Jamaican dancehall veteran Spragga Benz spent an extended time in London in 2017 at the invitation of Andrew Oury, founder/CEO of Buttercuts Records. Oury wanted to make an album pairing Spragga, renowned for his blistering delivery, razor-sharp rhymes and impeccably smooth flow, with some of the top vocalists and producers representing English genres that have Jamaican dancehall roots including drum and bass, grime and British hip-hop. Because of the project’s numerous influences and various collaborators (including Rodney P, Illaman, General Levy and Oury’s artist alter ego Rebel ACA), Oury suggested Chiliagon (a 1000 side object) as a title. “Spragga is very quiet, kind, tough, and an amazing emcee and we’ve made an album that is truly diverse,” says Oury of Chiliagon, due in late May. “He isn’t as well-known as he should be, so that’s what we are trying to achieve with Chiliagon, to put him up where he should be as an artist.”
The first single “Differ,” released in Nov. 2018, features Spragga spitting clever, often humorous observations over a bass heavy rhythm that meshes dancehall, soca and Afrobeats, produced by BBC Radio host Toddla T. “Toddla and I were in the studio talking and I thought about how we have different words for the same things so when he played the rhythm track, ideas for ‘Differ’ started springing,” Spragga told Billboard on the phone from Jamaica. In January 2019 Spragga recruited three of dancehall’s finest to contribute their spirited, signature stylings on the “Differ Remix”: Sasco (best known stateside for his sampled vocals on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” and Kanye West’s “I’m In It,”) multiplatinum selling superstar Sean Paul and dancer turned artist Chi Ching Ching. “I have been involved with these artists’ careers since the beginning,” Spragga acknowledged. “I have voiced on productions for Sean’s Dutty Rock label; I wanted Ching for my album so I put him on the track and Sasco, well, he’s family.” In 1999, Spragga gave Sasco his first break by recording one of his songs and he went on to mentor the aspiring artist through his Red Square label and production house.
Both versions of “Differ” were produced by Toddla T, host of the weekly BBC program Soundsystem with Toddla T and producer of the summer 2018 U.K. top 40 hit “Ay Caramba” by Fredo x Young T & Bugsey. Growing up in Sheffield, Northern England, Toddla was a fan of Spragga’s music and was admittedly star struck when the Jamaican artist walked into his London studio. “I have bought Spragga’s records for the past 20 years so I was quite anxious about making music that pleases him and his art. I played him a beat, we started writing and finished in about an hour, it was magical,” Toddla recalled. “Spragga’s style is instantly recognizable, he opens his mouth and it is just boom! You can hear that natural sound system ethos.”
Spragga Benz was born Carlton Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, on May 30, 1969. Because of his lanky stature he was nicknamed Spaghetti but he “changed up the spag and added the sprag” and became known as Spragga. Spragga started out as a selector with La Benz sound system in the early ’90s prior to becoming, somewhat unexpectedly, a deejay. La Benz had set up a session with Buju Banton to record four dub plates but Banton only recorded two and suggested Spragga do the rest; Spragga freestyled some lyrics and his recording career was born.
He established his formidable riddim riding skills on a succession of early hits including “Jack It Up,” “Could A Deal” and “Girls Hooray.” Spragga’s renown led to a deal with Capitol Records for whom he released one album, Uncommonly Smooth, in 1995. His collaborators over the years range from Carly Simon to Foxy Brown, (Lil) Bow Wow to the late Ben E. King, as well as Stephen and Damian Marley (Spragga headlined a 1990s dancehall showcase on the 2018 edition of Damian’s Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise). Spragga’s fan base expanded significantly with his starring role as Wayne in the widely-viewed, heavily bootlegged 2002 Jamaican gangster film Shottas, co-starring Ky-Mani Marley; Spragga’s son Carlyle portrayed a younger version of Wayne in the film.
In 2010 Spragga released the long awaited Shotta Culture album produced by Salaam Remi for Remi’s BoomTunes. A compelling work, Shotta Culture captures the nexus of Spragga’s Rastafari way of life, the tough ghetto realities of his childhood in the Red Square area of Dunkirk, East Kingston and the personal tragedies he has endured including the 2008 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Carlyle allegedly by Jamaican police.
In his son’s honor, Spragga established the Carlyle Foundation in 2009, which has donated computers, books and numerous other supplies to Kingston area schools and awards scholarships to selected students who maintain their academic performance. Spragga continues to mentor young artists careers through his Red Square Productions. “Spragga cares deeply about his community, everyone he encounters learns about Dunkirk and its importance to him; because he stays true to himself, his peers and fans stay loyal to him,” comments reggae industry veteran Cristy Barber, a producer on Chiliagon and manager of Red Square Productions. Barber initially worked with Spragga on his 1993 debut album Jack It Up, and handled publicity and promotions with Capitol Records for Uncommonly Smooth. Vocal authenticity and the caliber of his lyrics, Barber says, distinguish Spragga from his contemporaries. “True dancehall fans judge the music by the way an artist spits verses and Spragga is on everybody’s top five artists list. With ‘Differ’ and the ‘Differ Remix’ Spragga demonstrates that he still has that magic.”
The video for the “Differ Remix,” directed by Gemar McFarlane of Gemagination Studio, was filmed in Kingston in January, following Spragga, Sean, Sasco and Ching’s recording session. “It was difficult to get us all together because of our schedules but the artists put out their best and it was great vibes shooting the video,” notes Spragga. “These artists care about each other’s careers and in today’s dancehall, we don’t have many artists coming together on tracks; everyone just stays in their own lane, so power collaborations like this attract attention and are good for the genre because it’s something different.”