Spice Is Ready to Reign as the 'Queen of Dancehall,' Even If Her Record Label Won't Help
The singer breaks down her self-produced mixtape 'Captured,' whose title references her label woes
Ever since the release of her breakout song, 2005’s bad gyal anthem “Fight Over Man,” Spice has been a fixture of dancehall music. The veteran Jamaican artist, born Grace Hamilton, continues to carve a lane within the often misogynistic genre, proving that women can still dominate its bass-heavy rhythms just as well as the men.
On the outside, with her unfiltered personality and her glamorous neon wigs, her success has looked easy: She's cracked the North American mainstream, which remains a challenge for many dancehall artists today. Her debut EP, 2014's So Mi Like It, peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s reggae albums chart and featured club favorites like the floor-shattering title track and the provocative “Conjugal Visit” alongside dancehall icon Vybz Kartel. Earlier this year, she joined the cast of Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta and recently dropped her first official mixtape, November’s Captured.
These accomplishments have led to many in the industry to crown Spice the “Queen of Dancehall” -- a title she proudly wears. “The queen of dancehall is the one who’s at the top of the genre and leading the game,” she tells Billboard. “And I believe I’m the leading lady for dancehall right now. So it’s not something that you accept, it’s something that’s given to you.”
Yet, behind the scenes her career has encountered plenty of resistance -- including from her own record label, she says. VP Records has been her home for a decade, alongside many popular Jamaican artists like Beenie Man, Gyptian and Sean Paul. Yet Spice claims the label has prevented her from releasing her long-awaited debut album. (In an exclusive statement to Billboard, the label acknowledged Spice's complaints: "VP Records recognizes that Spice is a remarkable artist with undeniable talent. However, she has not delivered enough tracks to complete an album project. In 2017, Spice agreed to help secure songs independently to complete her album. VP offered her a budget which she turned down and instead, released her mixtape outside of her recording agreement. We find this unfortunate as those songs could have potentially been used to finalize her first album. We take pains to ensure all proper business measures are taken to prepare the products we release. This process takes time, and is well underway for our eventual Spice album. VP Records is committed to completing this album in participation with Spice, to be released in summer of 2019.")
So to reassert control over her career, she independently recorded, produced and distributed Captured. “Maybe I can set an example for [younger artists] so they don’t get caught up in the same situation,” she says of the meaning behind the mixtape’s title. “So they can read contracts properly and not rush into a record deal that probably doesn’t know how to take your career to the next level.”
The release of Captured certainly took hers to the next level: The mixtape jetted to the top spot on the reggae albums chart. But it didn't get there without controversy: The project's lead single, “Black Hypocrisy,” which addresses colorism in the black community, drew criticism after Spice digitally lightened her complexion in promotional photos in order to drive the song’s message home.
Despite the hurdles she faces, Spice is confident about the future: “[This success] feels even more amazing due to the fact that I did it all on my own without my record label. No management team, no label -- just my fans, my supporting team and God alone.”
Below, the dancehall star tells Billboard about the making of her mixtape, breaking up dancehall's boys club and why she isn’t afraid to talk about sex.
What challenges did you face going into this Captured project on your own?
For one, I produced 80 percent of the tracks on the mixtape. And that’s because when I reached out to producers, they felt a bit iffy. A lot of people don’t want to record a song with me because my record company keeps threatening to take the songs off. So for them to even invest in a song with me, it’s a waste. If they put out the song, my record label takes it down. It’s been a battle for me. But I decided to get up and just [produce] myself. Not knowing how to get the mixtape out there and how to reach out to distributors has been a challenge, but I overcame it.
I was watching a video of you performing the title track during your release party, and you were brought to tears.
I dedicate that song to my record company, and I needed that message in the song so they could constantly hear what they’ve done to me for years to come. By listening to that song, a lot of young artists can realize how emotional I am with what I’m going through. The truth is, I’ve been with this label for 10 years now, and I’ve never released an album. I wasn’t one to talk about it before, but now is a time when I feel the truth makes people be aware. It’s an eye-opener.
“Black Hypocrisy” immediately sparked controversy on social media. What made now the right time for you to speak out about colorism?
I’ve been experiencing it for years now, but it is the right time because I have such a big platform in Jamaica. I’m one of the most followed artists [on Instagram] from Jamaica -- I don’t think a lot of people realize that. I needed to create the song because it was something that I saw growing in our community. I wanted that to be the lead single because I didn’t want anyone to overlook the message and just listen to “Genie” or the other sexual songs [on the mixtape]. I really wanted to create awareness about colorism. Even if I can’t stop it, at least I can try to demolish it just a little bit so that my daughter won’t experience it.
Was there a reason why you did the song in a reggae style rather than dancehall? The vibe reminded me of Tanya Stephens.
I wanted them to listen to the message. So me coming out with a different theme, they’re gonna be like “Woah, hold on. What is this about?” So I did it in a reggae form so I can sing it slowly instead of spitting fast lyrics and have the message fly over people’s heads.
Before you released the single, you shared promo images with your skin altered to look extremely light. People really thought you were bleaching your skin. Did you expect that reaction?
I wanted to create a debate so the message could be heard. I know most people who thought I bleached would be upset with me. But I wanted them to be upset so that I could come back and say to them, “When I was black, people were degrading me. Now that I’m brown, you need to make up your mind and appreciate me.” But what I didn’t expect was that it would be such a huge, worldwide debate.
“Under Fire” is also a standout track, and it features the same Zinc Roof riddim as Vybz Kartel’s “Under Water.” It felt like a callback to the time when you two collaborated frequently.
