says that he was just acting out of common sense. "I say, 'OK -- if you say it's sex, you better protect. If you protect, you will not detect. Yo, safe sex.' No more slackness, then.

"It's all about love-making," he adds. "That's what I'm all about. Many people say that I've been doing slackness.

"But you know, them people tend to a different thinking."

In any case, Shabba seems to think that those who misread his message are in the minority. "There ain't no misinterpretation," he says of his American listeners. "Many people, obviously, don't understand what I say. But there ain't no misinterpretation."

Probably not. After all, nobody sells as many albums and singles as Shabba has without building some sort of understanding with the audience. Still, it's worth wondering whether there's more to the dancehall phenomenon than this. Is there anything else we should know, Shabba?

"Well, I don't want to give the secret away," he laughs. "I want to keep them coming, so I ain't gonna give away my little secret. I know what I know, so it's for them to start knowing. When I see that they be getting there, I'll start teaching them widely and openly.

L "But whatever comes along, then I'll flow. Most definitely."

Shabba Ranks

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27.

Where: Baltimore Arena.

ckets: $22.50

Call: (410) 347-2020 for information; (410) 481-7328 for tickets.

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