Sean Paul needs no introduction, but here we go anyway. Since the early 2000s, the dancehall icon has been, uh, busy, driving the genre far beyond the borders of its native Jamaica. And he’s not done yet. Last month, Paul released the Tove Lo collaboration “Calling On Me,” which precedes a forthcoming full-length album, his first since 2014, due later this year. He’ll spend the summer touring (likely with his two kids, 3-year-old Levi and 6-month-old Remi, in tow), and also wants to plan how he’ll celebrate the impending 20th anniversary of his hit album Dutty Rock. “What can I say?” he said about the project that propelled him into global superstardom. “Five singles that really worked, and then six million records sold the first year. A good vibe.”
Ahead of all that, Paul caught up with MTV News on a sunny L.A. afternoon to talk about new music, Rihanna, TikTok’s “Get Busy” challenge, and the surprising meaning behind “Temperature.” Even more vitally, the pioneering artist discussed the barriers he’s faced with his music and the importance of giving dancehall — “a son to reggae music and a brother to hip-hop” — its due credit.
MTV News: “Calling On Me” strikes that great mix of being emotional and danceable at the same time. What were you thinking about when you made it?
Sean Paul: I was trying to think out of the box of what I usually do, which is a lot of dance music and a lot of party stuff. The girl who wrote it, her name is Nija. I worked with her on some of the words and when we went, “I’ll be on time, like you expect me to,” I was like, this sound is a little bit more deep for me and the lyrics just started to flow. I recently lost my pops. My family is always there for me so I can continue doing what I’m doing. My wife, my mom, my brother, and their families. This song came together about them and about what had happened to my pops. I spent four months in the hospital with him.
But also, I think the lyrics are universal; they speak to whoever you love, whoever you care for. I specifically think about my dad. Then the second verse is about universal love. When I’m saying things like, “If you don’t ever have a thought for your brothers and sisters, you have no heart,” that’s more like community unity.
MTV News: Speaking of family, your son’s cameo in the “Big Tings” video was the cutest thing. Do you think he’s a budding superstar? Will you pass the torch to him?
Paul: Thank you! He’s seen two shows, and he keeps taking pens and anything like a phone or a remote and singing into it. We have a little karaoke mic with a speaker and he loves to play with it. Thanks for liking that skit, because it was something I wrote. I wanted to give people a real-ish vibe of what happens in my home. I come home from the studio late a lot, and he wakes me up when he is going to school, saying, “Daddy, wake up!” So, no sleep and hectic flights.
MTV News: I know you’ve seen the “Get Busy” challenge blowing up on TikTok. What’s it like seeing people all over the world make up dances to one of your old songs? I even saw Jessica Alba do it.
Paul: It is weird, especially because people are asking me, “Who did this remix?” I have no idea! I’m probably going to have to start doing it on stage now. I guess at my age, I’m not going to join every social media that’s popular. At first, I was like “nah” with Twitter, and then I got on it. Then with Instagram, I’m addicted already. But TikTok, it’s fun. I just didn’t expect one of my songs to take off on it. It’s funny to see people doing that. And I’d like to know who did the remix.
MTV News: I was revisiting an interview that you did with MTV in 2005 where you were talking about the roadblocks you face with your music. You said, “A lot of people put barriers in my music in that they can’t understand what I’m saying. I like music when it makes you feel. I appreciate music even though I don’t understand what they are saying.” Today, one of the biggest genres in the world is K-pop, and it’s managed to break through in the U.S. Same with Latin artists like J Balvin, whom you’ve worked with. For you and your own music, do you still feel that there are significant barriers?
Paul: I still get a little bit of it. In dancehall we use heavy Patois and it’s hard to understand sometimes, even for me. Some of the new cats coming out, I have to listen twice and be like, “Oh, I get what he’s saying now.” It’s just like hip-hop to me — when people come out and they’re spitting hard, you have to listen twice. It can either make you a superfan, or someone who is like, “I don’t wish to dig that deep to find out what this dude is saying.” They just like how it sounds.
But I do think it’s a barrier still. For us in Jamaica, we know reggaeton is huge, but there’s few songs that really break through and that’s because of the language barrier. There’s few reggaeton songs that will be played on the radio. I definitely feel that it’s more open, but I still feel barriers and I get comments on my YouTube all the time about my accent. What’s cool now is that there is an app that translates Patois for you. Hopefully it’s done properly, but that can help to make people understand more of where I’m coming from.
MTV News: And like you said in 2005, a lot of it has to do with how music makes people feel, and not necessarily the lyricism, if that’s not what they latch onto.
Paul: Right. Because I didn’t know any words in “Macarena.” When he was going, “[singing gibberish] Macarena,” I’m like, “What is he saying?” But shit just sounds fun! You get emotional happiness from that.
