Working in many capacities – DJ, composer, singer, songwriter and record producer — Cham has been a leading force in dancehall, possessing one of the most commanding vocal timbres of the genre. His process in lifting his personal observations straight from the streets and transforming them into music has earned him legions of fans. His 2006 hit single, “Ghetto Story” was instrumental in establishing him as a singular figure among fellow dancehall practitioners. In a time when the genre lacks authenticity and subjects are more shallow and nonsensical than ever, the artist formerly known as Baby Cham is doing what the greatest performers are revered for: he’s exploring social issues in depth and focusing on his political consciousness.
Such depths aren’t common, which makes his latest offering even more exhilarating. Cham’s collaboration with Damien Marley on “Fighter” is fierce and uncompromising, the two churning out a layered track that can be appreciated in the club as well as in the car. Cham has created a deeply delicate record that manifests in embracing chords of frustration and self-awareness so stern that they’re haunting. RESPECT spoke with the Grammy-nominated artist about his foray into music, his ever-evolving fanbase, working with Foxy Brown and Alicia Keys and more.
RESPECT: What kind of music did you listen to growing up in Jamaica?
Cham: Growing up in Jamaica, we listened to all different type of music – reggae, dancehall, ska, rocksteady, soca, calypso, r&b, rap, pop – you name it, Jamaicans love music, and not just one genre.
How do you feel about reggae these days?
I love reggae music. It’s world music and so is dancehall. Yes, we would love for more to be done in promoting the music and for record labels to step forward and invest a lot more. As much as the production, you have a lot of kids out there that are young and are doing their own productions. You can’t even blame them because they don’t even have a Steely & Clevie or Dave Kelly around them to show them the ropes, so you can’t really blame them for their level of production. You have to just hope that they study a little bit more and that they will raise their level of game.
Is music as fulfilling as you thought it would be?
[Laughs] I love music; music is everything that I thought it would be and even more. It gives me an opportunity to travel the whole world and learn about other people’s cultures. It also gives me an opportunity to take care of my family, and at the same time it’s not even a job, you’re really enjoying yourself and doing what you do best while getting paid for it.
You write really well about the underprivileged. Where do you feel that comes from?
It comes from my background. Growing up where we grew up in Jamaica, it was my mom by herself. She had to do two jobs and at the same time throw parties, sell peanuts, grater cakes and whatever she had to sell to make sure we went to a good school. There was no dad around at the time. It was just four of us living together, and you know what that’s like with four kids in a house where all of us had to go to high school. In Jamaica there are no free schools, so that meant all of us had to pay school fees. It was hard, but she is the one who basically stuck it out. The neighborhood which we grew up in wasn’t a soft neighborhood. It was rough and up until now it’s still rough. So just by looking at people’s lives alone and what I grew up seeing around me, is basically what reflects in my music.
Let’s talk about “Fighter” for a minute. First of all, do you ever see yourself as a future politician?
You never know what the future holds. Probably it’s going to take kids like us coming up to become politicians and to right the wrongs that have been done in Jamaica and throughout the world. You never know, but for now, no, I don’t see myself as a politician.
So exactly what message are you fighting to get across with this record?
It’s one of those records that let’s you see a light at the end of the tunnel, if you weren’t seeing a light. It’s one of those records that is relevant right now, because you find that so many people are loosing their jobs and are finding it hard in their day-to-day living. “Fighter” is one of them songs that you will listen and know that it’s not you alone going through this struggle, there a lot of people, so let’s fight.
How was it working with Damien Marley? I’ve never read a bad word about him. How is that possible?
[Laughs] Damian “Jr Gong” Marley is one of them individuals that are just unique in their own way. He’s just a calm soul, very relaxed, very humble. I got a call at like 5 or 6 in the morning from my producer Dave Kelly, who had found the hook for the song and had mentioned that Akon would sound good on the hook. We’ve always had a relationship with Akon from sometime ago, so he wanted to reach out to him, but when I heard it I knew it was “Jr Gong.” So I told him no, I’d rather reach out to “Jr Gong. To his credit when I did, he said, “Let’s get in the studio right now.” We went into the studio in the evening and it was like magic. We were just vibing, it was like a party. It wasn’t like a recording session because it was just so loose and free. He is someone who loves making music. He’s the type of dude that sleeps all day and then goes into the studio at 10 in the night and comes out at 10 the next morning, that’s how he does it.
In the chorus on “Fighter,” there’s a line where he says, “We grind cause the system does not favor the common man.” What does that mean?
The system favors the wealthy. We are basically what they call the minimum wage, the middle class. Yes, some of us make it out because of athletics, music or sports, but at the same time that’s where we’re from. So the system does not favor us. We are not expected to survive and that’s why we are fighters — we will survive [laughs].
Does the world need more Barack Obama’s?
The word needs more Barack Obama’s, more Bob Marley’s, more Jr Gong’s, more Cham’s and more strong positive leaders on a whole.
Back to the music, Damien has a distinctive style which is something everybody tends to talks about: the fact that he can combine singing and rapping. How do you feel he represents the track?
