Cultural heritage has long been something that I have held in high regard. So on this Wednesday afternoon in height of black history month, it was particularly fitting that this was the time our conversation was taking place. As a prominent figure within the dancehall movement over the last 20 years, brick by brick Spragga Benz has built his way to what many would consider to be icon status. But sitting across from a man I would consider to be no less than a legend, the warm smile I was greeted with instantly put me at ease.
The Kingston-born artist entered the scene in the early ‘90s. His success led to a major label deal and several crossover collaborations with KRS-One, Wyclef Jean, Foxy Brown, Pras, Stephen Marley, and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley.
We got to talking about the new album he was promoting, which features the likes of Tanika, General Levy, Rodney P, Sean Paul, Agent Sasco, Killa P and Harry Shotta as well as productions from Cadenza, Toddla T, JAMirko, Sukh Knight and Zed Bias.
Our discussion then turned to a more in-depth look at as career across the entertainment industry and what dancehall meant to Spragga as an artist
So you’re here promoting your latest album which dropped on the 27th can you tell us a bit more about that?
It’s called ‘Chiliagon’ and has 15 tracks. It has a lot of UK features and most of the production was done here in the UK as well. But it’s a dancehall reggae album for the world.
As you mentioned, the album is entitled ‘Chiliagon’, can you explain what that means?
A chiliagon is a polygon with a thousand sides. You can explain what it is [in words] but it’s hard to really imagine an image of it.
I’m assuming that means it incorporates quite a diverse range of sounds?
You also mentioned it was recorded here in the UK?
Most of it…like maybe 90% of it.
What made you decide to do so?
Just the timing…you know. I was invited by a friend to spend some time out here and I always enjoy the vibes when I’m here. The way people approach music out here is very diverse. It’s a mixture, it’s not just one sound like you get in other places. You get a blend of everything. So I tried to come over here and incorporate all of that into the dancehall album, being that dancehall so strongly influenced a lot of the genres that you have out here. Drum ‘n’ bass, garage, jungle…in a lot of them, there’s a hardcore dancehall bassline.
It’s your first album in nearly 10 years, so I suppose the most obvious question is why now?
Why not? (laughs) It’s been long enough. Why… did you want it to be longer?
(laughs) of course not!
Okay cool. (still laughing)
10 years is a pretty long time. What would you say has changed in the dancehall scene during that time?
There are more computerised sounds and production. We’ve lost a bit of the warmth in the sound from the analog production. The delivery from the artists [themselves] has changed. There’s more a trap/US hip-hop type delivery. But overall its still dancehall music. That’s our culture it encompasses and incorporates a lot of different things. Out of many still one. It’s still a good vibe!
I know you’ve been to the UK a couple of times now, so what are some of your favourite food spots while you’re out here?
The kitchen right now (laughs). There used to be some spots but a lot of them aren’t around anymore.
Any that you remember that you want to give a shout out to?
Well… Harry Josephs big up yourselves. There was another restaurant that I can’t remember the name of but you also have ‘Staff of Life’ and a few other places.
Are you familiar with the UK dancehall scene at all?
I went to a few dancehall events back in the day. I won’t say that I am completely up to date with what is happening with it…but I would say I have a fair amount of knowledge.
In terms of artists you haven’t yet collaborated with that you want to work with, Do any from the UK come to mind?
Not directly. But I am open to any of them that have a good vibe. A lot of them I don’t really know personally yet. I just met Stylo in person for the first time and he seems like a cool guy. I am ready to work with anybody that has a good energy towards the music.
If somebody wanted to work with you what would be the best way for them to get your attention?
They would probably have to go through one of the producers we work with because they would have to make sure that the riddim is up to par. There are multiple ways. Like they say where there’s a will…
…there’s a way!
You have previously spoken about dancehall being quite a singles orientated genre, so with that being said, is there ever any pressure to produce that hits song that will keep you in heavy rotation?
