Mention the name Vybz Kartel and you’re certain to get a myriad of reactions. From outright disgust to ‘pure forward’ he remains as always a controversial but undoubtedly talented figure in the Dancehall realm. But what draws people to him? How does a figure who casts off the alleged moral obligations of many popular artists and conducts himself with the behaviour seen commonly in narcissistic sociopaths/psychopaths?
Most persons know the history of Vybz Kartel: he started under the name Adi Banton, a tribute to his idol Buju Banton who ironically he would follow on a path to jail before form the group Vybz Cartel. The group disbanded but he kept the name, changing the C in Cartel to K for stylistic reasons. He then joined the Bounty Killer led Alliance group where he nurtured his talent both as a prolific songwriter and charismatic deejay and rumored to be the next big thing and a major indicator of this was his showdown with noted clash deejay Ninja Man at Sting, an event where Dancehall feuds are lyrically settled. He went toe to toe with the veteran but due to both parties and their entourage getting into a physical confrontation, it was cut short- some alleged that Kartel’s group started the fracas and there is evidence to this as he went on to apologise to Ninja Man, the event organizers and the patrons of the event.- It gained him street cred and notoriety however trouble was brewing as all was not well between Vybz Kartel and the Alliance camp. There were rumors that he was being shortchanged by the management who overpriced his shows and scared potential promoters away and also holding him back. Whether this is true or not is to be determined but he eventually left to form his own group: “The Portmore Empire.” His leaving the Alliance was not without fanfare as it culminated in the lyrical warfare with Bounty Killer’s then protege, Mavado with diss tracks being released weekly. Both named their respective sides: Mavado naming his the Gully side and Vybz Kartel, Gaza. It eventually ended in a no holds bar lyrical showdown at the infamous Sting concert where Vybz solidly defeated his friend turned foe. They would repeat this lyrical warfare once more a few years down the line with Jamaica’s Ministry of Security, police force and even the Prime Minister having to broker a peace treaty between the two warring factions in both instances.
Asking anyone how to listen to Vybz Kartel’s music is a mixed bag however the best answer boils down to separating it into two timelines: Black Kartel and White/Brown Kartel. The Blakka Kartel generally reflects his time with the Alliance and the early years of the Portmore Empire; it is difficult to put a time on this but the early 2000’s to late 2011 would be a good estimate.
In this time, he was essentially a whirlwind of raw, unfocused lyrical talent with an emphasis on raw. His music at that time contained some of the raunchiest, outlandish and most thought-provoking lyrics ever put to a record. Tales of promiscuity, guns, violence and glorious drug use were rampant and the public loved it. His popularity grew with each track and a riddim without Vybz Kartel was certain to be laughed at. Religious leaders preached fire and brimstone on listening to his music, politicians foamed at the mouth in decrying him as the destroyer of morals and parents looked in horror as their children could sing his songs front to back, expletives included. The feuds with Mavado did nothing to slow down his popularity as students aligned themselves with the Gaza with violence being perpetrated against students who aligned themselves with Mavado’s Gully faction. With the formation of the Portmore Empire, Vybz Kartel gave birth to the next generation of Dancehall with notable artists such as Popcaan, Blak Ryno, Tommy Lee, Gaza Bling/Vanessa Slim among others. They would go on to rule the airwaves and the Gaza Boss was hailed as an incubator for talent.
The White/Brown Kartel era is so named as it relates the controversy when the Gaza Boss was spotted sporting new skin colour and was accused of bleaching. It was confirmed and White/Brown Kartel was born, this also marked a change in his lyrical style. The lyrical wordplay and wit were still present however it became more pop-focused with Hip Hop and Rap playing major influences on his style. DanceHall was already the pop variant of Reggae and to say that it was now even more pop-focused is to do it an injustice. Any music historian would tell you that Dancehall was the beginning with DJ Kool Herc creating Hip Hop as a by-product and also playing a major influence on Rap. But Brown Kartel showed a marked difference in Kartel’s style, though difficult to accurately describe, it became…. Experimental. Perhaps that is the best way to describe it, he blurred the lines between musical genres and routinely blended Rap, Hip Hop, Rock and even small instances of RnB where he dropped the hardcore DanceHall persona and adopted a singjay approach to his delivery.
Looking at the entirety of his music, one wonders what draws persons to Vybz Kartel. I can only speak from my observations, first and foremost is that he is relatable to the public. He is verbose but not doesn’t bombard you with it, he is witty but blends it with Jamaican slangs and sayings. He also sings of experiences by painting a vivid and clear picture that makes you feel as if you’re there. Which youth hasn’t been in the situation where he is courting a young lady with nothing but words/lyrics? Or wishing that he was the baddest man on the corner who takes no disrespect? Perhaps Vybz Kartel’s secondary name “the Teacher” is an adequate describer, listening to his music, you were certain to learn a new word, a new gun’s name or more than likely a new way to insult someone. Being up to date on the newest slang and fashion is a key part of the Jamaican culture and Vybz being the trendsetter cannot be exaggerated. His song “Clarks” set off a frenzy of sales that vendors celebrated with glee and while Vybz has never been corporate friendly, they had to pay a attention to his moves. His recent song “Mhmm” skyrocketed the sales of oats, Supligen, peanuts so much that supermarket chains bundled it to be sold in their establishments. But perhaps that is his selling point: the ability to sell whatever he has usually controversy. Listening to his music is a constant barrage of stories that wouldn’t be uncommon in reality tv shows.
Vybz Kartel is an enigma, a formula that shouldn’t work in such a “conservative” society like Jamaica but successfully does so. He is undoubtedly talented, savvy and the DanceHall community has surely felt his impact. Now that he is behind bars, there is a power vacuum for up and coming artistes to fill but few blend his style and controversies enough to have a lasting impression that he has. We can only hope the next generation steps up. Mhmm.