THERE was no hotter act in the Jamaican dancehall going into the 1990s than Shabba Ranks. It seemed inevitable that he would break into the American mainstream with his mix of ghetto swag and bedroom bravado.
(Jamaica Observer) His American breakthrough came in 1991 with As Raw As Ever, which won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album the following year. It got the nod over Black Uhuru’s Iron Storm; Bunny Wailer’s Gumption; Rita Marley’s We Must Carry On; Victims by Steel Pulse and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers’ Jahmekya.
It was the first time a dancehall album won the category, breaking the dominance of roots-reggae acts like Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse and Ziggy Marley and The Melody Makers.
As Raw As Ever was released by Epic Records, home to heavy-hitters like Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross. The label put its weight behind songs like Housecall (done with singer Maxi Priest) which was a national hit in the US, peaking at number 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart and number four on the R&B Singles Chart.
Shabba’s rough house style was complemented by Priest’s memorable “Shabba!” refrain and a steamy music video that got heavy rotation on BET and MTV. Rexton Gordon (Shabba’s given name) had a come a long way from Kingston’s gritty dancehalls to the lucrative US market.
Housecall, co-written by Clifton “Specialist” Dillon, Shabba Ranks, Mikey Bennett, Brian Thompson and Priest, was an R&B-meets-dancehall crossover smash, but Shabba stayed true to his roots on songs such as Trailer Load A Girls, produced by Steely and Clevie, Gun Pon Me, and Flesh Axe.
A dream team of Jamaican musicians worked on As Raw As Ever. They included guitarists Stephen “Cat” Coore and Earl “Chinna” Smith; drummers Cleveland “Clevie” Browne, Sly Dunbar and George “Dusty” Miller; keyboardists Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson, Paul “Wrong Move” Crossdale and Handel Tucker; and bassist Danny Dennis.
As Raw As Ever was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for sales of 500,000 in the US, strong figures for a dancehall set 25 years ago. In 1993 Shabba Ranks repeated his Grammy success, winning with the album X-tra Naked — another raucous collection by arguably the genre’s greatest star.