Sting And Shaggy On The 'Wonderful Luxury' Of Making Reggae

May 3, 2018
Originally published on May 3, 2018 10:14 am

It's one of this year's most unlikely collaborations. Shaggy is a Jamaican dance hall star with an unmistakable voice and raunchy hits like 1995's "Boombastic" and 2000's "It Wasn't Me." Rock star Sting, his partner, is a little more buttoned-up in comparison. But despite being from two different corners of the music world, the pair's first collaboration album 44/876, out now, is a meeting of the minds — one that's so unexpected, it works in their favor.

"I think surprise is always the most important element in all music," Sting says. "You don't want to just go with people's expectations. You always want to surprise them ... I listen to music expecting a surprise within eight measures."

"We're both allergic to boredom," adds Shaggy.

At first, this team-up was unexpected even to them. Shaggy sent Sting a demo of the track "Don't Make Me Wait" and they worked on it together in the studio. After enjoying the experience so much, they decided to repeat the process for a full-length album. Together, they knocked out 20 songs in six weeks. But in order to make it happen, Shaggy had to change the way he records.

"He does music on regular office hours," the dance hall star says of Sting. "My creative process starts at 2 a.m. with a whole lot of weed." But Shaggy admits the change to his schedule kept his mind fresh.

The guys have more in common than meets the eye. Sting's band The Police pulled from reggae and dance hall influences for tracks like "Message in a Bottle." Both musicians are U.S. immigrants: Shaggy moved from Jamaica to Brooklyn in the 1985 and fought in the first Gulf War in 1991 while Sting moved to the U.S. from his native England more than three decades ago. Though the record is filled with mostly sunny reggae songs, some tracks like "Dreaming in the U.S.A." voice the artists' concerns about life in the country today. The men believe that the idea of America, no matter how paradoxical, "is a pure one that needs to be protected."

"The America of which I fought for, the America of which we fell in love with, the liberties [are threatened]," Shaggy says.

On the 12 songs that made the final cut of the album, it's obvious that the two worked off each other's strengths, Sting's measured reflection balancing out Shaggy's spontaneous and moral parables.

"Sharing a load on an album is a wonderful luxury," Sting explains. "I think there's something in there, although there are serious issues within the music but we've chosen to present them in a way that is attractive and optimistic."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. Let's meet the guys behind one of this year's most unlikely collaborations. One is a Jamaican dancehall star with an unmistakable voice and a string of over-the-top, often risque hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOMBASTIC")

SHAGGY: (Singing) She call me Mr. Boombastic, say me fantastic, touch me in me back. She says I'm Mr. Ro...

GREENE: And, I mean, who could forget this?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT WASN'T ME")

SHAGGY: (Singing) But she caught me on the counter. Wasn't me. She even caught me on camera. Wasn't me.

GREENE: Yes, that's Shaggy. His partner? Well, he's a little more buttoned up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK")

STING: (Singing) I'm an Englishman in New York.

GREENE: I bring you Sting and Shaggy. They just put out the record that no one saw coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T MAKE ME WAIT")

STING: (Singing) Don't make me wait...

SHAGGY: (Rapping) Don't make me wait in vain.

STING: (Singing) ...To love you.

SHAGGY: (Rapping) Can't wait to give you my last name.

GREENE: All right, unexpected pairing maybe - but Sting says it's working for them.

STING: I think, you know, surprise is always the most important element in all music. You don't want to just go with people's expectations. You always want to surprise them.

GREENE: Have you always approached music that way, Sting?

STING: Always. I mean, I listen to music expecting a surprise within eight measures. If I'm not surprised, I will go somewhere else.

SHAGGY: You see, we're both allergic...

STING: To boredom

SHAGGY: ...To boredom (laughter).

STING: We finish each other's sentences as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T MAKE ME WAIT")

STING: (Singing) Don't make me wait. Don't make me wait to love, to love, to love you.

SHAGGY: (Rapping) I can't wait no for love you.

GREENE: How did these songs happen? How did the writing and the coming together work?

STING: Well, it began with that song. Shaggy sent a demo to me of the song. And I can smell a hit when I hear it. Can you smell something that you hear? (Laughter).

SHAGGY: He's got a nose for it.

(CROSSTALK)

STING: I had a - thank you for correcting me there, Shaggy. We worked on it in the studio together and enjoyed it so much that I thought I'd like to repeat this experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORNING IS COMING")

STING: (Singing) Sweet nightingale, why do you wake me so? Sweet nightingale, you're telling me something I don't know.

We did 20 songs in about six weeks...

SHAGGY: Six weeks, yeah.

STING: ...Which is very unusual.

GREENE: And it's efficient.

STING: And I had a lovely time.

SHAGGY: It is efficient because he does music on regular office hours.

STING: Yeah.

SHAGGY: You know, he's...

GREENE: I wanted to ask you about that, Shaggy, because I read that you..

SHAGGY: Yeah.

GREENE: ...Had to sort of adapt yourself to...

SHAGGY: Boy, I had to adapt.

GREENE: ...Sting's working schedule.