MTV News: Around the Tomahawk Technique release in 2012, you talked about how, with that album, you were trying to “hold the roots of dancehall while moving into the future.” Are you still trying to achieve that balance now?
Paul: With what I’m doing like releasing songs with Tove, it’s kind of pushing the boundaries. I’m using chords we don’t usually use and singing about things that we’re not always concentrating on in the genre. I do want to keep that history all the time, because it’s what put me here. But pushing the boundaries is important because I don’t like when an artist is just trying to be exactly like his mentor. I think that’s even why dancehall became dancehall, because people like Bob Marley were so huge and none of us could be like him. What he did and how prolific his songwriting was… it was like, you can’t be that and you can’t beat that! So we did our own thing, and it became dancehall. It spawned something new.
MTV News: And now dancehall has been crossing over in a huge way. What is it like to see contemporary pop artists like Drake and Justin Bieber use it in their own music?
Paul: You know what, when I was a kid I used to be always like, “Yo, I wish foreign acts would know this bounce because it’s crazy.” And then now that I’ve seen it, I love it. I just wish that we would be named. I mean, I’ve never wanted to be in the box. But at this point, I’m seeing where it’s beneficial that we be called a genre. We are included in what reggae is, because even when I won a Grammy, it was for reggae. When Koffee just won [Best Reggae Album at the 2020 Grammys], it was for reggae, but her single that’s been blowing up in the world [“Toast”], it’s dancehall.
MTV News: But people don’t identify it as “dancehall?”
Paul: Exactly. So, that makes me feel like whatever I did and whatever all these greats did that I tried to emulate, it’s obsolete to people. And it can’t be. We’re never given the accolades, and people can actually do the same type of music and call it something else. Today, I saw [an Instagram post] from a girl that’s a dancehall song but it’s called K-pop because she’s rapping in Korean. Now that person’s going to be called innovative and it’s not going to be said, “This is a dancehall-oriented single.” Bieber didn’t do it. Drake didn’t do it. The only person I’m respecting — and I haven’t heard it, I’m dying to hear it — is Rihanna.
MTV News: Yeah, she’s said that she has a whole dancehall album coming.
Paul: Exactly. And to say “dancehall” means you know that what you’re doing is coming from something else. And that’s all I’m really saying. When people hear me criticize, they’re putting me in a box of, “He’s saying cultural appropriation,” but it’s not really about that. It’s about them giving homage. That’s what’s happening in Trinidad and Tobago right now. There’s a kid called Prince Swanny and a whole movement that he has. He’s talking like Patois, and the beat is exactly dancehall, but they’re calling it “Zess.” If we haven’t come to claim this and say, “This is what is dancehall music,” it leaves space for things like that to happen. I’m not saying he did it on purpose; arguably, they don’t hear it as that.
MTV News: You talked about Rihanna earlier, who is someone you once worked with. What are your top three collaborations of all time?
Paul: Rihanna, because she came to Jamaica and she showed us mad love. Most people, they’ll send me [music] over the internet or I’ve had to go to where they are to work. But Rihanna came to Kingston, where we do it. She went to the clubs where we do it. She went to the beach. She went to Bob Marley Museum. She ate the food that we eat. So Rihanna is one. Busta Rhymes is another. I just remember the flavor when he came into hip-hop. I was like, “Yo, I think he needs more respect,” and I still do to this day. And the next collab, I would say Beyoncé. [“Baby Boy”] was my first number one. Nine weeks on the top, and that was my first taste of that type of life, in terms of being the number one artist and how that feels.
MTV News: Last question: How do you feel about the theory that “Temperature” predicted climate change?
Paul: [Laughs] Wow, that was funny. I didn’t know “Temperature” did that.
MTV News: Do you think it did? Were you trying to warn us back in the day?
Paul: You know what? I’ve been watching that for a long time. And there are effects in Jamaica that I can clearly see. But no, I didn’t intentionally call it “Temperature” for that reason. It was actually called “Temperature” because I wanted… when you say, “The time is cold” in Jamaica, sometimes it means “It’s violent.”
MTV News: Oh, wow. So a totally different meaning.
Paul: Yeah. It did have a different meaning. In the video, we portrayed four seasons and whatnot. But it was 2005, and it was a year that really turned up in the amount of violent deaths that were occurring. I lost a friend who actually started the Dutty Cup Crew, the group that I was in, to violence. I wanted to make a party song for people to feel faith about. So I put those lines in there, “Time’s cold, I want to keep you warm. Let’s party. Let’s forget about that.” There’s things like that, that people don’t get from the music. And it’s not that deep, but it’s just not what they thought.