This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2001 Week continues with an interview with dancehall legend Shaggy, as he looks back on the biggest year of his career, and the legacy established by his Hot 100-topping hits “It Wasn’t Me” and “Angel.”
Dancehall has blossomed as one of the millennial generation’s most influential genres, from Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” riding a dancehall-lite beat into streaming history to Drake’s admiration culminating in signing Popcaan to OVO Records. But at the turn of the 21st century, it was still a foreign sound that mainstream executives didn’t see as profitable — until 2001. when Shaggy shattered all hesitations and expectations.
Born Orville Richard Burrell, the Kingston native emerged in 1993 with his infectious cover of Folkes Brothers’ 1960 ska classic “Oh Carolina”. The debut was an instant hit, giving Shaggy his first taste of crossover success when it topped the U.K. singles chart and peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart. 1995’s “Boombastic” followed, with its “smooth just like ah silk” charm leading it to U.K.’s summit once again, while climbing all the way to No. 3 on the Hot 100.
But 2001 became Shaggy’s c career when two singles — “It Wasn’t Me” featuring Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent and “Angel” with Rayvon — catapulted him from bubbling Jamaican export to global star. Featured on his multi-platinum-certified fifth album Hot Shot (which got a 20th-anniversary re-release with updated tracks last July), they were released at the end of Y2K, but dominated the charts the following year.
Inspired by Eddie Murphy’s 1987 Raw comedy special, “It Wasn’t Me” became Shaggy’s first Billboard Hot 100-topper in Feb. 2001, as well as the U.K.’s best-selling single of that year, and a Grammy nominee for best pop collaboration with vocals. A month later, “Angel” followed it to No. 1 on the Hot 100 and topped the charts in 11 other countries. The single also followed Aaliyah’s 2000 “Try Again” as the second non-retail release to reach No. 1 in Billboard Hot 100 history.
Both hits remain pop culture staples 21 years later: “Angel” is still a go-to for wedding playlists and was performed by Shaggy with a contestant on American Idol in 2019, while “It Wasn’t Me” doubles as references in political and lawsuit commentary, was interpolated on Liam Payne’s 2017 “Strip That Down” debut, sampled on Anuel AA’s “China” in 2019, and most recently reimagined for a Cheetos Super Bowl LV commercial starring Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Shaggy himself.
The international star helped carry the crossover torch — while collecting two Grammy wins and seven nominations along the way — but now he wants the new generation of dancehall to keep it lit.
“If you look at the history of it, from reggaéton, hip-hop and Afrobeat, all of that came from dancehall. Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Drake, all these people are tapping into it. What about us?” Shaggy continues. “It’s a wide-open field now, so you don’t have the gatekeepers I used to have in my time. There’s no reason you’re not taking the reins — it just takes work. And a lot of people don’t want to do put that work in.”
Below, Shaggy speaks to Billboard about his memories from 2001, his legacy, and sparking a Michael Jackson meme. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I didn’t realize that “Angel” interpolates Juice Newton’s 1981 cover of “Angel of the Morning”. How did you stumble upon it?
DJ Paul, who used to play at the Club Illusion in Brooklyn, was a really good friend with my longtime producer Sting International. He actually made a suggestion of interpolating Steve Miller Band’s [1973 song “The Joker”].
So that bass — doom-doom, do-do-doom-doom — is actually a reggae bassline even though it’s from a rock song. It just had that groove that made you want to put your arms around it. As far as the Juice part, myself and [Jamaican songwriter/producer] Dave Kelly had already written one verse. While we were playing it, RikRok actually walked in singing that melody. I was like, “Wow, that’s dope.” We ended up just flipping the words and making it cooler by saying “Peeps” and “Shorty.” That was the slang that was going on at the time.
I ended up finishing the second verse and the bridge with RikRok. That made me realize we had a special record.
It’s like the sequel to “Boombastic,” which shows your player side. “Angel” is more for the ladies, but it still has that seductive charm.
My thing is always to not stay in the box. I mean, I was already outside of the box by just being a dancehall artist — because at that time, no one was playing dancehall on mainstream radio. We were outcasts anyway, so that gave us a level of freedom to do whatever we wanted to do. It was kind of good that nobody was paying attention to us, because we didn’t have executives coming in there telling us to do cookie-cutter [music].
I wanted to do a hybrid style of music. When the great Bob Marley was doing his music, he was criticized for not doing authentic reggae. He literally had session musicians play over rock sounds. It was just so ironic that today those very recordings are now the blueprint of what reggae is.
