It’s summer 2012 and Popcaan is sat at the Tuff Gong recording studio in Kingston, Jamaica, smoking a spliff rolled with his favoured hot grabba tobacco. The scenario isn’t out of place for the young dancehall artist, until, when he passes it along, he turns to global hip-hop star Snoop Dogg, who’s at the studio recording the pair’s Lighters Up collaboration from his 2013 reggae album Reincarnation.
The moment marks the beginning of a huge global resurgence in a genre long-forgotten by the mainstream after the demise of stars like Sean Paul and Shaggy. Just a few years earlier, it would have been near unthinkable for the Jamaican, who spent his early years growing up in the countryside by the river in Hayfield, a tiny rural village in the Saint Thomas parish of Jamaica.
Popcaan, born Andrea Jay Sutherland, has since gone on to work with Pusha T and Travis Scott on Blocka, be sampled by Kanye West on Guilt Trip from 2013’s Yeezus, and feature on Jamie xx’s global hit Good Times alongside Young Thug. He’s also formed a long-term working relationship with Drake, first featuring on the intro to Know Yourself from last year’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, before a sample of his vocals starred in a leaked version of Controlla in the lead-up to the release of this year’s Views. When the album dropped though, he no longer appeared, with his part replaced by the inimitable Beanie Man.
“That whole incident was where I saw that a lot of people support my music worldwide,” Sutherland explains as he sits in the Red Bull Studios in London Bridge, talking about the outcry online about his missing vocal. It’s two days before he goes on stage at Red Bull’s Culture Clash at the O2 Arena, against the home-grown talent of Wiley’s Eskimo Dance and the UKG All Stars, as well as Wiz Khalifa and his Taylor Gang. Sutherland lines up with Brooklyn’s Mixpak Records crew, who have become one of dancehall’s biggest players since forming in 2009. Short in stance but huge in character, the self-styled Unruly Boss – within the loose collection of producers and deejays (the Jamaican word for an MC) dubbed the Unruly Gang – fills the room with his inimitable tone and wild sense of humour. He’s flanked by Dre Skull, one of Mixpak Records’ key producers who has rapidly become one of the genre’s brightest stars, and Shocking Vibes Records founder Jamie Roberts.
It’s undoubtable, as Sutherland prepares to take to one of the world’s largest stages, that he has played a big part in putting dancehall back on the world scene. But opinions on the state of the genre differ, and some older artists are unhappy about where the younger generation are taking it. “A lot of them are saying people aren’t making dancehall music again,” Sutherland explains. “But that’s bullshit. As time goes by, things change, generations change, and artists change with it to survive. If you see some youth put out a song and going international with it, you’ve got to appreciate them, as it puts a better view on the music. A man just doing it to take care of his family. I want the older artists support the younger generations. I see Jay Z doing it with rappers, and we need that unity in the dancehall community.”
And this is something Sutherland has become outspoken about. After he was dropped from Drake’s Controlla, 90s dancehall star Mr. Vegas posted a video on Facebook, claiming to take a stand for dancehall. In it he labelled Drake “the fake”, bemoaned his exploitation of the “hot genre”, and accused the Canadian and his OVO label of disrespecting Jamaican artists by failing to credit the likes of Beanie Man and Sutherland, where his sample did appear elsewhere on the record. But the defence wasn’t something the Unruly boss took kindly. He responded through a video address of his own on YouTube, directed at Mr. Vegas. “Don’t try to violate my brother,” he said. “You don’t know anything about Unruly or OVO. You don’t need to defend Popcaan. OVO Unruly, we don’t need your help.” In it he also solidified the connection between the pair, describing their bond as being “like family”.
And Sutherland is still adamant that young dancehall artists don’t need defending by the scene’s old guard. “When Vegas said that, he wasn’t defending dancehall, he was trying to make headlines,” he explains in his high-pitched Jamaican tone. “He’s been missing for a while. He’s not on the scene, he don’t have no songs, no controversy, no nothing. Vegas is just calling other artists names to make it look like he’s defending dancehall, when dancehall don’t need no defending. There’s nobody on Drake’s album bashing him. So why should Mr. Vegas take up that title? It don’t make sense.”
