As New Album Drops, Kartel Speaks On Music, War, and Life Pon Di Gaza

Adidja Palmer is a study in contradictions. According to a recent survey commissioned by the University of the West Indies, the DJ known as Vybz Kartel is dancehall’s most popular artist. On the other hand, his one-time mentor Bounty Killer recently said the biggest regret of his career was helping to “buss” the young lyricial prodigy from Portmore. “Kartel is the worst thing to happen to dancehall music,” Killer said of the artist who inspired his recent tune “Ungrateful Hell Bwoy” (a response to his former protege’s scathing “Bownty’s Killer”). After Kartel and Mavado’s epic confrontation at Sting 2008, anticipation is building for this year’s lyrical contest between di Teacha and the Warlord. But Kartel’s complexities don’t stop there. When we spoke last week by telelphone, the man behind controversial tunes like “Rampin’ Shop” and “Virginity” had just completed a back-to-school book giveaway, and was organizing a new juggling called the Schoolyard riddim, encouraging students to stay in school and out of trouble. Yet even as the Gaza vs Gully rivalry continues to simmer in the streets, the prolific, provocative lyricist insists on absolute artistic freedom, no matter the consequences. So who is the real Vybz Kartel? And what is di Teacha really teaching? Tune in and decide for yourself…

BOOMSHOTS: OK SO THE NEW ALBUM IS CALLED PON DI GAZA. WHAT IS DI GAZA?

That’s our movement.

AND IT’S ALSO A PLACE, RIGHT?

Yeah, that’s where I’m from. In Portmore, Waterford. We call the place Gaza. Ca’ you know in Jamaica a lot of corners have names from all different places all over the world. You have Tel Aviv, you have Jungle, Mexico, you have Angola, you have little America.

I EVEN WENT TO A PLACE IN KINGSTON CALLED BRONX.

You have Bronx ah Portmore too. You have Red Square where Spragga Benz come from, you know that offa Russia. So we just always name the ends dem offa countries in the world. Now comes Gaza in Waterford.

IT’S LIKE THE WHOLE EARTH IS IN JAMAICA.

Yeah, yeah, you see it.

WHO CALLED IT GAZA? THE FIRST TIME I INTERVIEWED YOU YOU NEVER MENTIONED GAZA.

No, cause at the time the name of the ends was name Borderline. And Boston. Remember them time me did ah say “Dis man from Boston, yuh head ah buss like gas pan”? So I represent for Boston and Borderline back then. But we changed the name.

WHY DID YOU CHANGE THE NAME? WAS THERE A CHANGE IN THE VIBES ROUND THERE?

Yeah definitely. Because at the time you had a play in Jamaica called “Shebada On The Borderline.” So in the play a man asked if he was man or woman and he said he was on the borderline. Y’nawmean? So a lot of ends in Jamaica that were called Borderline had to change the name. Some likkle juvenile on the ends—some ah my likkle juvenile—just rename the ends Gaza and we just take that name.

SO BORDERLINE CAN’T WORK AGAIN…

No, you know how Jamaicans are with slangs and certain words, wordplay.

YOU ARE A MASTER OF WORDPLAY. ONE TIME WHEN I INTERVIEWED YOU YOU WERE JUST WRITING IN YOUR RHYME BOOK.

You know I don’t write anymore though. I just meditate my lyrics and freestyle them. Not really freestyle like in one second, but you know, I just take like even a 15 minutes, meditate the riddim, meditate the lyrics, and then I just spit.

AND YOU TAKE THE LYRICS TO SOME PLACES NOBODY ELSE IS WILLING TO GO. YOUR SONG “RAMPIN SHOP” IS STILL PLAYING IN NEW YORK ALL THE TIME, BUT IT’S LIKE EVERY OTHER WORD IS BLEEPED OUT ON THE RADIO, SO YOU CAN’T TOO FOLLOW IT.

Well that’s gonna be a stark contrast to this album wherein it’s a PG-13 album.

OH REALLY? TELL ME ABOUT THAT.

Yeah man, the album has got a few hits on it like “Like A Movie,” “Virginity”—the radio one, which is actually “Versatility.”

Vybz Kartel “Virginity”

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Vybz Kartel “Versatility”

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OH THEY CALL IT “VERSATILITY” ON THE RADIO?

Yeah because instead of beepin’ out, which I learned from “Ramping Shop,” we start the two versions to a song. You get the street one and have the radio one without beeps. So you get a whole new story but it’s the same song.

DID YOU HEAR THE QUEEN IFRICA TUNE “MEK ME GROW”?

Yeah I heard it.

ANY THOUGHTS ON THAT?

