The Number Ones: Sean Paul’s “Get Busy”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Jamaican music has never stopped evolving — not in the past 60 years, not for one second. Over the decades, Jamaican music has had occasional moments of intersection with American pop, often as a texture or an inspiration. You can hear echoes of reggae in something like the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” or Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly.” Bob Marley never had a big American pop hit in his lifetime, but Eric Clapton got to #1 by covering Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff.” As reggae evolved into dancehall, a couple of dancehall tracks crashed the American charts and even made it all the way to #1: Snow’s “Informer,” Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” and “Angel.” But those songs were generally received as novelties — silly pop songs with a slightly different flavor. They didn’t necessarily reflect what was happening in Jamaica at the time. In 2003, that trajectory changed.

“Get Busy,” the first #1 hit from the Jamaican deejay Sean Paul, isn’t exactly dancehall in its rawest, purest form. When Paul wrote the song, he was just starting to break out in America, and he kept American audiences in mind. Paul threw in bits and pieces of then-current rap slang that he thought could help the song translate, and his sense of offhand melody had none of the booming rupture that a peer like Bounty Killer or Elephant Man might’ve brought. But “Get Busy” was a whole lot closer to primal dancehall than anything that had previously topped the Hot 100. Sean Paul wasn’t a pop interloper, and he wasn’t going far out of his way to attain crossover status. Instead, Paul operated within the same space as his dancehall peers, using the same instrumental that dozens of other dancehall artists were riding.

There’s no one reason why Sean Paul became the dancehall artist who topped the Hot 100 without compromising. It’s a lot of small things. Sean Paul was on a big run of hits. He looked great on TV. He made genuinely stunning music videos. His tracks had a sharp melodic immediacy as well as a hypnotic, almost psychedelic quality. By 2003, rap had thoroughly conquered the Hot 100, and dancehall was always a sort of cousin to hip-hop, one that evolved on a parallel track around the same time. The crossover hits that I mentioned in that previous paragraph probably helped open the ears of the American mainstream, turning dancehall into something a little more tangible and accessible. And “Get Busy” is a great song. That matters, too.

To reach the point where he could become a crossover king, Sean Paul first had to make himself a big deal within dancehall. That took time. Sean Paul Ryan Francis Henriques was born into a multicultural family in Kingston. His ancestry is Afro-Caribbean, Chinese, English, and Jewish Portuguese. (When Sean Paul was born, the #1 song in America was Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”) Paul’s parents were both champion swimmers, and his mother was a painter. Paul’s father spent a few years in prison for manslaughter when Paul was a teenager, but the family was solidly middle class.

When he was a kid, Sean Paul excelled as an athlete, and he played on the Jamaican national water polo team for eight years, starting when he was 13. Paul was raised Catholic, but he went to a Jewish private school before studying hotel management in college. Later, Paul worked as a bank teller and a chef, but music was always a part of his life. Paul’s aunt ran a soundsystem, and Paul would get on the mic as a kid, doing his best to sound like the early dancehall star Super Cat. Paul’s father was friends with Stephen “Cat” Coore, guitarist for the long-running reggae band Third World. Coore encouraged Paul and helped him make connections. In 1996, Paul’s breezy debut single “Baby Girl” became a Jamaican hit, and “Baby Girl” producer Jeremy Harding became Paul’s manager.

For a few years, Sean Paul recorded dancehall singles in Kingston. He’s said that he wanted to address serious social issues in his music but that people didn’t take him seriously when he tried that. He was too slick, and his upbringing was too privileged. Instead, Paul made party records, and he thrived in that arena. Singles like 1998’s “Infiltrate” were big in Jamaica, and they started to make inroads in places like New York. That same year, Hype Williams gave Paul and his regular collaborator Mr. Vegas a cameo in the movie Belly. Paul and Mr. Vegas teamed up with Belly star DMX for “Top Shotta,” a track from the film’s soundtrack. (DMX’s highest-charting single, 1998’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” peaked at #16, though it didn’t chart that high until after X’s death last year. Mr. Vegas’ only Hot 100 hit, the great 2004 track “Pull Up,” peaked at #98.)