Sutherland is no stranger to controversy either. He was reportedly arrested in the same month as taking on Mr. Vegas, after getting involved in an onstage altercation with a police officer he felt was over-zealously dealing with a stage invader at his show in Antigua. And supporting the youth around him is something he’s taken seriously for some time. In 2014, while at Jamie Roberts’ Shocking Vibes studio in Kingston, a group of youths approached Sutherland and asked him sign them to Unruly Entertainment. He put them into a street battle over a rhythm CD on a car stereo, and as soon as they started to deejay, the yard was full of spectators, giving birth to the Unruly Clashes. “I put it on the next level,” he explains. “Clashing is something I’ve loved since I was very young, and we can do Unruly as a serious thing to help the youths.”
He lists his clash heroes as Ninjaman, Super Cat, Bounty Killer, Beanie Man, Merciless and, someone that had a huge impact on his career, Vybz Kartel. Sutherland’s story kick-started in 2007 when he approached the dancehall legend at a My Scheme jam, with Kartel quickly signing him up to his Portmore Empire group. Over the next few years he would begin a non-stop run of singles, including tracks that began to garner him attention, including Gangsta City and Hot Grabba. But it was his 2010 Kartel collaboration, Clarks, that took him to a widespread audience.
His Chromatic presents Yiy Change mixtape followed two years later, with the subsequent tour seeing him perform across Europe, the Caribbean, South America and Canada, where he would first link up with Drake. But it was signing to Mixpak Records for his 2014 debut full-length Where We Come From that truly established him as a voice of Jamaica’s youth. The album took him outside the confines of the dancehall scene, using emotive music that wove pop sensibilities, hip-hop, trap and myriad other sounds through his trademark party tracks, including Everything Nice, Love Yuh Bad and Waiting So Long.
Shortly before it dropped, Kartel was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, and the success of Where We Come From inadvertently established Sutherland as the international flagbearer for dancehall. “It’s always a pressure,” he explains. “I’ve got a very big task. I’m Vibez’ young musical son. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to make my voice be heard. But it take a lotta dedication to be where I’m at. You have to keep it on that level. But I’ve done that over and over and we’re going to keep doing it.” The mantle of representing Jamaica’s youth is something he seems to have taken to with natural ability. “I’m their motivation, just like other people used to be mine,” Sutherland explains. “But I just be myself. Most artists nowadays are trying to be somebody else, but I just share my life story.”
“As time goes by, things change, generations change, and artists change with it to survive”
And as Sutherland continues to push the sound, the world is taking note. Rihanna’s Work featuring Drake starred two of the biggest artists in the world tackling it through their own pop sensibilities. “That’s major,” he explains. “Them dancing dancehall is a big star endorsing the product. And every time we break down another barrier, we convert more people. But it works the other way. I’m always going to appeal to different audiences because I don’t do everyday dancehall. I’m talking about things that other acts aren’t.” On Where We Come From, Sutherland was still firmly in the race for deejay dominance but he switched up the subject matter and turned to unity and freedom, crafting his own lane. “Some people that listen to me don’t listen to dancehall or know no dancehall artists. It’s nothing I try for, it’s just a natural thing. But it means you can look to Popcaan to take the music to the next level internationally.”
Two days later, Sutherland proves this point at Red Bull’s Culture Clash, where he emerges victorious with Mixpak against two crews with huge home support, despite never performing in the UK before. And that lack of opportunity in the country, and more so the US, is something many dancehall artists bemoan as they struggle to secure visas due to previous criminal records. But an upcoming change in Jamaican legislation, which will wipe minor offences, means Sutherland and others may finally be free to embark on a US tour, something he feels will be huge for the next step of his career. “They’re the two key places for dancehall artists to get international recognition,” he concludes. “I stayed in Jamaica and people still made me an international superstar, but getting a visa to do the groundwork and promotion to get established there means it will only get better.”