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“Forward ever,” the late great Jacob “Killer” Miller used to sing. “And backward never.” Reggae music has always been about forward motion, the movement of Jah people, up from downpression and forward to Holy Mount Zion, because freedom is a must. Still, every once in awhile, it doesn’t hurt to take a glance over your shoulder, if only to take the measure of one’s progress. Just to remember the long walk, and to make sure that history is not a mystery. Some stories have got to be told.
It’s like that with “Yes Mi Friend,” one of the standout tracks on Buju Banton’s long-awaited album Upside Down 2020, which drops on all digital platforms this Friday. The 20-track opus reflects Buju’s “2020 vision” with 10 tracks to make up for each year he’s been away and 10 more to carry us forward. The sounds on this versatile set range from state-of-the-art dancehall to classic roots reggae to R&B and pop-flavored collaborations with the likes of John Legend, Pharrell, and Stefflon Don. The common thread holding it all together is Buju’s powerful songwriting and vocal delivery.
Buju’s previous project, Before the Dawn, was released September 28, 2010—just about a decade ago. That album won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album, but Buju wasn’t able to attend the ceremony because at the time he was busy fighting for his freedom in a federal court of law. The story of how all of that unfolded has been told and retold. As Bob Marley sang, “I know it’s impossible to go living through my past. Can’t keep us down.”
The original “Duppy Conqueror” was recorded by The Wailers at Studio 17 and produced by the mad genius Lee “Scratch” Perry. “Yes me friend,” Bob sang to celebrate Bunny Wailer’s return home. “We deh pon street again.”
“Bunny got 18 months,” recalls his longtime bredren Neville Garrick. “Because back in the day, anytime them hold you with herb it was mandatory 18 months. He was at Richmond Farm prison. That song that him write called ‘Battering Down Sentence,’ he write that in prison. Bunny went to prison about 1968 or so.” The Wailers released “Duppy Conqueror” in 1970, just about half a century ago. You could feel the jubilation in every word and every note of the song.
Bob’s son Stephen “Ragga” Marley first sang the song with Buju in 2011 during a concert called “Before the Dawn.” Their duet was not a planned thing, more of a spontaneous vibe between two real friends. This song of freedom could not have been more appropriate for the occasion, a “Redemption Song” in the truest sense. The court had granted Buju freedom for one night only so he could perform at Miami’s Bayfront Park over Martin Luther King weekend. His attorney managed to convince the judge that his client, Mark Myrie, needed the chance to generate income to fund his defense. It was the first time Buju had set foot on a stage in more than a year. A who’s who of reggae stars turned out to show their support for one of the most important artists of this generation. Buju’s guests included Stephen “Ragga” Marley and his younger brother Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley. How real was their friendship? Prior to the show Ragga had actually offered his Florida home as collateral to secure Buju’s bail. “The bars could not hold me,” Buju and Stephen sang, lifting one another up, arm in arm. “Force could not control me now.” When they got to the part where the songs says “Through the powers of the Most High, they’ve got to turn me loose,” Buju’s knees buckled with emotion.
Buju wrote new verses for the version of “Duppy Conqueror” on Upside Down 2020. The song represents the most complete account of his ordeal that he’s ever shared with the public to date. He doesn’t like to speak about that time of his life, preferring to let the music do the talking. Everything his fans need to know is right there on the record, particularly in “Duppy Conqueror” as well as a tune called “Buried Alive.” On that one Buju sings “I was buried alive, but I’m still breathing. Don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I’ve got a feeling.” Sometimes the mere mention of those days will cause his eyes to burn like embers. There’s no way to gloss over losing a decade of your life to a corrupt system. The pain that you and your loved ones endure never really goes away. When you’re going through hell, the best you can do is keep going. Forward ever.
Anticipation for Buju’s homecoming would continue to build until December 2018 when he finally boarded a plane and returned home to reconnect with his family once more. His first studio session was with DJ Khaled at Buju’s own Gargamel Studios at 10 Carlisle Avenue in Kingston, Jamaica. Khaled managed to get over his fear of flying to make the journey to see his old friend. The first words we heard from Buju came on the first track of Khaled’s Father of Asahd album, “Holy Mountain.” Buju’s verse spoke of casting out tormented souls who dance to the Devil’s delight. “Right through the gates of Hell,” Buju intoned. “With powers over darkness and light.” It was just a small glimpse of where Buju’s head was at, an indication of what was still to come.
“86 months of chains is finally over,” Buju told the world on his Instagram account in February 2019. “I have deliberately kept my silence so I could observe with mine own eyes what is going on, not only locally but globally… I am ready for you. Are you ready for me? We have nuff things to talk ’bout.”
During the summer of 2019, Buju dropped a Supreme collab, which sold out in a matter of hours, re-connecting the artist with a new generation of music lovers. Later that same year he announced a partnership with Roc Nation and kicked off the Long Walk to Freedom tour at Jamaica’s National Stadium, where he became the first solo artist to headline the historic venue since Bob Marley. People flew to Jamaica from all over the world to witness the performance, buying up every plane ticket, and booking available every hotel room on the island. The tour would continue through Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa.
Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to all international travel, Buju Banton invited a few media outlets to Jamaica to listen to Upside Down 2020 at Tuff Gong studios. The next day we had the opportunity to reason with him at long last. The day’s first interview was conducted by journalist and filmmaker Reshma B, a longtime correspondent for Boomshots TV and reggae/dancehall editor at Tidal. The birds were singing as she sat in the early morning sunshine with Buju on a bench outside Gargamel studios.
“The music has so much to say,” Buju told her. “I’m just a messenger trying to make sure that the message gets across. We wanna make music that stimulates, educates, and eradicates negativity from the minds of people who may come in contact with it. Put aside the stereotypical notions that they may have harbored over the years about what reggae music is. Because true reggae music lovers know what reggae music is.”
VIBE (RESHMA B): You see yourself as a messenger, always, through your music. Since I’ve been listening to your catalog that’s been a message that you’ve been giving to your audience.
BUJU: If there’s no message in the music, it’s just going to be a sound. If there’s message in the music then it’s going to be a song. (Laughs) So yes, we endeavor to make music with a message, and we see ourselves as messengers, conveying a message of peace and love and hope, and all the things that mankind is totally and slowly eradicating. Trying to remind them that these things are principles that cannot be changed.
Why is that so important?
Because we are losing our humanity vastly to a world of artificial intelligence and all these kinda things. In other words, everything is upside down. The things that you should own, own you.
