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12: Why Vybz Kartel is the most important Jamaican artist of the century

12: Why Vybz Kartel is the most important Jamaican artist of the century

We talk to expert author Marvin Sparks about dancehall's incarcerated king and his chances of release following his surprise successful appeal.

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Marvin Sparks is one of the UK’s preeminent experts on reggae and dancehall music and author of 2022’s essential book Run the Riddim: The Untold Story of ‘90s Dancehall to the World.

The original plan was to invite him on the pod around the release of his next book, due in August, which charts the rise and fall of dancehall in the 2000s. But some even bigger news – namely, the potential release of Vybz Kartel, the legendary dancehall artist who has spent the last 13 years in prison for the murder of former associate Clive Williams – made speaking to Marvin feel a little more pressing. As is often the case with Jamaican music, international coverage of the latest developments in the Kartel case has been on the meagre side, so what better time to get an expert on?

We initially focus on Kartel’s complicated legal case and how he became the most important Jamaican artist of the 21st century, according to Marvin. Then we zoom out, with Marvin on fine form outlining dancehall’s importance to all (yes, all) the dance music you hold dear, running down the issues with dancehall’s press coverage both in and out of Jamaica, and explaining how all of this ties into his own story as an author and journalist.

And if you need a reminder of just how good this music is, Marvin has put together a YouTube playlist of 10 essential Vybz Kartel songs, collecting five commercial hits and five deeper cuts.

Meanwhile at No Tags HQ, Chal just wrote a rare negative review, of Australian DJ Logic1000, for the decimal-point-dweebs over at P4K. Why are negative reviews so rare? It’s a whole question. Maybe we’ll get into it sometime. And Tom’s Local Action label just released a new two-track single by Montreal’s foremost club Casanova Martyn Bootyspoon, worth a 7.8 on the ‘Fork scale at the absolute minimum.

Now on with the show!

Chal Ravens: Could we start with a little About You section?

Marvin Sparks: I’m Marvin Sparks. I write about music, but primarily reggae and dancehall. I would say from the ‘90s onwards is where I feel the most confident, because that’s what I lived through. I have an overall understanding of the influences that it’s had, especially in England, where we’ve grown up with it being a main influence on genres like jungle, grime, garage, dubstep, up to UK drill, UK rap and that kind of stuff. I like to draw parallels between [them], or where dancehall has influenced [other music], because it’s not really spoken about as much as it should be in my opinion.

Tom Lea: We’ll get to that. We'll definitely get to that.

Chal Ravens: Are you from London?

Marvin Sparks: Yeah. South London, like Streatham sides. So not too far from the capital of South London, which is Brixton.

Tom Lea: Asking as an East-to-South London convert, is that official? That sounds mildly controversial. I actually thought you might say Croydon.

Marvin Sparks: No chance, they’re only just about in London. Brixton is the capital of London, in my opinion.

Chal Ravens: So in what way was dancehall was present for you as a kid? Were people around you listening to a lot? Where did you hear it? 

Marvin Sparks: I don't really have a sexy story about it unfortunately. I’ve literally just heard dancehall from when I was born up until now.  The two earliest songs that I can remember knowing are Black Uhuru's ‘Guess Who's Coming to Dinner’, which is a roots-rock-reggae, uptempo, four-to-the-floor kinda song by Sly & Robbie in the ‘80s. And the other song that I remember is by Lovindeer called ‘Wild Gilbert’. Gilbert was a hurricane that happened in 1988 in Jamaica, and true to dancehall’s traditions, he made a comical song about the devastation. It was the worst hurricane that they’d had in quite a while. So he made a song that was topical, and made it quite comical, and it was obviously quite catchy.

So yeah, those are the two earliest songs I remember. My dad used to play dancehall sound tapes in the car all the time. He loves Charlie Chaplin and Yellowman and Josey Wales and Brigadier Jerry, who were ‘80s kings. This was when I was under five.

