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The Week Ahead

Dancehall on edge of going mainstream

November 18, 2002|Randy Lewis

Can Jamaican DJ and singer Sean Paul do for dancehall music what Bob Marley did for reggae?

We'll get an indication this week when Paul's sophomore album, "Dutty Rock," debuts on the pop album chart. It's projected to sell 70,000 to 75,000 during its first week, which should allow it to enter the chart in the Top 20 -- respectable by overall pop music standards, but spectacular in the reggae and dancehall world.

The album's sales are driven by the hit single "Gimme the Light," which has logged six months on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart and is still gaining steam, moving to No. 9 last week.

The record's long life is attributed to the tenacity of the team at Jamaica's V.P. Records, and to the recent partnership between V.P. and Atlantic Records, which is providing the major-label push considered essential to turn an urban radio hit into a mainstream pop success.

"It broke out of a few radio stations and continued to build, and now that Atlantic has signed the deal with V.P., they've taken it to the next level," says Anthony Acampora, director of charts for the Radio & Records trade publication. "It's Top 5 on [R&R's] rhythmic chart, Top 5 on the urban chart and rising fast on the pop chart. If a record makes Top 5 on two charts, that's pretty good."

It may be just the beginning for Paul in particular and dancehall music -- a fast-paced, often bawdy style in which DJs rap over reggae records -- in general.

"We're big believers in V.P. as a label and in the amazing growth of the dancehall reggae scene," says Atlantic co-president Craig Kallman. "In the last 12 months, that scene has started to hit an amazing groundswell in the underground and is now percolating on a mainstream level bigger than it ever has."

Dancehall has been around since the 1970s but has remained on the margins of the wider pop music scene. What does it need to penetrate the mainstream?

"Without question, the single most important ingredient is having an artist who can carry the torch," Kallman says. "The same way Bob Marley was that icon to lead reggae into the global mainstream marketplace, dancehall needs that superstar to carry it."

Clearly Atlantic is hoping 27-year-old Kingston native Sean Paul Henriques is that person.

"He's definitely everywhere right now," says Violet Brown, urban music buyer for the Wherehouse Entertainment retail chain. "Other rappers are starting to use him on their records, and that's always a good sign.... There are definitely other songs [with hit potential] on the album so he should be around for a while."

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