At just five years old Shaun "Sting International" Pizzonia was collecting records and deejaying for his friends. Before his 10th birthday he had his own turntables and speakers set up. At 16 he was asked to spin at a Christmas party for New York City's WBLS FM (107.5 FM) held at Studio 54 -- but Shaun's mother, a record collector from whom he inherited his passion for music, had other ideas. She went to the prestigious Manhattan club to retrieve her underage son and take him home.
Shaun reluctantly complied with his mother's orders, but his stay would be brief. "That was the night I left home, it was Christmas time, 1984. I slept on the subway that entire winter," Sting International recollected in recent interview with Billboard at a midtown Manhattan restaurant. "I had my pockets slashed, my head bumped, I woke up with a perv's hand on my knee and it was as cold as shit. But I knew what I wanted, and I wouldn't find it sitting at home under the regime of my mom, so I didn't care what I had to go through to get it."
By spring 1985 the determined teenager had his own apartment and by 1987 he would become one of the most in demand club DJs in New York City, known for his extensive knowledge across numerous genres. Yet Sting International's pivotal role in taking reggae and dancehall to mainstream audiences, as a club and radio DJ, through Hot 100 chart topping productions for Shaggy (including "Angel," featuring Rayvon and "It Wasn't Me," featuring Rik Rok) and most recently on (the other) Sting and Shaggy's collaborative album 44/876, belies his preference for remaining behind the scenes. "I don't think I've done two interviews in all these years and I've never done one like this where I talk about my life; I've always been low key, I just play music and produce records," he explained.
Shaun heard a wide variety of music growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s and early '80s. His mother had a vast collection of 1950s doo-wop, Motown, jazz and reggae records; his sisters listened to rock and new wave albums and among his peers, there was R&B, funk, pop, disco, early house and dancehall reggae. Shaun brought these wide-ranging sounds together within his DJ gigs, initially using the name Shawny D. He came up with Sting International in early 1987 as an acronym for a consortium of DJs: Shaun, Tony, Ian and Gary. "I threw an N in there and got STING, and I added International to it because it sounded fucking grand and everybody loved it." Tony and Ian dropped out and Shaun and Gary Wint, as Sting International, built a large, loyal following in Brooklyn Clubs; they secured their first residency at Club Illusion, owned by Gary's father, Raymond Wint. Before long, they had engagements at Manhattan nightspots including Silver Shadow, The Red Parrot, Bentleys and The Latin Quarter.
In 1987, a turning point arrived for Sting International and, by extension, for dancehall reggae. Gary started a family and took a full-time job while Shaun secured a residency at The Underground on Friday nights, promoted by radio personality Dahved Levy, currently the host of Caribbean Fever on WBLS. As the sole DJ of Sting International, Shaun played a vibrant mix of dancehall, reggae and soca alongside house, hip-hop and R&B, which lured an American and Caribbean clientele to the lower Manhattan club, as well as several celebrities including Grace Jones, LL Cool J, Eddie Murphy and Mike Tyson. Jay Dixon, then working in production at WRKS (KISS) 98.7 FM, visited The Underground on a Friday night and was "blown away" by the size of the crowd (weekly between 1,500- 2,000 patrons) and their enthusiasm for the music. With Sting also serving as musical director, many dancehall stars of that era made their U.S. debut at The Underground, including Shabba Ranks; Shabba's crossover success in the hip-hop/R&B market (through his groundbreaking deal with Epic Records) prompted a signing frenzy by majors seeking to replicate his achievements with other Jamaican acts.
Dixon returned to The Underground with a few of his KISS colleagues, including then program director Vinnie Brown, and they were equally impressed. "What Jay and Vinnie saw prompted (the R&B formatted) KISS to add a dancehall song into rotation, 'Life (Is What You Make It),' (by British/Jamaican duo Frighty and Colonel Mite) and the response was great," Sting recalled. "A little after that, Vinnie went to a New York City beach and all he heard were people listening to dancehall reggae cassettes and that changed everything. Vinnie called up Jay and asked him to deliver a message: tell Dahved and Sting we're doing a Caribbean music show."