There’s always the desire, but no pressure.
Yeah, not pressure. Music is fun…at least for me (laughs). I don’t know about anybody else but I am making the music that I love. If I don’t like it first, I won’t put it out for others.
If I like it, alright cool. If you don’t well…
Let’s talk about that a little more actually, in terms of your creative process. When you are writing a track what is the first thing that you do?
It can be different. It can start from an idea or something being spoken about on the news that makes you think ‘this is an interesting topic, let’s make a song from this’. Or it can be in the studio room listening to beats and then you think ‘I like the flow of this beat’ and then you make a track from that. You can have nothing at all but you know you need to create a song from a [particular] word. It happens in all sorts of different ways.
I can be sleeping and wake up with a whole song in my head.
For you, how do you know that you’ve made or written a good song?
Most of the time it’s funny. (laughs). If I am able to laugh about something that’s a good song.
Okay warning, this next one is going to be a hard question. Which is your favourite song from the album and why?
Um…my favourite song changes from time to time. But right now its believe. Why? I just believe that Tanika nailed it!
Moving on to some of the music you are planning to release in the future, I know you’ve talked about wanting to explore Bollywood. What can we expect from that?
It’s not like a conscious movement, but even linking up with hype and fever, who are connected with Indian music anything is possible. I probably won’t be flying to India anytime soon…but you know never know!
If somebody said to me 2 years ago I would be recording an album in the UK I would have said that’s unlikely, but here we are. So anything is possible.
So this album features artists like General Levy who, like yourself, have been around for a considerable amount of time. What do you think has been the key to your longevity in the industry?
I guess it’s because there are people who genuinely love what we do. Also, we appreciate music in all its forms… and we’re just bad (laughs)!
(continued laughter) okay!
For a lot of people outside of music especially in the US, your role in ‘Shottas’ was their first introduction to you. Do you have any plans to do any more acting?
Nothing planned, but if the opportunity arises with a good script most definitely.
What kind of role do you see yourself playing?
Something positive and uplifting or something adventurous. Or something funny.
So it seems congratulations are in order. As of October 3rd, you were first dancehall/reggae act featured in the Spotlight Series at the Grammy Museum Experience. Talk us through that experience?
It happened at the Prudential Centre in Newark, New Jersey. It was a good vibe going there and speaking with Mark Conklin. We had a great conversation about my album and creative process as well the early times in Jamaican music from my perspective.
I also had the chance to perform a 25 minute set there.
The seminar itself I believe is available in a few university archives, so that they are able to research what dancehall/reggae is from the perspective of an authentic dancehall person. It’s good to be the first and hopefully, more will follow.
What did it mean for you to be able to represent dancehall in that way?
It was a good feeling because I think that I have enough material to represent dancehall. I think I was able to give them a good impression of what our culture is about.
I guess in the dancehall reggae genre a lot of the performance aspect of it is about stage presence. So what advice would you give to an upcoming artist on how to capture an audience?
Well…just know that you are going out there to perform your own material so be confident in it. That’s supposed to carry you.
A lot of people would call you a dancehall Icon, is that a title you would attribute to yourself?
That’s what they say. But for me, I’m still a dancehall artist who enjoys dancehall music and dancehall vibes. I’ll continue making music.
How would you define dancehall?
Dancehall is whatever you want it to be you know. To each his own. But it has a certain rhythm that goes within 90-95 bpm. The driving force behind dancehall most of the time is the lyrics and the delivery and the pronunciation. You can do that on any beat! Most of these beats aren’t traditionally dancehall beats but when Spragga’s done with them…
…They will be!
You understand! (laughter continues)
Finally, with the rise in popularity of afrobeats, do you see yourself collaborating with any afrobeat artists in the near future?
Yeah, if they come around and want to collaborate. I have nothing against collaborating with artists from any genre – whether it’s popular or not. If an afrobeat artist comes around…well some have come around already so you might hear something soon.