Is that your message in “Me No Trust Phone?”
True—and many more reasons. And you shouldn’t either. (Laughs)
Congrats on 1 million followers by the way. That was a very quick rise.
I want to thank all the masses that find time in their busy lives to post and to follow. Because they realize that it’s an integral part of the new era that we are now a party of. It also give me a direct connection with the masses to hear their likes and their dislikes and to see how they perceive things.
Do you read the likes and dislikes?
I don’t really go on it as often as I should, I must admit, but I do follow up. It’s a way for me to see where the fans are at.
I remember one of your first posts was like “Do I have to do this every day?” (Buju Laughs) And now you’re at a million followers!
I try not to utilize that platform as loosely as I’ve seen it’s been. Whenever we post something it should be salient.
Some people say the worst thing you can do is to read your comments, cause I guess it stresses people out?
The best thing I can do is go into my studio and make some music. I don’t have no time to read people's opinions too much. But I like to check it out now and then. (Laughs)
From what I’ve heard so far, my favorite song is “Duppy Conqueror.” When I was on the Jamrock Cruise I saw you and Stephen perform it for the first time. It was such an emotional moment, and I could feel by being in the crowd the emotions not just from the stage but the emotions that the audience was taking from your vibe with Stephen. That vibe is so real.
The vibe was real, the music was real, they both complemented each other to create a blanket that engulfed the audience. And they also were also immersed in this reality. So therefore the whole thing was magical. And this is not only a stage friend or a musical bredren—it’s a brother, you know? Yeah. Real.
When you listen to the lyrics of the song, you really see this relationship.
And it’s reality. It’s what transpired during those times—and he was there. And the bigger picture is the fact that I’m here for the global community once more. My friends who I haven’t seen, haven’t spoken to. I cannot go from house to house to say “I am home.” But this song can reach every house, every bathroom, every living room. And ones can feel the joy.
When I spoke to Stephen about it he said that he actually shed a tear.
Well, I’m glad he said that, cause he tried to say that it’s I who said a tear. (Laughs)
Oh really? You wanna set the record straight now?. (Laughs)
Well to be honest I think we both shed a tear you know. Because the movement and the vibe was so much, in order that you can feel a certain... It was just surreal. No words can express… Sometimes we don’t even need words you know. Cause it’s not good to explain everything with words. Cause there is no word!
Sometimes you’re not doing it justice by...
Talking about it. You’re trying to find a word weh Rome give you to suffice a greater overstanding. It can’t mesh. Leave it alone.
Do you think that’s the magic of reggae actually? What is it about this music that people gravitate to?
It’s real. The whole intent of reggae music came from people who wasn’t affluent. Who were faced with the challenges not of a normal existence, but of a lesser existence. No home, no water, no security, police brutality, pressure from the state. All the socio-economic things that can be mentioned affect them in such a way. No family structure. So the music became their way out, their avenue of expressing themselves. So that can’t change.
You’ve been at the forefront of speaking for this type of situation for all your career really. You’ve gone from the dancehall youth to who you are now. But the thing that never wavers for you is this thing of standing up and speaking about the truth. I think people look to icons in that way, to talk about the sufferation and what is real.
The music is the greatest communicator we’ve got. We’re coming from a far way where at least 60 percent of our population is illiterate. And through the medium of the music a lot of people get in the know. Now that number has been cut drastically, but the music must remain a teacher—not only for us but for the global community. It’s the conversation starter. And the moment it cease from being that, what are we gonna be? If you cannot find music to identify with your situations in your life to comfort you—cause certain songs are not applicable at certain times—then what’s gonna happen?
It must make you proud when you think about the pop charts. You hear a bit of reggae in everything now. This tiny island has influenced the globe in such a way.
We have influenced the globe in many ways. We have influenced Latin America—reggaeton. But why should we at this point in our musical journey be elated because we have one and two songs plating on the American pop chart? We should have 10. We should have 20. Likewise in Britain. So I mean, you don’t throw me a bone and feel that I should jump up on two hind legs. But we need to fix that, to make sure that they have music that “they” consider worthy for their pop charts. Then we can have this conversation again. But if we’re not giving them the stuff to put on their pop charts, we have no argument.
I notice that there are very limited features on this album. For now, I’ve heard Stephen Marley from Jamaica, Tory Lanez from Canada, Stefflon Don from London, John Legend from America...
And we have Pharrell Williams. He came to Jamaica and we made some great songs, “Cherry Pie” is just one of them. You’re going to be hearing couple more. It’s all about music for me, nothin’ else. We love music. We wanna push reggae music all across the globe. We wanna make music that everyone can fulljoy and know that reggae music still lives. Yes? And that’s our sole intent, to bring the music forward to all the music lovers across the world—those who’ve been here with us for all this time, and those young and aspiring fans. We want to bring them aboard and say, “Hey! There’s a genre. It’s called reggae music. And this is the genesis, and here’s where we are now.”
I love the "Steppa" riddim by the way. I love that it’s an actual riddim and people are on it.
Steppin! When I was comin’ up in the industry, this was a very important part of gettin’ the music going. Cause when you have a song in our culture on that beat, it’s only one song. After that one song is played, something else is gonna be played. But when one song is played, and another song is played on the same riddim, and another song is played, you develop an affinity just for the musical composition alone, without the vocals added. That’s Jamaica. That’s dancehall. That’s Jamaican vibes. It hasn’t been done, for some odd reason. Maybe because we have single-handedly—not single-handedly, but with the help of our great international friends—killed our industry.
Because I’m comin’ from an industry where we once had vinyls. Till they say, “OK, vinyl is too big and bulky. Let’s give them CDs.” And then they say “Oh CDs, we can’t really store them. Let’s take the music away from them altogether.” So now we have no music. I love my music but I cannot give it to you. Because “Where is it?” “It’s in the cloud.” (Laughs) So we have no physical instrument to pass around no more. So we make do.
Well, making do is getting through. (Laughs) Talking about some classic Jamaican music, it’s nice to see the Dave Kelly link-up.
Yes. Dave Kelly and I & I, we go forward. The connection musically is many many years old. And it is displayed whenever time we’re coming together musically in the studio to make any form of composition. It tells that these two guys actually know what they’re doing. He’s a great writer, a great producer. It’s always a pleasure working with him. He brings the best out of Buju Banton—always.
And I guess Dave doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do.