Sean Paul and Mr. Vegas made for a hell of a combination. Paul would toast in a smooth, controlled baritone while Mr. Vegas sang in a wild, emotional tenor. They sounded nothing like one another, and that’s why they complemented each other. Over the spaced-out, minimal riddims of that dancehall era, they sounded almost supernatural. The duo’s 2000 track “Haffi Get De Gal Ya (Hot Gal Today)” didn’t make the Hot 100, but it did reach the lower rungs of the Billboard R&B chart. That song, recorded over the eerie and minimal Street Sweeper riddim, absolutely blew me away, and its success led to the international release of Sean Paul’s 2000 debut album Stage One, which was basically a compilation of the singles that Paul had already been releasing in Jamaica.

I guess I should take a moment for the riddim, a longstanding dancehall tradition that goes back to the days before the genre was even born. In Jamaica, it’s common for a whole lot of vocalists to record their own takes on the same basic backing track. A producer will make a track, and the singers and deejays will shape that track into dozens of different songs. It’s up to the vocalists to set their versions apart, to use that track as a kind of springboard. Two songs that use the same riddim might not sound anything like one another, but they’ll still blend together during DJ sets. That’s a hopelessly simplistic explanation for a longstanding practice, but it’s necessary to set up what Sean Paul was able to do when he first conquered the American charts.

In 2002, Sean Paul recorded over the Buzz Riddim, a track from the Miami-based production duo Black Shadow. Paul’s version of that riddim was “Gimme The Light,” a wildly catchy smokers’ anthem. Little X, the Canadian director now known as Director X, turned “Gimme The Light” into an absolute masterpiece of a music video, an ecstatic meditation on bodies moving through empty space. “Gimme The Light” was the biggest track that used the Buzz Riddim, and it gradually grew into a genuine international hit. In the US, “Gimme The Light” peaked at #7 early in 2003. (It’s a 10.)

Sean Paul’s follow-up single used another riddim that was blowing up in Jamaica at the time, and that riddim grew into the biggest and most important in dancehall history. In 1998, Steven “Lenky” Marsden, a keyboardist in dancehall star Buju Banton’s band, created a beat out of swirling, syncopated handclaps, synth hits, and a winding sitar riff. The track reminded Lenky of Bollywood musicals and Punjabi folk dances, and he called it the Diwali Riddim, after the Hindu holiday. For a few years, nobody wanted to record over the Diwali Riddim; it was too chaotic. Eventually, though, the riddim gained some traction, and then it snowballed.

In the early ’00s, the British label Greensleeves had a compilation series called Rhythm Albums — entire LPs dedicated to different artists’ takes on a single riddim. The Diwali album came out in 2002, and it featured Diwali tracks from dancehall stars like Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, and Elephant Man. One of the tracks on that album became an international hit. The Diwali riddim is jerky and hectic by nature, but the smooth and soulful singer Wayne Wonder used it as the basis for the delicate, mesmerizing ballad “No Letting Go,” which reached #11 on the Hot 100. Incredible song.

Upon release, the Diwali album sold about 40,000 copies — not a huge number, but way better than the other albums in that series were selling. The Diwali Riddim worked so well in part because it was adaptable. In giving the track to different vocalists, Lenky would tweak the beat, adding or taking away different elements based on what suited the star best. That’s why the Diwali Riddim could work so well on a ballad like “No Letting Go” or on a party song like “Get Busy.”

“Get Busy,” Sean Paul’s take on the Diwali Riddim, isn’t on the Diwali album, possibly because Paul took too long to record it. But Sean Paul loved the sound of that beat. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Paul says, “It was such an energized riddim. Everybody in Jamaica loved the hand-clap effect of the song.” In that book, Lenky also describes how he changed the track to fit Paul’s voice: “I did some different overdubs on them to give each song a different identity. With Sean, I added more strings to give a more mystic feel to the track.”

The Diwali Riddim reminded Sean Paul of the time he’d spent at basement parties as a kid, and he used the beat for a dance song. In the Bronson book, Paul says that he used American terms — “jiggy,” “crunked up” — so that American listeners would better understand the song. Paul’s patois on the track is still thick, but even with an untrained ear, you get the idea. “Get Busy” is a party song. Paul sings about sexy ladies in the club, shaking that booty nonstop, getting it on till the early morn. On the intro, Paul shouts out a bunch of different women, one of whom, TV host Jodi Stewart, later became his wife. Paul spends most of the track singing to women: “Gyal, nobody cyaan tell yuh nuttin’ ‘cah yuh done know yuh destiny.” Also: “Oscillate yuh hip.” More singers should tell you to oscillate your hip.

