For an international superstar, Sean Paul is unbelievably humble. There are artists with inflated egos in the music industry, some who are far less accomplished than the Grammy Award-winning dancehall star. So if anyone has the right to act out in don-like fashion, it’s this multi-platinum-selling performer. However, Sean doesn’t. He carries himself almost as if he’s still the newcomer who climbed the charts a decade ago.
On Sept. 13, just a week before the release of his fifth studio album, Tomahawk Technique, The BoomBox finds Sean at the Mondrian hotel, tucked behind a row of green arches on Crosby St., in the SoHo area of Manhattan. It’s 12:45PM, and Sean has descended to the lobby area of the dimly lit establishment. Wearing black Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses — which he wore the entire day — his eyes are hidden. This could make the man mysterious rather than approachable. But his smirk and light laughter early on suggest otherwise. He’s open from the very beginning.
“I don’t really have a routine,” he says, walking out the back door of the hotel to hop in a van taking him to his taping of BET’s “106 & Park.” “I get up this morning. I eat something. Light breakfast. Fruits, some chips, coffee. But no routine.”
He remains easy-going about his life, which could explain why many Americans haven’t heard from him in a while — three years to be exact — since releasing his 2009 LP,Imperial Blaze. However, he isn’t pressured by the fast pace of the music industry, where artists seem to drop new tracks or free mixtapes often.
“When you don’t hear an album from me right now, I’m still doing tours,: Sean shares. “I have done 100 countries all over the earth. So my thing is not so cookie cutter as people put together music nowadays. I do take time.”
Attention is brought to his necklace, which bears a small wooden ax emblem. Much different than the flashier gold chains worn by his wealthy hip-hop counterparts, this one has some meaning. “It’s kind of like you use it to dig the ground and cut down trees,” Sean discloses. “So you use it to replenish where you have to, or chop off where you have to. Ax [is the] Tomahawk Technique. It represents that.”
For Sean, the idea of “replenishing” his presence in the U.S., has been filling his mind lately. Before its release stateside, his Tomahawk Technique album was already well-received in Europe, where it charted in the top five in Switzerland and France. But it’s taking more time to catch on in America. During his 2002 Dutty Rock days, he spawned his most successful songs in the states, including “Get Busy” which hit No. 1 on theBillboard charts in 2003. With his latest projectm he desires to bring back similar energy.
“I guess that’s why these days I’m kind of searching,” Sean states. “People still like the music but I need to find some new energy to inject and this is why I did work with new producers to kind of go in that respect.”
Walking towards the “106 & Park” set, his fluent aura denies any questions of nervousnous. “Not really, I’m used to it,” he shrugs off. Before his segment, the small crowd of teenagers dance near their seats as popular dancehall tunes from Serani to RDX fill the air. One audience member waves a Batian flag and others wear sunglasses decorated with the Tomahawk Technique album art inscribed on each lens.
“I love you Sean Paul,” a female fan yells as he enters the stage. Sans hosts Terrence and Rocsi, two fresh-faced newbies ask Sean about working with American producers on the album. This includes songwriter Rico Love, who has five songs on the project including “Hold On,” a motivational track inspired by the Jamaican track and field team — they won 12 medals in the Olympics this year.
“He’s a very talented dude,” Sean says of Rico Love. “What I found on making this album is that some of the times I guess producers were treading their steps carefully. They wanted to make sure that they got it proper.”
After the taping, he has to endure another round of interviews, but lunch comes first. At 3:30PM he arrives at Susan Blond, Inc., his publicity home, which is just a few avenues over on 57th St. Susan Blond herself greets Sean as he exits the elevator on the 14th floor. “You always have energy, even when you don’t have energy,” she says picking up his still vibes. Sean and his crew take a break in her office, eating takeout from Joe’s Shanghai restaurant.
Shortly after his meal, he heads to a more secluded room across the office to chat with Billboard.biz’s Caribbean correspondent Patricia Meschino. Sean explains his desire to tour in America more.
“I think I haven’t toured in the states since 2006, with Mariah Carey,” he admits. “I’ve been touring Europe every summer [and] it’s always an anxious feeling like, I would like to take a tour in the states, so it feels good to be here again.”
