Last month, Andre “Popcaan” Sutherland released one of the best albums of the year.
Popcaan has been one of the world’s most popular dancehall artists for a few years now, emerging in 2010 with songs like ‘Dream’ and ‘Gangster City’ before breaking through with an appearance on Vybz Kartel’s ‘Clarks’. He would soon surpass his mentor on ‘Ravin’, his version of Kartel’s ‘Summer Time’; ‘Ravin’ and ‘Party Shot’ would ensconce him as “The Ravin King.”
But despite his growing profile, listeners outside of the dancehall world only became familiar with him a year and a half ago, thanks to appearances on Snoop Lion’s ‘Lighters Up’ and Pusha T’s sinister, Young Chop-produced ‘Blocka’. His intro to the latter was sampled by Kanye West on Yeezus cut ‘Guilt Trips’, and soon the world was asking, “who is Popcaan?”
In June, Popcaan released his debut album, Where We Come From, via Brooklyn’s Mixpak Records. The album is getting played everywhere from Kingston to Kings County thanks to summery, synth-laced riddims and Popcaan’s wide-ranging lyrics, which bound from the usual party-starting anthems to more socially-conscious fare. Unlike most dancehall records, it feels like a statement of purpose, more an album than a collection of singles.
We spoke with Mixpak boss / executive producer Dre Skull (who served in the same role on Vybz Kartel’s 2011 Kingston Story, which in many ways feels like the spiritual forerunner to WWCF) and the producers from around the world — Brooklyn’s Dubbel Dutch, Kingston’s Anju Blaxx and Stockholm’s Adde Instrumentals — that helped birth such an impressive album.
A KINGSTON STORY
Dre Skull: I met Popcaan when I was in the late stages of making Kingston Story with Vybz Kartel, and we got to know each other a bit. In the fall after that I was in Jamaica, and we spent more time together in the studio, recording singles.
Anju Blaxx: I met Popcaan when I was engineering a couple tracks on Kingston Story, but the musical connection started when I mixed his songs ‘Ravin’ and ‘Only Man She Want’. He saw my talent and that I was punctual, and we have been making music since 2009.
Adde: I got my start in dancehall by sending riddims to Vybz Kartel, starting with ‘Bike Back’. I continued to send riddims and he voiced songs like ‘Summer Time’, ‘Open Up’ and ‘Bubble Hard’. In 2011, I told Kartel he should have Popcaan and the other Gaza members voice the ‘Summer Time’ riddim I built. Popcaan voiced ‘Ravin’, which was a big hit, and I met him personally in 2012 when he had a show in my city, Stockholm.
Dre Skull: Popcaan had achieved international name recognition at such a young age. He was thrust into the limelight, and he’s obviously very talented, but there’s an adjustment period when that happens for everyone. Whether through doing shows or being in super-demand to record, it takes an artist a second to catch their stride. I thought he was set up really well with his career to do some really big things, and eventually we talked about doing an album. A year and a half later, he signed a multi-album deal with Mixpak and we got into the real process.
Anju Blaxx: Dre Skull and Popcaan linked me to produce a song. I was also the main recording engineer on the album, and I saw the direction of the songs that were being recorded.
Dubbel Dutch: I was sending tracks to Dre Skull and he was forwarding them along to Popcaan, and he just kept picking mine, over and over. I got a few back, and I was like, “oh man, this is going to be a lot of work.” It took up a good part of two years.
Adde: I had built riddims for some of Popcaan´s songs like ‘Unruly Rave’, ‘When Mi Party’, so I was happy when Dre Skull reached out to my manager asking me to submit riddims for the album.
Dre Skull: I went down there several times, but I did send a bunch of riddims down there. I was producing riddims and executive producing remotely, drawing others in. As much as I was curating instrumentals, he would further curate and write songs, choosing whichever riddims were speaking to him.
Dubbel Dutch: I didn’t make it down to Jamaica, but it’s amazing that it could happen this way. It’s not ideal for me, but at the same token, it gave me a lot of freedom: there were no other people in the studio, and I didn’t face any rejection at all — I had a lot of creative control.
Dubbel Dutch: A big part of my process was listening to tons of Popcaan’s music in an almost obsessive sort of way for several months, to more or less develop a sense of and anticipate the kinds of things he might like or want. I studied his melodic decisions and his past hits so I could more or less have imaginary collaborations with him in my own detached creative space. It’s different than just making music for myself or my fans or a concept: I couldn’t meet Popcaan so I tried to become him, kind of like method acting.
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“YOU GOTTA FUCK IT UP A BIT”
Dre Skull: Every song on the album got additional production after he voiced them. ‘Everything Nice’ is a great example. The original instrumental was so different. Popcaan wrote the song on top of it, the files came back and Dubbel Dutch completely re-approached and reimagined the song and the vibe. Popcaan’s contributions informed the production end. That’s the way I want to work: I don’t like to say “here’s the final production” — I like for suggestions to go back and forth.
