In Jamaican culture, and the reggae music of the last two decades, few names shine as brightly as that of Papa San. In the early-'80s, putting a highly rhythmic and rapped spin on the traditional melodic reggae groove of masters like Bob Marley and others, Papa San was instrumental in forging what today is known as Dancehall music. Intricate, often improvisational, and always mesmerizing, Papa San's irresistible style of rhythm and wordplay became—and remain today—his trademark to millions of fans the world over.
In 1997, having had what he describes as a supernatural visitation, Papa San committed his life to Jesus Christ. The content of his songs changed to convey his newfound faith in the Gospel, but the mighty grooves, unforgettable hooks and mile-a-minute words and rhymes continued to flow on his second Gospo Centric album,
"God And I".
On "Breathe Again," Papa San likens Christ to the very breath of life, rapping over a hooky, melodic female chorus with a punchy groove that brings out the strong convergence of Dancehall and hip-hop music. The album's title song is a lilting, melodic jam with a more traditional reggae feel, while "I Know" beats to a sparse, techno pulse again playing Papa Sans' masterful word-juggling off a velvety, memorable chorus.
On an album filled with the classic, timeless Papa San sound—with all songs written or co-written by the artist—several are special stand-outs to him. "Stay Far" is driven by thick bass guitar, percussion, and Papa San's amazingly constructed lyrics and the chant-like melody of an unforgettably entrancing chorus.
"There are a lot of people in this world who feel hopeless," he says. "I've known that feeling, too, before I was successful in music and after. There were many times in my life I could have been shot by gangs, or killed in shoot-outs with police, and for many that's just an accepted way of life. But with Jesus as the center of my life, those feelings of hopelessness can't touch me anymore. If He can do it for me, He can do it for you. I want people to hear this song and know that same hope in Him that I have found."
Commanding and propulsive, "Can't Flee From Your Presence" states an eternal truth—Dancehall-style. "I used to try to do just that, all the time," says Papa San, "and it just doesn't work. I would see people going to church, but that never interested me. I didn't ever think of God protecting me. I carried a gun and thought that was my protection, but I never could really flee from his presence. He is omnipresent. He's everywhere…all-in-all."
Having had his first smash while still just a teenager in the mid-'80s, Papa San's phenomenal, ongoing reign on international music charts earned him the nickname "Marathon Man," as it was not uncommon for him to simultaneously hold down several positions in the Top 10 at any given time, as well as to log runs at No.1 that still no reggae artist to date has surpassed. In 1994 he filled dance floors around the world with "The Programme," which also hit the top of the Billboard dance chart. Smash hits like "I Will Survive," "Legal Rights," "Strange" and "Maddy Maddy Cry," among many others, brought Papa San a huge audience in all the Caribbean Islands and around the world in Japan, Europe, Africa, the U.S. and more throughout the '80s and '90s.
"Dancehall is really just a branch off of the reggae tree," he explains. "It was first called toasting in the early '70s when artists, who became referred to as DJs, began to put lyrics more to rhythms than melodies. It was built less off the keyboard and more from a hardcore beat. Rap music took a lot of inspiration from Dancehall."
In fact, before giving his life to the Lord and being baptized in the faith in 1997, Papa San was a popular figure in American rap circles, being credited as a pioneer by a host of rap superstars. Later connecting with fans of American hip-hop, Papa San landed numerous videos in heavy rotation on MTV. More recently, he has appeared on gospel titan Kirk Franklin's 2002, platinum-selling album, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, and shared stages with a number of gospel and mainstream stars, including Mary Mary, Trin-t-ee 5:7, Donnie McClurkin, Hezekiah Walker, and BeBe & CeCe Winans.
Raised in Spanish Town, just outside of Jamaica's capital, Kingston, Papa San grew up in an environment where hard work and grinding poverty was the daily norm. But fervent revelry ruled the weekends. Spearheaded by any neighborhood resident with charisma and a potent enough sound system, music, dancing and singing prevailed well into the wee hours of Friday and Saturday nights as the sounds of reggae blasted from P.A.s loud enough to be heard and felt for many city blocks. Papa San's own father manned such a sound system every week—dubbed "Black Universe"—and his naturally gifted son soaked up the music like the Caribbean sun. The strains of reggae greats like Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, and John Holt were interspersed with a wide range of American pop and rock music, from venerable crooner Nat King Cole to disco diva Donna Summer, all adding additional color to young Papa San's musical palette. By the age of only 12, he had already begun performing with artists more than twice his age, cultivating his prodigious gifts with words and music, with acclaim beyond his young imagination only a few years away.
Reared by his grandmother, and being taught the doctrines of the Rastafarian religion, Papa San explains that he never had any teaching or ministering in Christianity or the church.
"As a child growing up, I always believed that if I just achieved certain material things that everything would be all right," says Papa San. "As I became older, I had lots of success. I had lots of things, and had tried lots of things, but I never found the satisfaction I had expected. I had given some bad messages in my songs, and I myself at one time had been involved with firearms, and had run-ins with the police. I had two brothers and two sisters, and both my brothers were killed in street violence.
"Life began to take some different turns down roads I had never anticipated. I would have said I had a relationship with the Creator, but I was obviously moving in the wrong direction," he continues. "One day, I opened the Bible and began to read it, and the Holy Spirit started ministering to me, saying in my heart: `You need to get yourself straight. You have to get yourself right.' I wondered if God could really forgive me of my sins over all the years and accept me into His Kingdom. My wife and I went to a church and the pastor told us about Christ. My eyes began to open and I knew that I had to receive Him, regardless of what anyone else thought or said about it."
Though uncertain what ramifications his spiritual transformation would have on his musical career, Papa San was thrilled with what he began to see taking place. "I've gotten so much great response, and it's only increased over time," he says. "We've seen thousands of people come to Christ at our concerts. Some came to the shows just to see what it would be like to hear a Gospel message put to Dancehall music. Many of them have been shocked—in a good way—at what they heard, and gotten saved in the process."
As he continues to travel the world, performing his singular style of Gospel/Dancehall, Papa San—once a child of the violent and mean streets himself—has a simple but devout mission and message.
"Souls. That's what it's all about," he concludes. "I want to bring as many people as I possibly can to know Christ. God gave me a gift of music, but Christ called us to be fishers of men. But with no line, no hook and no bait you can't catch anything. My concerts draw many people who might never walk through church doors, and everyone gets the concert they come to hear. But at the end I am going to pray and ask them if they want to know Christ. That's what really matters. I am a fisher of men, and music is my bait."