Busy Signal: Off the Hook

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To make it in dancehall, you need an image, a Puritan work ethic, and endless lyrics. But a good catchphrase never hurts. So when you hear "Sound di big ting dem!" just before the riddim drops, you know that Reanno Gordon (a.k.a. Busy Signal) has just commanded your full attention.

On Step Out (Greensleeves), his first full-length album, the 23-year-old runs the gamut from an ode to his mother to tracks with (and for) the ladies, but the focus is on the frenetic songs that first got him noticed. "Born and Grow" is a DJ Karim-produced love song to his native Jamaica that samples Eric Donaldson's patriotic "Land of My Birth." Conversely, "Where I'm From" speaks to his country's rougher elements and corrupt government. But it's the title track, with its vocal stutter-step over a trancey instrumental and badman lyrics ("Bwoy dis, end up inna bodybag, toe tag/Escape 'pon bicycle, mi don't drive Jag") that has the biggest chance of crossing over to a wider audience.

The album is incredibly polished for an artist with only two years of performances under his belt. The achievement can be attributed in part to his membership in The Alliance–the crew led by the legendary Bounty Killer–whose roster includes Vybz Kartel, Bling Dawg, and Mavado. "[If Bounty] knows that you got a talent and you're serious about what you're doing, he will accept you," says Busy. "He's [been] there for me throughout my career... like a big brother." He also counts artists like Capleton and Sizzla as mentors. "They do different music from Bounty Killer, but I try to be an artist that does not really do one topic. It's dancehall, but at the same time, it's versatile."

When asked if he feels that Bounty's years-long lyrical war with Beenie Man puts him in a precarious position, Busy answers that their battle is bigger than him. "They've been doing that before I had any mind of being where I am now," he explains. But would he respond if Beenie dissed him? "I don't really compete with my talent. I try to stay focused and do good music so that a wider range of people can enjoy it instead of pointing my song at one person. Right then and there, [that would] make that person's fans hate me."

Busy has already found himself in such a situation. Another young upstart, Idonia, has recorded a number of songs aimed directly at Busy. (Ironically, Idonia also has ties to Bounty; the two have even recorded songs together.) "I don't know that guy... never greet, never meet nowhere," says Busy of the unprovoked lyrical attacks. "But here's the thing: [in] Jamaica... the bad mind dem chip in. Whenever you try to make something of yourself, you always have somebody tryin' to draw you down, to distract you. I try to stay focused as much as possible. Sizzla taught me that, Capleton taught me that. Even Bounty Killer... tells me to stay focused and don't really pay nonsense no mind. Doing that would have me pinned down beside somebody for the rest of my career."