Well, we’re from the old school where producers remain producers and artists remain artists. It’s just as simple as that.
Buju Banton and VIBE have a long history. His breakout album Mr. Mention was released in 1992, the same year VIBE’s test issue hit stands. I wrote a profile of Super Cat in that issue, and when the magazine officially launched a year later, I was offered the life-changing opportunity of joining the start-up team of Quincy Jones’ monthly hip-hop magazine. Buju’s major-label debut Voice of Jamaica was released in 1993, the same year VIBE launched as a monthly publication. Buju was the most important artist of the moment, building on the legacy of Super Cat and Shabba Ranks. In those days, hip-hop and dancehall were seen as branches from the same root. Super Cat would collaborate with Heavy D or Biggie Smalls, Shabba Ranks would trade bars with KRS One and tour with Bobby Brown.
While the cultural connections were bubbling, I established VIBE’s monthly column "Boomshots," the first regular space in a major music magazine devoted to dancehall and reggae. I thought it was important to shed a light on this Jamaican sound system culture that had given birth to hip-hop when DJ Kool Herc began throwing parties in the Bronx. Before Buju’s landmark album Til Shiloh was released in 1995, he stopped by the VIBE offices to give me a preview. We shut the door of my office, popped a cassette in the stereo, and burned a spliff in the middle of the day while I heard songs like “Untold Stories” and “Til I’m Laid to Rest” for the first time. There was so much legacy there, every time Buju and I got together, the memories started to flow, flooding our minds.
When VIBE first ceased print publication in 2009, I spun Boomshots off as a stand-alone digital platform. During the trip to hear Upside Down 2020, I was happy to see my old friend Datwon Thomas, VIBE’s current editor-in-chief who’s been keeping the legacy alive in the digital age. He asked me who I was covering Buju’s album for and we got to talking. After a couple of Appleton rums, we hatched a plan to rekindle the connection between Boomshots and VIBE. Since that convo, we’ve premiered new music by Sean Paul, Chronixx, and Dre Island. Reshma B did the exclusive pre-clash interviews with Beenie Man and Bounty Killer before their historic Verzuz Battle. Today’s digital cover story takes the Boomshots x VIBE collab to another level. Back at Gargamel studios, Datwon and I sat down with Buju to talk about old times and the future.
VIBE (DATWON): Buju, it’s a pleasure...
BUJU: The pleasure is mine.
And an honor.
The honor is mine.
I have my esteemed great friend here, Rob Kenner. He started the legendary "Boomshots" column in VIBE so many years ago.
Yes, I remember.
And I felt like it was the perfect time to join this conversation and bring it back into the fold of the magazine.
It’s great that you said that cause I’ve known Rob Kenner for a million years.
I’ve known him since he was a bigger guy in stature, so 1000 moons ago. No bother mention another 900. Listen, Boomshots it’s always a pleasure. And the pleasure is mine.
VIBE (ROB KENNER): Well I remember Mark Myrie before the locks....
And before a couple gray hairs reach inside the beard.
Ahh! Just like I said 1000 moons.
But isn’t that the blessings for a wise man to be able to count the grey hairs in his beard.
Yeah, it’s the blessing of a wise man—so they say. But not everyone with gray hair-wise.
It’s also a blessing of a clean and pure heart.
Like you said in the tune, “What’s the difference between the wise and the foolish?”
What it is? We all live and die. The rich and the fool. The wise and the fool.
So what makes the difference then? How can you tell?
There’s none. The decision them make. But they’re all going to the same destination.
But can a wise man make mistakes?
Of course. Which man is not fallible?
But then most people feel as though if you’re wise you know exactly what to do. And a lot of times, wise men need counsel as well.
Which king love counsel?
I learned in a reggae song that experience teacheth wisdom. A lot of lessons in life I learned from songs, but that’s one that always stays with me. It’s experience that teacheth wisdom. And as long as you don’t have to repeat the mistake, you learn from it and move forward. And take that knowledge and share it with everyone.
Well, life is like that. That’s why you live and you learn. That’s why a man who don’t travel don’t know.
Whenever I sit by these steps, I always think about your son Markus who was rushing into the studio one day—when he was too young to be producing records himself. And he fell on the steps and he skinned his knee and it was bleeding and he was crying. And I watched you talk to him and say, “Markus you’re a big man. No worry yourself. Just get up and keep moving.” But I remember that because he was excited to run into the studio. And look what he’s doing now, your big son.
Yeah, he loves the music. It’s in them blood. And it’s not something I even forced on them. Them naturally love it, but them have their own direction them want to go into. Cause they’re all adults now. So we have to let them do them thing too and express themselves.
Markus really helped buss Popcaan to the world. “Only Man She Want” was the record that we heard on the radio in New York. “Clarks,” yes, but for Popcaan solo that was all Markus Productions.
I love his works, cause I’ve been them from within—from behind where I was. I know him have it. All of them have it.
It’s a different kind of proud though.
Of course, because you see, knowing that he’s my first son, and he’s doing what he’s doing, it feels good. And we have to support them. So whatever him do we just know say, him a do him thing. He’s doing his thing.
Yesterday, you were able to bring so many journalists into your comfort zone—not only at Tuff Gong, but over here at the studio. You get to see everyone break bread and enjoy the energy.
Once upon a time, reggae music was like this. Where people seek a ticket to come and be among the music because it was just so magnetic. And when they come they had an experience. That’s what we want—people to have an experience. To realize that on this castaway island is a great sound. Great people. Great hospitality. This miseducation of the masses about Jamaica must be fixed.
[Stream: Upside Down 2020 on Apple Music and Spotify]
And do you take it upon yourself now? Like, outside of the music?
We do what we do. We don’t assume any role or any mantle. We do what we do. Let the works be seen.
If you could start by correcting one misconception, about the stereotypes and the misperceptions people have about Jamaica and reggae music, what would be at the top of your list?
That it’s total violence. They call it murder music. How dare them?
“Music is Life,” as Beres did teach us.
And in a sense, they have managed to coin a phrase that they are trying to adhere to. Because they have managed to kill music. Music is the only thing that never die. When you hear somebody say it lasts for two weeks. How you mean it last?
The popularity maybe...
Cause music never dies. But now the sound is so flagrant that it can. It has no potency. No value. No substance. No quality. So anything can happen to such trash, don’t? But music never die. Music! Real music? OK.
Hold on—stick a pin. Carry me ting come. Uno feel you coulda just talk I out? (Laughs)
Bring the ishens come. You had everything roll up and seal up yesterday. That was beautiful.
