Sting, a marathon-length concert dubbed “the greatest one night reggae and dancehall show on earth,” is the longest running event on Jamaica’s jam-packed music calendar. Held annually since 1984 on Dec. 26, Sting was founded by Isaiah Laing, CEO of Supreme Promotions. It is also probably the only concert promoted by a 20-year veteran of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.
A feared crime fighter immortalized as a “bad man police” in dancehall deejay/toaster Tiger’s 1991 hit “When,” Laing was shot three times, in addition to fatally wounding several criminals, during his law enforcement tenure (covered in his recently penned memoir, “Point Blank Range: A Jamaican Bad Man Police — The Isaiah Laing Story”). Over the past 30 years, Sting has elevated and deflated careers, turned underdogs into champions, and carved a distinctive if controversial niche on the concert landscape primarily through its presentation and promotion of clashes, where an artist’s strategic lyrical offensive determines victory over an opponent.
Sting has notoriously attracted a hardcore dancehall crowd which, in years past, has expressed their dissatisfaction with artists’ performances by bottling; that is, hurling bottles towards the stage. Founding member of the Wailers Bunny Wailer was bottled in 1989, as was Maxi Priest (who topped the Hot 100 with “Close To You”) in 1991. Veteran deejay Super Cat has the distinction of flinging a bottle back into the audience during his clash with Ninjaman at Sting 1990, sparking widespread pandemonium. Raw, exhilarating, and sometimes volatile, stampedes, skirmishes, and bottling were a part of most Stings held throughout the 1990s and 2000s until the bottles were replaced with plastic cups.
In 2013, Sting’s gritty edges were somewhat further polished to appease sponsors including presenters Magnum Tonic Wine and the Jamaica Tourist Board, which endorsed the event for the first time this year. The move was also intended to appeal to an audience beyond Jamaica, which this year had the option to watch a four-hour live broadcast of Sting via Pay Per View, or the entire 12-hour show via a live stream, priced at $29.95 and $39.95, respectively (both versions are available On Demand until Jun. 30).
The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper reports that “Sting 30” is the first Jamaica-produced show to generate 14 million viewer impressions via Google, according to Real Time Tracker’s statistics. “For eleven and a half hours, our audio feed was crystal clear surround sound, without a breakdown; our Pay Per View carriers, including Comcast and Direct TV, look forward to doing this again in 2014, which is a real endorsement of our product’s international standards,” enthused Los Angeles-born and raised Joseph Bogdanovich, CEO of the Kingston-based independent reggae label Downsound Records. A staunch supporter of dancehall reggae since the early 90s, Bogdanovich commuted between Kingston and Los Angeles for several years, eventually settling in Jamaica in 1999. Following six years of behind-the-scenes involvement in Sting, he became a shareholder in 2012.
Downsound artist Ninjaman, 47, has appeared on every Sting since 1988, except for the years he was incarcerated (after three years in jail on a murder charge, Ninjaman has been out on bail since March 2012). Though beating crack addiction is Ninjaman’s own greatest triumph, he is also Sting’s all-time clashing victor. He was involved in Sting’s most infamous verbal spars: with Super Cat in 1990, Shabba Ranks in 1991 and with the now-imprisoned Vybz Kartel in 2003. The Ninjaman vs. Kartel clash morphed from lyrical to physical assault when Kartel punched his opponent. Even though Kartel’s own incarceration since Sept. 2011 for murder charges along with skin bleaching, X-rated repertoire and expert media manipulation make him arguably dancehall’s all-time most controversial artist, Vybz lamented his behavior at the Sting. In a 2009 interview with Billboard.biz he said, “It’s the only thing I would have done differently in my career, because Ninjaman is an elder and one of the most influential artists towards my development.”
Held at the expansive outdoor venue Jamworld in the Kingston suburb of Portmore, Sting 2013, which featured veteran deejays Burro Banton, Major Mackerel and Peter Metro comprising a lively Three The Hard Way segment, pulled 19,000 patrons without any incidents of violence or bottling. Strong performances by singers Etana and Romain Virgo and sing-jay Mavado ably represented contemporary Jamaican talent, while Wyclef Jean worked hard and roused the Sting audience, a connection that eluded rapper 2 Chainz. A much tamer Super Cat, who hadn’t performed in Jamaica since 2002 (he’s been living in New York for more than 20 years), headlined the show. Signed to Columbia Records in the early 1990s, Cat played a significant role in popularizing dancehall in the U.S., his label debut “Don Dada” peaking at no. 37 on the Top R&B/Hip Hop albums chart.