So with “Boombastic,” I was heavily criticized for doing “sell-out,” crossover, watered-down dancehall. If you listen to everybody that’s making music today, like Popcaan and all of these guys, it’s literally the same thing. It just means we were ahead of our time. I just had the balls to take the chances, and didn’t listen to the criticism.
I recently spoke to rising dancehall artists BEAM and Projexx, and they both said they want to follow in your footsteps. I thought it was an interesting circle of life, because people did call you “corny” back then.
A lot of them just didn’t realize that it was survival. I figured it out early by being [signed] to these record companies, that if we didn’t make numbers, we weren’t going to get ahead. So every time radio ended up playing like an “Oh Carolina”, they did it because they couldn’t help it. It was just so popular. So I knew that going into it, I had to make records 10 times better and work 10 times harder than the average artist, because it was just not a level playing field.
We came in as the underdogs. We were from this little island with music that people don’t understand. There’s no program director at a radio station who is going to be like, “Let’s play the reggae record.” [Laughs] “How does that fit with our nice, beautiful pop audience that we have here?” So that’s why the samples were so important because they had the elements of that crossover thing to make them say, “Okay, maybe it could work because they sampled Juice Newton.”
Because the music that you were using was already mainstream.
Exactly. So that was an art within itself. I’m from Kingston, so I know how to talk real Patois. I would mix it with the Queen’s English, but I’d use dancehall melodies and the flows. So after a while, a lot of people ended up doing that too. It used to bother me to a point where I actually left pop music and went back into dancehall because of what people were saying: “He’s soft” or “He’s too crossover.”
When “Church Heathen” came out, I remember people saying, “Shaggy’s finally going back to his roots.”
I definitely hit them like a storm because they didn’t expect it. It was just massive in Jamaica and I followed it up with “Bad Man Don’t Cry”. Then I put that Intoxication album out [in 2007] with “Bonafide Girl” and “What’s Love” with Akon. So I was really back in the core [of dancehall] and people actually started to rock back with some of my older stuff. But I didn’t like the pay grade, so I went back to pop music. [Laughs.]
Let’s get into “It Wasn’t Me”. The chorus is American English, but you’re spitting raw Patois on the verses. I thought it was smart because most people are not gonna understand what you’re saying, so they’ll want to replay it.
It’s a balance, you know what I mean? When you have a chorus that’s so English, you have to go to dancehall to bring the authenticity back. So they might not understand it very well, but they know the flow is so dope. It only lasts for eight bars anyway. There’s different methods to how I write. If I’m doing a 12 or 16-bar verse, I’ll throw different English things in there to make them a little bit more understandable and popular. I try to make timeless records.
I watched the Vice documentary about the song and I didn’t know “It Wasn’t Me” almost didn’t make the album.
I was never surprised that the record label didn’t like anything we did. They just couldn’t understand us. They’re used to a cookie-cutter style of making records. We were coming out of left-field from a different culture. They’re not going to spend millions of dollars promoting some kid just doing dancehall. Dancehall had such a stigma: guns, violence, homophobia, all kinds of s–t. So that made it hard for me to maneuver through it.
You were already becoming a star because “Oh Carolina” and “Boombastic” were hits overseas. So you still had some credibility.
But that just wasn’t the case. You would think they’d say, “There’s a track record with this guy. We’ve gotta give him a shot.” I ended up getting on MCA because I did a chance record called “Luv Me, Luv Me” [in 1998] with Janet Jackson for How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The only reason I was on that soundtrack is because Terry McMillian, who wrote the novel, loosely based it on her love story with this Jamaican guy. So she told [producer] Terry Lewis that I had to be on this record. Either Mariah and Janet who was gonna sing the chorus.
I just wanted to just scream inside: “OH F–KKKK!” I was a nobody. But then Janet wouldn’t come in the video or help us promote it. So at that point, I was like, “It’s an album track, just leave it alone.” They put Mary J. Blige’s [“Beautiful”] out as the first single and it tanked on radio. And out of nowhere, they just started to play the one with me and Janet. That’s how MCA signed me. It wasn’t because of my track record.
The thing with dancehall [at the time] was all the artists got a hit, but they never had a follow-up. It was a new genre and nobody was risking that. After Hot Shot everything was much easier for people like Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder to come out. But we looked at Shabba Ranks as a God because he had more than just one hit. Even though he only went Gold, that was a big one for the culture.
So “It Wasn’t Me” went from a song that the label wasn’t messing with to your first No. 1 hit and a pop-culture staple. I’m sure that had to blow your mind.
