Saturday 19 January 2019

'We both have ridiculous names': The unlikely collaboration between Shaggy and Sting

A unlikely bromance between Jamaican rapper Shaggy and former Police frontman Sting led to a single, then an album and now there's talk of a tour. Shilpa Ganatra meets one of music's most charming odd couples

Odd couple: Shaggy and Sting
Odd couple: Shaggy and Sting

'Everyone was surprised by the collaboration when they first heard about it. People were floored. They're like 'huh?'" says Shaggy, contorting his face for effect. "Because it's a very unlikely coupling on paper. The two of us have such distinctly different kind of voices that you wouldn't think they would blend."

It's not only the voices that made the pairing unexpected, to say the least. Shaggy is a Jamaican reggae superstar whose peak at the turn of the century saw him top charts with a run of suave singles like 'Boombastic', 'It Wasn't Me' and 'Angel', after which he moved to being prolific in his field.

Sting is a veteran pop/rock star, with 40 years of mainstream success both as a solo singer and as the frontman of The Police, whose audience tend to be the opposite of Shaggy's. You'd imagine they occupy different worlds entirely. Yet here we are, Sting, Shaggy and I, in the annals of the Union Chapel in London, discussing their unlikely professional union.

"We have a respect and trust in each other, that we learnt from each other in the studio," says Sting. "Sometimes he would come in with an idea and sometimes I would, and the songs would grow organically because he's a spontaneous person. But that's unusual for me, I'm usually very prepared. In this case, I was out of my comfort a lot of the time. I was forced to be more spontaneous and he was my teacher in that."

The pair first became acquainted last year through Sting's manager Martin Kierszenbaum, who was producing new tracks for Shaggy at The Village studio in Los Angeles.

His initial idea was to have Sting guest on one song, but on hearing it, Sting flew to LA with a view to more collaborations, and thus began their bromance.

The first taster comes in the form of 'Don't Make Me Wait', a summer-lilted tune whose video captures a visit to Jamaica, centring on the two friends and their cast of Kingston locals. An album, 44/876, will follow in April.

"The album is really a tribute to the rapport we have. When we weren't singing in the studio, we were laughing," says Sting. "There's a chemistry there and we have a lot in common. We're both married, we both have kids, we both feel we're citizens of the world…"

"We both have cool names," interjects Shaggy.

"…We both have ridiculous names," continues Sting, not missing a beat.

In person, the two appear relaxed around each other, and constantly talk each other up - Shaggy citing Sting's rake of awards and accolades, Sting referring to Shaggy's charitable work. They gel well; Gordon Sumner, also known as Sting, is more reserved while Orville Burrell, aka Shaggy, has a youthful energy that belies his 49 years. Still, they are at great pains to point out the authenticity of their friendship; when we discuss their appeal to an Irish audience, Sting gives a telling reply. "The Irish are very empathic people and they'll see we have a natural rapport. This isn't fake, we actually do love each other, which is entertaining. People get off on energy, and music is a product of that."

"The Irish want to smile and they want to have fun," adds Shaggy, a frequent visitor as his wife's family are in Dundalk. "They want to be entertained, and we like to entertain. We like to transfer our energy and give it back."

The duo have already taken their project to the stage, with their Grammy and Super Bowl performances being the most high-profile shows. In their recent appearances, they skilfully weave 'Boombastic' into The Police's signature song 'Roxanne', a testament to The Police's reggae roots (see also: 'So Lonely', 'Walking on the Moon', most of their first three albums).

"I have a great love and respect for reggae music as part of my musical DNA, but I hadn't thought to go back there," says Sting. "Except when we met, it seemed to be the common area to explore. But we weren't making a reggae album, we were making a pop record with elements of reggae and soul, or whatever interested us - it was song driven."

That said, the album reflects "the duo's mutual love of Jamaica". The rough cuts I hear follow in the lead single's example in weaving their laidback styles together, often as a back-and-forth. In the album's title track, Sting sings: "I'm trying to free my mind and live my life stress-free/But the politics of this country are getting to me / I have a dream that I'm swimming, in the Caribbean sea/ ... then my good friend Shaggy says..."

"Come spend some time, family," Shaggy ends.

While Shaggy is no stranger to collaborations, having released an album of them, and Sting too is remembered for the best-forgotten 'All For Love' with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart, how easy was it for two established solo artists to share creative control?

"People wonder how two alpha males work together in the studio, but we have nothing to prove now," says Sting, his Northumberland accent coming through. "We're just having fun and I like to have a hit against the odds. So whatever's an unlikely combination, I will go for naturally. My curiosity and risk-taking is all about that."

"We've done all [the fame game]. This was just about enjoying it and seeing where it takes us," says Shaggy. "We like to go against the grain, and it's tradition for us to fuse styles. If you look at my track record, there was nothing on radio that sounded like 'Oh Carolina', 'Mr Bombastic' when they came out. And he (Sting) never stays in one genre. When he's wanted to, he'll do something with a middle-eastern artist or in jazz. People say he's a rock star, but he doesn't want to be in a box.

"We will all be in a box one day," says Sting. "So while we're out of the box…"

As we come to the end of our chat, with promises that a tour is "almost certain" (Sting) but an extended collaboration "depends on how we're feeling then" (Shaggy), we stand for the obligatory photo.

With a very tall singer either side of me, they poke each others' back like mischievous schoolboys. That's their dynamic, it seems, and they're sticking with it.

44/876 is released on April 20

More odd couples of music world

Hozier & Annie Lennox

When Hozier began performing ‘Take Me to Church’ at the Grammys in 2015, who’d have imagined that doyenne of pop Annie Lennox would join him. “I wasn’t quite seeing it, initially,” she said of the collaboration at the time, but later the ‘Sweet Dreams’ singer declared him “such a grounded guy — he’s quite wise for his years”.

Kanye West & Bon Iver

Arguably Kanye’s most creative album, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ featured guests in a range of genres, from Nicki Minaj to John Legend. On paper, atmospheric folk act Bon Iver was the one that raised eyebrows. But after hearing the results — ‘Lost in the World’ and ‘Monster’ — their seamless blend of styles showed what could be achieved when collaborations go right.

Natasha & Daniel Bedingfield

Siblings Natasha and Daniel Bedingfield found success independently. So when they combined forces for the 2005 BRITs, we hoped it would be for something more appropriate than the Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’. The image of them singing about how each other “makes me feel this way” is burned into the back of our eyelids.

Tom Jones & The Cardigans

For his 1999 album Reload, Tom Jones tapped the talents of contemporary artists. Some, like the Stereophonics and Heather Small, were natural co-singers, but we weren’t expecting a union between music’s elder statesman and uber-cool Swedish act The Cardigans. Their cover of Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down the House’ turned out to be a killer tune, and is still worthy of a bop on the dancefloor today.

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