Ifrica, I think she’s a hypocrite. Because there’s no way you as an artist who should respect another artists’ intellectual rights and respect another artists’ expression… Because if you were to say that Vybz Kartel meant I was to take a 14-year-old girl’s virginity as a big man, that would be like saying that your father really harassed you and your father really touched you. Music is not firsthand experience, sometimes it’s second-hand. Sometimes you’re talking about things from the past, as is the case with this song. Sometimes we’re just exploring the plight of two teenagers facing a predicament. So Ifrica should know as an artist. She shouldn’t be the one to poke in my story.

WELL SHE ALWAYS DEFENDS THE FEMALE POINT OF VIEW. MAYBE SHE NEVER GOT YOUR POINT OR GOT THE LYRICS CONFUSED.

No she just wanted a hype. Because remember a lot of them that preaching, acting like paragons of virtue, they are musicians and at the end of the day it comes right back to capitalism. It always comes back to the dollar. The quickest way to make a buck is to have a lot of hot songs and have a hype and have a controversy. And who is the controversy magnet? Vybz Kartel.

YOU SAY YOU LEARNED FROM “RAMPIN’ SHOP.” WHAT DID YOU LEARN?

“Rampin Shop” didn’t teach me anything, it just made me look into myself and figure out a way how to make a slack song become a clean song without losing anything in the streets. For example, “Kartel come breed me,” but the radio one says “Kartel completely.” “Virginity” on the streets, “Versatility” on the radio. On the radio we say “Member the first touch?” But the raw one say, “Member the first fuck?” Better wordplay make you into a better wordsmith, you know?

WHEN A SONG GETS SO MUCH PLAY ON THE RADIO IN AMERICA, DO YOU MAKE MONEY FROM THAT OR JUST FAME?

Is that a question from the IRS?

NO, I JUST WONDER HOW THE THING WORKS. LIKE WHEN YOU USED THAT NE-YO BEAT, DID THEY COME AFTER YOU?

Definitely. They definitely did. They came after me wicked in Jamaica. But I guess they couldn’t fight the powers that be in America so they had to just let it run free.

THE SONG WAS NOT ORIGINALLY RECORDED ON THAT BEAT, WAS IT?

Yeah it was. Because I did it as a fun. I did it to run the streets in Jamaica. Like I said I learned from that and learned how to make street songs clean and still have the street cred. I didn’t expect it to cross over, but I knew it was gonna run Jamaica at least.

WHERE DID THAT SLANG COME FROM, “RAMPIN SHOP”?

Oh that’s the name that we call hotels in Jamaica. Anywhere you make love like inna your bedroom, or you check in a hotel or motel with your girl. People call it foreplay, but it is rampin’—ramp rough. Yeah man, rough rampin’ in the Rampin’ Shop.

YOU AND SPICE DID IT REAL BIG ON THAT ONE. YOU’VE ALREADY MADE RECORDS WITH RIHANNA AND MISSY ELLIOT. DO YOU PLAN TO DO ANY MORE COLLABOS WITH INTERNATIONAL ARTISTS?

Well it’s where the music takes me you know. Cause some people say them take music to a higher level, but it’s really where the music takes me. So if it take me in that direction, fine. Me’s a man all about creativity—music itself. Like, the business aspect of it, if they find me and wanna do a song, fine. But it’s not like me ever seek out nobody.

SO THEY CAME TO YOU FOR THOSE RECORDS?

Yeah, because Rihanna, when she was coming out I was already locking Barbados. When she signed to Jay-Z she requested that Vybz Kartel and Elephant Man be on her first album because we are her two favorite Caribbean artists. Same way we know the link with Juelz Santana and Missy. You know the whole thing, how the industry gets around.

BUT IT SEEMS LIKE YOUR FOCUS HAS BEEN ON THE STREETS OF JAMAICA MORE THAN THE SO-CALLED INDUSTRY.

Yeah definitely cause remember three years now I don’t have a visa. And the three years I don’t have a visa the music just keep getting better and more powerful. Is really just, is like me look pon that as a blessing in disguise to really get the chance to improvise my talent and reinvent myself. So that’s why me deh pon the Gaza.

YOU DEH PON THAT STRAIGHT. SO ARE YOU TRYING TO GET THE VISA BACK? I’M SURE PEOPLE WANNA SEE YOU IN NEW YORK.

I know, well a lot of people is trying but as I said I’m just concentrating on music. When they send for me I will appear. Otherwise, me just focus on music. Portmore Empire is signed to us. We have a digital distribution deal for them and locally we have a physical distribution deal. We’re doing videos for them, promoting them as much as possible. Trying to do things like a real business. Y’nawmean? Yeah, and you know we have the Vybz Rum and the Daggerin’ condoms. We’re just concentrating on Jamaica right now. You done know anything that’s big in Jamaica always spread across the world. Just keep it real from the root, and then then blossom will drop inna America, it will drop inna England, drop inna Europe.