I would collaborate with him again, most definitely! Kartel gave me my biggest collaboration to this day [2009’s “Ramping Shop”]. It was also a song that took the Billboard charts [peaking at no. 76 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart] and hit the mainstream. So I would love to do another song with him. Any day, any time. But you never know! We may have something coming up. Before he was incarcerated [in 2011], we had a lot of songs that were supposed to come out. Maybe a certain producer has a song they need to dust off and fix up so it can be released.
On “Romantic Mood,” you pay homage to other female dancehall legends like Lady Saw, Patra and Sister Nancy.
I loved producing “Romantic Mood” because it’s going back to the real roots of dancehall. I was given the opportunity to record on the original riddim [1991’s Giggy Riddim] from Steely & Clevie, and that was an exciting moment. I believe the new era doesn’t know when dancehall really started. And because I have the biggest platform in Jamaica right now, I wanted to be able to showcase my genre in our authentic form. And I wanted to pay homage, because if wasn’t for those women before me who paved the way, I wouldn’t be the queen of dancehall now. I have to pay respect to the icons.
How fun was it shooting that music video? It reminded me of how my mom used to dress!
It was so fun trying to get all the outfits together and watch all those old videos to capture the look. Even the dancers were excited about it! They were like, “Yeah, mi ah come out inna mi mesh marina!” I loved all the wigs too, and I did my braids like Patra. It was a very exciting project.
You explore a few different genres on the mixtape. On “Fiesta,” you’re singing in Spanish, and “Fake” is totally a trap song. Did you feel you had to prove that you can do more than just dancehall?
That was a part of it, because I sing about sex often, and people say that’s all I sing about. But they don’t realize that’s what the genre is about. Dancehall is about gyrating your body and getting on bad in a party setting, so I have to sing those type of songs to fit the genre. But on the other side, I have a big white fan base. When I go to Europe, I have to get a translator to speak to my fans -- they don’t speak English. And I have a lot of hip-hop and Spanish-speaking fans, so I wanted to give them something to jam to. I just wanted the entire Captured mixtape to be very versatile, because I have fans from all different audiences.
I am impressed that you manage to talk about sex and “skinning out yuh pum pum” in so many ways -- it never sounds boring!
You know what, I think every day I hear something new. Jamaica is a place that’s known for slang. So every time a new slang comes out, you can turn a word or try to flip it in a certain way. And every female on earth will always want to boast about how good they are and how satisfying their private area is. They like to sing about it and walk around and boast. It’s always gonna be a topic, and I just dabble into it. Every woman wants to say they have a good pum pum! [Laughs] And my music gives them the confidence to say that. So it’s my job to find different ways for them to sing that confidently.
You allude to a double-standard in dancehall that I think is especially present in recent years: Male artists can talk about sex all they want without consequences, but with women --
It’s limited, and it’s always been like that, because it’s a male-dominated business. Tthey’re all biased when it comes to women. Men are always singing sexually explicit things about oral sex and how they want it from women. They sing about it proudly. But the moment another female writes a song about getting it from a man, it’s a big uproar.
That happened with Ishawna’s “Equal Rights” single last year. That song touched on oral sex from a female perspective but was met with a lot backlash from both men and women, even though plenty of male artists have sung about the same thing.
Yes, exactly. So it’s always been a biased industry. I’m trying to change that [stigma]. Now when I travel overseas to do shows, most of the male artists have to perform before me. That makes me feel good. They talk about it all the time: “Mi nuh waan work with Spice because she ago tun up di ting.” I’m gonna put on a good show, and they don’t want to be phased out of it. So that’s a start -- you don’t normally have females closing a show after a male artist.
In general, do you like where dancehall is right now?
Yeah, I think dancehall is in a good space and is definitely going places. But for me, it’s still an underrated genre, and people don’t want to admit it. The hip-hop artists take a lot from our culture, our style and our flow. We see Drake do it sometimes. They really love the genre and they know the power of it. Dancehall is the genre! [Laughs] It is the basis for a lot of other music, but people don’t give it credit. It’s very frustrating.
How do you think that will change?
I think unity within dancehall could change it. I talk about it all the time. What I see happening in dancehall right now is artists fighting against each other. We’re always competing with each other, but we’re not trying to come together to push the culture. We have to figure out how to make the genre bigger than it is, take it to another level and create good music. It’s always a fight or a clash or a war to see who can be on top.
You helped bring a face to mainstream dancehall by being part of the Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta cast this year. But you also clashed with the other cast members. Do you have any regrets?
It had its ups and downs. I believe the market itself doesn’t understand the way I talk or my culture. There was a conflict with the way I put my speech together. But it also had its positives, when I put out the picture [for the “Black Hypocrisy” single]. If I was just a regular artist, Wendy Williams probably wouldn’t have talked about me. BET wouldn’t have posted it. A lot of girls in Jamaica are bleaching. But the thing that made it different was that I got the opportunity to go on a bigger platform so the media in America knew who it was. If you notice, most of them weren’t saying “the queen of dancehall bleached her skin.” It was “Spice from Love & Hip-Hop.” So I did what I wanted to do [on the show], which was to get a wider audience and create a bigger fanbase.
As this year comes to a close, what has been the biggest lesson you learned in 2018?
To not sit and wait for anyone to do anything for you. I’ve proven with my Captured mixtape that getting up and doing thing for yourself works. I’ve gone back and forth with my record label, asking them when they’re gonna put this album out. They kept saying, “It’s gonna be ready in three months or six months” and I just kept waiting. So I did it myself, and it’s doing extremely well. So that’s what I’ve learned -- just go get it.