Multi award-winning Dancehall star Sean Paul talks to us about his new single ‘Summa Hot’ and the remix with Busta Rhymes and Skillibeng, as well as his music plans for 2024. We also caught up with the global music icon to talk about his highly successful career, longevity, collaborations, hitting over 1 billion streams for his track ‘No Lie’ with Dua Lipa, and how technology and AI are affecting the music industry.
Sean Paul Interview by Ben Farrin
I wanted to get a quick glimpse into the beginning of music for you. How did you get into music in the very beginning?
Just being someone who loves music in general, that’s kind of it for me, simple. In Jamaica we have a big culture of amazing music. Different genres that came up through the years. Then when Dancehall hit I was 9-10 years old, it just blew me away. It spoke to me how my friends spoke to me. It hooked me. At 15 years old I started to think maybe I’d be a producer. I saw a popular producer on the television out here telling people how he produces with studio equipment and not a band, and not in that traditional way anymore. At 17 years old I started writing rhymes and I’m like “I like this even better”. I stayed until about 24 years old, trying to hone my own craft and had a friend that was in the business – he went to school with me, he was a table tennis champion, and I was a swimming champion. I slowly started to follow him to certain studios. So from high school, I was kinda getting into it and when I left high school I definitely dove into it more. It was a gradual process, just me being a fan at first, then thinking “Yo, I could do this”.
And the rest is history hey! Fast forward to today, 27 years in the music industry at the top of your game. How do you keep motivated and keep coming up with fresh ideas for that seriously long period of time – you’re a champion in it, how do you keep it up?
There’s a lot of beautiful ladies that like to dance to my music sir (laughs), so that does keep me inspired. Other than that it’s just self-expression. I think those first six years of me kinda developing my style/craft without anybody knowing, helped propel me, to give me a hard work ethic. I do owe it to the fans. People see that I try to put my all into the music – stay to the route but push the edges and those types of things – I think my fans really appreciate that from me.
They no doubt do! Your latest track Summa Hot – I was looking at some of the comments on the YouTube video. Two stand-out comments simply read “Boss is back”, the other was just one word “unstoppable”. How do you feel – do you feel unstoppable and I also wanted to ask about the video to that track – it looked like a lot of fun filming…
Yeah, yeah! It was a fun day! I don’t get to spend those fun days much now. That was a cool day. Do I feel unstoppable? No, I just feel to not stop (laughs). For me it’s a joy. When you do what you like for a living, whether it is very little pay, which sometimes it is for me. In terms of other artists who haven’t the stature of name that I do in the business, sometimes I do free things just to keep in the game. That’s probably another reason for longevity. In Jamaica back in the day, if you didn’t do dub plates – which is free songs for different DJs, and I would do those free, if you didn’t do those your song wouldn’t be paid as much and you wouldn’t be as popular. I take that work ethic into now. There’s artists now that hola at me and if I really have a great respect for them, or the producer, or even just like the project that much, I sometimes waiver the fees. Those things kinda help to keep me in that respect. But yeah, I don’t wanna stop! For me in the studio, that’s the first fulfilment, when you actually have a song. Right now I have several songs that I just did this week – I’m like “Yo, this is awesome”. So it keeps me going, makes me feel good so for that reason maybe I’m unstoppable that way.
Cool! What was it like working with Skillibeng and Busta Rhymes on the remix?
Awesome bro! The whole vibe of the track for me is that it blends the old school Dancehall with the new and I think I’m the bridge in both cases. A lot of people in Dancehall said the 90s was the golden era. That’s where most of the songs and riddims come from that we as Jamaican’s love. And so I got a little piece of that – I started putting on music in ’96/’97 and I kinda took the 2000s by storm. And now there’s younger cats coming up. So, with this track, Busta was a few years before me in terms of coming out with music and then I came on the scene and then Skillibeng, so it just made sense to me to bridge the gap and to match the riddim how it sounded. It sounded like the oldschool Dancehall but it sounded brand new as well. It made sense to me so big-up to Skilli the young veteran coming up and big-up to Busta Rhymes who is someone I’ve always looked up to in the business and is still doing his thing 30 years later. So salute to the both of those giants on the track with me.
Amazing. In terms of collaborations, do you find it brings out more creativity out of you as an artist, and how do you get the best out of your ability in the music industry?
