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Shaggy on Revisiting ‘Hot Shot’ and Singing With the Little Mermaid

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of his landmark album, the reggae star is releasing ‘Hot Shot 2020’ this week

Shaggy is celebrating the 20th anniversary of hit album 'Hot Shot' with re-recordings of many of the songs under the banner 'Hot Shot 2020.'

Jonathan Mannion*

When Shaggy released Hot Shot in the summer of 2000, many in the music industry were ready to write him off. It had been five long years since the Jamaican-born reggae artist landed high on the American charts with “Boombastic” and his follow-up LP, 1997’s Midnight Star, was such a colossal flop that Virgin dropped him from the label, presuming that his hitmaking days were in the past.

Shaggy and his new label had high hopes for Hot Shot, but even they didn’t expect to see the first two singles, “It Wasn’t Me” and “Angel,” hit Number One on the Hot 100 and help the album go platinum six times over. It was a monumental success that forever detached the dreaded one-hit-wonder label from his name and gave him a career that’s going strong to this day.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hot Shot, Shaggy recently went into the studio and re-recorded many of the album’s songs, along with some old favorites and a few new tracks, for an album he’s calling Hot Shot 2020. It includes a cover of Eddy Grant’s classic “Electric Avenue” and guest spots from his close friend and frequent collaborator Sting on “Angel” and “Primavera.”

Hot Shot 2020 is out this week and Shaggy phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about its creation, the difficult years that preceded the original LP, his recent performance of “Under the Sea” as part of the live broadcast of The Little Mermaid on ABC, his friendship with Sting, and why people have been missing the true message of “It Wasn’t Me” for all these years.

Where are you quarantining?
Kingston, Jamaica. I’m at home.

How is that going?
Not bad at all. I am very privileged. They have actually done all the right things here. Right before it really took off, they started to isolate and quarantine people and they shut the country down. They created curfews and issued masks out and shut the airport down. I was stranded in New York for eight weeks before I could come home. I’ve been home a little over two weeks.

It sounds like they’re doing better in Jamaica than in the States.
Everyone is doing better than the States, let’s face it. [Laughs]

You were touring England in early March when this first started breaking. What was that like?
I had just finished a tour and got to New York a day before they closed the border in the U.K. I was lucky to get out. It was a great tour. It was me and Nelly and a bunch of us.

That might be your last time on stage for God knows how long.
For a while. I don’t see any of us coming back until 2021 and probably late 2021. We had a chance to make this a little better and maybe come back at the start of 2021, but with what’s going on in America now, this is going to linger. This will linger.

I want to go back and talk about your career here before the creation of Hot Shot. Your previous album, Midnite Lover, wasn’t a big success and Virgin dropped you. Were you facing a lot of naysayers at that point?
I never looked at it like that, though I certainly had my battles. But you gotta understand that I was criticized from the second I started doing music. “Oh Carolina” was the first dancehall record to reach Number One on the British charts. It was a hybrid type of a record. It wasn’t cookie-cutter dancehall or cookie-cutter reggae. I had a song called “Big Up” that was a massive dancehall record in London and New York. It did really well for me, but I didn’t want to continue down that path, so I started doing these hybrid records.

I was taking myself outside of the box. With that comes a lot of criticism and naysayers. A lot of them were dancehall and reggae purists. I was an artist on a major label, but I knew I’d never be a priority. In 1993, “Oh Carolina” was on an independent called Greensleeves out of the U.K. I had an offer from Ken Berry, the head of Virgin at the time, and he gave me a million dollars. There was a bidding war between him and Chris Blackwell. I wanted to be on Island Records so bad because every reggae great is on Island. But Chris Blackwell couldn’t pay anywhere near a million dollars and I was not going to be that dummy taking less than my value.

Everyone thought that Ken Berry wouldn’t make his money back. The very next record I gave them was “Boombastic.” That debuted at Number One. It wasn’t because they were trying to market me like that. If you were the head of any of these companies, you would not be putting your job on the line by putting millions of dollars behind an artist where there’s no track record of it working. There were no reggae stations to support it. There were pop stations and rock stations, R&B stations and hip-hop stations, but no reggae stations. How do you put money behind a guy in a genre that doesn’t really exist in the mainstream?

Where did that leave you?
I knew that I had to do a record 10 times better than the average person and perform 10 times better than the average person and work 10 times harder than the average person. I knew it wasn’t a level playing field.

Were they writing me off? Absolutely. They dropped me after Midnite Lover. They dropped me and Maxi Priest at the same time and they signed Beenie Man. At that point, I had sold two platinum albums and had many hits. Beenie Man hadn’t done nearly as well. That hurt.