True me know say most ah uno caan roll ganja. Me just make sure say me take care of that aspect for the-I them.
I get a good teaching right here by the tabernacle in the back.
You remember the tabernacle?
Of course I remember!
Ah, true man.
And the chalice go round inna circle like Miss Merkle.
The times y’all talkin’ about right now, y’all can just reminisce and go back. And it brings a smile to your face.
I tell you know this guy from a long time in creation. I know Rob Kenner way before the earth was. (Laughs)
That’s real. That’s why standing up in the National Stadium was so emotional for me. When you made the first step of that Long Walk to Freedom and touch the stage of the National Stadium that Bob Marley headlined on before you. You brought out Beres, Marcia, Wayne Wonder...
It can be described as a spectacular homecoming and a meeting of the souls and the people of the true and living God. Because this music gathers up the people. The voice of the people is the voice of who? The Almighty. Boisterous and raucous and tumultuous.
All the way. Just to see that, like even the drone shot, to be able to see all those people coming and celebrating you. And flying in from all over...
They’re celebrating reggae music too. Not only I. They’re celebrating reggae music and one of reggae’s sons. So I don’t ascribe to the narrative that it’s all about Buju. The music brought them there cause there wasn’t any music.
(Reaches for Rob’s lighter, which has a picture of Biggie Smalls on it.)
Biggie Small—Wah? Biggie! Remember Biggie? Jah know! Walk good youth. Cho! I gwine burn this one yah for Biggie.
There it go!
Next yard man. He used to ride his donkey in Trelawney. I think he said his uncle was a sound man in Jamaica.
I remember my album listening at a club in Manhattan called SOB’s. It was Til Shiloh and I was sitting in my car about to emerge and I was burning a spliff just like this. And someone knocked on the window and I said, “Wind it down.” I said, “What’s up, champ?” He said “Are you Buju? Are you playin’ inside?” I said “Yeah, it’s my album release. What’s up—you wanna get in?” He said, “Yeah. My name is Biggie Smalls.”
Went inside and Lisa Cortes introduced him again, I said “No, we just met.” Never saw him again. He just took off. That was SOB’s.
How did the hip-hop community embrace you like that back then?
The hip-hop community back then was much more in tune with what was going on in Jamaica. Because this is the levels we used to be at: The brothers make the music in America, but when they need a remix, and something different—and to hear a different tone, a different approach—they find us in Jamaica.
And then that marriage now helped us both. So we always had a great relationship from Shabba—Shabba even sung with Eddie Murphy, and you know Eddie Murphy’s an actor. So the relationship was so good. Bobby Brown, KRS-One...
Then I came and I worked with…
Busta Rhymes. That was my first introduction into hip-hop. I used to go by Long Island in the nights, by Busta’s mom’s basement and we used to tear it down—me and him and Spliff. It used to be so cold in the basement dog. But we had to do what we had to do. And he had to take me back all the way back to Manhattan. And we used to do this night after night until we find couple songs. My first was “Wicked Act." (Sings a part of the track) QUIET!!! (stomps foot)
(Laughs) Aw mom…! We’re just makin’ music.
Yo! That’s what it is.
So the hip-hop community was beautiful. We were well received by them, the brothers up there. But it was different. Music was our heart—everybody. I used to stand up in the line tryin’ to get into Hot 97 in the cold with Da Brat. You name them—they were all in the line. You know how Hot 97 used to run. It was just everybody trying to get ahead with respect. Sweet respect! But, great days. Greater days are ahead too.
I think some people feel as though the past was better. But the future can be better if you make it.
Yes, because a lot of music was made in the ’90s. There was an energy that was felt globally. We were fortunate enough to taste it too. So the music that we put out in that space, in that time, clearly denotes that.
One of the things that I recognize from the album is that you wanted it to be diverse in sound. And you hit so many different eras. I even felt like a country record was in there, I felt like a doo-wop record. Like “Earth Angel” type music. I’m like, “Wait a minute! He’s going through so many different lines. For a new person that’s jumpin’ in, they’re gonna get so many different sides of you.”
Well, I call the album [Upside Down 2020] but let us say 2020. The whole concept of 2020 is a clear vision of where we are, but also 10 songs—I miss my folks. I miss delivering my message. But also 10 new vibes. I want the masses to have an experience. One of my favorite records, incidentally, is “Too Bad.” Cause when I put the “Too Bad” on, I just feel so bad. (Laughs)
But you’re givin’ that same energy with “I’m Blessed.”
Hit! Straight hit.
So what we try to do is make the album in a way that everyone can be satisfied—my dancehall fans, the people who love music to stimulate that consciousness. That’s there too. And we haven’t heard any of that. Different different music. Different different production. Different different musical composition. To make a body of work worthy of listenership.
And you came and said, “I was buried alive.” It don’t get no more thought-provoking than that.
That’s a powerful, powerful statement. And when you played the tune for us, you said, “Let me simplify it for you.” And you just let the music talk. But that talk is loud.
Let’s hope they hear.
And then I’m hearing the “Trust” song. And I hear your voice for so long throughout my life. When I first heard it, I’m like, “Wait. Is this a throwback?” And then you mention social media. “Wait a minute. It has to be of the times!”
“Trust” is reminiscent of a track called “You Rule.” I’ve never utilized that vocal pattern again since 1993, till 2020. So as me father say nothing is new under the face of the earth, it’s just how it is delivered. Or repackaged rather.
But the message in that!
It’s potent, it’s relevant. And ones can relate to it, no matter who or where you’re from.
Stay tuned. Great works are ahead, and greater days too.
That’s what’s up.
One last question, since we touched on the hip-hop community and its relationship to the reggae and dancehall community. You’re now rockin’ with the Roc.
Roc Nation. Shawn Carter. Black-owned business. Artist-owned business. Controlling one’s destiny. How important is it for you to be aligned with Jay Z and the Roc?
The partnership is important because our music need a presence, a global presence. The fact that it’s a Black-owned enterprise, we expect to be treated much differently, and our genre to be given equal footing. Because it’s not about even now. It should be about our industry—Black excellence. That’s it.
The timing of Buju Banton’s return after a ten-year absence is uncannily perfect. Back in 2016, when his release from captivity was more than two years away, he shared his first statement from behind bars, which we published exclusively on Boomshots. It’s almost like he saw this Upside Down moment coming from then.