It definitely does bro! Because it sparks that creative competition which I think Dancehall needs. I thrive off of it. There’s a lot of beef in Dancehall and people go at each other lyrically. Over the years that has happened. For me it’s not about that – it’s like when I hear something very dope I appreciate it that much that I try to match it. So collabs give me a different perspective to think of songs also. When Clean Bandit said to me “just give us 8 bars”, I actually gave them 16 but they cut some out (laughs), but when they said that to me – I listened to the song and I was like “wow that’s a different concept I have never thought of before”, so I owe that to them, in terms of the concept where we went. Me being from a single-parent home – my father went to prison, my mum struggled with two kids and two companies trying to juggle them, lost one, then lost the other (the companies not the kids) – it was really easy for me to write but I didn’t think of it before. I’ve done a mumma song before where I praised her – to me it’s my mumma’s day song – it’s called ‘Straight From The Heart’, and I spoke of my love for her. But this was a different perspective and that only happened through doing the collab. That happens each time I go to do a new production with some other producer or some other artist whether they be huge or small, I listen to their concept and it sparks my creative competition so it’s helped develop my repertoire I guess as a musician.
I was looking at the numbers, obviously, they’re enormous: 31.7M monthly Spotify listeners and that works out to 733 people listening to your music every minute! Have you ever thought about it like that and how does it make you feel knowing that that number of people might be dancing right now to Sean Paul music…
No, wow! That’s awesome bro! Someone sent me a DM yesterday and said “I was just walking on Brooklyn Bridge today, and everyone I pass is rocking Sean Paul – different songs”, I’m like “WHAT” (laughs). That feels awesome! It’s funny nowadays because of streaming and these types of things… My children, they’re in the car and they were like “Mum, Dad, play that song again”, and I was like “It wasn’t me it was the radio”, and he didn’t understand the concept of radio. He was like “WHAT, so you mean Dad’s in the radio?” We had to explain to him a DJs playing it, and he’s six. So what he knows is Spotify. So to be high in those types of numbers right now, at this point in my career, as you said 27 years later, it’s a blessing man. I thank those 733 people who are dancing every minute, I thank ya’ll. That’s amazing!
Sticking on numbers for a moment… 1.2B views on YouTube and a billion streams on Spotify with the track with Dua Lipa ‘No Lie’. Why do you think that song is extra special?
Wow. That’s because it’s a beautiful woman. And she got a beautiful voice. I was blessed enough to be able to work with her when she was not that huge in the business but I listen to people’s voice and definitely the image too, but her voice is amazing to me. I think that song was lukewarm at first because it was released in 2017, and just started to build up. Then during the pandemic, it got wider exposure, especially when she blew up. So I owe that a lot to her. Maybe if I had put someone else on the song people would’ve loved it as well, because it’s a dope melody and I’m on it doing my thing, but she really helped to bring it over the top and so sometimes with collabs that kinda helps. You know, the right person, the right time, the right riddim – it’s all like a juggling act and sometimes for every one song you might hear from me, I’ve produced or sung about ten of them in the studio and nine of them are not going to be as big as that one that you hear. So as I said it’s like a juggling act for me, or a trial and error type thing and I tried with her and she blew it up.
How big is your music catalogue of unreleased tracks that you’ve created?
Man, my manager said to me the other day that he has a YouTube list of collabs that I’ve done. Collabs alone. It’s 108 songs, he said – I was like “Woah”. It’s been a long time and there’s been a lot of great stuff. I have a very unique tone of voice – people can recognise it very easily so a lot of people would like me on their collabs to get that ear recognition, I guess. That’s kind of helped over the time period.
What would you say has been the biggest lesson that you’ve learned in the music industry?
Do it for the love. A lot of people say “music business” and they praise me for being a good businessman. Just yesterday someone just shook my hand and was like “Bro you took music to the business”. I didn’t really have a conscious mind to do that. Where it started for me before the shows and before all the type of Instagram stuff it was about having good material so at least I could get a smile out of somebody, or a “that’s dope”. That was it for me, and I always wanted to have that reaction. A lot of time when I pull out songs maybe I don’t get that initial reaction and I go back to the drawing board and do another song. People might actually love the song but maybe didn’t give me the “that’s dope” reaction, so that kinda helps me to keep grinding in studios.
What about advice for aspiring musicians who want to kick-start a career or get into music?
I would say go all for it. A lot of young artists – some with great talent, amazing talent and some with not. I like to tell people it’s 99% hard work in this business. You could have 1% talent and if you work hard at it, you could get noticed, you could get a song that people enjoy. I mean Baby Shark is not of great composition in terms of a mastermind piece of work, but everybody knows it (laughs). So yeah, keep at your work. As I said before, do it from your heart. Do it because you have that self-expression you wanna send out there, not so much for the business side. The business side will come and you need to be knowledgeable about what you need to do with the stuff when you have it. For me it all starts at the bottom, with the bassline, a good song, good music – work on those things, work on what you wanna say to your audience, be true to that and good luck!
Do you think in your opinion that you are born with a gift?