Tom Lea: We should get into it with some some pretty colossal recent news, which is that Vybz Kartel, who was previously serving a 32-year sentence for murder, has had his conviction quashed due to juror misconduct. So for the moment anyway, one of the biggest dancehall artists of all time is free. Maybe we should start by outlining Kartel’s importance to dancehall – just why is he so important to modern Jamaican music?

Marvin Sparks: So, Vybz Kartel is the most important person to dancehall in Jamaica in the 21st century. He first came through around 2002 or 2003, and his style was so fresh, it was completely different to anything that anyone had ever heard in dancehall before, because he was very much informed by hip-hop, he had a bit more of a rapping style. He had wordplay to levels that people in dancehall generally weren’t using so much, and he came through with a much more lyrical approach. 

Around 2008, he started to have a bigger upsurge, [but] around 2005, 2006, there had been a a dip in his appeal. And at that point Mavado had shot to the sky. Vybz started to battle with Mavado, and that really brought his appeal up. They clashed in 2008 at Sting, which is probably the last big dancehall clash1, and then Kartel released a song the next day and effectively won the war. And then in 2009, Kartel just became this one man Motown essentially, increasing his release output tenfold. He just became the main man in dancehall. You used to get DJs that would only play Kartel songs. He ran dancehall.

He changed dancehall in other ways, too. He’s famous for [skin] bleaching. And now you have a lot of dancehall artists who bleach, and it’s not seen as a bad thing, whereas before Kartel was bleaching, it was. He’s broken down other taboos within Jamaican culture too, so he’s been extremely influential on not just music but Jamaican society as a whole. 

Chal Ravens: What other taboos has he broken?

Marvin Sparks: So, in a PG way… [laughter] He made a song called ‘Freaky Gal Part 2’, where he’s talking about oral sex. And that’s not something that people [previously] spoke about as something that should be entertained. For example, in 1998 Mr. Vegas did ‘Heads High’, which is about not doing that. You go back further, you had Shabba Ranks, who did ‘Dem Bow’, and once again, that's a song about not doing that. But after ‘Freaky Gal Part 2’, it was OK to talk about.

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Tom Lea: When you talked about Vybz increasing his output tenfold, you said this was in the late 2000s – had that not been done before? That's a couple of years after the Lil Wayne’s run in hip-hop, where he’s putting out mixtape after mixtape and it just accelerates him to the absolute top of the tier in that genre. Was Vybz following a similar formula? 

Marvin Sparks: That’s a good comparison. Dancehall artists have always released quite a lot of material in a year. But I feel that with technology, Kartel was able to master it in a way that nobody had done previously. 

Also, prior to that period, it was all about going on riddims2. But Kartel had a lot of songs that were Kartel only. He had producers that worked for him, whereas before producers were the ones that ran the business, and the artists came and recorded on their riddims. So I think that's where there was a shift – he was the guy that was putting out his own stuff, he wasn't waiting for producers to release material. And also you have smaller bedroom studios [at that point], where it's like laptops and Macs, so it was a lot easier to be able to release as many songs as you want. You also had the ease of distribution, where you could just upload to YouTube. 

Tom Lea: Was he putting a lot of stuff out for free? 

Marvin Sparks: Yeah, I mean things were going on iTunes as well. But essentially it was just songs that were going on to YouTube, and then people would go to them from there, really.

Chal Ravens: When he went to prison, can you can you give us a bit of an idea about the dialogue around the case at the time? As we understand it, he was sentenced in 2014, but he'd been in prison since 2012. We were thinking about the fact that this was before Popcaan had come along, and he was kind of a protege of his originally. Was there a sense that dancehall had lost its figurehead?

Marvin Sparks: So to answer the latter point, 100%. He was the guy. [To answer the first] he used to get arrested a lot, and when he [initially] got arrested in 2011, it was for marijuana. Then all of a sudden it's come out that he's been charged for two murders, so everyone was like, what? That was a big surprise. Obviously he talks about gun stuff on record, but there aren't many dancehall artists that haven’t spoken about killing someone in a song and you just think, well, it’s a song. And Jamaica is a violent place, so it's not like you're not going to be aware of murders that happen, especially when you come from ghetto communities. So you could be just talking about something that happened in your environment. But for him to be charged with not just one, but two murders, it was a big surprise, a big shock. And then one of the murders got dropped, so everyone was thinking, OK, cool, it’s not going to be long until the next one gets dropped, because what are the chances of him actually committing a murder? And then that one stuck.

