Depending on the song, Sizzla Kalonji's voice can be filled with suffering, righteous anger, yearning, or vitriol–sometimes he traverses this entire spectrum on a single 7-inch. But there is one constant that unifies his expansive catalog: a tangible, unrivalled passion. Whether singing in a pained falsetto (frequently pitch-shifting, but always endearing); a resonant, resolute timbre perfectly suited for anthems; or an emotive, throat-shredding scream that instantly commands your attention, you are immediately aware of the voice belonging to the artist affectionately known to fans and followers as "Dada."
Sizzla's fervor, coupled with a manic work ethic, has kept him at the top of the sometimes-fickle Jamaican dancehall scene for over a decade, during which he's released some 40-plus albums and consistently cranked out a few singles a week. "I'm always creating; I like to be innovative," explains the 31-year-old via phone from a tour stop in New York. Referring to himself in the third person, he adds, "The formula for what Sizzla does is that he always comes with something that the world knows, but it's new again."
With the recent release of The Overstanding on hip-hop mogul Damon Dash's DDMG label, Sizzla hopes to test this strategy on an American audience. While Caribbean artists like Sean Paul and others have achieved success with more pop-oriented records, he isn't looking to take that route. "We just wanna present to the world the type of music we make in Jamaica and show the world what it's all about," he states. "The U.S. audience, they love dancehall for what it is. It's a thing of fashion, a thing of love and joy and excitement, so we keep the dancehall culture as it is."
Sizzla–who was born Miguel Collins in August Town, an eastern suburb of Kingston, Jamaica–released his first album, Burning Up, on Washington, DC-based RAS Records in 1995, but his major breakthrough was 1997's Black Woman & Child (on legendary reggae label VP), a disc built around huge hits (the title track, "One Away," "Guide Over Us") that showcased the singer's consciousness and devotion to Rastafarian figurehead Haile Selassie. In 2002, he garnered even more fans with Da Real Thing, which contained some of his most successful songs to date: the never-say-die rally cry "Solid as A Rock," the sincere ode "Thank You Mama," and the massive "Dry Cry (Just One of Those Days)," one of the singer's most heartfelt performances. He has also recorded scores of rough tunes made strictly for the dancehall on which, in his trademark growl, he lyrically burns all iniquities in his sight (including–but not limited to–homosexuality and oral sex). This material has often earned him a reputation as a firebrand, and it is noticeably absent from his most recent release.
"The Overstanding is more mainstream," he admits. "A lot of people don't know about Selassie I, they don't know of certain things in our culture, so they wouldn't [understand]. So what you do is, you give them songs of praises, songs of love, songs that they can enjoy at the club."
Laying Down Roots
When dancehall artists make an album for a non-Jamaican audience, the result is often neither hip-hop nor dancehall, but a musical no-man's-land. Aside from one hip-hop remix, Sizzla manages to avoid this pitfall on The Overstanding. It's a solid reggae album, not (as many predicted) a watered-down disc designed to cater to casual fans of the genre. The Overstanding includes updated versions of some of his biggest hits ("Dry Cry," "Thank You Mama," and "Black Woman and Child") as well as a handful of new tunes, including the plaintive album version of "Take Myself Away," which could easily become a bona fide reggae hit. As he hints at in the title, Sizzla wanted to deliver an album that less-than-rabid reggae fans would be able to grasp.
That's not to say he's uninterested in spreading his spiritual message beyond the borders of his native land. He is, first and foremost, a devout follower of the fundamentalist Bobo Shanti sect of Rastafarianism. "Not everyone in the world might know [about Rastafari]. What you do, you just give them an album with 'Thank You Mama,' 'Dry Cry'... songs that they can relate to. In the future, when they get to love these songs, they're gonna see what kind of person we are. Then they're gonna know why we maintain this culture and then they will come back and say, 'Okay, now we understand what is happening.'"
With The Overstanding, Sizzla hopes to lay the groundwork for future U.S. albums on which he'll be able to delve deeper into his own culture and spiritual philosophies. "We're dealing with the world, so we have to use righteousness, consciousness, and cleanliness," he states. "When you keep the people cultural, they're more conscious of themselves."
Two Markets, One Love
The making of The Overstanding, as well as the strategy behind it, stands in stark contrast to the album Sizzla released just months prior. On his new record, executive-producer duties are shared by Sizzla, Damon Dash, Kareem Biggs, and DJ Clark Kent. On Waterhouse Redemption, which dropped in June 2006 on pioneering reggae/dancehall label Greensleeves, the role of executive producer was imparted solely to the legendary King Jammy, possibly the greatest producer the genre has ever known. Accordingly, it is one of Sizzla's most traditional albums to date. Recorded at Jammy's fabled studio in Kingston, it features classic riddims like M16, Ba Ba Boom, and Sleng Teng. "I know that some of these riddims are well appreciated in the world," he says of his choice of material. "Going back on these riddims will resurrect that spiritual vibe, bring back that loving memory. So we're gonna [put] the lyric on the riddim that would complement the lyrics from 10 years before."
As a result, Waterhouse Redemption is one of the most cohesive albums from any reggae artist in years. Unlike the majority of reggae and dancehall full-lengths, which are often disjointed compilations of singles from a variety of producers, Jammy's production unifies the tracks, and Sizzla responds in kind. Waterhouse is filled with lovers rock and conscious tunes, free of the raw bashment tracks that pepper earlier releases (and enjoy almost constant rotation via singles). "You might hear Sizzla with dancehall lyrics on a single, but when it comes to an album, we produce it on a more spiritual level," he notes.
Though the overall feel of Waterhouse Redemption and The Overstanding is different, the vision behind the two albums is more similar than one might think.
"Making the album with Jammy was more [me] sitting down in the ghetto, living there, seeing the problems and all these things that would [give the record] that degree of intimacy with the people right there," Sizzla explains. "Coming to [the U.S.], it's the same thing. We're not gonna put certain things [on the record] that they might not pick up on; we want the people to pick up quickly. The strategy and the tactic of making the album [is] identifying the two different cultures you're dealing with."
In the end, the content is consistent; they may be two different albums but, Sizzla stresses, "My records devoted to showing the world one thing, which is love."
Six Million Ways To Vibe
While Sizzla prides himself on being able to "maintain the vibes of the people," he also admits that it's not always easy to do that on full-length releases. "A lot of people throughout the world know Sizzla through the albums, but in Jamaica, we do 45 singles," he explains. Some weeks, as many as 100 new 45s are released to a fiercely loyal fan base and to soundmen in search of the next big tune. And while albums are important for any artist seeking international exposure, most Jamaican artists live and die by the 45. The frequency with which singles are released allows artists to respond to changes in the musical landscape on an almost daily basis.
"I study it like a puzzle and sort it out," says Sizzla of his methodology. "In Jamaica, when it's wintertime, we're gonna make a lot of dancehall songs so people bounce hard, so their body keep warm." He elaborates: "At a special time, at a special place, in a special season, we give you certain music," citing the popularity of culture songs in spring, bashment tunes in summer, and lovers rock in fall and winter.
Even with all his planning, it's not always easy to please all fans at all times. "When [I] sing a likkle gangsta song or too much girl songs, the people quarrel. 'Sizzla sing too much woman song!' And I sing praises songs, and the next time they say, 'Sizzla sing too [few] girl songs!'" But he has a strategy for that, too: "What I do' just give them a whole lot of music."