I think we’re all born with different gifts and it’s how you mix and match the different versions of what you have. I’m good at certain things but I’m very bad at other things. I try to emulate those things that I’m good at, I work on the bad things as well, but it’s what you call another juggling act in that respect. For people to say “That person is the most talented person on Earth”, that’s arguable because I know people who sing in their bathtub that I wish would come to the studio but it’s not for them. I definitely feel blessed and feel like I have a talent but again it comes back to that 99% hard work. If you don’t work on the talent, if you don’t keep your voice in check, if you’re an athlete and don’t work out you’re probably gonna pull a muscle, so it doesn’t matter to me much about “yo you’re very talented”, I think we’re all talented in different areas, and it’s how you pull those resources to present your product, or your song, or your whole persona to people that really draws people in.
What about the technology side of things, obviously you’ve had a really long and highly successful career and technology throughout the years has changed incredibly. How have you had to adapt throughout your career on the basis of technology changing?
Almost 30 years ago there was no Instagram, no Twitter, no Facebook, no Myspace, no TikTok. There was radio and there was TV. And for a musician, MTV, a programme like that would be a very great outlet. How we recorded was different too – it was on 24 reel tracks, the original way, then digital started to come in and you could do so much more things with tracks and that was awesome and amazing – you had a lot more tracks available to you. It’s like being a painter and getting more colours and a bigger palette – it’s like “wow”, it adds to your artwork. But also it’s been crazy – this morning I had to update my Zoom and call somebody to help me out, I was like “Ya’ll, my Zoom is not working, how do you do this?!” Things like that, I like technology for sure but I’m not a full geek on it, I don’t know everything so it’s frustrating in some parts – you know this is just in the palm of your hands but I don’t know how to fully do it – so it takes time. It’s been a two-sided sword. Sometimes I’m able to conquer the beast with it, but also I might cut myself a few times. I love technology, as I said. What I like to try to remind people is that we’ve done all this already, excellently, before, without this stuff. I try to tell my kids that technology is awesome, but this is the real route of the way and let them at least appreciate that. When I first started to drive a car it was a stick shift, right? There are still people that drive stick shift vehicles now, but more than two generations of kids only know to press gas and press breaks and steer the car. They don’t know about changing gears. With technology that’s bound to happen. There’s things like pencils and pens in schools are going away in terms of people always on the laptops/iPads or whatever. So I like to still have (especially with my kids) some form of showing them how it used to be done, just for the appreciation point alone.
What about artificial intelligence? Specifically someone such as yourself – you’ve got such a unique voice, how do you think AI is going to affect the music industry – what do you think the future holds for creative industries with artificial intelligence?
It’s really crazy, in about 2012, I saw a hologram, she could sing in any key. They could put any music behind it and she actually had a following of people that would go to the show, they would wave when she said wave, and she was actually 15 feet tall so you could see her from way back. I was amazed at that and thought it was going to change the business and it’s taken 12 years and I’ve not really seen much more of it done. I saw a 2Pac hologram in some big concert in America and there’s been a couple of others – Snoop Dogg, did it and whatnot. Technology is getting better and better but again, to be a human being we like to walk in the grass sometimes and get our feet dirty. So yeah we’ve developed shoes and there’s sneaks and they’re all great but sometimes we like to do that. So is it going to take over fully? It definitely has helped me in terms of I’ve just done two videos that I didn’t really love the outcome of them – I didn’t think they were exciting enough and we used AI to put things and do all kinds of stuff and it looks much more awesome now so yeah again, I will utilise what it is, but will it take over everything? Will it come to the point where I want to go and see a hologram of my favourite artist? Maybe if they’re no longer here. But I’m a human being and I like to walk in the grass without my shoes on sometimes. I think there’s others like me and I think that while that’s available to us we’ll still be doing some of the more traditional walking in the grass.
I love the perspective and the way you compare things, it’s brilliant. What about future plans – have you get any exciting plans you can share with us for fans, maybe going into 2024 – collaborations/releases and so on…
Yeah, I have been working on a bag of stuff! I’m hoping to drop an album sometime next year, it might be in the summer. Even though these aren’t album-driven times, I still try to work towards an album. I think that an album encapsulates that time period whenever you started to work on it and whenever it was released. So I’m working on stuff like that. I just released a song with Manuel Turizo which is huge. This remix with me and Busta Rhymes and Skillibeng is what I’m promoting as well, and I’m looking forward to touring next year. I have a tour coming up in November in Canada. After that, early in the year, we’re looking to come back to the UK and Europe and do that. I got a couple of Afrobeat songs coming out. I’m on a couple of remixes and stuff so people can listen out for that. The Dancehall world, the Reggaeton world, and the Afrobeat world is such familiar music to me and people hola at me all the time, so look out for stuff in those three amazing genres of music, from me.