“Tell my fans do not be distracted by all the things that are taking place around them,” Buju said, “because it is designed to throw them off kilter, to make moral decadence even more widespread than it already is, and plunge people into a state of darkness.
“They’re trying to reverse the progress that we have made over the years through the music. And now the music is meaningless. It doesn’t stimulate, it doesn’t educate, it doesn’t reinvigorate. All it does is get you angry because it’s filled with nothing but narcissists exalting themselves over the earthly possessions that they have managed to get. They don’t even have anything—it’s crumbs.
“And therefore, the music is suffering. The people are suffering. Sadness and gloom is prevailing. It’s widespread. But be patient. Because suffering may endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
After three months of coronavirus lockdown, nationwide protests over police brutality, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the last days of the Trump era, that visit to Jamaica now seems like a distant memory. Before this story went to print, I wanted to speak with Buju one more time. He had recently dropped the song “Ganja Man” in honor of 4/20 so our conversation began on an herbalistic note before moving on to heavier topics. Buju was not alone in wondering whether the pandemic was really a “plandemic.” He had also been thinking about whether he’d been “buried alive” for a reason. It certainly felt like his re-emergence at this moment was no accident. The world had truly been turned Upside Down. In the first crazy days of viral panic, Buju shared words of comfort, sitting at a piano with keyboard master Lenky Marsden (the same man responsible for the “Diwali” Riddim), Buju sang a song called “All Will Be Fine.” I’d never heard him with just a piano for accompaniment, and it sounded good. “We do different stuff at different times,” he said. “That’s just an offering to the world, trying to have an impact. God is good.”
Shortly before the lockdown began, while walking around the deserted streets of Manhattan, I heard Buju’s voice in the distance, singing “Psalms 23” with Gramps Morgan. Following the sound, I came upon a Jamaican food vendor who was making a joyful noise in the concrete jungle. Buju was deeply impressed by the story, taking it as some sort of sign. “I have to just tell the people the truth,” he said. “That is my role. When the spirit come upon us we have to speak.” He asked me to close my eyes and imagine hearing that same song in heaven, with no other human beings in sight. “That is the music of the highest vibration,” he said. “Holy Mount Zion.”
VIBE (KENNER): I love how you bless up everybody on 4/20 with the “Ganja Man” tune.
BUJU: Bless up everyone iya Jah live. Ganja haffi bun.
There have been so many great times that we’ve shared a spliff over the years…
A true iya…them days we haffi hide and smoke.
There was a time when ganja was something you really had to go to extraordinary risks sometimes to get your little draw of herb. Man risk them freedom…
Well, legalization is really appreciated. It’s still long overdue. But the only problem that remains is who’s benefiting from the commercialization of the herb on a global scale?
I was thinking the same thing...and why did it take so long?
If I did know the answer why it take so long, I woulda legalize it myself, Rob Kenner! Is a systematic thing implemented by the higher-ups in New America where you live.
The major conglomerates and the powers that be demonize ganja as narcotics and CBD likewise. Therefore, them can pitch them heroin and them cocaine and all them bumbaclaat fu**eries to trick off the people them.
You said that in a song a while ago. All these things are revealed in the music. But now we reach the point where you can go to new Kingston and buy some weed in a dispensary. How about you? Do you go to those places?
I nuh do them ting deh natty. I no smoke dispensary herb. I smoke the real herbs, that you get more spiritual energy from. Anything that is marketed for a profit you cyaan get the spiritual qualities weh attached to it yunno. And you can’t buy that.
You have to know who cultivate the herb for you and everything.
You've been talking about keep your eyes open on the Instagram. With the pandemic, that's more true than ever. I'm livin' in New York and sh*t is real out here. How is t for you in Jamaica at the moment?
Irie. We’re keepin’ our eyes on Jah. We’re lookin’ at the world and just startled by how this coronavirus have a great penchant and a huge attachment to celebrities in America and news anchors and people of great renown. It’s like this is a rich people’s disease and some poor people get caught up inna it. People are getting scared, and everybody actin’ a fool of themselves on television. I wonder why.
As usual, you raise some interesting questions. Do you feel like it's a mass distraction campaign?
Well, what I feel is not important. I could feel a myriad of things, but that doesn’t make it right. Feeling is emotion, the truth is the truth. Do I have the truth? I nuh know. Open your eyes and look.
Hard to believe just a few ago we were all together in Kingston and now nobody can travel anywhere. I give thanks we were able to spend that time together before everything lock down.
The Lord is good and He does not make any mistakes. That’s why He made it possible for you guys to come get the message and go back unimpeded and unharmed. OK? So now that the world is in reset you can process and see if you can change your frequency to be on the same wavelength as the universe right now. Empty your mind, find a quiet palace and tune. Retune to the higher frequency.
We don't want to go "back to normal."
Goin’ back to normal is crazy. Normal wasn’t working. Look at your life and ask yourself if that was your life. Look at the world and ask yourself if this is our world. Look at our children and ask yourself are these our children? (Laughs) Normal is no good bro. Normal is definitely not good.
Everybody is so caught up in their mundane existence. Missing all the trappings of the “world” so to speak. And they’re so agitated they can’t sit down for six weeks. Really? Oh gosh!
There's a lot of confusion and stress in the air.
I know everybody has family to feed. But people gotta take some time out, and this is a great reset. Do some introspection. I urge you.
I have been meditating daily. It's the only way to get through. It is so strange being in New York City and hearing the birds singing.
That’s because you’re above ground, my friend.
Yeah, exactly. Not buried alive.
Well you know, Rastafari has been always telling the massive about this time yunno. And true I and I has been warning the masses, I would say to them you don’t know what fear is. If you raised your consciousness like you’ve been taught to over all these years you will be in a much better place now. You’re supposed to be in a better place entirely. OK?
Like the song says “So Long Rastafari Call You, So Long.” And those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
(Laughs) Well, you know, like I said, the whole consciousness is shifting right now. Ones are gonna feel it and ones just ain’t gonna feel it. It’s just as simple as that. You know it’s not rocket science.
You say people should find a quiet place. What are you doing personally during this time of reset?
I’m not doing anything different. I do what I normally do. Get up, give thanks and praises. Work in my studio trying to create the music for the masses. Nothing has changed. I still have my daily routine. I still do whatever I do in the day—which wasn’t a lot anyway. (Laughs) But what I did don’t consist of running around in the streets. So I’m OK and I don’t need to have a crowd around me to get what I need to get done. So I’m kinda safe. But make no mistake there is something out there, and that’s for sure.