Dubbel Dutch: The original version of ‘Everything Nice’ sounded nothing like the final. It was almost like a poppy, Kid Cudi-like rap beat. He did a sad song over it. It was emo, but it was also a party song, so I made the decision to draw out this somber vibe, and he liked it. I completely remade it and realized I could do whatever I want.
I knew ‘Everything Nice’ was a risk. Whatever happens on Jamaican radio is reflected here with Caribbean stations, and it is so different from everything you would hear. I knew that people would take notice because it was so different, which happens any time you go so counter to what’s been done over-and-over. I’ve seen the hate, but you gotta take that, too. You gotta fuck it up a bit; if someone isn’t mad, then I failed.
Dre Skull: At first, some songs didn’t have outros or bridges, so we’d go back in the studio four months later to record more, or we’d figure it out with what we had, chopping up the existing track and vocal. On ‘Number One Freak’, Jamie YVP made a great instrumental and Pop recorded great track, but it was short. We knew it had potential, so Dubbel Dutch and I went into the studio and worked on build a bridge, created it from what was already recorded.
Adde: The riddim for ‘Waiting So Long’ was built around vocals from another track; I sometimes do that to get inspiration. I thought Popcaan would kill the riddim so I removed the vocals and sent the instrumental to Dre Skull. The first time I heard the song it was called ‘Baby Daddy’ and I really liked it.
Anju Blaxx: On ‘Where We Come From’, Popcaan and I decided to reveal his life story for his fans, showing his journey in music from nothing to something. I know this song means a lot to him, and it depicts the struggles that he went through to be a successful artist and role model, internationally. I sat in my studio for about 10 hours creating this riddim, and when Popcaan heard it he said this was exactly what he was envisioning, and he went straight into writing mode.
Dre Skull: I’ve got a Dre Skull single with Pusha that will probably see release this fall. I was chatting with his manager a year and a half ago, when Pusha was working his last album, and he was talking about the vibe for the album. I asked, “do you guys know Popcaan?” and sent them some YouTube links. Literally that night, we put them in touch. He had a track that I heard was a Kanye and The-Dream production and they were like “we need to get Popcaan in the studio tonight.” [laughs] Popcaan was on tour and it wasn’t going to be possible, but eventually they put ‘Blocka’ together, which was then sampled on Yeezus. So Pusha returned the favor on ‘Hustle’. I think it’s going to be a continuing relationship.
“ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL”
Dre Skull: His career trajectory is interesting. The early songs I knew him from were ‘The Dream’ and ‘Gangster City’, and he was most famous for party tracks, and people identified it as his core. But like anyone, he’s a complex person and multifaceted artist. This album was the culmination of his growth and maturity.
I wasn’t really sure what the grand statement of his album would be, but I had total faith that there would be one. Ultimately, I was kinda surprised that he was able to weave this fabric of conscious, socially-attuned with classic gyal tunes and party vibes that is very representative of his life in Jamaica. I was impressed that he could make an album that sounds holistic, and pull it off in a way that I haven’t seen many people do in dancehall world.
Dubbel Dutch: I was working on this one song that didn’t make the album — it was very jah-centric, on a religious tip — and I wasn’t expecting that from Popcaan. I’m not against any music that has that content, but I had to figure out how to deal with that and find my voice in it. The conclusion I’m coming to is that I don’t how much voice matters: my job as a producer is to make this one song work.
Dre Skull: People that have done socially conscious music of different genres it seems to be preachy, and you get cut off from your audience. With him, it’s a part without that preachiness, like watching a movie about someone, just telling a compelling story that recent urban music hasn’t done in this way.
Adde: I think the album represents patience and quality. I feel it wasn’t rushed like many releases are in dancehall, and everything was consistent, from artwork to mixing and mastering to songwriting.
Dre Skull: Historically, albums haven’t driven dancehall. It’s more about riddims and singles, but in this landscape, you can do a lot with an album. No one is going to give you a magazine feature for a single. I don’t want to oversell it: every artist makes their mark with albums, but the album itself hasn’t been emphasized. Most people release compilation of previous work, and while that three year old single is good and all, that’s not driving me to the record store.
Anju Blaxx: The album has had a really positive reaction in Jamaica. ‘Everything Nice’ is already a club and street banger, and the favorite song for the summer at this point. I love the album because all the songs have catchy hooks, and Dre skull did a good job on mixing and mastering on the entire project. It shows Popcaan’s versatility as an artist coming out of Jamaica. I have no doubt that this album will become a classic.
Dre Skull: It’s another brick in the wall, so to speak, in a long line of Brooklyn-Kingston collaborations. It’s still early, but I’m excited to see the story continue to grow and watch Popcaan keep impacting people as a bigger and bigger superstar. With Mixpak, I’m always learning as I go. That’s what makes it exciting.