Chal Ravens: He continued to release music while in prison, I guess quite sporadically, but there has been a lot of music that's come out over that period. Has his influence waned in the decade that he's been inside? Or has it had the opposite effect, where he takes on an even more legendary status? 

Marvin Sparks: Yeah, he definitely has. I mean, the thing with dancehall now is that I'd say every single artist is influenced by Vybz Kartel. Like I said before, the more lyrical approach, that's what everybody's trying to do now. And the amount of songs that they release, that’s another thing where people are trying to catch up to what Kartel did. With Tommy Lee [Sparta], who was another of Kartel’s proteges, with Skillibeng, Intence, Valiant – you can hear traces of Kartel’s sound in every single one of them. 

Tom Lea: So he's been recording music while in jail, but have any of those tracks as successful as what he released when he was free? 

Marvin Sparks: So there was a debate about whether or not some of the songs were actually being recorded in prison. I think they have found [recording] equipment in his prison cell quite a few times, and he's moved prison a few times… so we'll say allegedly. But in terms of the songs that have been released [while Vybz has been in prison], ‘Fever’, which came out in 2016, was a huge hit for him. It went gold in the USA.

Tom Lea: It’s funny you mention 2016 specifically, because when we had The Large on this podcast, we spoke about that year quite a bit. That’s very much a period where dancehall, as well as afrobeats, has this international moment where it feels like a lot of people finally recognise its influence and give it some overdue flowers. Drake's ‘One Dance’ makes a big difference, and Rihanna’s ‘Work’, and then there’s Popcaan’s ascendance to star status. Kartel was releasing music then, but he wasn't free to take advantage of that moment, so I wonder if there's potentially an alternate timeline here where if he wasn't inside he could have been featuring on Drake albums and fully be in the position to take advantage of it. But it kind of passed him by due to his circumstances.

Marvin Sparks: Yeah, a million percent. He did do a song with Busta Rhymes, and he did feature on a remix of Stylo G’s ‘Touch Down’ that also featured Nicki Minaj. So he had a few moments, he managed to slide into some international features, but he wasn't able to capitalise on it in the proper way that he would have been able to [if he was free] because it wouldn't have anywhere near as controversial [for people to work with him]. Performance-wise, he wasn't allowed in America anyway, and he wasn’t allowed to come to the UK, but definitely feature-wise he would have been on a lot of stuff. 

Tom Lea: From what I understand and from what publicly seems to be out there, his murder conviction has been quashed due to jury misconduct. This relates to a juror who was accused of attempting to bribe other people in the jury, and wasn't removed as a result, and there was a piece of evidence, a text message on Kartel’s phone, which was presented in court but had been obtained through illegal means. So without wading too far into the legal swamp, is the overall feeling that he’s got off on a bit of a technicality there? Or has there always been a school of thought that he’s innocent? 

Marvin Sparks: Let me think of the best way to say this… there are people who, I guess with any case, they feel like the person who's accused should be freed. But whether or not they actually feel that person is innocent is a different story. With Vybz Kartel, I don’t know if he’s guilty of not, because I wasn’t on the jury. But there was evidence that came out in terms of the motive for the murder, there were voice notes that came out with him talking about these guns being missing and this kind of business. Let me just say there is evidence to suggest that something could have happened.

Whether or not people decide that's good enough, or if that’s reason that he's guilty, I don't know, I couldn't say if that's something that everybody believes or whatever. But there are people who feel that he should be where he is, and that he could get off on a technicality. Because at the moment it’s kind of hanging in the air, he isn't actually allowed to come out. It's just that the guilty verdict has been overturned. So now it's gone back to Jamaica, to decide whether or not it should be a retrial, or whether he should be let out.

