For The Culture: Sting And Shaggy On Collaboration, Comfort Zones And The Caribbean

Features

To the naked eye, the collaborative duo of musician Sting, formerly of The Police, and reggae star Shaggy is an unlikely pairing. The announcement of their joint album 44/876 raised a fair share of questions from inquisitive music fans. However, thanks to a few singles that dropped prior to the LP’s release, it was clear this was a match made in music heaven.

“We have a lot in common, which is surprising. Every day we find out something,” smiles the legendary new wave rocker of his musical counterpart, who is sitting on an adjacent, plush navy blue couch in VIBE’s Artist Lounge. “‘Really, you like that too?’ or ‘You did that?’”

Introduced by mutual connection Martin Kierszenbaum (Shaggy’s former A&R rep and Sting’s current manager), the twosome originally intended to work on one song together, the Caribbean-tinged love melody “Don’t Make Me Wait,” which is listed on the album. However, thanks to their undeniable rapport in the studio, the Libras realized this had to be much more.

“We both are for the same things, in terms of where we see the world is right now, injustice and everything that’s going on,” says Shaggy of their commonalities. “We’re both on that same page.”

The album, which is named after the combination of the U.K. and Jamaica area codes, was released on Apr. 20. The disc seamlessly blends pop-rock and elements of reggae, which results in a feel-good experience from start to finish.

While the songs are effervescent on the surface, when the lyrics are peeled back, much deeper meanings are unlocked, such as love lost and infidelity (the infectious “Gotta Get Back My Baby”) and work-life balance struggles (the groovy “Night Shift”). As Sting tells it, the duo have a lot more about life to discuss, rather than just trivial topics.

“This music that we fought so long to be in the mainstream, this underground phenom, is now the sound of the mainstream radio” -Shaggy

“We’re men of a certain age, so we have concerns that maybe we didn’t have as younger men. We’re not talking about girlfriends or cars or bling-bling, or the color of our shoe,” he explains. “We’re talking about things that concern us as citizens, as parents, and, grandparents. I’m concerned about the world. I think the world is in a dangerous place, but that’s not to say this album is gloomy. There’s an optimism about this record, a sunshine about this record, which I hope would give people a smile.”

During their short time of working together in the studio, Sting and Shaggy have learned many lessons as musicians and people. The “Every Breath You Take” musician says that they have benefitted from their “two different approaches” to creating; Sting says he is a fan of rehearsing, while Shaggy is “Mr. Spontaneous.” Shaggy agrees, and believes that pulling each other out of their comfort zones is the reason that they’ve worked so well together.

“When you start being out of your comfort zone, you have to rise to the occasion,” the “Boombastic” superstar says. “That’s when the magic is created. Where this is concerned, if I could look at you and say that on paper, [our collaboration] was going to work perfectly, I would be lying. I’m still kind of amazed at how good our rapport is, how well we connect, how good the chemistry is.”

One of the hallmarks of Sting and Shaggy’s musical careers and friendship is their respect, admiration and influence of Caribbean culture. Sting says that in the U.K. around World War II, a heavy following of Caribbean music’s core subgenres, such as ska, ragga and calypso, made waves in Europe.

“The center of reggae wasn’t Kingston. The center of reggae, the mecca for reggae was London,” he explains. “That’s where you would come to make it big. [Bob] Marley came and transformed the music scene, because it’s very hard to be revolutionary in rock and roll. Rock and roll is a very conservative form, you wouldn’t think so, but it is. Reggae turned it on its head in the way the drums are played, and the importance of the bass. As a bass player that was huge for me.”

As an instrumentalist himself, Sting says that watching reggae instrumentalists influenced not only his music, but his views about the world.

“I met Marley. His voice, his message, his spiritual message, his political message, all had a massive effect on everyone, especially me,” he continues. “So that’s another debt I would need to point out. He was a huge guru of mine. I knew him and I met him on a number of occasions and still, he’s with me. As I say on the record, ‘he haunts me to this day.’”

Of course, one may wonder how Shaggy, a Kingston native, feels about music superstars like Drake, Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber and Sia implementing Caribbean stylings in their tracks, which often hit high spots on the Billboard charts. He believes that what draws people to the sounds of the Caribbean is the positivity the vibes elicit, and he’s thrilled that it’s becoming part of the musical conversation.

“This music that we fought so long to be in the mainstream, this underground phenom, is now the sound of the mainstream radio and mainstream music,” he grins. “I’m happy for that and what we’re doing right now in [44/876] is celebrating it. Even when you go into poor neighborhoods [in the Caribbean], there’s so much joy. They might not be able to pay rent, but they’re going to be having the fly a** outfit at that party. It’s that whole celebration type of energy that they have. I think that transcends into the culture, and I think there’s a cool factor that comes with it.”

“There’s an optimism about this record, a sunshine about this record, which I hope would give people a smile” – Sting

He then turns and thanks his English collaborator for recognizing the “coolness” of the Caribbean early in his music career.

“[Sting] has done it from day one, trying to get it to the mainstream. I’ve done it, and now we’re here. We’re celebrating it,” he says. “What Sting and The Police did in the early days was they played. They did these records with these very strong reggae influence on them. They were, like, the gateway to the mainstream. [The Police] got played in Jamaica because reggae artists now could get on mainstream, because they’ve introduced the style of music. They recognized the cool factor very early.”

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Throughout the longevity of their careers, the musicians have aimed to dissolve race and color lines in favor of creating tunes that stand the test of time. Their infectious tracks have been frequented in the hip-hop genre through the utilization of samples. Sting’s songs have been sampled by Diddy (née Puff Daddy), Tupac and Nas, while Shaggy has been sampled by Zoey Dollaz and his eldest son, Robb Bank$.

“Music is a currency that’s available to all cultures,” smiles Sting. “It’s a language that’s understood regardless of country and race and culture. Many use music to separate people into little ghettos, and that’s not what I want to do. Music is for everybody. I look at my audience and the demographics are huge. It’s people even older than me, very young people, black, white, men, women. I love that.”

“So, why make a new album?” one may ask of the icons. “You have nothing more to prove.” Sting and Shaggy’s responses would be just that – they are making music that makes them and others feel good, because they have nothing more to prove.

“This guy [Sting] has 100 million records sold, tons of Grammys, tons of money. He could stop. He could clearly stop,” says Shaggy, as Sting looks on. “He’s out here doing it, people look at him and they don’t go ‘oh my God, Sting is 66 years old and he’s on stage. Is he broke?’ No, he just loves what he does. He enjoys it. When I’m playing with him, I could tell there’s this excitement every single time he picks an instrument up. That’s what it’s about. Put me in front of 20,000 people screaming my name. I’m like ‘yo, this is heaven. This is it. I will do this for free.’”

“Don’t say that!” laughs Sting.

“I won’t be doing it for free, but it’s that love,” continues Shaggy. “Life is about learning. You never lose. Even when you lose, you take that ‘L’ turn it around to learn the lessons. I look forward to my losses and my lessons in life moving forward. I hope I discover a lot more with [Sting] because it’s been an incredible ride and we’re just starting.”