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Vybz Kartel Speaks: After Five Years in Prison, He Still Rules Dancehall

Vybz Kartel Speaks: After Five Years in Prison, He Still Rules Dancehall

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Pop music in 2016 simmers with the winding grind of dancehall. Rihanna’s “Work” and “Drake’s “One Dance,” two of the year’s biggest singles with 19 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 between them, both pull from the genre. Sean Paul, who took the sound to its commercial peak in the early Aughts, returned to Number One as a featured guest on Sia’s island-inflected “Cheap Thrills.” Rhythms and lyrics borrowed from the islands permeate recent hits by Justin Bieber, Fifth Harmony, Tory Lanez and Major Lazer, the Diplo-led project that’s built a massive global following bridging EDM and Caribbean music.

But in Jamaica, the real thing, Vybz Kartel’s “Fever,” ruled much of the summer, topping various local charts. “Western Union,” another single from Kartel’s King of the Dancehall, enjoys a similar ubiquity at present.

“There is no party in Jamaica without Kartel,” says Stephen “Supa Hype” Davis, the DJ and promoter behind Mojito Mondays, one of Kingston’s most popular weekly dancehall events. “Unless it’s a retro party, Kartel [has] to play.”

Yet this week, it has now been five years since Kartel – 40-year-old Adidja Palmer – was last free to enter a studio. In September 2011, he was arrested by Jamaican authorities for marijuana possession, and subsequently charged in two separate murder cases. He’s been in a Kingston prison ever since, the last two-and-a-half years spent serving a life sentence following a 2014 conviction for the killing of associate Clive “Lizard” Williams.

What appeared almost certain to be a career-ending setback, it turns out, has only reaffirmed Kartel’s hold on dancehall. He’s as popular and influential as ever, and even more prolific. New music from Kartel turns up weekly; more than 50 tracks this year alone have been released to iTunes, including the 14 on King of the Dancehall, his third LP in four years. A tally of songs issued during his incarceration would total well into the hundreds.

How, exactly, Kartel has maintained such productivity while behind bars remains something of a mystery. Many dancehall fans presume he must be recording in prison, covertly cutting vocals through a cellphone app. Others have even suggested certain songs were voiced by an impersonator. Musicians usually become engimas by disappearing or holding back, but Vybz Kartel has become one by being impossibly present through his incarceration. He’s released a book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, elaborating his views on topics ranging from parenting and abortion to third-world debt. He launched a clothing line, the Official VK Line; and created a literacy program which recently sponsored a robotics camp in his hometown of Portmore, Jamaica.

In an interview conducted through his lawyer, Tom Tavares-Finson, Kartel denied that he is recording in jail. The new releases, he insists, are the fruits of a massive deposit of unreleased vocal material left behind before his arrest, updated for the moment by a cadre of trusted producers.

“I’ve always been a prolific songwriter, and I record at breakneck speed as well, so I have a lot of surplus material to choose from,” Kartel tells Rolling Stone. “There is a recording studio at another correctional facility [in Jamaica] but none here … cellphones, laptops, or any Internet-capable instrument are prohibited items.”

In the years before his arrest, Kartel, also widely known by the nicknames “Worl’ Boss” and “Di Teacha,” attained folk-hero status in Jamaica with provocative lyrics, and a mischievous public persona. His expansive catalog is a confounding mixture of the profane and the poignant: Coarse strip-club anthems, heartfelt love songs, troubling revenge fantasies, scathing social critiques and earnest etiquette lessons for schoolkids, all bound together by a wily, quick wit. His duets with female artists – 2011’s “You and Him Deh,” featuring Sheba, is a great example – unfold like three-minute soap operas, plumbing modern sexual dynamics for pithy soundbites.

Keyboardist, Entreproducer, and founder of numusiczone.com. Craig's main focus is to help Caribbean artists earn the most revenue from their music.