There was a time, in fact just last summer, when only a select few knew what a licky boom boom down was. Most of us still don’t know, but we’ve all heard them, like it or not. The licky boom booms are all around us – nagging, insistent boom boom from kids’ ghetto blasters, thumping on the summery air, a new rhythm of the steamy streets and plazas.
This, man, is Toronto reggae. Not the Jamaican brand, now as traditional as New Orleans jazz, but as much a product of Hogtown as the Don Jail (now the Metro East Detention Centre) where it all began. It is Metro’s version of the Birth of the Blues (‘from a jail/came the wail/of a down-hearted frail’) except that it didn’t come from black folks – at least, not directly. It is multilingual, inasmuch as it’s largely incomprehensible in any language, and multicultural, being a white Toronto Irishman’s black music.
Got that? No? Well, let’s say that it’s sweeping the boom-box world, making an awful lot of money, and soon to be a Hollywood movie. It has made an instant star of 23-year-old Darrin O’Brien from North York, who is Snow on his record labels and video supers.
He raps in his own version of Jamaican patois, which he learned growing up in a mixed neighbourhood beside Fairview Mall. Purists say his patois is a bit off, like Jean Chretien’s English or Kim Campbell’s French, but patois is not taught in schools, so the question is academic.
More important – ‘Informer’, Snow’s first record, is almost in escapable – Number-One on the charts in the United States and Canada – well up there in Europe and the Far East – and that’s before he finishes his present world concert tour – and even inspiring jump-ups in Kingston, Jamaica, home of the real thing.
‘Informer’ tells – well, sort of indicates through a blur of words, beat, stutter, staccato and constant licky boom booms the tale of a teenager (Snow) who spent eight months in jail for a stabbing he didn’t do. That was in 1989, and he wrote the song/poem in Metro East Detention Centre while waiting for bail. Eventually his mother Donna managed to raise the $40,000; he was released and later cleared after a friend confessed to the crime.
Last year, he was back in jail – this time the Maplehurst Correction Center – for a further eight months after pleading guilty to hitting a man with a crowbar. This time, thanks to the success of ‘Informer’ and his first video, he left clink in a block-long white limo after watching the video’s TV debut in the prison lounge. That was 9:00 a.m., January 11th 1993. He had barely time to shower before limo-ing off to a interview at the MuchMusic station and has been jetsetting ever since – New York, L.A., London, Germany, Italy, Hungary, spreading licky boom booms with his own band.
He’s done the big talk shows, including Arsenio Hall, faced screaming girl fans wearing t-shirts, and hobnobbed in Hollywood. It’s been a hectic four months, crammed with all the delights you don’t find in the slammer or in a housing project in North York.
Robert De Niro’s production company has sent an advance crew to inspect that now-notorious housing project, with a view to a big-budget feature film on O’Brien’s humble beginnings, low-life street career and prison experience. Possible star: Sean Penn, who shares O’Brien’s rugged Irish good looks and burgeoning Mulroney jaw and is actor enough to learn his licky booms.
If the Hollywood team expect to find a Bronx ghetto, or even a Regent Park slum, they must be sorely disappointed, Allenbury Gardens, where Snow lived until fame struck, is more like the Norman Rockwellian street they built for Andy Hardy and Judy Garland on the MGM back lot in the ’30s – with some black faces added.
The neighbourhood, which began as a private development before government took it over, is a jewel of suburbia – neat little town houses with well-tended gardens, unobtrusive late-model cars parked under the magnolias and an air of respectable stability. About half the residents are West Indian; some others may be minorities but if they are, they’re invisible.
On a snoozy Saturday afternoon Jamaican ladies are laying out goods for a lawn sale at the church on the corner. Not a reggae note to be heard; only the odd lawn mower and the grumble of traffic trying to get in or out of Fairview Mall. They’d have to truck in a mountain of trash and junked cars and string a lot of washing lines to make this look like the slums of West Kingston where reggae began.
Snow has never been to Jamaica. He learned the patois from the black kids on the block and with it the island rhythm called dancehall, which is faster than regular reggae. (Oops, tautology. Reggae means regular, to distinguish it from it’s predecessor, Ska.) Dancehall suits the huge Kingston dance palaces which are less palatial but darker, smokier and more intense than the ballrooms of the Strauss waltz or Glenn Miller jitterbugeras. Dancehall singing is rap – poetry performed to a beat – and packed with patois, which makes it a cutural elitist thing, since only patois speakers understand. If you don’t know the score you’re lost. Like with opera, only more so.