As the songs started coming together for Hot Shot, all these future hits, did you still hear from people that they couldn’t get radio play or be popular?
Yeah. That was such a low point for me. But I was thrown a lifeline when they called me to do a song [“Luv Me, Luv Me”] for How Stella Got Her Groove Back. They told me Janet Jackson was going to be on it, and I was ecstatic. I was like, “Jesus Christ, I’m a little reggae guy on a record with Janet Jackson!” And obviously she wouldn’t be in the video and didn’t want to go out there and promote the record. That was a blow, but I went out and promoted it myself. I hit every single radio station across the U.S. and we got it to the top of the charts, which sparked another bidding war. That’s how I ended up on Universal.

Let’s talk about “It Wasn’t Me.” What was the original spark of the idea for that song?
I was watching Eddie Murphy Raw. He had this skit where he was caught and he keeps going, “It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!” I just thought it was great. It was a great conflict and so relatable to everyone’s lives. In writing songs to this day, I aways write with a subject matter that is relatable to an average person. “It Wasn’t Me” is either you’re banging or someone’s banging or you wish you were banging. It’s a part of everyday life. And it just made sense.

I think people read it that you were saying it was OK to cheat on your partner, but you definitely weren’t if you listen to the whole thing.
Yeah. The thing became such a damn club banger that nobody got to the end of the record. The bridge section explains: “Tell her that I’m sorry for the pain that I’ve caused/You may think that you’re a player/But you’re completely lost.” Nobody got to that part of the song, bro. By the time they got to that part, they were going into the next song or they started the record over. Nobody really paid attention to that part and it just sounded like a cheating song. It was so funny that the very next record I released was “Angel.” And songs like “Strength of Woman” [from 2002’s Lucky Day] were so pro-women. It’s been a weird journey.

What inspired “Angel?”
My producer at the time, Sting International, sampled “The Joker” by Steve Miller. When I heard how they did it, I was like, “Man, the beat of this is reggae.” My producer and friend Dave Kelly said to me, “We should do something with this like Lauryn Hill with ‘Killing Me Softly.’” We started out trying to create a record like that.

We wrote the verses first and came up with the concept of a woman that sticks by you through thick and thin, and you really should have treated her better. It was stuff that everyone can relate to. We’ve seen this happen to our mothers and aunts and we talked about that.

This was the peak of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, but this was so different than what was mainstream at the time.
I’m glad you noticed that. I always say it was Britney Spears and ‘NSync mode at that time. Then we came with this song that was so left-field. Now, the drawback to doing records that aren’t cookie cutters or go against the grain is that it puts you at a disadvantage with the people that you have to convince, like record companies and promo people. They’re like, “I don’t see where the fuck this fits in.” So you may have a record company not putting huge marketing dollars behind you. They say it doesn’t sound like anything on the radio. But these songs just took on a life of their own. Once the DJ played it, it was off and running. That really helped us.

This is right before Napster hit and the industry changed forever. Nobody knew it, but this was the peak of the entire history of the record business. Looking back now, it must feel like a very different era.
Absolutely. We caught it at the tail end. We sold huge numbers on that record and it really changed my life. Now we’re entering a whole new world, a new norm. It was ringtones and downloads and now streaming. It’s been quite a journey. Now you have TikTok and Shazam and Pandora and Spotify. It’s crazy. It makes music more accessible to people, but they have shorter attention spans.

Why did you decide to redo Hot Shot 20 years later?
A lot of these records, “Angel,” “It Wasn’t Me,” “Boombastic,” are recurrent on radio. They are still played a lot and recurrent amongst a new audience. I wanted to appeal to this new audience and let them buy into these really infectious records.

Also, Universal asked me if I wanted to do a 20th-anniversary album. They wanted more of a remaster. I was like, “I don’t know if I feel like doing that. How about a re-record?” And my manager was like, “If you re-record it after five years, you can actually own these masters.” And so I made a deal with Universal to do that.

I did the first five songs, which was “Angel,” “It Wan’t Me,” “Luv Me, Luv Me,” “Keep’n It Real,” and “Hot Shot.” When I did that, the feel of them was so amazing. I liked what I was doing with them. It was new recordings, new vocals, new production that I got to a point where I was like, “I like where this is going. Why don’t I do some of my older stuff?”

And so I added some of my older stuff that was not Hot Shot like “Boombastic,” “Oh Carolina,” and “Strength of a Woman” with this new feel. My manager was like, “They aren’t going to take it because it’s not the full album of Hot Shot anymore.” Then I said, “OK, I’m going to put four new songs on it.” So I did “Primavera” with Sting and other songs. I also did “Banana” in August, which was jumping up at the time. I thought, “Why don’t I make Hot Shot 2020 a celebration of the journey of Shaggy?” That’s how it came together and Universal made me a deal on that. Meanwhile, “Banana” turned into this massive thing. Everything was just timing.