I personally don’t think we could have gotten a better delivery out of that song from another musician. So as far as representing it, he killed the track. Respect to Jr Gong, the track killer.
You have a very strong delivery style and presence on your records. I think it’s a presence that makes you stand out. Where do you draw your lyrical inspiration from?
To me, an artist is like a mirror of society and whatever society reflects we have to reflect it back through music, words, melodies and sounds. I read newspapers and whatever that is going on around me is what I try to get inspiration from.
The range of things you’ve achieved over your career is pretty extensive. What do you currently bring to reggae that isn’t already on the page?
I bring Cham-blend. You don’t have a Baby Cham before Baby Cham. I bring that consistency in terms of music and lyrics, especially the way how I play with words in songs like, “Bumper Kart,” “Vitamin S,” “This Is Why I’m Hot” and “Ghetto Story.” We bring that hardcore vibe to the mainstream world. Those are hardcore records that have become pop records. If you check the track record, you will see that’s what I have done.
Your success in different eras has given you a multi-generational appeal. Are fans maturing with you, or do you feel like you’re getting older while your fans are getting younger?
[Laughs] A couple of months ago this 14-year-old came up to me and said that his favorite song was “Ghetto Story,” and that means he was 7-years-old when the song came out. I think the life span and longevity of my songs has been the best thing for me in keeping up with that fan base. Nowadays, I find that my fans are actually getting younger. The first time I toured Europe, I was performing for real hardcore reggae crowds, but now we’re packing venues with teenagers and that’s a good thing. I hope it keeps on going that way.
Your single “Ghetto Story” from your 2006 album wasn’t a hit initially when it was released, but it certainly made a lot of noise when Alicia Keys appeared on the remix. Who called whom?
As far as it wasn’t a hit, I wouldn’t agree with that. “Ghetto Story” was already big when Alicia Keys reached out to us – that was the reason why she reached out. It was number 15 on the Billboard chart when Alicia called us, and when she went on it, it went into the top 10 and peaked at number three. Basically, she wanted to let the world know her story. A lot of people didn’t know she came from the background that she was singing about in “Ghetto Story.”
The way people digest music now is a lot different than it was 10 years ago. Don’t you think if you were to do a sequel to “Ghetto Story,” it’d have a better shot at going to number one?
Probably it would have a better shot, yes, or probably not. You never know because at the same time you need that record label backing to really push the record. But as much as people are concerned it was the number one record at the time — Billboard voted it 7th in the top 100 songs in that year, Rolling Stone voted it number 5 out of their top 100, and Vibe voted it their 10th top 100 song of 2006.
How did you become Cham from Baby Cham?
Baby Cham is for the ladies, but Cham was basically launched after my second album. During the time when we were working on the album, the idea was that nothing about my music was baby anymore, so we decided to take the “baby” off and use Cham only. In terms of the music and life on a whole, I had grown so much so that there was nothing baby about me anymore. That’s why we decided to go with Cham on that album.
So, it wasn’t you feeling uncomfortable being called “Baby” when in fact you’re an adult?
No. I love being called “Baby,” especially by the females and it’s the female alone who called me baby. I am their baby [laughs].
I know a lot of fans, especially when it comes to success love to embrace artists when they break into the mainstream, which you started doing after collaborating with Rihanna on “Boom Boom”. How did that sudden exposure of attention affect you?
It didn’t really affect me in my personal life because I had always been on the road. Being a dancehall artist is different from being a rap or r&b artist, because they don’t have core fans. They basically go off whatever the mainstream brings to them. However, I’m on the road every week doing shows. The only thing that mainstream does is cut a bigger check and allow your music to go in more households than it would normally be in.
I don’t think any of your collaborations enjoyed the success that you had alongside Foxy Brown on “Tables Will Turn.” How did you two meet?
That is a dancehall-hip hop classic. I met Foxy in 1998. She came to a concert of mine in Connecticut, and said she was a big fan of my music. We called her up on stage, and the crowd went crazy. She had a grand time that night in our VIP section. She enjoyed the show and since then, until now, she’s like a sister of mine.
Is there any jealousy in the Jamaican music industry?
Jealousy is everywhere in the music industry. [Laughs] You name it from Biggie to Tupac, from The Beatles to Michael Jackson; it’s in every genre of music, not just Jamaican music.
Of the current reggae and dancehall heavyweights, there haven’t been many artists similar to you that have formed in your wake. Does that worry you?
No — to each their own. Seven different brothers, seven different minds. You probably don’t have people who structure their career like you, but you shouldn’t let that worry you. In the future, I’m sure there will be kids who will structure their career just how I structured mine and how I did it my way.
What else do you have going on surrounding your release?
We have a female dance track called “Bend Down” featuring O, which is out now and is doing well. I also have my Lawless clothing line, and we are on the grind working non-stop trying to make sure that we keep the fans happy.
If someone wants to make a Cham biopic. Who would you want to play you?
I would like me to play me — who better to play me? [Laughs] We’re still young, still fresh and vibrant, let’s make that movie.
“Fighter” will be released in the UK on February 17.
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