Seated on a stage at Brooklyn's BAM Rose Cinemas, Aidonia looks visibly uncomfortable. A cap pulled low over his eyes, the deejay is staring at the floor–hardly a pose befitting an emerging superstar whose songs ooze charisma and jovial panache.
At the moment, however, Aidonia is facing what you might call "the music." Along with the four-piece Ward 21 crew and fellow deejay Mr. Peppa, the 24-year-old from Kingston's Red Hills Road is participating in a post-screening discussion of Dancehall Draft Picks, an MTV-style, behind-the-scenes documentary look at the latest wave of dancehall deejays (including himself, Ward 21, Peppa, Alozade, Busy Signal, Hollow Point, Mavado , and Tony Matterhorn). Almost instantly, the roundtable becomes a debate between some audience members and the artists regarding the recent glut of violent gunman tunes in dancehall, and the role artists play in depicting Jamaican life for the rest of the world.
Cornered in the theater's lobby after the panel discussion, Aidonia–suddenly expressive after remaining mum through much of the debate–explains the deejays' predicament.
"You sing girl song, you sing culture song, you sing gun song, you sing different song [but] di selector pick di gun song," the 24-year-old says, incredulous. "What yuh gwaan do? Yuh gwaan voice two more dem gun songs!"
The subject is a sore one in and around the dancehall of late, as the genre's key artists attempt to diffuse the tension created late last year when nearly every dancehall star that matters was embroiled in a high-profile clash with a peer (or three or four). When a near-riot spurred by internal tensions among Bounty Killer's crew, The Alliance, broke out at Kingston's Arizon Inn club in December, the situation appeared not only out of control but headed for a tragedy of Biggie-and-2PAC-like proportions.
"It definitely can reach a level... Trust, mi nuh like the vibes going on in di dancehall, and I say so," says Aidonia, whose beef with former partner-in-crime Mavado erupted when the two found themselves on opposite ends of the war between Bounty Killer and former protogé Vybz Kartel. It was that tension that led to the Arizon Inn melee, which was set off by the two artists' entourages after Vybz Kartel appeared on stage with Aidonia. (Vybz and Aidonia were officially booted from The Alliance shortly thereafter.) "We lose Mr. Wacky [a .k.a. Jamaican dancehall choreographer Bogle] just recently, and that hurt dancehall a lot," Aidonia says, talking around his pending feuds with Bounty and Mavado with an air of diplomacy. "Losing an artist would shut down dancehall. I'm not going to lose mi life over music. Mi nuh want it."
Gangster For Life
Without a doubt, Mavado (a.k.a. 26-year-old David Brooks) is the most intriguing and unique reggae artist to emerge in recent memory.
Dancehall tends to be regimented to a fault, with artists recording songs that generally fall into one of three categories: gun tunes, girl tunes, and culture tunes. These lyrical boxes are rarely broken, the formulas rarely crossbred. But with his weighty, sing-song-y timbre and his ethereal and thoughtful but uncompromisingly gangsta lyrics, Mavado appears uniquely able to transcend reggae's self-imposed barriers. Creating what will perhaps be a new template for the music's future, his place in dancehall today evokes the way Biggie and 2PAC revolutionized rap with deeper-than-deep meditations that made the dark underbelly of society seem like the most beautiful thing in the world. "Gangster for Life," Mavado's signature catchphrase (and the title of his upcoming debut album for VP Records), seems to resonate with the young shottas in Kingston and Brooklyn the way "Thug Life" spoke to corners worldwide in 1995.
"Mi come out and say 'Gangster for Life,' 'Real McKoy,' 'Weh Dem a Do,' all dem real talk and gangster tings people nuh talk about," says Mavado in a phone interview. "Dem nuh talk about the real part. When mi see reality, mi sing about the real part."
Getting a hold of Mavado is no easy feat. After a convoluted phone number trail leads from Queens to Mavado's Kingston garrison, Cassava Piece, his manager Julian Jones-Griffiths finally corrals him for an interview as he prepares for a night of laying down vocals at the studio of production team Daseca. "He rides a bike, so he can only answer the phone when he stops–and when he stops, anything can happen," Jones-Griffiths claims.
Of course, if you wanted to find Mavado, Daseca Studio would be a good start. While young dancehall vocalists usually find themselves in a mentor/apprentice relationship with established producers, Daseca and Mavado emerged together in 2004 when the four-man production unit issued Anger Management, a riddim that would spawn Mavado's breakthrough hit, "Real McKoy." As their respective stocks have risen, the producers and the artist have remained atypically loyal to one another, scoring nearly all of their hits, from the Busy Signal collaboration "Badman Place" to the recent "Dying" (a haunting track inspired by Mavado's father's recent murder), in tandem.
"Before mi know Daseca, nobody know Mavado and nobody know Daseca deh same way," Mavado explains. "Dem teach me certain things that complete me, certain keys and notes. Before, mi love to sing but mi no really know the fuller side. Me and Daseca have unity–it's sort of a family."
With Mavado's biggest hit sans Daseca, "Weh Dem a Do" (on Delly Ranx's Red Bull & Guinness riddim), still penetrating the American airwaves, the artist is gearing up for the release of Gangster for Life, due out in July on VP Records. While that means more eyes will be on him than ever, he remains committed to his portrayal of the darker side of life.
"Mi haffa sing to di vibes of what happen right now," he says. "When mi look out to the whole world, crime gwaan everywhere. Not because mi sing about it. It already happen long before mi born, long before you weh born."
Real And Proper Way
Like Mavado, Aidonia is forging his own path as a deejay. While his playful flow clearly takes a page from his mentor, Vybz Kartel, Aidonia is even more heavily influenced by hip-hop. (He lived with his father in Brooklyn and the Bronx for several years after being booted out of Kingston's Meadowbrook High School.) Enamored with metaphors, he frequently breaks from his rapid-fire patois to enunciate key words, and cites Biggie, 'Pac, and DMX among his greatest influences (along with Bounty, Vybz, and Shabba Ranks). 'Donia has also been a key proponent of mixtapes in Jamaica. With no album project officially announced at press time (he's currently in discussions with VP, though no contracts have been signed), his latest mixtape effort, Zinc Fence and Gunshot, Vol. 1, offers a preview.
Dirty, hardcore treatises on the joys of punani, like last year's lewd "Ukku" (with its "Aidonia...I wanna bone ya" lyric), will surely remain Aidonia's calling card, but he says he'll be cutting back on gun talk and taking a stab at cultural topics in the future.
"Everybody gotta come together fi make Jamaica better–the politician dem, the people dem, the teacher dem, the artist dem," he says. "Right now they're not coming together, and it really look bad. We need to start from new, basically–being an artist come with responsibility."