Snow, 1995. ‘Snowy Irish’ as he was called around the mall, is an unlikely linguist. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and never had a steady job, apart from a stint at Bargin Harold’s. According to his mother, Donna, he couldn’t fill out an application without help. A schoolmate recalls that, even as a nine-year-old, he was trouble. ‘He seemed a nice quiet boy, but he got into fights.’ As a teenager, tall, lean and fiery, he boozed and brawled with gangs, black and white, including one called the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
His father, a taxi driver, had left home when he was three weeks old, leaving Donna to care for four young children. ‘He was always musical,’ she says. ‘He’d listen to my soul and country-and-western records and sing and dance around the house.’
The licky sound got to him at basement parties with immigrant teens from Jamaica. Fascinated by the heavy bass and off-the-wall raunchy lyrics, he abandoned the nasal wails of North American country to rap protests of the urban poor – who have more to be mad about.
‘Informer’ details his 1989 jailing down to a description of the prisoner’s rectal body search. His mother says he was jumped by a bunch of hoods outside a North York pub. In the fracas someone got stabbed with a butcher knife. Her son unjustly got two charges of attempted murder, later dropped. Jail ‘wisened him up’ and gave him time to write his song, which would never have been heard outside basement parties if his friend Marvin ‘DJ’ Prince, a sound technician, had not recorded a demo tape and taken it and Snow to New York to meet rapper and producer MC Shan.
Shan gaped at the white kid and couldn’t believe he had recorded it because he sounded so Jamaican. The only other white rapper around was Vanilla Ice but he didn’t do dancehall and he was under fire for being white. (Snow says Ice’s trouble is not that he’s white but that he’s no good.)
So the now-famous single was launched, accompanied by the Informer video and followed by an LP ’12 Inches of Snow’, which showed he is more than a jailhouse rocker. He can handle mainstream pop, rhythm and blues and even tenor ballads. But the cutting edge of his publicity is still his rap message which can be taken several ways.
‘Detective man said Daddy Snow stabbed someone down the lane, a licky boom boom down.’ Dancehall experts have studied this line like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
‘I think in the context he’s singing it, it means he’s being hit – licked – by the police,’ says Jonathan Sharp, a 21-year-old Toronto graphic arts student who grew up with dancehall in Kingston. ‘The boom boom is onomatopoeia, the sound of hitting, and down is knocked down. But i’ve heard people saying it means so many things. It’s really hard to understand, because he’s trying to put across a feeling. At times when he’s mumbling he says things that make absolutely no sense. He has a guy talking about dibby-dibby girls and in the patois dibby-dibby means nothing – like dibby-dibby money which is worthless. I’ve never heard anyone talk about a dibby-dibby woman. He’s trying very hard but he messed up in places.’
Sharp sees the brilliance of a reggae song in the picture created by each word which, in turn, provokes a dance step. Such as ‘hooking up on a rhythm like a lizard on a limb,’ which pictures how the tiny lizard writhes and sways as the wind bends the tree branch, inspiring the dancers to follow his movements and writhe in rhythm.
Tarzan Dan, a disk jockey at CFTR and host of YTV television’s The Hit List gets calls from listeners telling him they love the record. ‘It’s a very catchy song. It’s got a great hook, it’s very easy to remember, even though most people can’t understand a word after ‘Informer’.’
‘What bothers me is that people are still concerned with the color issue. I don’t care what color you are. If i like a song i’m going to listen to it. Snow also happens to be an attractive clean-cut kid who’s nice to talk to and is trying to put his past behind him.’
Snow seems to be both a beneficiary and a victim of a peculiar kind of reverse discrimination. In another age his criminal record would have expected to work against him: and probably bar him from the United States and other countries (he’s still on probation until January, 1995). But his new fame and fortune takes care of that and he’s expecting his American green card any day. Already he has an apartment in New York. His jail time is working for him. His New York managers Steve Salem and David Eng, who handle other rap stars, don’t flaunt his convictions, but are happy to supply list of them. No doubt about it – notoriety sells.
On the other hand, he’s white, which makes him suspect as the first non-Jamaican to bring dancehall to the outside world. To judge by his fights, he is, or was, an angry young man but his music isn’t angry enough. Not like Kingston favourite Buju Banton who got himself into deep boom-boom by singing that he preferred brown-skinned girls to black ones and proposing homosexuals be killed. Or three other reggae stars who got killed themselves.
‘He’s interesting but he doesn’t really do anything for me,’ says Sharp. ‘His music is acceptable to people who may not want their children to listen to angry Jamaican dancehall music. You have young black people in Canada exposed to a very negative stereotype from the United States, which is why you have so much angry black youth here. You have young white children who want to experience the anger, so you have the stereotype being perpetuated by people who admire it.’