Even with the juror, they were trying to convince people to return a not guilty verdict. Which again is something that people question, because they think that if the person was trying to return a guilty verdict, then that would suggest that it's coming from the side of the prosecution. However, with the person trying to bribe people to return a not guilty verdict, that would suggest that it would be for the benefit of the defendant. So there was obviously some tampering on that side that we know about, but who knows what was going on on the other side? Was there tampering on the jury on the other side? Who knows. It's a very complicated case. And I guess it's kind of similar to O.J. [Simpson]3 where it's bigger than the person, and people want them freed because it seems like it's against the system, essentially. 

Chal Ravens: Is it the case that someone like Vybz Kartel, who's such a celebrity and such a potentially powerful figure is… targeted is the wrong word if you've actually committed a crime. But you know, there have been countless American rappers who appear to have been hunted down by American police and the criminal justice system there, where it's like, “We will keep trying to arrest you until we've got something, and then you will go to jail” – perhaps because those people are seen as powerful. Was there some sense before the arrest that he was being unfairly targeted by authorities? 

Marvin Sparks: Yeah, most definitely. Like I said he was getting arrested quite frequently. Even going back to the Vybz Kartel and Mavado issue, there was a time when they both got arrested and they had to do a press conference to say like, it's not that serious, put down the violence and that kind of thing.

There were also videos that Vybz Kartel was releasing where he was criticising the government, [and] he was criticising the electricity service for how much they're charging people – because in Jamaica, the electricity service is a monopoly, there's literally just the JPS [Jamaica Public Service]. And they set charges however they want to set them and don't really have to explain it, to a certain level. Jamaicans are always questioning JPS.

So the influence that he had, for bad and for good, was definitely something [that meant] people were thinking he's just being targeted, and that he’d just been fitted up for a crime. Especially when he was arrested initially, before any of the evidence had come out, that’s what the vast majority of people were thinking – that this is them trying to fit him up with a crime. And even with the person who they accused him of murdering, a body hasn't been found. So people were saying, “You don't have a body. This just sounds like a fitter.”

Chal Ravens: This ties back into your work and your story a little bit. So you are currently writing a new book, which is also about dancehall, and it spends quite a lot of time on this era and the Gully vs Gaza beef, right? What can you tell us about the book?

Marvin Sparks: So it's the follow up to my first book, which is called Run the Riddim: The Untold Story of ‘90s Dancehall to the World. Essentially, they were both written at the same time, it was all meant to be one book, but the project just went way too long, so I split them in half. So it's a continuation, naturally.

The first book is very much about the principles and the culture that dancehall is built upon. So it starts in the ‘70s, explaining about how DJs and singers used to gather on sound systems, and then how that turned into making music, and then in the ‘80s how it became digital productions. You had the ‘Sleng Teng’ riddim obviously4, and you had the ‘Punanny’ riddim, and that kind of set the blueprint for dancehall – the “boom-boom-cap” – that drum beat originated in the ‘80s.

But then the ‘90s, which I focused on, is where the identity is shaped. So you have what happened on the ground, with the whole rasta movement, but then you also have the street element with people like Bounty Killa and Beanie Man. And then you have its pop successes, like Beanie Man’s ‘Who Am I?’ going number 10 in the UK charts in 1998, and [Mr. Vegas’s] ‘Heads High’ going into the top 20 in 1999. And then in 2001 you have Shaggy’s ‘It Wasn’t Me’, who was the first Jamaican-born dancehall artist to go to number one. So the new book is built on this [question] of what happened after that? 

Tom Lea: And you’ve interviewed Vybz Kartel for the book?

Marvin Sparks: Yeah, it’s a lost one from the internet. I guess it kind of taps into what's going on now with a lot of websites going down the drain…

Tom Lea: You’re talking our language here, we end up talking about digital archiving on a lot of episodes.

Marvin Sparks: Yeah. I’m not the first victim, but I feel like I am an early victim of the digital archive just disappearing. I feel like 95% of the interviews that I did for online websites have been removed.

Tom Lea: 95% is crazy! Is the majority of that across one or two publications?

