Since the late 1980s Jamaican dancehall deejay Shabba Ranks has been instrumental in gaining prominence for reggae and reggae-influenced music, especially among African Americans. He led the craze of drum machine-driven, dancehall, reggae-styled rap in the 1980s and 1990s throughout Jamaica and the United States, and was the first reggae artist to win a Grammy Award. As a young “toaster” in urban Jamaican clubs, Ranks rhymed his own lyrics over reggae records, thus helping to pave the way for American rap. Over the years he has collaborated with rappers, R&B musicians, and other reggae artists, among them KRS-1, Queen Latifah, Eddie Murphy, and Maxi Priest. Although he refers to himself as legendary reggae artist Bob Marley’s successor, Ranks is not known for taking up Marley’s themes of Rastafarian culture, politics, or oppression. More pop-driven and foul-mouthed, Ranks and his music are associated with sex and X-rated lyrics, or “slackness.” Scandal and controversy have followed Ranks as a result. The new definition he has given to “reggae musician” is perhaps more palatable to his audience than the dreadlocked Rastaman image of roots musicians such as Marley. Ranks dresses like African American pop stars, but claims to be Rasta in his heart. As he told Scott Aiges in the Times Picayune, “So many be having the hair [dreadlocked] but they ain’t Rasta. They rascal. If your heart be clean and you be righteous, you be Rastaman.”
When he first started out, Ranks’s focus was on “reality” lyrics—those intended to raise social consciousness. Soon, however, he discovered “Sex sells,” as he states in the opening lyric to his “Fist-a-Ris.” From that point on he began producing raunchy, sexually explicit material or “slackness.” Ranks told Joe Brown of the Washington Post, “What sells like X-rated movies? They are always selling, man. Playboy magazine, always selling. This is something that was here before I was born and when I’m dad and gone it’ll remain … and I’m good at it.” The “Mr. Loverman” video, in which he cruises by a pool, and his sensual pelvic gyrations during performance prove the point. He told USA Today, “Love is what made me. If it wasn’t for love, I wouldn’t be here.” “I used to deal with cultural lyrics,” he added. “But I wasn’t recognized for it. I was recognized for ‘slackness.’” There is speculation that Ranks’s heavy Jamaican accent has saved him from censors or explicit warning stickers on his albums; many listeners do not even catch Ranks’s words.
Ranks was born Rexton Rawlston Fernando Gordon on January 17, 1966, in Sturgetown in the country parish of St. Ann, Jamaica. Years later, his family moved, and Ranks came of age in Trenchtown—the Kingston ghetto that was birthplace to reggae legend Marley. Ranks was one of Ivan Gordan and Constance Christie’s seven children. The couple never married, but had joint aspirations that their son would be a pilot
For the Record…
Born Rexton Rawlston Fernando Gordon on January 17, 1966, in St. Ann, Jamaica; son of Ivan Gordon and Constance Christie; married Michelle, 1992; children: Shaboo, Jahwon (sons).
Began deejaying in Kingston, Jamaica clubs, late 1970s; recorded debut single, “Heat under Sufferer’s Feet,” 1980; met Jamaican producer King Jammy, recorded singles with him, 1987; joined newly created Digital B record label, released hits “Wicked Inna Bed,” “Pirate’s Anthem,” and “Mr. Loverman,” among others, 1989; signed three-album contract with Epic, 1991; released Greatest Hits, 2001.
Awards: Grammy Awards, Best Reggae Album, 1991-92; six International Reggae Music Awards, 1992; two Caribbean Music Awards, 1992.
or a mechanical engineer. Ranks had other plans, though, and began frequenting tough, urban Jamaican dancehalls and developing his rapping skills as an adolescent. “I used to punch riddim tracks on a jukebox within a bar and sing along. I used to take ten-cent coins, that is how I started practicing. I used to put coins in that jukebox and punch songs by Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and Leroy Smarts, to name a few,” Ranks is quoted as saying on Hiponline.com.
Ranks was enamored of the Kingston club scene and was inspired by the “toasting” of deejays such as Yellowman and Josey Wales. He honed his unique throaty rasp and became a leading “toaster” himself, while studying engineering to please his father. At first he called himself Co-pilot because he worked with a deejay named The Navigator, who spun records while Ranks “chatted” over them. In 1979, when he was 14 years old, Ranks recorded his first song as Co-pilot, “Heat under Sufferers Feet,” which was later released as a single on the Roots Melody label. The young deejay eventually dubbed himself “Shabba” after an African king and “Ranks” to imply his high position and deft microphone skills in the world of reggae.
Well-known deejay Josey Wales began to take notice of the youthful talent who was shaking up the dancehall scene. In 1987 Wales introduced Ranks to producer King Jammy, who helped Ranks record tunes like “Holda Fresh.” None of these songs firmly established Ranks in the Jamaican music scene, so he seized the opportunity to join King Jammy’s engineer, Bobby Digital, when he left to start his own label, Digital B, in 1989. That same year Ranks released his mega-hit, “Wicked inna Bed,” the X-rated lyrics of which contributed to his sexy, lover-man persona; the song quickly became Ranks’s trademark. Two more hits, “Pirate’s Anthem” and “Mr. Loverman,” followed, inserting Ranks as a force in popular Jamaican reggae music. Both songs appeared on the album Holding On, made with Cocoa Tea and the vocal group Home T4, and produced by Gussie Clark. But things were just getting going for the up-and-coming international star, who released 50 singles between 1989 and 1991.