How did you approach redoing a famous song like “It Wasn’t Me?”
I didn’t want to stray too far from the authenticity of the record. I really kept it the same. The only thing I changed was the drums. The reason I did that is because the original really had a hip-hop beat that I just did dancehall cadences over because, at that time, radio wasn’t playing dancehall-style music. If I had done some dancehall drums, they wouldn’t have played it. But now that we’ve traveled that journey and dancehall is becoming popular with reggaeton and dancehall has become the part of popular music and popular culture, it was like a celebration for me to actually use it now.

I put Rayvon on it instead of Rikrok because Rikrok is retired from singing now. He lives in Cayman with his wife and kids, and Rayvon is still an artist. He originally sang it when we did it, but he was on “Angel” so we used Rikrok.

How was your experience in the Little Mermaid show where you sang “Under the Sea” on the live broadcast?
I’m a guy that likes to try and be comfortable outside of my comfort zone. That’s something I’m up for. My manager didn’t even ask me about it. He just told me, “You’re doing Little Mermaid. And it’s live.” I’m like, “OK.” He goes, “By the way, you have four rehearsals to get it right.”

I had to go there and get the dance moves and learn the song and really dedicate myself to it. It was a real nerve-racking experience. When you see the head of Disney come to your trailer and say, “Hey, great job. We’re really looking forward to seeing you. It’s going to be great.” That’s when you know it’s a big deal. [Laughs] That means basically, “Don’t fuck it up.”

You’re just wearing a red leather jacket while everyone else is dressed like a fish. Did they initially try and get you into a crab outfit?
Oh, yeah. I was in a crab suit with claws. I even had a hairpiece and glasses. We went through a couple of dress rehearsals going into the live when the powers that be came down and went, “Hey, remove the claws. Remove the glasses. And tell Shaggy to smile. We want to see him smile.” That was it. That worked for me. With an audience of 9 million people viewing, it allowed me to sell myself.

That introduced you to a whole new, young audience, while the Sting album and tour exposed you to a very different one.
Absolutely. Everything has worked together. And now having a song like “Banana” that took off on TikTok — that’s such a young audience and a young platform. To get streaming audiences back on Brand Shaggy again is nothing short of amazing.

I saw you perform at the Rainforest show at the Beacon back in December. What was the best part of that whole experience for you?
I sat down in rehearsal and had an extensive conversation with Bruce Springsteen.

What did you guys talk about?
Music. Horse riding. My daughter is a big horse person. She has her own horse and she jumps. His daughter does the same thing. He was saying to me it was an expensive sport. I was like, “Jesus Christ. If Bruce Springsteen is saying it’s an expensive sport, I’m really in for it!” [Laughs] We just sat there with our feet up on the chairs and were bullshitting. It’s not the first time I’ve met him, though. He’s really good friends with Sting and I’ve met him at Sting’s house numerous times. We’ve been to dinner together before. But this was a good time of sitting there and watching rehearsal. John Mellencamp was on the other side of us.

That whole thing was such a fuckin’ party and Trudie [Styler] is such a master at getting everybody together. Any energy you’re feeling in that room is through Trudie and her vibe.

That’s where you first played “Electric Avenue,” which is on the new album.
That was Trudie’s idea. Sting came to me and said, “Trudie thinks you should do this. I think it’s great. It’s right in your key.” When I did it, it came off so well and everybody loved it. We brought the house down. Sting said to me, “You should record that song. … It’s perfect. That song is made for you.” He was with me when I recorded it for Hot Shot 2020.

You guys look like you’re having a lot of fun when you perform together.
That’s my brother. He’s my brother from another mother I never knew I needed. He does a lot for my confidence and my creativity, my motivation. We’re competitive in a really fun way. We let each other take the lead when we need that. I was doing a record with Daddy Yankee and I kicked him out of the studio. I was like, “I need a minute.” Then I sat down and wrote the song with Daddy Yankee. He couldn’t understand where I was going with it. He came back and said, “Thanks for kicking me out. Nobody has ever kicked me out of a room, but it came out great.”

Are you thinking yet about your next record?
Absolutely. I have tons of things that I’m doing, but I don’t want to put anything out there yet because I really want to focus on Hot Shot 2020. But there’s a lot of stuff that we’re working on. Sting and I are continuing to share ideas and make music. I don’t think that’ll ever stop. We’ll always be in each other’s projects.

Do you miss being onstage? Is it hard adjusting to this new world where concerts aren’t doable?
Absolutely. That’s the thing I miss the most. If I couldn’t do live music, I wouldn’t have gone into music. To take live away from me … all this virtual concert shit is fuckin’ nuts. I’m not feeling it. Get me in front of an audience. I want to feel that energy.