A few days before this year’s West Indian Day Parade in New York City, Spragga Benz was a guest at SUNY Empire State in downtown Brooklyn. The dancehall pioneer was seated at the front of the room alongside two music executives and Dr. Carolyn Cooper, a professor at the University of the West Indies.
They would be discussing the future of dancehall and reggae music as well as what that progression means for new artists. “The youth are doing their thing,” Spragga says, following the panel. “It’s a whole new generation from 1995. A different set of youth. They’re expressing themselves and it’s not fair for us to say that what they’re doing isn’t right. Or lesser than that because we were free to do what we wanted and our parents were probably saying that what we were doing is stupid or wrong.”
“A man may start out slack and end up conscious. It’s a journey.”—Spragga Benz
On an elevated platform, Spragga offered stories of humble beginnings and incidentally finding his place in dancehall, although his personal business would have been better off without the cameras and the bright lights. “More people wanted me to record and I was like, ‘Alright. This thing is getting out of hand now…” The audience chuckled collectively. He continued earnestly, “Because my thinking at the time was about the type of lifestyle I was living, the type of friends that I had and the type of things we were doing… I’m not going up on no stage.”
That fear of exposure ended shortly thereafter as Spragga would go on to run the genre in mid-90s and now as he nears 30 years in the industry, there’s a sense of reverence that comes with his name. So much so that his first album in nearly a decade, Chiliagon, debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Reggae charts. Spragga Benz is out here breaking personal records for himself, even still. In a recent press release, Lem Oppenheimer, co-founder of Easy Star stated, “We are proud to have helped Spragga get to #1 for the first time in his career. What this shows us is that Spragga is still a vibrant artist, a current creative force, and an important voice in reggae worldwide.”
The album [cop it here] is a direct reflection of how Spragga defines the word ‘chiliagon’ — “a shape with a thousand sides.” The mix of roots reggae, drum and bass, dancehall, grime, garage and hip-hop highlights an evolution of sound, at least from his end. “That’s how I approach music,” he reveals. “I don’t really box into anything. I have different sides to myself and there’s an inclusion of all different genres of music, but to me a lot of different music comes from dancehall same way. So this album shows the connections and similarities and how a dancehall artist actually sounds over these different beats that actually aren’t that different.”
Spragga claims that “No Regrets,” a wavy, roots reggae-inspired track from Chiliagon is his favorite on the album. Preceding the LP, Spragga’s “Count Tree” over the “Calaloo” riddim specifically highlights his spirited flow alongside synth-heavy production with just enough bounce to fall within the lines of traditional dancehall. Another single, “If Yuh Ready,” with UK DJ General Levy is specifically grime, or as Spragga describes: “Jungle Music!” His eyes light up, excitedly. “That same jungle music? It’s derived from dancehall music. It’s the same thing just sped up. They use our same bass lines and faster drums.” Naturally mellow, nothing seems to move Spragga Benz like music or talks of progression.
As an OG in the dancehall world, Spragga has made it his business — his literal business, with Red Star Productions — to help motivate and encourage those coming behind him. Red Star is a sort of in-between, for young creatives trying to find their way. “We try to enhance the talent of young artists, bringing what they have out of them,” he explains. “Some may come to us as artists but they aren’t really artists. They might be a better producer or road manager or a writer, whatever it is that you want to do, we’ll push you to do it anyways, because that’s your desire until you find your growth and then you can always divert.”
“We try to just bring people in, let them be themselves but we try and guide them in the direction they want to go in without tying them to anything. You owe us nothing. It’s just doing you doing your own work and us giving you a platform.”
Earlier in the evening, during the panel, one man in the audience stood up and lamented, “It is the artist’s responsibility to censor your lyrics…” Attendees murmured in their seats. “You owe it to the youth.”
It was only a matter of time before the topic arose of Jamaica’s unyielding moral code of conduct. Spragga held steadfast in his belief that an artist having to censor himself, defeats the idea of his being a creative. “They’re [the government] censoring dancehall artists, specifically,” he shares later. “Because those from other genres are able to say whatever they feel like saying. And I just think we should be free to say whatever we feel and express ourselves in our own way. Every man has his own idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. So leave a man to his own judgment and learning.”
“A man may start out slack and end up conscious. It’s a journey,” he continues. “Allow a man to walk his journey. Censorship comes in when some people want power over other people. Or when some people feel important and want to be ‘the God’ over what other people are doing and when you have enough people who feel that way, they form themselves into bodies and give themselves titles and feel even more important.”
“But artists only want to express themselves, we have our own moral compass to follow. A lot of us have children too and come from good homes with parents that give us certain responsibilities and morals as well.”