I hope Jamaica stays safe. Right now, New York is being hit hard. I'm not sure why some places have been harder hit than others.
What I can say to all the folks who have lost your loved ones, we’re tremendously sorry and we hope that you get over your loss pretty soon and get back on track with your life. Because at the end of the day, we’ve got to go wherever our loved ones are. They can’t come where we are, but we’ve gotta go see them. So make the best of life. And know that in this journey we learn lessons. We’re supposed to be learning from it.
A great game is goin’ on yunno. A great game has always been going on, you understand? But this time, the table has turned. A great battle is waging over your heads people, and it’s good against evil. No joke. The forces of darkness against the forces of light. You guys are in the darkness for your own safety, so just enjoy it. Relax.
That's not very relaxing! Good over evil is the only hope we have. We have to place our faith in that right now.
Well true nuff of them are evil and masquerading as good. Gotta be flushed out.
How do you tell the difference?
It’s not for me to tell. I’m not a psychologist nor a psychoanalyst. By their deeds ye shall know them. And the signs is what shall reveal them. By their deeds they shall be known, and the signs shall reveal them.
It's a time of great soul searching all around the world, and the music that you shared with us has a different meaning now than it did the first time we heard it.
Because your eyes was closed to it then, but now your eyes are open to a new world. You see that it’s upside down. And I have pricked your consciousness and pulled it up to mine. So when you listen to the record you can actually see what’s going on now.
Even a line like, "Yes mi friend they turn me loose again." All of us now feel like we're locked up in our house.
You’re buried alive, bro.
But I'm still breathing.
Your job is to make sure the message reach the masses. I just gotta make sure I deliver. So I am the delivery man, and you are the postman.
Let me ask you a question about the song I just mentioned because that song that you sing with Ragga has a lot of history behind it. For those who may just be tuning into this music, what is the meaning of "Duppy Conqueror"?
Someone who has overcome evil. Who at the apex of evil has overcome. The destruction that they intend to fall on you, you have managed to overcome. The ills that they will on you, you have conquered. You have risen above the expectation of a crooked mind. The hate that they’re trying to evolve in you, you have filled yourself with love. You have conquered the ghost. You have conquered the duppy! You have stopped him in his tracks! You have replaced the hate that they want to infiltrate in you with nothing but pure, unadulterated love.
The first time I heard you and Ragga sing that song was back in Miami on that stage in 2011.
As you bring it forward at this time, the song has even greater resonance now. It's a mystical thing.
It’s a higher consciousness. I term it a higher consciousness. Throughout the works I’ve been doing all my life, you have been a careful scribe. Cause the lord has called upon you to be a scribe in this time. And you have been taking notes, like Josephus from the Roman era, of my works ever since the days of my youth. Have my works changed? Have I diverted from the path of uplifting, educating, and eradicating negativity from the minds of the people? You can attest to that. And the journey will continue.
Yeah, and it's going into another frequency now. People are tapping in.
We had a conversation shortly after 9/11, and you talked about how music had failed the people because there wasn't a song that would help us to deal with that experience.
And I still feel the same way now. Music has been a very powerful weapon of distraction for the masses. And it has been utilized to its fullest extent only to distract, while it could have been uplifting them or helping them to raise their consciousness. Anything that try to raise the people’s consciousness was always blacklisted. Always! Reggae music face the most degrading treatment as an art form from the global community. Reggae artists are the most disrespected. The most underpaid. Treated like animals in terms of the way our music is dealt with. What does reggae bring to the world? It brings something that no other music carry: Soul.
It brings consciousness. It brings knowledge of self.
Soul. Consciousness. What kind of music you think you gonna hear when you go to Mount Zion or inna spiritual realm? Is it not going to be some music of meditation? Pure reggae. Nothing to kill. Nothing with a gun in it. Nothing with violence. Pure reggae. A new consciousness. Can you imagine if we start loving each other? Be more kind to each other? Be more empathetic to each other and sympathetic to each other? Be more of a brother’s keeper? Helping our children, loving ourselves? Oh God! What a different society! But can it exist? Of course it can. Why not? Because we have been divided along irrational lines. And it makes no sense. We fight against each other for no reason. We hate each other because of our spiritual and religious beliefs, our cultural background, our ethnic background. We divide ourself because you have a car and this person don’t, because you’re able to wear something another person can’t. And all these things have been weaponized against us to keep us further fractured.
Divide and rule.
And what role music does music play in that?
Well didn't Bob say "When it hits, you feel no pain"?
But first, you have to feel it! You have to hear it! This music is not being heard. It’s the grace of God why you are on the phone talking to me. Because our music is not being heard. And when they do hear it they try to turn it and try to convince one of us to do their bidding. And once you refuse to do their bidding you are relegated once more. But we don’t come to pharaoh because we are accustomed to being hungry yunno. It’s those who are not accustomed to being hungry gonna sell them very soul. You cannot threaten people who are accustomed to nothing.
Feels like we are all going through a time of testing now. Everybody's being tested.
A rejuvenation process I term it. It’s the resetting of the internal clock. The mental clock. The universal clock. Yeah? A resetting of the frequency of man. Many will not survive it you know. And they will attribute it to the COVID virus, or you can attribute it to a whole host of things. But the real reason is because them gonna stress themself out of life.
As Gong say, “Many more will have to suffer. Many more will have to die...”
“Don’t ask me why.”
My brother, just stay the course and continue doing your good works. The Lord has blessed you as a scribe, and a scribe shall thou be.
Give thanks, Gargamel. Jah know, I’m just glad you are out here spreading your music at this time. Everything happening in perfect timing.
God is good, Rob. That’s why I was buried alive, so I could resurface at this time. I had to be here to comfort my people and to help them go through the turbulent time and the shift—the cataclysmic shift that is coming. We gonna make it through. Fortunately. God is good.
In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.
Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”
A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”
Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.
“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”
On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.
Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”
Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”
Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.
Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.
“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”
While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”
Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”
“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.
Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.
For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.
Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.
“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”
Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”
Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.
Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.
“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”
The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.
On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”
I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?
— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018
“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”
“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”
Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.
“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.
Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).
Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.
“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”
Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:
Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important?
