In 1993, the hit song ‘Informer’ blasted across American and Canadian airwaves and video channels, introducing the phrase ‘licky bum bum down’ to the pop culture vernacular and guaranteeing one-hit wonder status for Darrin O’Brien, aka Snow.
But although Snow had marginal street cred — his mention of a sensi bust on ‘Informer’ was based on personal experience — bad memories of Vanilla Ice lingered. Snow had a minor hit in 1995 with ‘Anything For You’ (whose star-studded remix was popular with both Jamaican and American core reggae fans), but his sophomore effort didn’t come anywhere near the sales of his first LP. He soon disappeared into the dustbin of history, seemingly fated to be the answer to a trivia question: ‘Who was the early 90s chart-topping white reggae artist from Canada?’
‘Informer’s’ fate belies the fact that it came during an interesting time in reggae’s history. In the early ’90s, dancehall was not only the champion sound of Jamaica, but was also making steady inroads into the ever-widening American hip hop audience, through its solid East Coast connections. Boogie Down Productions, Special Ed, Heavy D, Masters of Ceremony, Poor Righteous Teachers, Jamalski and many others were injecting reggae phrases and choruses into their jeep beats. Meanwhile, reggae artists like Shinehead, Shabba Ranks and Cutty Ranks were getting steady rotation in rap clubs and on mix shows. The upshot of all this activity was a trend towards major labels jumping on the reggae-hip-hop bandwagon, which ultimately resulted in a flurry of signings, a few bonafide hits, and a lot of sub par albums.
Many of the archetypical examples of the ’90s pop dancehall paradigm are collected on the poorly named Rasta Jamz compilation on Razor and Tie. The title is more than little insulting, even for an album advertised on TV and ‘not sold in stores’. Only three of the artists on the album’s 18 tracks actually practice Rastafarianism, and only one rides a culturally authenticated, Rasta-identified riddim — Born Jamerican’s ‘Boom Shak-a-Tak,’ based on the ‘Armagideon Time’ lick. Rasta Jamz even has the nerve to include Reel II Reel’s ‘I Like to Move It, Move It’ — whose acid house vibe is about as Babylonian as it gets. (We won’t even get into the exploitative photo of the scantily-clad hottie sporting camouflage pum-pum shorts on the album’s cover.)
Were Rasta Jamz called Super-Pop Hip Hop Reggae Hits of the ’90s, though, it would have been more accurate and less culturally insensitive to real-life Rastas. Telling the story of a decade of dancehall crossover acts, it includes contributions from a number of reggae artists who scored major label deals during the early-and-mid-’90s: Shabba Ranks, Chaka Demus and Pliers, Super Cat, Born Jamericans, Patra, Shaggy, Inner Circle, Capleton, Ini Kamoze, Terror Fabulous, Mad Cobra and — yes, you guessed it — Snow. Thankfully, Mad Lion, whose ‘Take It Easy’ is an urban rude boy anthem if ever there was one, also makes the roster.
Rasta Jamz includes some acknowledged classics of the era; ‘Dolly My Baby,’ ‘Murder She Wrote,’ and ‘Action’ still get club play today. But other songs, like ‘Flex,’ ‘Here Comes the Hotstepper’ and Shabba’s eminently forgettable duet with Johnny Gill, ‘Slow and Sexy,’ are merely played-out. Most of the artists signed during hip hop reggae’s trendy phase have long since been released from their deals, and some have disappeared entirely — with the notable exception of Shaggy, whose ‘Boombastic’ growls paved the way to international superstardom and mega-platinum sales.
Yet while hip hop reggae may have cooled as a major-label phenomenon, in the late ’90s, a new wave of dancehall artists scored club hits that crossed over to wider audiences, among them Tonto Metro and Devonte’s ‘Everyone Falls In Love,’ and Mr. Vegas’ ‘Heads High.’ Capleton, whose combination-style duet with Method Man, ‘Wings of the Morning,’ is one of Rasta Jamz’ high points, has also continued to remain viable as an artist, reconnecting with his roots audience on the albums More Fire and Still Blazin’.)
In 2003 — with Sean Paul, Buju Banton, Shaggy and Beenie Man all signed and/or distributed by major labels, and indie artists like Elephant Man, Wayne Marshall, and Vybez Cartel tearing up the underground — the case could be made that dancehall is as popular with American audiences as it’s ever been. However, the genre still has a ways to go, as evidenced by the fact that despite Bounty Killer’s ten years of quality material, his biggest U.S. hit came on a guest appearance in a song by rock act No Doubt.
By way of comparison, consider this: It took Eminem to completely break rap music in middle America, after decades of efforts by black and Latino artists just to get to the verge of mainstream acceptance. And now that Em’s won an Oscar and made MTV his own personal trailer park, it’s not hard to see where there could be support in certain quarters for another Great White Hope — this time in the reggae field.
Hence the return of Darrin O’Brien with the new Snow album on Virgin, Two Hands Clapping. The second coming of Snow is a lot like the first — with the notable absence of MC Shan this time around. Snow chats and sings in patois vocalese. He’s got thugged-out guest rappers, sugar-sweet hooks and slightly overproduced pop-dancehall beats. For good measure, he also brags about his legal troubles and criminal acquaintances, as if trying to ‘be down’ or ‘keep it real.’ Sound familiar?
The parallels between Darrin O’Brien and Marshall Mathers extend even further. Much like Em reps Detroit, Snow claims the T-dot-O. Similarly, just as Dre added weight to Em’s beats, Snow employs both Dave and Tony Kelly’s riddim-building prowess. Snow’s marketing potential seems obvious: he’s got a rogue-ish background, appeal for the ladies and absolutely no qualms about taking reggae down an overly commercial road. Tracks like ‘That’s My Life,’ ‘Whass Up’ and ‘Girl’ sound catchy at first, but do we really want to hear them every twenty minutes on the radio, like we heard ‘Informer’?
In his defense, Snow does have skills on the mic (just like Em). His rapid-fire lyrical expositions and sing-jay scats may borrow liberally from other artists, but just about every reggae artist does that. The history of the genre is basically one of constant recycling, updating, and appropriation. Whether you’re feeling his music or not, it doesn’t seem right to hold Snow up to a double standard. There’s no real reason to hate on him; his stuff may be pop-oriented, but his lyrics are a still lot more conscious than some of the more nasty-mouthed dancehall artists out there.
Reggae purists will likely find little to hold their interest on Two Hands Clapping, but for a younger, less-culturally-aware teen audience, Snow at least represents a more palatable alternative to Britney, Backstreet or Christina. While his comeback is anything but guaranteed, he can at least claim to be a pioneer (of sorts) who, unlike Vanilla Ice, stayed true to his style and waited for his opportunity to shine again. After all, not every one-hit wonder gets another chance after ten years — maybe there is something to be said for the luck of the Irish.