“Get Busy” has the same narcotic feel as “Gimme The Light.” The song is about partying, not smoking weed, and the beat is hectic and turbulent. But Paul toasts over it with overwhelming confidence. His voice, deep and resonant, seems to become a part of the track. He surfs it so easily. “Get Busy” has verses and choruses, but the whole thing sounds like one long chorus — a trance-like command to move your body. If you were attuned to dancehall in 2003, “Get Busy” was a banger. If you didn’t know the genre, it sounded like a transmission from another planet and also a banger. I was somewhere between those two poles, and I loved the song. Still do.

The video helped. As with “Gimme The Light,” Sean Paul teamed up with Director X for a “Get Busy” clip. X shot the video in the Toronto suburb of Woodbridge, and it captures the kind of house party that Paul was thinking of when he wrote the song. (Thanks to its huge West Indian immigrant population, dancehall is perfectly at home in Toronto.) It’s freezing when Paul and his friends pull up, but the party is hot. The older generation sits around upstairs, playing cards, while the younger folks gather to dance in the basement. Everyone looks incredible.

X’s camera moves with the dancers, capturing dazzling moves in mesmeric slow motion. I would watch a four-hour version of the “Get Busy” video. I love all the characters: the stern patriarch who keeps interrupting to tell everyone to stop banging on the damn furnace, the little kid who sneaks downstairs in his pajamas to bust some adorable moves, the beautiful girl who enters in slo-mo and catches Sean Paul’s eye. As the video ends, just before the old man kicks everyone out, we get to hear a few seconds of “Like Glue,” Paul’s next single.

“Like Glue,” holy shit. What a song. Paul’s dazed hymn, recorded over Tony “CD” Kelly’s Buy Out Riddim, absolutely kills me; it’s my favorite of the incredible Sean Paul single trilogy that made my life immeasurably richer early in 2003. When Paul’s Dutty Rock album came out, I’d just met the woman who would later become my wife, and we used to drive around and play those three songs on repeat. At our wedding four years later, “Like Glue” went off.

Dutty Rock went double platinum, and “Like Glue” peaked at #13. A fourth single, a take on the Alton Ellis oldie “I’m Still In Love With You,” made it to #14. Sean Paul stuck around and became a true dancehall envoy; we’ll see him in this column again. But the amazing thing about “Get Busy” was that the Diwali Riddim also stuck around. As far as I know, it’s the only time that something like this has happened in American pop music: The same beat just keeps coming back and charting high in different forms for several years.

Later in 2003, Lumidee, a teenage R&B singer from Spanish Harlem, released “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh).” The original version of the song had a different beat, but the one that blew up was a remix that put Lumidee’s voice over the Diwali Riddim. Lumidee had to battle the impression that she was singing out of key; on the original track, she wasn’t. Out of key or not, though, Lumidee sounded great over the Diwali Riddim, and “Never Leave You” peaked at #3, becoming Lumidee’s biggest hit. (It’s a 9.)

Two years later, the Diwali Riddim helped launch a legendary career. In 2005, Robyn Rihanna Fenty, a teenager from Barbados who’d just signed to Def Jam, sang over the Diwali Riddim on her debut single “Pon De Replay.” “Pon De Replay” managed to be pop and dancehall at the same time, and Rihanna filmed the video with Sean Paul’s old collaborator Director X. That summer, “Pon De Replay” became a #2 hit. (It’s a 9.) We’ll eventually see a whole lot of Rihanna in this column.

The story of the Diwali Riddim is one of those pop music miracles. People continued to use that beat for years, and the track moved freely among genres. But the riddim was already a hybrid beast, a Jamaican reggae musician’s take on Indian pop music. It could keep sounding fresh for years because other musicians made it even more of a hybrid, stretching it in different directions but keeping its soul intact. By the time Rihanna arrived at the party, the Diwali Riddim and dancehall in general had become part of the language of American pop music. In the time since, dancehall has never gone away. It continues to bubble right under the surface, changing pop for the better.

GRADE: 10/10

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