Under-the-radar all-stars

Special to The Times

Every week, from dusk till dawn, the streets of this city's Tivoli district host "Passa Passa Wednesdays," a massive, free fete that is also reggae's unofficial public opinion poll.

Colossal speakers deck the road. Dancing ladies model outre outfits. Jamaica's top DJs spin the latest dancehall tunes; crowds signify their favorites with raised lighters, mock gunshots and shouts of "Rewind!," commanding the DJ to start that track all over again.

For months now, the most rousing "rewinds" have been bestowed not on Grammy-nominated international darlings Sean Paul or Wayne Wonder, but on two artists with names less familiar to American audiences: Sizzla and Vybz Kartel.

Widely acknowledged by reggae DJs and fans alike as the genre's hottest underground commodities, these performers represent the diversity of dancehall: Sizzla is a devout Rastafarian whose songs tend to celebrate the sacred, while Kartel's distinctive fusion of dancehall and hip-hop takes the profane to creative heights.

They have three things in common: vast local esteem, a reputation for lyrical prowess and, on their latest albums, backing beats by Donovan "Vendetta" Bennett, the popular Jamaican producer responsible for much of Elephant Man's "Good 2 Go" album.

"Reggae is rebel music, so it almost makes sense that in a year that saw Sean Paul go platinum, the people's favorites weren't necessarily the top sellers," says Aaron Talbert, director of sales at VP Records, the Kingston-based label that released Paul's hit album "Dutty Rock" in the U.S. last year. As "crossover" becomes Jamaica's musical mantra, Sizzla and Kartel suggest an inconsistent relationship between local acclaim and international success.

In Bennett's studio, Kartel -- Hennessy bottle in one hand, notebook in the other -- is recording a track called "Prison Life." The 26-year-old artist leans into the microphone to deliver his signature flow: a salvo of well-articulated, sexually explicit rhymes.

After some prodding from Bennett, Kartel hastily scribbles the hook for his new song in his notebook. It's an unusual recording process: Most hit-seeking artists build their tracks around catchy lyrical hooks, but Kartel, a confessed "dictionary addict," is first and foremost concerned with his verses -- tongue twisters about day-to-day life that make some fans chuckle and others blush.

"My style is not orthodox dancehall and it's not hip-hop. I call it new-millennium dancehall -- it reflects how the music is evolving," says Kartel, whose real name is Adidja Palmer.

Like many Jamaican artists, Kartel began performing at shows when he was a boy. Because reading and writing were "both a hobby and a habit for me," Kartel penned his own material.

"I study life, and my lyrics imitate it," he says. "I wanted to be a journalist, actually -- but hey, this is journalism, what I do."

After ghostwriting a series of hit records, Kartel began making his own, quickly earning his reputation as underground reggae's most salacious wordsmith. Teaming up with Bennett for his debut album, "Up 2 Di Time," released last year on London-based Greensleeves Records, he earned a series of hits on Jamaican radio and in the U.S. reggae market. His vivacious single "Tek" is currently No. 2 on the Jamaican chart.

"Up 2 Di Time" is hardly a perfect album: Though Bennett's frenetic beats and Kartel's painstaking delivery are superbly matched, the X-rated subject matter can turn tedious. The album does, however, introduce a writer and performer with enormous growth potential.

For Kartel, success has already come with its share of scandals, including a much-talked-about physical clash with veteran reggae artist Ninja Man at a Kingston show in December. The feud, which landed Kartel in jail on weapons and assault charges, made Jamaican headlines for weeks, but Kartel insists now that he's "not into this war thing; it's all about the music."

Not far from Bennett's studio is a winding road whose signposts are decorated in the red, gold and green of Rastafarianism, a religious sect founded in Jamaica in the 1930s. It's the road to judgment -- Judgment Yard, that is, the local name for Sizzla's studio and musical home base.

Here, media are treated with a fair share of skepticism. Rastafarian head wraps are paired with Nikes and Phat Farm T-shirts, and 27-year-old Sizzla, born Miguel Collins, is hailed by his entourage as a kind of musical prophet.

"What do I say to the press?" he scoffs. "I say this: reparation and repatriation. Gather all of my people together and on to Africa."

He's a reggae mainstay who has released more than a dozen albums, so Sizzla's 2002 VP Records release, "Da Real Thing," came with little fanfare. But its haunting spiritual anthems struck a chord with listeners, who d made it his most successful album yet: While Sizzla's previous releases averaged about 40,000 units worldwide, sales for "Da Real Thing" doubled that number.

"There are beautiful people in America, and they are sick of all the flossing, and hungry for my music," says Sizzla, seated in his Judgment Yard recording studio beside a red, gold and green bongo drum.

His melodies seem effortless; his voice -- here sweetly harmonizing, there gruffly chatting -- can be deliberately un-dulcet. But whether he's praising the deity Jah or candidly seducing a woman, Sizzla's lyrics have a sincerity that resonates.

"The word we listen to -- it's the word," reflects the singer, whose new album, "Rise to the Occasion," came out last month on Greensleeves. Like "Da Real Thing," the album is a reggae crowd-pleaser that eschews categories: Falsetto love songs, explicit dancehall fare and politically conscious tracks sit side by side.

"The words, them send a message, and then the melody and the riddim help in carrying that word along. Music is the spiritual truth."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World