“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”
This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Between hookah pulls, Tory Lanez has devised another master plan. Mirroring his savory sonic palette, the Toronto native reveals how he intends to release three albums over the course of three weeks. Each album is an ode to a personality all his own and sounds we wouldn’t expect from the multi-hyphenated artist. “These are timeless records on these projects,” he insists on the phone. One is an album inspired by the synths of the '80s, an acoustic project akin to the early works of Ed Sheeran and a Spanish album. “I’m beginning to get into a space where there's really just a different genre of music here. It's crazy how I was able to keep it under wraps for so long.” I’m not surprised at his motion picture-like ideas. Just last year during his press run for the chart-topping project, Chixtape 5, he manifested himself on the cover of VIBE. One pandemic, fifty-eleven twerk sessions, and a Drake shot-toast later, Tory has unlocked another goal all thanks to an unplugged mic and an Instagram Live chill session that would evolve in Quarantine Radio.
In the early days of America’s self-isolation from the novel coronavirus, the artist chilled with his team in Miami, enjoying 2000s hip-hop hits on his Instagram Live. Tens of thousands tuned in thanks to people engaging in social distancing in real life but stepping onto the toes of others at DJ sets on social media. In late March, he formed his own soundclash with Bryson Tiller, where the two exchanged songs in the categories of bubblegum pop from Christina Aguilera, pop-punk via early Panic! At The Disco and vintage R&B from Otis Redding. After a very impressive battle, Tory formed Quarantine Radio where more of his talented bredren could hop on, take a shot and look for the real stars of the show–the women.
“It was totally organic, it was not even supposed to be a thing,” he says with a chuckle. “The dude who does the ad-libs, he's a part of my day to day management and he ended up passing me the mic and headphones. He started doing the ad-libs and we found it funny, and it just became a thing, you know? I ended up yelling for four hours because I was just on Instagram having a good time.”
Quarantine Radio is two parts speakeasy, five parts twerking and three parts 2010 Twitter. Some girls dropped it low in gas stations and forests while others absorbed strawberry milk in their thongs. Stars like Chris Brown, Ben Simmons, Lizzo, Casanova, Tinashe, Megan Thee Stallion (who even got her Hot Girl twerk on), and more were in the popcorn gallery chatting with Tory on how to remain “corona free.” There’s also the essence of Demon Time, a red light rendezvous believed to be created by Justin LaBoy. With guests like The Weeknd, YG, and Lil Yachty, the virtual strip club has enticed libidos and increased bank accounts of its participants. In between Tory’s hilarious adlibs, Quarantine Radio adapted Demon Time with fans getting creative with every twerk session.
Before Instagram cut the party short due to a violation of nudity, he found himself with 2 million extra followers and a then record-breaking live session with over 360,000 people watching. But inspiration comes from everywhere. Enter Sha Almighty, a South Bronx native who kicked off the Almighty Trap Show in December 2018, a virtual funhouse on Instagram where Taylor Port wine replaces bottle service and Pandora’s Box is split into two live screens. “I wouldn’t say I’m the inventor of Demon Time, but I am definitely the reason everyone knows what it is now,” admits Sha. With co-host Trap, Sha says his lingo (like “I need a calculator,” “They shooting duck,” "WOWW") and swag have helped boost the profiles of LaBoy and Tory’s interpretation of the scene. “A lot of facts are missing,” he said. “I think [Tory] is a fan and just needs to give me my credit. I just feel anyone can do the Instagram Live show but just at least bring your own originality.”
Part of Tory’s originality stems from his unique way to flip a turn up into an opportunity. He says Quarantine Radio and its moving parts came together casually with no one else but those in the Miami hangout. As participants like DJ Duffey, Johnni Blaze, Veronica Rodriguez, and Natalie Nunn made their mark as clear cut winners during contests, Tory was living his childhood dreams on Quarantine Radio by shipping off beat pack requests to Swizz Beatz, and flirting with living legends like Raven-Symoné, Trina and Tisha Campbell. He even plugged “Comeback,” an upcoming steamy collaboration with R&B siren JoJo, and talked DMX into growling. We were soon anticipating Quarantine Radio shows soundtracked by the discographies of Ja Rule, Juvenile, and Mack Morrison with Tory–also known as DJ Corona Free–in the booth. Tory pulled off weeks of potential meetings with his peers into only eight episodes of Quarantine Radio.
But Tory’s casual yet thoughtful viral ideas never overshadowed his music. He recently hopped into his rap bag and dropped The New Toronto 3, his last offering to Interscope before parting ways. It earned Tory another Top 10 album on the Billboard 200 which means next to nothing for him. As an artist who has released 25 projects in ten years would tell you, it’s all about the game baybee.
“C'mon, it's like a million people inflating their streams,” he claims. “Some people are just doing numbers where that's just impossible. As someone who understands a lot of things behind the scenes, I can't allow it to dictate, at least somebody like me, who's not cheating.” Since his debut studio album I Told You was released in 2016 with hits like “Say It” and “LUV,” the Grammy-nominated artist says he’s enjoyed the increase in streams over the years because of its genuine nature.
“I had never passed 60,000 [units in the first week], but I've always been relevant,” he says. The New Toronto 3 moved 64,000 equivalent album units which he attributes to his growth as an artist. “I know that it takes a certain amount of building for you to make real numbers. So when I see people have these numbers out the gate, I'm like, 'You don't have these numbers out the gate, no one knows you.' I just don't think it’s fair for artists nowadays who are not cheating, but this shouldn’t discourage them. At the end of the day, if the music is connecting, and you have an audience that cares about the music, and who is hitting you on Instagram and saying 'That song is crazy,' and doing what they can to let you know your music is great, then you're doing what you need to do and it doesn't matter.”
The New Toronto 3 takes us back to Tory’s ability to steer into MC territory (“Do The Most” and “Broke In A Min” are fan favorites) while enjoying his R&B hits in the rearview mirror. Chixtape 5 brought the journey full circle with the creative teaming up with his soulful heroes like Lloyd, Ashanti, T-Pain, Chris Brown, Mya, and more for a lesson in enjoyable sampling and hilarious skits. Both projects have done Tory plenty of favors as it officially released him into independent waters. The artist has remained vocal against his disdain for Interscope Records, which also houses buzzy artists like DaBaby, Moneybagg Yo, and Lil Mosey. Looking back on some of the creative differences he had at the label, Tory admits he’s held on to his best material and is ready for the world to hear it.