YOU DID A GREAT SET AT SUMFEST THIS YEAR. WAS THAT THE FIRST TIME YOU SHARED THE STAGE WITH MOSES?

Nah man. Years, years, years. We close Clarendon Click show in May Pen—like for the past four years we close that together. Sting for the past three years—with the exception of last year, when the Barber ran. Yeah we do a lot of show. We work Summer Sizzle every year. Champions In Action, we did it this year. Yeah man, a lot of shows.

I GUESS THE BIG TALK FROM SUMFEST WAS BECAUSE BEENIE START SAY “GAZA.”

You have to look at it like this, remember from 2002 when Vybz Kartel was in Alliance, Beenie said he’d bet his money on me. Remember 2004 we did a big hit song and it went #1 while I was still in Alliance. So people say him jumping on a wagon. I don’t see it that way, because he’s been saying Vybz Kartel from day one.

SO MUCH HAS CHANGED SINCE 2001 WHEN BOUNTY ENDORSED YOU SO BIG.

Yeah because remember around ’04, that’s when the Barber came around. That time I was still in there, cause remember I wrote five songs for him.

FOR MAVADO?

Yeah, that time I was living right beside Killer. Yeah. But around 2005 that’s when things start get shaky. Yeah man, 2-5, when Beenie Man married.

SO WHAT HAPPENED? BEENIE MAN’S WEDDING? CAUSE KARTEL AND KILLER WERE ROLLING STRONG FOR YEARS.

Yeah man, ah that me ah tell you, 2-5 things start get shaky. To explain it the simplest way, it’s like this you know, Rob—you are a big man now, and you have respect for your father. When you were nine or ten, he could tell you what to do, he could probably tell you how to dress, he could probably tell you where to go. When you are thirteen, fourteen, things start changing. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, you becomes a man of your own. You probably start having kids, and you start setting your own rules of your own—yeah, so it’s as simple as that.

HOW DID THE SITUATION COME UP WITH MAVADO THEN?

He felt he had to defend his father against, quote-unquote, the Judas. That’s how he walked into a massacre. Not really in the first war, you know, cause in the first war him kinda did get a edge cause in terms of he’s new, and you know, a new commodity. But by the end of the first war, and the beginning of the end of the second war, people see say Kartel is the realest thing. And as you see in the survey done by the University of the West Indies, Vybz Kartel is the most popular artist.

I JUST SAW THAT ON THE INTERNET LAST WEEK.

Yeah, Donna Hope did it.

DO YOU KNOW HOW SHE DID THE RESEARCH TO DETERMINE THAT?

Yeah she took samples from people, I think it was like 300 in total from the major parishes.

OKAY I SAW A VIDEO THE OTHER DAY WHERE YOU WERE PREDICTING NEXT YEAR’S STING. AND YOU SAY YOU’RE GONNA KILL THE KILLER, LYRICALLY—WHICH IS ONE THING. BUT YOU ALSO SAID YOU DON’T WANT YOUR FANS AND HIS FANS TO HURT ONE ANOTHER. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE MUSIC AND THE REAL THING IN THE STREETS?

The difference between the music and the realness is that the music is art. You know I mean? That the people have to understand. That’s why you have rules and laws. You have a rule and a law for everything. So if Vybz Kartel DJs and says me shoot informer inna them face. Rob, if you feel the need to shoot an informer, remember that you ah go get charged for murder, you ah go get charged fe shooting, you ah go get charged fe possession of firearms and ammunition. You know I mean? So you have to know that music is just like you see Sylvester Stallone shooting somebody on TV or bombing a station. You can’t do that because you know that is art.

So as I have said in many interviews, if dancehall music should take the blame for what is happening in society, so should Hollywood. But as I said before with the “Rampin’ Shop,” some people just can fight a small mice—they can’t really take on the lion. So if we should bear responsibility for what is happening in society so should Hollywood. I think all of that is just bullshit to draw people’s minds from the real issues.

BUT DO YOU THINK ALL YOUR FANS REALLY GET THE DISTINCTION THAT ART IS JUST ART?

No, they don’t. But listen, Rob, that is not the fault of Vybz Kartel. Cause remember, all the places that are acting violent over Gaza and Gully, those are all the places that have been acting violent because of JLP and PNP. These are the places that are always violent because society neglect them. They don’t have an indentity. They don’t have anything to do. So that is their way of socializing and identifying themselves with something. When Vybz Kartel and the Barber is gone, they gonna identify themselves with Black Ryno and somebody else, or JaVinci and somebody else. You understand? Yeah, so me just blame politics fe everything. [laughter]

LOG ON TOMORROW FOR KARTEL’S VIEWS ON DISSING ARTISTS’ MOTHERS, THOSE MASONIC RUMORS, AND WHY MAD MAX MOVIES REMIND HIM OF GARRISON LIFE…