Ranks’s former agent, Clifton “Specialist” Dillon, helped Ranks create a rock star image with promotional stunts, such as arriving onstage by way of helicopter. Tricks like these, in addition to his “high energy and hypersexual shows,” as Sandra Brennan noted in All Music Guide, provoked crowd frenzy and even riots. Ranks pulled some spontaneous stunts of his own, not necessarily intended to boost his reputation. In 1990 he was charged with assaulting a man who expressed a preference for another artist. Ranks was later arrested and held on $36 bail for not showing up on his court date. Dillon looked into cutting deals with American record labels, turning down a six-figure contract offer from Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew before signing Ranks to Epic Records in 1991.
Ranks’s first album with Epic, As Raw as Ever, was geared towards the R&B market. It was a massive success, being the first reggae album to top Billboard’s R&B chart. The album, which includes the Maxi Priest duet “Housecall” and the hit tune “The Jam” with rapper KRS-1, won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 1991. Ranks repeated the feat the following year, bringing home another Grammy for X-tra Naked, in which he teamed up with Johnny Gill and rappers Queen Latifah and Chubb Rock. This album contained the top-ten R&B superhit, “Slow and Sexy.” The first deejay to win two consecutive Grammys, Ranks was on a roll. In 1992 the song “Mr. Loverman” also became a hip-hop top ten hit. In March and April of 1992, Ranks added to his trophy collection by walking away with six International Reggae Music Awards and two Carribean Music Awards. That same spring Ranks and his wife, Michelle, had their first son.
The year 1992 was not a totally smooth year for Ranks, however. After he won his Grammy Award, his house in Jamaica was ransacked. He told USA Today, “I don’t want to run away from the ghetto [because] when I return, they’d turn up their noses. I’ll stay there until my God says move.” What Ranks lacked in positive press he gained in controversy due to his notorious support of reggae artist Buju Banton’s gay-bashing single, “Boom Bye Bye.” During an interview on the British television talkshow The Word, Ranks was asked about the 1992 release, which advocates shooting homosexual men. His response: “If you forfeit the laws of God Almighty, you deserve to be crucified.” This comment inspired massive protest and Ranks was cut from engagements on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and at a Pasadena Rose Bowl benefit. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) jumped on the case and in 1993 Ranks was pressured into dropping out of the Bobby Brown tour and dropped by the Soul Train Awards. At first Ranks proposed a press release which would place the blame for his statement on his Jamaican culture and his religious interpretation, but GLAAD would have none of it. In February of 1993 he apologized, took personal responsibility, and said that gay bashing was wrong. However, he reportedly later told a London journalist that he only apologized in order to continue the popularity of Jamaican reggae music.
For all his loud, aggressive, and sometimes offensive actions, Ranks can display a soft side. The same year of the “Boom Bye Bye” scandal, he bought his mother a house in Kingston, Jamaica. As he was quoted by Elaine Louie in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Any kid growing up in the ghetto wishes to buy Mama a decent house.” Ranks’s mother, who worked on buses most of her adult life, bought her first house in 1983, but it had only two bedrooms—one for the parents, the other for the children. Ranks, a mama’s boy at heart, lives in the wing opposite his mother in their new home.
A Mi Shabba, the 1995 album whose title means “I am Shabba” in Jamaican patois, sold poorly. Released three years after his last Grammy, it also followed his departure from his agent, Dillon, and the end of his Epic Records contract. Then he worked on greatest hits packages for Legacy Records and the independent VP Records. Caan Dun covers his Jamaican hits with producers such as Bobby Digital, Gussie Clark, and King Jammy. The Legacy collection, released in 2001, encompasses Ranks’s years with Sony/Epic.
After an explosive performance at the Sashi concert at James Bond Beach in Jamaica, Ranks announced that he planned to release his first album in six years in the spring of 2002. Ranks said in Billboard that the album would be coproduced with Horatio Hamilton of L.O.Y Entertainment and distributed by Epic Records. He promised this album would introduce a more mature Shabba, and the opportunity to hear some local Jamaican artists with whom he collaborated.
Rappin’ with the Ladies, VP, 1991.
Golden Touch, VP, 1991.
As Raw as Ever, Epic, 1991.
X-tra Naked, Epic, 1992.
Rough & Ready, Vol. 1, Epic, 1992.
Rough & Ready, Vol. 2, Epic, 1993.
A Mi Shabba, Epic, 1995.
Caan Dun, VP, 1995.
(With Cocoa Tea) Holding On, Greensleeves, 1998.
Get Up Stand Up, Artists Only, 1998.
(With others) Shabba Ranks and Friends, Sony, 1999.
Greatest Hits, Epic/Legacy, 2001.
Guardian (London, England), November 20, 1993.
Houston Chronicle, March 4, 1993, p. 2.
Rolling Stone, May 1993, p. 21.
San Francisco Chronicle, December 23, 1993, p. E7.
Times Picayune (New Orleans, LA), January 17, 1993, p. D1.
USA Today, September 29, 1992.
Washington Post, August 23, 1991, p. N17.
Hiponline, http://www.hiponline.com (April 20, 2002).
“Shabba Ranks,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 20, 2002).
“Shabba Ranks Biography,” Rolling Stone, http://www.RollingStone.com/ (April 20, 2002).
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