Hip-House Reggae, hosted by Dahved Levy, with Sting International (Shaun) selecting the music, debuted on KISS FM in 1990. The show's four-year run provided a previously unavailable mainstream platform for reggae, dancehall and soca. Murray Elias, formerly an A&R executive at hip-hop indie Profile Records, the label that released "Life (Is What You Make It)" in the U.S., says Sting International's three-pronged strategy was crucial to broadening dancehall reggae's audience beyond its core fan base. "Sting played an outsized role in moving the music forward as a club DJ, as a radio personality and as a producer," reflected Elias, who was also Sean Paul's A&R during his years at VP Records. "Sting produced many important records that were embraced by hip-hop and club DJs and created a New York hybrid dancehall sound. Because he wasn't strictly a Jamaican reggae selector, he was fully involved in R&B, hip-hop, and early house, he had sensibilities that reggae producers living and working in Jamaica just didn't have."
Some of Sting's earliest productions include "Pose Off" (Tan-Yah) by Red Fox featuring Screechy Dan, co-produced with his mentor, the late Philip Smart, and "Big Up" (Signet) by Shaggy featuring Rayvon; both tracks remain New York dancehall anthems. In 1992 Sting created the "Bedwork" riddim (rhythm track), sampling Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn theme from the 1950s TV show; it sounded unlike anything in dancehall before or since. Sting says he woke up with that beat in his head and quickly called up the Brooklyn dancehall artists with whom he closely worked -- including Redd Fox, Bajja Jedd, Screechy Dan and Shaggy -- and told them he had something they had to hear. "I played it and they looked at me like I was fucking out of my mind," Sting laughs. "Then all of a sudden, they were trying to find their styles on it." The riddim's name was taken from Bajja Jedd's single "Bedwork Sensation," but it was Shaggy, then a U.S. Marine, who had the breakout single, "Oh Carolina," a cover of Jamaica's Folkes Brothers' 1960 hit. Originally released by New York City's Signet Records, "Oh Carolina" went on to top the charts in several countries and peaked at No. 59 on the Hot 100.
Sting International would achieve further success with Shaggy, co-producing (with Shaggy's then manager Robert Livingston) the Grammy-winning, Platinum album Boombastic (Virgin) released in 1995. Sting played bass on and created the irresistibly quirky riddim for Boombastic's title track, which reached No. 3 on the Hot 100. Greater triumphs arrived with Shaggy's Hot Shot (MCA) which crowned the Top 200 for six (non-consecutive) weeks in 2001, is RIAA certified 6x Platinum and has sold over 10 million copies worldwide; propelled by the No. 1 singles "Angel" and "It Wasn't Me," Hot Shot became 2001's second-best-selling album of any genre, all historic accomplishments for a Jamaican artist, his Brooklyn-born producer and for dancehall reggae overall.
Earlier this year Sting International's production talents reached new audiences via his work on (the other) Sting and Shaggy's headline generating collaborative album 44/876. Although sales have been modest by the former Police frontman (and Shaggy's) standards, 44/876 is by far the best-selling reggae album in several years, having moved over 41,000 units since its April 20 release. In a joint statement emailed to Billboard via Sting's publicist, Sting and Shaggy said working with Sting International on 44/876 "was a great team effort, great fun and the record reflects that." Sting International praised Sting's work ethic. "He still has the passion and is willing to do what it takes; he's a special musician/artist and it was one of the greatest experiences I've had." However, he hastened to add: "Changes were made to a good majority of the final album I submitted that were not to my liking and it definitely would have sounded different if I had my way."
Drawing from his decades of experience and successes, Sting International is embarking on several new projects. He's opening a recording studio in Brooklyn and working on a documentary about his music, which has consistently defied genres while simultaneously expanding them. He's also setting up his own record label focusing on a wide spectrum of music, including unreleased productions that have become favorites in his DJ sets. "I will take my time and put out good music; I would like to do what Quincy Jones did and compose musical art," he reflects. "When you look at labels like Atlantic or Columbia, there are no boundaries, so I don't care where the hits come from, I just want to put them out."