Marvin Sparks: Yeah, across three publications. They just completely got removed. And I remember finding it one day, I was trying to find an interview and it was like, oh, this website's new, and my interviews aren't there. So my stuff’s gone then. The only ones that are up are the ones I did for FACT. 

Tom Lea: I’d save those to a Word doc, I don’t know how long that ghost ship’s got left to sail. 

Chal Ravens: Tip to all writers: save a PDF of your work! Speaking of which, I’d be interested to hear what you think about the way that dancehall is represented, or indeed underrepresented or misrepresented, in the international press. We also talked about this with The Large when she was on a couple of months ago. What’s your take on it? Because I feel that there are there are many aspects of Jamaica's music scene that are potentially hard to grasp from the outside, just in terms of the way things work historically – riddim culture being very, very different to the way that pop music is thought of and distributed elsewhere, for example. 

Marvin Sparks: The reason why I started doing interviews with dancehall and reggae artists is because I felt like it was underrepresented, but more dangerously, misrepresented. So the first interview that I ever did was with a publication where I’d criticised an interview that they published with Mavado. This was 2007, so Mavado was to me one of the most important artists in the world. I felt like, yeah, for sure, he spoke about graphic stuff – but there could have been a more nuanced way to find out why he speaks like that. Like, what's his background, where does he come from? And kind of gauge the way he makes the music that he does. But the journalist was more trying to accuse him of doing things that were bad, or trying to get him to apologise or justify why he makes negative music. And I feel that when you come at it from that perspective, instantly the person goes on a defensive, don't they? So I wrote in and complained – I wrote in and complained, how old does that sound? – and said, if you want a real interview, holler me. And at this point, I'd never done an interview in my life. I don't know where I've got that bravery from, but here we are.

So yeah, it's definitely misrepresented. And it's quite interesting because I was having a conversation with an American journalist called Jesse Serwer, where we were talking about my book. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said it’s good to have a book like this out there, so that you don't have to go and rewrite somebody else's version of it from a perspective that isn't as close to the truth as mine is going to be because, obviously I'm from England, but I'm of Jamaican heritage. I’ve probably been to Jamaica every other year since 1990. So I have much more of an understanding of the culture and the history than most other journalists will do. 

For example, one of the points that I'm making in my new book is that we didn't have magazines like The Source or Word Up!, and all of that stuff that could give you more of an understanding of the music. It's like, you heard what you heard on the record, but you didn't know anything else about the people or where they were coming from.

Tom Lea: So there were no specialist magazines in that regard in Jamaica? 

Marvin Sparks: You would get stuff in a Jamaican newspaper potentially. But once again, that's coming from Jamaican middle class people, who have their own idea of how they perceive dancehall, or how they feel the music should be representing the country. There isn't like a credible dancehall or reggae magazine by Jamaican people. The biggest magazines for reggae are Europe-based, and they’re not people of Jamaican heritage, they're not from the diaspora. And don't get me wrong, those people are incredibly detailed and knowledgeable about who did what on what record and that kind of stuff. But with the cultural side of it, there’s a disconnect. So once again, that's where misunderstandings can come from.

Chal Ravens: A few years ago I interviewed Equiknoxx, and we got onto the subject of what people actually listen to in Jamaica. And it was quite funny, I think it was Gavsborg who was saying that if you only learned about Jamaican music through the British and American music press, you’d think that everyone in Jamaica was obsessed with King Tubby. And he was like, nobody cares about King Tubby in Jamaica. This obsession that we have with dub, and how dub is really venerated, particularly in the highbrow music press – that's just not what people are listening to. And I think dancehall has never really been able to get that type of coverage and understanding over here, which is kind of weird, because it's also very accessible, fun music a lot of the time. So yeah, it's a real disconnect. 

Marvin Sparks: Yeah, that's for sure. Jamaicans don’t care about King Tubby or Scientist or Lee “Scratch” Perry. But mainstream media in this country… and I mean, that’s the thing, you have people who love stuff before ‘Sleng Teng’ and hate everything that came after ‘Sleng Teng’. That’s kind of what the motivation was for my book, because I read a popular book… No, I’ll say it. I read Lloyd Bradley’s book, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King

Chal Ravens: I knew you were going to say that book! Because he gets to ‘Sleng Teng’ and he’s like “well, it all kind of fell off from there, oh well!” And it’s such a great book, but it’s really weird how it just kind of tails off.