It was our first in the U.S., but around the world, we were already getting quite a few No. 1s. It’s funny that “Oh Carolina” was a No. 1 in almost every country except the United States and the record company just couldn’t get it. That shows you [how little] they put behind it. Even “Boombastic” debuted at No. 1 on the British chart. [The label] could have gotten those things over the hump, we just weren’t a priority. It’s like, “This is reggae, why are we spending the extra money to get it there? We signed a guy for like $500,000 and we already made four times that.”
We just didn’t have management at the time that knew how to work those buildings. They were just so happy to be on a major. So “It Wasn’t Me” being the first No.1 was a big deal because it literally made me into a household name.
I videotaped Michael Jackson’s 2001 30th-anniversary special as a kid and the camera cutting to him saying “I love this song” became a popular meme. What was it like performing “It Wasn’t Me” that night?
I remember meeting him and couldn’t get a word in, because he knew so much about me. He said, “It sounds like something I would write.” He knew songs on the album, which blew my mind. There’s things I wanted to ask him, but I couldn’t because he was just so interested in learning about me. I was like, “This guy studies people.”
I was sitting backstage and Quincy Jones was there. He turned around and said, “You know what I wanna know about you Shaggy? How the hell you sell so many f–king records without promotion?” Quincy Jones, I’ll never forget it. I said, “I guess I wrote a good song” and he just tapped me on my knee. [Laughs.]
It was a great night. We were one of the biggest highlights. It wasn’t reported like that because you had bigger acts like Britney Spears and *NSYNC. They’d [write], “Justin Timberlake was there with Britney!” Or it’ll be something negative: “Oh my God. Did you see the collarbone on Whitney [Houston]?”
Do you remember any other artist interactions that year?
I never had a lot of famous friends like that because I could see through a lot of the bullsh-t. They’ll only call your phone when you’re hot. I was so loyal to my team. Now that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. I should have played the game. They’re hypocrites and you just play hypocrite back and it gets you a lot further. [Laughs.]
[My team] all did well and all bought homes. But at the end of the day, a lot of them weren’t as loyal. When Jimmy Iovine says, “I want to get you in the room with different producers”, I should’ve said, “Yes, let’s go!” Instead, I was like, “Nah, it’s okay man. I sold 10 million records with my guy so I’m going to stick with him.” These are things that I teach people now. But it was a great ride.
But one of my biggest meetings was with James Brown [in 2004]. He was so inspirational, man. We were on a tour together and he watched my show every night. Later down the tour, he sat down with me and said, “I’ve never seen anything like you, you’re special. You should let [the world] see both sides of you. I think you’re going to go very, very far.”
How about your Billboard Music Awards performance?
I remember not being very happy with the whole production, because they dressed me as a pimp. When you become that big, you have the suits and the record company coming in. Everybody has an opinion. They brought in their own stylist, who styles Lenny Kravitz, and this and that. It was all these people that I didn’t have a connection with. When I’m saying, “I’m not liking the shirt” they [told me] “This is what’s hot.”
Then I had management that wasn’t backing me up. I wasn’t very lucky with award shows. Hot Shot didn’t get nominated for the reggae Grammy, even though it was the biggest record of the year. It was simply because the record company just did not submit us. [Ed. note:Hot Shot was entered for best pop vocal album at the 43rd annual Grammy Awards, but did not receive a nomination. It was not entered for best reggae album. Albums may compete in only one genre category.]
Two decades later, how does it feel to be the one who set the tone for this new generation of dancehall?
Well, that’s all you can hope for. I just wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be that guy that when you mentioned dancehall, you have to mention my name. For a while there, I thought people were going to dance over [my career] like it was nothing. But then I decided, “I’m not going to let you erase my legacy.” So I just started going hard again. When they saw me with Sting they were like “What is he doing with this 60-year-old rocker?” [Laughs.]
This is what I’m doing: a Gold album, a Grammy and my second-highest tour. You might look at all you’ve done as really great things. But if you allow generations to look at it like it ain’t s–t…well. I’m not gonna let you forget me. I keep the bar high enough so that these younger guys [are motivated to] beat it. When you look at my Spotify, it has 10 to 15 million monthly subscribers and the top dancehall artist is at 3 or 4 million. Y’all need to step up.
There’s no way me, Bob [Marley] and Sean [Paul] should be there. I want the new generation to stream better than me because it boosts the genre and gives it a seat at the table. It gives us some sort of presence where corporate wants to f–k with us. It helps the culture with tourism, it’s a big part of our economy. When you beat me, that’s when we’re forced to be reckoned with.