Since his early days in the U.S., performing smashes like “Gimme the Light,” “Baby Boy” and “I’m Still in Love With You,” something that has changed about Sean is his hair. Like many other stars who once sported cornrows in their hair, he decided it was time for something new. Sean opted to shave one side of his head and then the other, leaving a “tree” — or mohawk — on top. His family approved of the edgy ‘do so he kept it.
“I sent pictures to my brother and he thought that I shaved it all off, so I said I was going to surprise them,” Sean explains. “I went over there with a cap on and they were like, ‘Oh, so you shaved off your hair?’ I was like, ‘Tada! I didn’t!’
“And I still had this tree growing out the top of my head and actually they were like, ‘Hey, maybe you should actually shape it up. It actually looks good.” And it kind of stuck.”
While the man born Sean A Paul Ryan Francis Henriques is rather open when talking about his family’s acceptance of his new hairstyle, he’s guarded in other aspects of his personal life. Yet, he does mention family is the cornerstone of his humble nature even after much success.
“In this type of business, it’s easy to not notice how inhuman you can get [by] using your manners, using your personal skills to talk to people — thinking you’re above people,” he says. “So my family helps to keep me grounded.”
Sean is the picture of calmness while completing a set of Canadian phone interviews, which last about an hour. But signs of stress appear during the last one as he fidgets with his PS3 game console. “It keeps me occupied,” he laughs. “These guys laugh at me because they’re like, ‘You answering that question again?’ You start fading out after awhile.”
It’s now 5PM, and the “Got 2 Luv U” creator leaves the offices of Susan Blond, Inc., in the heat of New York City’s rush hour. Sean heads downtown to Miss Lily’s on Houston St., one of his favorite Jamaican restaurants in New York City.
Before dinner, he appears next door at Miss Lily’s Variety shop, which is home to RadioLily.com. Standing inside is Max Glazer, a prominent dancehall and reggae DJ who hosts a live radio show for RadioLily.com. The shop is decorated with the best of Bob Marley, Beres Hammond in addition to CDs, vinyl and concert bills lining the walls.
Walking towards the back of the space, and a few giant steps up, one can grab what Sean calls “yard food” to-go as well as some fresh juices. Sean has many Jamaican culinary favorites including stew chicken and fish with okra. He reveals he picked up some cooking skills while attending a school for hotel management in Jamaica — all this before he became famous.
“What I can always do which is pretty easy for me, is chicken cordon bleu,” Sean states before laughing. “Some nice soup, nah mean, pumpkin soup. I can debone a chicken in 11 minutes.”
He sits on a stool facing a window while sipping on Jamaica green juice next to Steve Urchin, his manager, who is also indulging in one too. Urchin has known Sean since the two were kids growing up in Jamaica; he came on as his manager when “Gimme the Light” became popular in 2002.
“I think he’s at a point of gratitude for a long career; for fans that remember him from then and still like him now, and I think that he realizes that it’s rare to have a 10-year career span,” Urchin shares.
Around 6PM, Sean walks to the front of the shop and chops it with Glazer for his radio show. The DJ plays a series of riddims while Sean freestyles and sings hooks to his most popular songs “Like Glue,” “Temperature” and “Get Busy.” “Big ups to Max Glazer!” Sean yells. Glazer reflects on how dancehall is received in America and abroad, compared to over a decade ago when he met Sean.
“I think sometimes people say, ‘It’s not dancehall enough,’ or sometimes, ‘It’s too dancehall,'” Glazer says. “I just came back from Asia, and it’s just interesting to see how some of the songs that aren’t really played over here, is like running the place over there.”
For these past 30 minutes, Sean is running the corner of Sullivan and W. Houston St. People passing by stop and snap photos of the reggae icon and sway along to the sound of his voice. A male cook in Miss Lily’s kitchen comes over to dap up Sean. After all, it’s not every day that a man of Sean Paul’s stature, straight from Jamaica, stops by.
At one point, four little girls — none of whom were born when Sean was at his peak — stand by the door turning red, their hands covering their mouths at the sight of him. He invites them inside Miss Lily’s, gives them each a mic and asks them to say their names. “I know all your songs,” one young girl says bashfully.
In this moment, it’s clear Sean Paul hasn’t been forgotten by his American fans. If anything, they’ve been missing him.