Marvin Sparks: So I love that book, and I met him like last year, and I gave him my book. Because with my book, the working title – until I split it in half – was When Dancehall Riddims Were King. And I always saw my book as a continuation of [Bradley’s]. That book is amazing up until 1981 when Bob Marley dies. He doesn't like Yellowman, he doesn't like ‘Sleng Teng’, he doesn't like dancehall. And it’s evident in the book.

You have like people like him who will write about reggae in this country. and David Katz, who are both extremely knowledgeable about pre-‘Sleng Teng’, but I don’t know how much after that they actually like. And as a Black person of Jamaican descent, I don’t feel like there are that many other people who get the chance to write about our music in those kinds of places. There aren’t that many of us that are out there writing anyway, and one of the things that I’ve written in my book is that I feel like it’s a book that nobody really asked for, but it’s something that everybody needs to read. Because people who are really into dancehall don’t think that they need to read about dancehall, and people who read about music don’t really care about dancehall. 

And I guess this is why I bang on about the influence that dancehall has had. Even something as basic as the sound system – the sound system didn't happen without dancehall. So everything that comes from sound system culture is effectively [rooted in] dancehall. EDM and dubstep, those things wouldn't have happened without the sound system. Grime wouldn't have happened without the sound system, hip-hop wouldn’t! Reggaeton wouldn't exist without dancehall – it essentially plucked one part of dancehall and said let's run with this. So that's why for me, it's important to say: this is relevant to all of the music that you love.

But we don't get the opportunity to tell people that the music that you lot love comes from dancehall. And that's one of the things that I'm really trying to do with my book, trying to let you know that this is one of the most important forms of music to exist, especially within the 21st century. But for a very long time, it's been something that has just been taken from, and not really acknowledged. Because, as I said, people that write about music don't necessarily care about dancehall and the people that care about dancehall don't necessarily read about music. So there we go.

Tom Lea: Mic drop! So one last question, which we ask everyone: what is a film that you'd recommend to us and our listeners? 

Marvin Sparks: There’s one film that I think sums up everything that I've been talking about today, and that is Dancehall Queen. Don Letts wrote it and I believe produced it, it’s released by Island Films so you know, proper Jamaican stuff this – well, Jamaican-born from the diaspora. It follows the life of a woman who comes from a ghetto area, who’s trying to make a better way for her and her children through the dancehall. It came out in 1996, and it was possibly the first time I’d seen dancehall culture in 360, on something visual…

Chal Ravens: You could never have chosen anything else!

Marvin Sparks: No chance. I think I probably still know about 80% of the lines, I can sit there and quote most of it word for word.

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A clash (short for sound clash) is a form of musical competition that originated in Jamaica, where opposing sound systems or crews try to beat the other, whether through the power of their sound system or the potency of their records (with crews often sourcing one-off dubplates to get one over their competition). Clashes date back at least to the 1950s, and also form an integral part of Black British music.


A riddim (derived from the term rhythm track) refers to an instrumental track that numerous vocalists will record their own versions over. As Marvin’s book puts it: “Once upon a time, the riddim was king in reggae music and dancehall culture … Numerous artists flexing their powers on the same riddim is what I live for!”


O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial is considered one of the most racially divisive in American history, coming in the wake of Rodney King’s assault, the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the subsequent focus on institutional racism in the country’s police force and criminal justice system. In 1994, 22% of Black respondents to a Washington Post and ABC News poll said they thought Simpson was guilty of the charges, compared to 63% of white people who were polled.


1985’s ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’, produced by King Jammy, Wayne Smith and Noel Davey and vocalled by Smith, was the first computerised riddim (made on a Casio keyboard) to go to number one in the Jamaican charts, and is considered one of the most influential records in history, ushering in a new age of digital dancehall. More on that in this neat RBMA feature.

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