In person, or on television, Snow doesn’t fit any stereotype other than a carefree Danny Boy. He’s sharp, he jokes around, he switches accents, he does not appear to take success seriously, maybe because it’s all new and may not last long.
So cash in NOW! sponsors urge him. Nike, the running-shoes and sports-garb people have provided a Snow wardrobe. There could be a Snow line of menswear. The looms of instant fame are grinding out t-shirts, posters, hats, dolls and rulers labelled ’12 Inches of Snow’. A Snow cartoon character – possible successor to Johnny Canuck who clobbered Hitler with a right to the jaw – is on the drawing boards at Marvel Comics. He now wears designer horn-rimmed glasses, with the designer’s name displayed, which age and intellectualize him considerably, when worn at a Mulroney tilt down the nose. The De Niro film company is sketching out it’s version of his life in North York and the hero has been to Los Angeles to party with Sean Penn.
So far, he has seen little of the money reported to be pouring in and shown little interest in it. His mother frets that he may be taken advantage of.
‘I hope he’s not just a product to them. He’s a kid out of jail, from a housing project, and some people might think, let’s throw him a bone. Well, if they think a couple of thousand dollars will pacify him well, think again. He won’t lose his money if I have anything to do with it.’
Endorsement can kill. ‘There’s lots of money to be made in the short run,’ says Allan Gregg. Toronto pollster and rock group manager. ‘But it’s the surest way to end a career. Serious music lovers don’t go out and buy rulers and dolls.’
Over-saturate the market and you break your neck, adds Tarzan Dan. ‘You can’t totally sell out and say we’ll market him until he falls over and dies. That’s what happened with New Kids on the Block. They had phones, bed sheets, ever underwear with their faces on’.
‘I ain’t doing not underwear commercials,’ grins Snow. ‘I’m too skinny.’
Richard Flohil, co-founder of the Canadian music magazine The Record, says overnight pop successes usually disappear after a few albums. Real success takes six to ten years to build up. ‘He needs the years of grind and experience. There are no short-cuts. Those that rise fast burn out quickly – and they better be wise how they invest their money.’
Video channels like MuchMusic here are inundated with hundreds of new videos each week. ‘There are too many videos and not enough air time. But they are very important. Almost every single act on the Top 100 in Billboard has a video.’ he says.
But you have to get out of the studio and on the boards to prove you’re real. Allan Gregg believes no marketing tool is more immediate and powerful than a live performance in stimulating sales. ‘It’s been said that when the Cowboy Junkies performed on Saturday Night Live their album sales jumped by 200,000,’ says pollster Gregg.
Snow is only the second Canadian (after Bryan Adams) to make such a dramatic impact on the North American pop charts, so he may get a hero’s welcome when he makes his first Canadian tour, which will include a stop at Ontario Place, this summer. On the other hand, Canandians tend to be suspicious of local boys who make too good too soon. Sudden fame eh? Overnight success? Something wrong here.
Tarzan Dan: ‘I could say, yeah, he’s a flash-in-the-pan, a one-hit wonder, but i don’t want to because i don’t believe that’s true. He’s talented.’ Snow shrugs off the one-hit label the way he claims to have shrugged off his old life as a boozer and a brawler.
It still catches up with him. In April he was on his way to a doctor’s appointment at Fairview Mall when a security guard stopped him and ordered him off the premises. He recognized the face, not from the Snow posters plastering the mall, but from a bit of trouble 10 years before. In quick-fire Irish-Toronto-Jamaican, the rapper put him in his place.
‘I told him, what’s wrong with you? Don’t you know how much money i’m putting into this mall? I’ll sue you. Take my posters down!’
One day he may shrug off reggae, for the 12 songs in his first album display the versatility of a star – or at least a star mimic – and his mastery of styles other than rap. His new single ‘Girl, I’ve Been Hurt’ is a smooth ballad. (Asked if he has really been hurt, he replies yes, 26 times, but always by the same girl. The girl, apparently, is 24-year-old Toronto model Tamei Edberg, his girlfriend of six years, dating back before jail and fame.)
he’s now writing songs for a second album which, he swears, will include some ‘bagpipe-reggae-pop’ with a dash of Gaelic. It’s possible. Rapped out fast, Gaelic probably sounds like dancehall and even Paul McCartney uses bagpipes nowadays.
There are strange sounds out there, licky boom, licky boom.
Strange and profitable sounds. A whole new vision of life in North York.