“Sometimes I feel like in my situation I didn't really have the person to be like, 'Yeah, this belongs on 'XYZ’ so we're going to spend this amount of money so you can actually get that',” he says in his best white voice. “I didn't feel like I had that for a long time so I kept certain music away. It's not going to take long for me to release things. I don't have a specific time where I have to get stuff out to the label. I'm putting out a lot of music and a lot of heads will turn my way because they never knew I made this type of music.” That type, Tory says, is everything under the sun. He guarantees his highly anticipated Spanish-language album will see the light of day with fans ready for him to jump into “Fargo Fridays” again (dropping a new song every Friday) or hone in on the hunger found on early projects like Lost Cause. No matter when or how the music drops, Tory knows people are watching.
Derailed albums, canceled festivals, and shows have flooded the concert industry with a projected loss of $9 billion. Streaming has reportedly seen a decline but artists like Drake have continued to shine with the release of the Tik-Tok friendly “Tootsie Slide” and others like The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, and Lil Uzi Vert have solid fan bases who have taken their recent releases to the top of the charts. There are also artists like Tory who have capitalized on live streaming to either perform, share music, or just talk to fans. While Quarantine Radio wasn’t a part of Tory’s business model, he believes the music industry should learn a thing or two from it.
“Just chill the f**k out (laughs) that's it, bro, chill the f**k out,” he says to the industry. “As an artist, when we're not getting lots of views or anything we want, you feel like, 'Damn I gotta do something to get back and stop putting so much energy into things that don't even work.' When you just don't [give a] f**k anymore, things just start to go your way. It's going to be okay, dawg. Be you, be happy, be humble, and that's it.”
He doesn’t hold any resentment about his past record deals. Instead of folding, Tory has made diamonds from the pressure. “I'm a person that will not accept defeat in my career,” he says. “When it comes to you know, that fourth-quarter pressure, I'm someone who's going to always rise to the occasion. Being that I went through what I went through and I still somehow came out of that and exceeded five albums. I own all my masters and my publishing, so even for me to be at my hottest moment culturally—where the cultural acceptance of Tory Lanez the brand is now a thing—and to be in this place when I'm leaving the label, it's truly just a blessing. It's something I'm extremely happy about because like I said, I learned that I'm a person that won't accept defeat. It took this situation for me to really really realize why I feel that way.”
His love for the culture almost wrecked his sound as casual listeners pigeonholed him for sampling. His breakthrough 2016 hit “Say It,” samples Brownstone’s “If You Love Me,” and “LUV,” samples the classic reggae jam “Everyone Falls In Love Sometimes” by Tanto Metro and Devonte. Tory’s rookie year in the game continued to receive some blows as he and fellow Toronto native Drake engaged in a brief beef of sorts. Despite the pushbacks, Tory says he’s always remained true to himself.
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QUARANTINE QUARANTINE QUARANTINE 😂😂. Whose your favorite guest on #Quarantineradio so far ?
“There's a demographic of people for everybody,” he explains. “Nothing looks purer to people than you being yourself. Like ni**a, I don't walk around being mad all the time or being angry every single day so why would I walk around like that? I'm truly happy inside and whether the world knew that or not, that's who I was. I'm very outspoken and whatever the case is, but at the end of the day, I'm a very happy guy. If you're going to see me for four or five hours, you're going to see me being happy. I will say that I am happy that the show helped a lot of other people not really take things so seriously. Let's just get drunk with everyone, that's it. I don't take any of it seriously. The buttons are funny, the sound effects are funny. I really laugh at the ad-lib guy, it's just funny to me.” Ad-libs like “Ultimate Light Skins” to reference artists like Drake and Chris Brown, repeating “quarantine” and air horn sounds help drive fans into a frenzy.
In addition to a new album, new fans, and a renewed energy, Tory has also pulled out his philanthropic hat. This week, Tory partnered with charitable organization the Dream Center to officially launch The Tory Lanez Dream Fund to help with COVID-19 relief efforts for struggling families. So far, companies like Amazon Music have matched Tory’s personal donation of 50,000 diapers by covering the cost of 100,000 diapers for families searching for help at the Los Angeles Dream Center. Meals have also been provided through home deliveries, walk-ups, and drive-thru Dream Centers nationwide.
For Tory, giving back in and out the industry has always been a goal worth manifesting. “When I think about ownership, I think about One Umbrella [his label imprint], I think about what I’m about to do,” he says of his label which includes Latinx powerhouse like Melli, R&B vocalist and Coachella bound Mariah the Scientist and Mansa, “who everyone should fear,” he says. The deals keep coming his way. He recently discussed Viacom’s interest in teaming up with MTV for a 30-minute segment, but his focus is on the art of independence.
“Especially in my case right now, when these labels are trying to tell me, ‘Hey, $20 million for two albums!' and I'm like, 'Bro, no. Simply no.' I would like to own my music. Ownership to me is the most important thing right now. It's a very powerful word.” Family is another priority when asked about his biggest inspirations. “I find the joy out of life,” he says while thinking about his son, Kai. “If it's not God or my child, I'm not taking it seriously.”
There’s a raucous of laughter that spills between those hookah pulls and my inquiry about his comments about the late Tupac Shakur. After sharing with Genius.com's Rob Markman recently how he’s been inspired by Tupac, the rapper was met with immediate backlash.
“I don't know why motherf**kers get so upset when a ni**a says something about Pac,” he says.“Bruh, to all those ni**as in the comments that get so mad about it when anybody says anything about Pac, Suck my d**k, my ni**a.” Tory goes on to reference Pac’s 1994 MTV interview where the late rapper shared his intentions on inspiring the youth. “Every time I speak I want the truth to come out,” Tupac said two years before he was gunned down. “Every time I speak I want a shiver. I don’t want them to be like they know what I’m gonna say because it’s polite. I'm not saying I’m gonna rule the world or I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee you that I will spark the brain that will change the world."
“I'm a fan of Pac and I'll say this. I never said, ‘I am Pac,’ what I said was that I had similarities to him,” he said while pointing out comical, but iconic similarities like their nose rings and love for bandanas. “I'm not Pac, but I do feel like I was one of the minds he sparked and I hope another person feels the same way. Wasn't that the point?”
In an effort to keep the creative train going, Tory promises when “this is over, Quarantine Radio is over.” He hasn’t gone on Live to promote Quarantine Radio, but he has promised fans it will return this week. “I'll say this; if it gets to a place where they say, 'There's one more day left of quarantine, and it's done on the 30th [which is probably won't be] then on 29th, we'll have the last day of Quarantine Radio. Some things are just meant to be what they are.”