Neither Laing nor Bogdanovich would disclose the budget for Sting 30 except to say it was the costliest in the event’s history.
Increased expenses for Sting’s marketing campaign, managed in Jamaica by Tyehimba Kafele with Sean “Contractor” Edwards, rising artists fees, and a $30,000 clash prize, won in an upset victory by Black Ryno (a former protégé of Vybz Kartel) who dethroned reigning champ Kip Rich, contributed to Sting’s hefty price tag, as did the Pay Per View broadcast.
Ryno’s Sting victory has provided him with a platform for wider visibility, which “if he is organized and puts himself in the right hands, he can have the career he should, because he has the lyrics and says what the people want to hear,” observes reggae industry and Sting veteran Johnny Wonder, CEO of 21st Hapilos Digital Distributors. His company is also promoting Ryno’s current single, “Baddest Thing” which chronicles his victory over Ryno.
The Pay Per View Broadcast and live stream was undertaken in association with Philadelphia’s All Oceans Interactive Media (AOIM). The multiplatform video service company, responsible for broadcasters including Comcast and Time Warner Direct TV, supported Sting’s PPV format on various devices. The live feed was made possible by a 50-member Jamaican and international crew, including Kingston’s Phase 3 Productions, 12 cameras, two satellite dishes, meticulous stage production by Ricardo Chin Production Services, and True Tone’s crystalline sound. For the first time for a Jamaican concert, viewers had the option of selecting the main show feed or choosing coverage of backstage activities. With the potential to reach 95 million viewers online and On Demand, Bogdanovich sees the broadcast expenditures, which included a $20,000 fee for song rights clearances, as necessary for showcasing Jamaica¹s talent on a vast international platform.
“The TV show is a step in the right direction,” Bogdanovich noted. “We want people to recognize what the Sting brand has done for Jamaican music over the past 30 years and now we have a team that understands the complexities and costs of taking an iconic dancehall show into a mainstream environment.”
Despite the show’s seamless execution, controversy was unavoidable. A ferocious, obscenity-laden clash between female deejays Lady Saw and Macka Diamond, the repeated denunciations of same-sex unions by sing-jay Sizzla, and the bum-rushing of Ninjaman’s set by the provocatively-clad female artist D’Angel (whose short skirt revealed much more than her vocal skills) generated a flurry of media attention and outrage, overshadowing the other 20 acts there.
The Sting promoters did not have a problem with the female clash, although Laing admitted “it went a bit too far” and tried to halt it from the live feed as the vulgarities escalated. In an interview the following day with the Jamaica Gleaner, Lady Saw apologized, calling her behavior “degrading to women”; nonetheless, the promoters have taken disciplinary action against Sizzla and D’Angel, both of whom have been banned from future Sting performances for at least five years.
“Weeks before the show, we had a meeting with the artists, and wrote letters to their managers outlining our expectations. The contract we asked our artists to sign says we do not tolerate cursing or lyrics that incite hatred towards any group,” Laing explained. The effect that the aforementioned artists’ rogue behavior might have on Sting’s sponsorship going forward hasn’t yet been determined. Magnum Tonic Wine did not respond to Billboard.biz’s request for a response, but the Jamaica Tourist Board’s deputy director Jason Hall sent the following email pending his organization’s decision on the matter: “The JTB is currently conducting a review of the event, compiling a media wrap report and reviewing allegations of breaches of a code of conduct for an upcoming board meeting.”
Nikki Z, radio personality at CBS Radio WZMX Hot 93.7 based in Hartford, Conn., and a host of Sting 2013, said Sizzla’s comments were unnecessary. “I understand he comes from a culture that doesn’t accept that way of life, but with all of the bullying going on, he didn’t need to go there.” For anyone offended by the coarseness of the clashes or the x-rated antics, she contends, “You are watching the wrong concert.
“If an artist wants to say a bad word, grab their crotch, skin out, hey, it’s Sting and it’s Pay Per View,” she adds. “You can see much raunchier programs on HBO or Showtime. Sting is the ultimate battleground where you have to come prepared and prove yourself. Ryno planned, plotted, he was hungry, and knew Kiprich was the man to beat. That hunger needs to stay because that’s what Sting is all about.”