SHAGGY: You know, my creative process starts at like, you know, 2 a.m. with a whole lot of weed.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: And what is - is Sting, like, banking hours and no weed?

STING: Banking, yeah.

SHAGGY: He's...

STING: We would have a drink at the end of the day.

SHAGGY: Yeah, at the end of the day.

GREENE: But was that hard, to be on banking hours and write music at different, you know...

SHAGGY: No, it was actually pleasantly fresh to me. It was new because in the morning when you get up, there's a whole different creative vibe that hits you because your mind is fresh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORNING IS COMING")

SHAGGY: (Rapping) Wake up. It's a beautiful day. I say for wake up - don't you hear what I say?

GREENE: One thing these guys do have in common - they're both U.S. immigrants. And on this mostly sunny record, they do share some concerns about how welcoming America is today.

Sting grew up in England, but he's lived in New York City for many years. Shaggy moved from Jamaica to New York as a teenager, and he served as a Marine in the first Gulf War.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMING IN THE U.S.A.")

SHAGGY: (Singing) You seek a visa. You're dreaming of the U.S.A. It's never easier looking for another way.

"Dreaming In The U.S.A." - it's a love letter to America and showing that the America of which I fought for, the America which we fell in love with is - the liberties is at threat.

GREENE: You moved from Jamaica to Brooklyn as a young man. Right, Shaggy?

SHAGGY: Yeah.

GREENE: How quickly were you sent to war?

SHAGGY: I came in 1985. I went into the military in 1991 was the Gulf War.

STING: Yeah - '90? - yeah.

SHAGGY: In '90, '91, yeah.

STING: What was it like as a recent immigrant fighting for the U.S.?

SHAGGY: Well, you know, I got a scholarship to go to the Pratt Institute, and I didn't do it because I just wanted to get out of New York. So I went into the military.

Some people go in the military for 20 years and never go to war. I do four years, and I end up in the war. It's just luck falls. But I did a lot of growing up in the military. The war actually taught me to not take a lot of things in life for granted. You know, I used to sleep on a cot. And I remember getting up out of my bed many a times and not making it. Now I always make my bed. It's just one of them things that you kind of learn. You know, I used to not like my mother's cooking. And when I was eating meals ready for - MREs, it dawned on me how great my mother's cooking was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAMING IN THE U.S.A.")

STING: (Singing) They join the Army. They're fighting for the U.S.A. here in the land of the brave and the home of the free. Dreaming in the...

I wanted to write a love letter to the America that I love. Of course, it's different to the reality of America, which is a total paradox. But the idea is a pure one, and that needs to be protected.

GREENE: Well, there's one other song I wanted to play. It's called "Gotta Get Back My Baby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOTTA GET BACK MY BABY")

SHAGGY: (Singing) I'm sitting here staring at the four walls thinking, what is it I got to do? Get back my baby. Lonely is taking over now. And my heart is kind of heavy, so I got to get back my baby. Feeling kind of hopeless now. I should have never messed around. You never know what you got till the moment that you lose it.

GREENE: Shaggy, I got to ask you. I mean, people who remember "It Wasn't Me" might consider this a classic kind of Shaggy tune about getting caught cheating. You have to talk your way out of it. Is that a topic you kind of like writing about? (Laughter).

SHAGGY: What made you think I wrote that one, man?

GREENE: I don't know. Tell me if I'm wrong.

STING: It wasn't me. It wasn't me.

GREENE: It wasn't (laughter).

SHAGGY: Now everybody's going...

(CROSSTALK)

GREENE: It wasn't Sting. It was not Sting who wrote that.

SHAGGY: Shaggy, that sounds like you (laughter). Yeah. I wrote that song. And I like to write a song that is relatable. And in any relationship that you have, we sometimes make mistakes.

STING: I mean, Shaggy's really good at writing these moral parables, you know, these sort of morality plays. At first listen, they sound kind of racy. But then you listen to the lyrics, and he's actually being quite moral.

GREENE: Sting, there's a - I've read a review of this album that said you sound less serious than usual, like you were just having fun. Is there anything to that?

STING: I think so. I think Shaggy's spirit is very engaging. And it released a lot of pressure off of me, actually. You know, sharing the load on an album - it's a wonderful luxury. And so yeah, I think there's something in that, although, you know, there are serious issues within the music. But we've chosen to present them in a way that is attractive and optimistic. And it's not an angry record.

GREENE: Well, this may be an odd couple, but feels like it was a marriage made in heaven musically in many ways. It sounds like you guys are having a good time.

STING: Well, we haven't gotten married, Dave. But, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

STING: Although our wives are beginning to suspect something.

GREENE: Guys, lots of fun talking to you. Thanks so much.

STING: Thank you.

GREENE: And best of luck with the record.

STING: Bye, now.

SHAGGY: All right, boss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOTTA GET BACK MY BABY")

STING AND SHAGGY: (Singing) Lonely is taking over now. And my heart's kind of heavy, so I got to get back my baby.

GREENE: Shaggy and Sting - their new album is called "44/876." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.