"I always wanted to be the Russell Simmons of dancehall," says Vybz Kartel pictured here in late-May outside the offices of of his upcoming reality TV show in Kingston, Jamaica. (Photo: Patricia Meschino)
Vybz Kartel (born Adidja Palmer), 35, is arguably Jamaica's most popular dancehall reggae artist but his greatest skill may be his knack for spinning his controversy-fueled stardom into several prosperous businesses including a rum brand, a line of footwear and even condoms. Now, with an acrimonious break from his primary business partner, just weeks prior to the June 21st release of his latest album "Kingston Story" on Brooklyn based hip hop-electro producer Dre Skull's Mixpak Records, can Kartel's Gaza Empire remain in tact?
On May 23 Corey Todd, an American living in Kingston and Kartel's partner in Unlimited Daggering, the company that owns and distributes Street Vybz Rum (which commands 1-2% of Jamaica's $65 million annual island-wide rum sales, according to a spokesperson for National Rums of Jamaica), announced the demise of their three-year old association, alleging Kartel had threatened his life.
Spirits Division: Vybz Kartel's eponymous Vybz Rum.
In an interview with Billboard in Kingston just hours after Todd's announcement, Kartel said their split stemmed from "irreconcilable differences," adding, "Vybz Kartel will not be associated with the Street Vybz Rum brand and Todd cannot use my image for anything." Lawyers representing each party are currently negotiating a settlement of Unlimited Daggering's assets, which includes the Kingston nightclub The Building.
Vybz Cartel's controversial Cake Soap, from the man who lightened his own skin.
Kartel plans to introduce another rum beverage in July 2011 with Dennis Gordon, his partner in Vybz Cake Soap, a controversial product developed from the artist's most debated action to date, the intentional bleaching of his chestnut brown skin, a dubious transformation initially celebrated in his hits "Straight Jeans and Fitted" (video below) and "Cake Soap".
Regarded as one of dancehall's cleverest lyricists (though his penchant for simplistic X-rated rhymes oftentimes obscures that talent), Kartel, a.k.a. the Teacha, issued a statement on May 28 simultaneously refuting Todd's allegations while explaining that the headline grabbing, dramatic alterations in his appearance, including numerous tattoos festooning his neck, face and arms, non-corrective teeth braces, hair extensions and especially his blanched complexion, are diversionary tactics while he pursues his true calling: articulating concerns for Jamaica's poor.
In the statement he denounced the gritty gangster anthems upon which he built his reputation, initially as a writer for his mentor turned nemesis Bounty Killer in the early '00s. Kartel now says he will execute his newly declared mission through uplifting song lyrics, his charitable Gaza Education and Literacy program and a forthcoming book "Voice of the Ghetto (or Gaza) - Social Commentary for My People", available on July 23, 2011, the birthday of Rastafarian deity Haile Selassie I, which heightens speculation that the Gaza leader's next move may be to grow dreadlocks and (outwardly) adopt the Rastafarian way of life.
The term Gaza originally denoted the Waterford area of Portmore, a Kingston suburb where Kartel grew up, its volatility reflected by its Palestinian namesake. The Gaza name also encompasses Kartel's various businesses, his stable of artists and basically any habitat he occupies. In late 2006 Kartel and fellow dancehall star and Bounty Killer protégé Mavado, tagged as Gully for the gully that runs through the impoverished Kingston community of Cassava Piece where he was raised, became reluctant poster boys for Jamaica's societal ills through their deeply divisive, violence-laced lyrical battle fought through a prolonged, tense exchange of diss songs.
When Vybz Kartel's war of words with Mavado led to violence on the streets, Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding stepped in to help squash the beef.
When Jamaican schoolchildren reportedly began engaging in classroom confrontations defending Gaza or Gully's supremacy, amidst escalating pressure from police and government but away from the media spotlight, the duo declared a truce. On December 7, 2009 they performed together, unannounced, at West Kingston Jamboree, an annual concert promoted by Christopher "Dudus" Coke who was extradited to the US in June 2010 to face gun and drug trafficking charges. Two days after that concert, the pair met with Jamaica's Prime Minister Bruce Golding and formally acknowledged an end to their rivalry.
Kartel estimates he employs 30 people through his assorted Gaza enterprises, which include a forthcoming Vybz Wear line of self-designed tees, belt buckles, and dog tags, and Addi's Shoes, the latter inspired by his massive 2010 hit "Clarks" (featuring Popcaan and Gaza Slim, which prompted a dramatic increase in Clarks' prices throughout Jamaica.
Vybz is taking merchandising to a whole new level.
"I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, the Russell Simmons of dancehall; the Vybz Kartel brand is generating revenue, paying taxes and showing corporate Jamaica that dancehall is a viable economic force because of the influence the music wields here," said Kartel who will star in his own reality dating show, Teacha's Pet, on Jamaica's CVM TV network in September, sponsored by Jamaica's telecommunications giant Lime and renowned beer brand Red Stripe Bold.
However, further dissension within the Empire threatens to topple its once imposing structure. Kartel's former collaborator in the label Adidjaheim/NotNice Records, producer Ainsley "NotNice" Morris (responsible for Kartel's steamy single "Rompin Shop", featuring female deejay Spice, which peaked at #76 on the R&B/Hip Hop chart) announced on May 30 he too had severed ties with Vybz. Notnice's exodus follows the departure of several acts from the label, each claiming lack of payment and promotions, most notably singer Jah Vinci who is now managed by Todd. Kartel has renamed the label Adidjaheim Records with digital distribution through IODA and Zojak Worldwide, its publishing handled by Adidjaheim Publishing, administered through Jack Russell Music.
Meanwhile, Dre Skull is exploring available options for Kartel's return to the states (he's been without a US visa since 2005) to facilitate the promotion of "Kingston Story," digitally distributed by Seed. The lead single "Go Go Wine", in its second week at US radio (May 24-30) earned 64 spins on 18 stations
"The album is Dre's version of dancehall, as a white guy from New York working with Vybz Kartel the black youth from Kingston, well, not so black anymore," quips Kartel. Unlike his earlier albums, which are chiefly compilations of hit singles recorded on popular dancehall riddims, "Kingston Story" boasts 13 previously unreleased, exclusively fashioned tracks, fusing cosmopolitan electro accents, near-symphonic interludes and assorted sonic shadings with Jamaican dancehall's staccato, over which Kartel deftly lays his dense patois rhymes, primarily celebrating carnal pleasures.
Also included on "Kingsotn" is "Yuh Love", the pair's initial collaboration from 2009 and Mixpak's biggest selling single to date, currently ranked no. 7 out of 1,000 Kartel songs available for purchase on iTunes. "We will partner with another independent or a major for the fall physical release for the widest distribution possible," said Skull. "We are doing dub plates (customized recordings) for sound systems, about 1,000 radio drops, and possibly a few satellite concert dates for key US cities."
"An exclusive line of tee-shirts will be available with the album's release," the entrepreneurial Kartel, of course, hastens to add. "I am a dancehall superstar, so why not make a buck off what I'm doing?"