Usain Bolt (right), the Jamaican Olympian and the fastest man alive making the sign of Vybz Kartel's Gaza crew. Bolt and Kartel have known each other since high school
Although he's been incarcerated for nearly a year awaiting trial on murder and conspiracy to murder charges, the unprecedented and widespread popularity of Vybz Kartel in dancehall circles and far beyond has not abated in the least. In the last week, for example, the fastest man alive gave Vybz's crew an Olympic shout-out and Vice Records, which is a joint partnership venture with WMG, threw a party for a re-release of his last album.
The latest chapter in Kartel's controversy fueled ascent to stardom, with song lyrics lauded by some for their gritty realism yet loathed by others for their violence and explicitness seems to have heightened the mystique surrounding his dancehall dominance of the past seven years. That sentiment was expressed by many who attended the Aug. 14 release party for Kartel's latest album: Kingston Story Deluxe Edition ( Vice Records) held at Miss Lily's Variety, a reggae record store/Jamaican restaurant/juice bar located in Manhattan's West Village.
The only Kartel album recorded with a single producer, Brooklyn based Dre Skull, Kingston Story was originally released in June 2011 on Dre's digital label Mixpak Records; Now Vice Records is making the original album, plus two previously unreleased tracks, available in CD and vinyl formats.
From left: Producer and MixPak Records owner Dre Skull, music scribe and DJ Rob Kenner, Vice co-founder Suroosh Alvi and Ms. Lily's partner Matt Goias at Vice Records' rerelease party for Vybz Kartel's Kingston Story
To mark the occasion, the paneled walls of Miss Lily's Variety were lined with vividly colored portraits of Kartel who has over the past few years bleached his chocolate brown skin to a pasty beige tone to better flaunt his tattoo festooned arms and face. In addition to the Kingston Story vinyl and other Kartel CDs for sale in the back of the store, there were black buttons emblazoned with the word Gaza in a simple white font.
Gaza initially referred to a volatile area in the Kingston suburb of Portmore where Kartel was raised and rose to prominence; but Gaza now also encompasses the consortium of artists Kartel has mentored in the music business, including Tommy Lee, Popcaan, Gaza Slim and former Gazans Jahvinci and Black Ryno. Also for sale were copies of another recent Kartel venture, his first book "Vybz Kartel Voice of the Ghetto", its cover image of a bespectacled Kartel suggestive of the cover of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X".
"All of this shows you why Kartel is so ahead of the curve: many artists have great music but you can't find a decent photo of them, let alone an album, CDs, a book. Even without trying, even while locked up, Kartel gives us enough material for a great installation here tonight that honors his music," observed Matt Goias, a partner in the various Miss Lily's enterprises including the popular upscale Jamaican eatery next door Miss Lily's Favourite Cakes.
"No one in dancehall has ever had the kind of hold on the genre or the heart of Jamaican music the way Kartel has: not Shabba in his heyday, not Bounty Killer; even sitting in jail creates more stories swirling around him, which keeps him at the top of the pile," opined globe trotting selector Max Glazer who has worked with Rihanna and Sean Paul among others and is the Program Director at www.radiolily.com, which broadcasts daily from Miss Lily's Variety.
Glazer spun a treasure trove of Kartel dub plates (customized recordings of popular hits that laud a specific selector or sound system), collected over 10 years worth of trips to Kingston, which prepped Miss Lily's in store and online audiences for an interview with Dre Skull, conducted by journalist Rob Kenner, host of reggae/dancehall show Stricitly Boomshots, heard on Monday evenings on www,radiolily,com.
"I really rate Kartel as a songwriter and a vocalist and working with him was a dream scenario; I felt like we had a great creative connection," Dre Skull reflected. Better known for his work in hip hop and electronic music, Dre's eclectic dancehall production on Kingston Story so impressed producer/selector Diplo, he was recruited for rapper Snoop Dog's reggae alter ego project, Snoop Lion, which Vice will release in November.
While working on the Snoop recording in Jamaica earlier this year Dre Skull met Vice co-founder Suroosh Alvi. Already a Kartel fan, Suroosh quickly became obsessed with Kingston Story. "The album became the soundtrack to my life for the past 6 months," Suroosh acknowledged. A multi-media company, Vice established its record label ten years ago but Suroosh says, "there are few records I felt this way about. A lot of things about this project don't make sense: the album has been out for a year and the artist is incarcerated but we want to release great albums and that was my impetus to ask Dre, maybe we can offer you something on a marketing level that you weren't able to do the first time around?"
Max Glazer a selector and programmer at Radio Lily.
Traditional marketing strategies will include working singles to radio and video clips put up on Youtube, such as "My Crew", which also dropped on August 14. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ah8lhmKEUQ
But the greatest promotion for anything Kartel related recently arrived with Usain Bolt's three Gold Medals at the London Olympics.
As media from across the globe incessantly snapped his photo, Bolt, a longstanding Kartel fan, often flashed what dancehall fans recognized as the Gaza sign: the ring and index fingers bent across each other, the remaining fingers outstretched. "Usain Bolt was shouting out Gaza, which is amazing for the timing of the release of Kingston Story. We are definitely going to capitalize on that as much as possible," Suroosh acknowledged.
"When the fastest runner in the world coming from Jamaica wants to identify with Gaza," observes Max Glazer, "that says a lot about Vybz Kartel's influence, for better or for worse."