While dancehall music was being popularized in America through the successes of DJs Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder, Elephant Man was making a name for himself in Kingston, Jamaica, as the genre's freaky haired bad boy. Contrary to hip-hop's connotation of a DJ—one who spins records as an MC delivers lyrics—the dancehall DJ presents the lyrics while the selector plays the music beneath his or her vocals.
Born O'Neil Bryan on September 11, 1974, in Kingston, Jamaica—the heart of reggae, dancehall, and dub music—Elephant Man began his career with childhood friends in the Seaview Gardens district of the city. Bryan's somewhat larger-than-average ears caused a schoolmate to call him Dumbo, after the Disney elephant. Bryan was constantly surrounded and enraptured by music, tapping out rhythms on his desk at school. Despite his mother's wishes, he began to follow his musical calling. Artists like Shabba Ranks and Bounty Killer took the time to mentor many of the youths in the depressed neighborhood where Bryan grew up. Groups cropped up quickly, as the youths were encouraged to develop themselves musically and artistically through Jamaica's rich cultural heritage. "It's one of the hardcore ghettos, where kids are growing up with knives, and there's a lot of gunshots," Bryan told Chris Mugan of the London Independent. "There was no money to buy no food and all dem stuff, but we could catch fishes and eat cane."
At the urging of Shabba Ranks, the Dumbo nickname morphed into Elephant Man, and Bryan took it as his stage name when performing with his first dancehall crew, the Seaview Family. Encouraged by their community's established dancehall heroes, the young artists set out to prove themselves to the genre's elder statesmen. Elephant Man, Boom Dandimite (a.k.a. Donovan Stewart), Harry Toddler, and Nitty Kutchie (a.k.a. Andrew Reid) pooled their creative energy and began performing around town. As well as developing a unique vocal delivery, they had to create a stunning visual performance to attract the best crowds and ensure their victory over rival groups Monster Shock Crew, Shocking Vibes, and the Main Street Crew.
After Bounty Killer released his hit "Big Guns Scare Dem," the Seaview Family changed its name to Scare Dem Crew. With much practice, and with support from their neighborhood, Scare Dem proved to be the most popular band in Kingston's dancehall revival. The group's profile rose steadily through the mid-1990s, as they played numerous festivals and released the 1999 record Scared from the Crypt on the TVT label. Along with the Scare Dem Crew, Elephant Man—also known to his fans as Ele and Energy God—began building his own over-the-top persona. Once, during a 1998 performance, Bryan jumped onto a moving TV crane and sang high above the audience, to an enthusiastic response. But the other members of the group began to question Elephant Man's dedication to the crew, where typically no one member is more important than the others. As they all began recording one-off solo singles, and with American recording offers popping up all over Jamaica, Bryan left the group in order to play his music elsewhere.
Within a year of Scared from the Crypt, Elephant Man released his debut solo album on the Greensleeves label. Comin' 4 You illustrated Elephant Man's penchant for rough sounding vocals and his obsession with elements of American hip-hop culture. Writing in All Music Guide, Dean Carlson commented that, on Comin' 4 You, "even a patois reinterpretation of the Spider-Man theme can't divert rhythms that would be frustratingly experimental if they weren't so infectious. A complete reversal of fortune, then. Expect America's finest rap producers to rip this off as soon as it hits hometown soil."
Late 2001 saw the release of Elephant Man's second record, Log On. The record yielded a handful of hits in Jamaica, and for the track "Bring the War," Elephant Man employed the tune of an already bona fide chart topper, Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On." Reviewing Log On, Brian Whitener of All Music Guide claimed that Elephant Man "is no amateur, and pulling off an epic-length album like this takes skills. Quite rightfully, these skills have made him a staple of [record] crates around the world."
Dancehall received its biggest push globally in 2003, when Sean Paul's Dutty Rock got hip-hoppers, clubbers, teeny boppers, and rockers swaying to the same snappy tune. Alongside Paul came a great deal of attention for Elephant Man. He released his major-label debut, Good 2 Go, on Atlantic Records that year, and his anthemic "Pon de River, Pon de Bank" took even mainstream audiences by storm. "Sean Paul might be the acceptable face of the genre but Elephant, O'Neil Bryan to his mum, remains its beating heart," commented Adam Webb on the BBC website. Two collaborations with Wu-Tang Clan's Killah Priest also made the cut, as did "Far Dem Off," containing more than a hint of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." Like Carlson, Webb also warned that it wouldn't be long before Bryan's style was cribbed by U.S. producers. "'Elephant Man Is' is an obvious highlight.… Constructed around a slowly descending bass scale the track is punctuated by female screams and wildly arrhythmic clicks. Expect [hiphop producer] Timbaland to reproduce something similar soon," he commented. "The sheer production ingenuity and Elephant's delivery, a sort of comically menacing lisp, is—at its best—staggering."
While Rolling Stone 's Kelefa Sanneh acknowledged that the DJ's style hadn't drastically changed since his earlier records, he still praised Elephant Man's gift for transforming the indigenous genre into pop music. "Elephant Man knows how to sink a hook into even the most hectic backing track, and by the time he's finished, his shamelessness (at one point, he remakes "Eye of the Tiger") just seems like a healthy fearlessness," Sanneh concluded.
Besides producing an impressive body of solo work, Bryan has also steadily contributed to American hiphop records. He appeared with Busta Rhymes on a remix of Lil Jon's "Get Low," on Mariah Carey's Charmbracelet, and on Missy Elliott's This is Not a Test! Regardless of his worldwide success, though, the much revered dancehall master, like Shabba Ranks and Bounty Killer before him, has dedicated plenty of his time to coaching and cultivating the talent of his hometown's youth to ensure both the music's future and his own artistic longevity. He is also committed to keeping the scene a peaceful one. He told the MTV website, "I wish for more unity among the artists. Everyone is arguing.… I want to change that through song and action."
For the Record …
Born O'Neil Bryan on September 11, 1974, in Kingston, Jamaica.
Mentored by artists Shabba Ranks and Bounty Killer in Seaview Gardens district of Kingston, Jamaica; formed Seaview Family and Scare Dem Crew, early 1990s; released Scared from the Crypt with Scare Dem Crew, 1999; released solo debut Comin 4 You, 2000; released Log On, 2001; released Good 2 Go, 2003.
(With Scare Dem Crew) Scared from the Crypt, TVT, 1999.
Comin 4 You, Greensleeves, 2000.
Log On, Greensleeves, 2001.
Good 2 Go, Atlantic, 2003.
Independent (London, England), December 5, 2003.
Rolling Stone, January 22, 2004.
"Elephant Man," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 2, 2004).
"Elephant Man," MTV, http://www.mtv.com/bands/az/elephant_man/bio.jhtml (March 2, 2004).
"Elephant Man/Good 2 Go," BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/urban/reviews/elephant_good2go.shtml (March 2, 2004).
Additional information was provided by Greensleeves publicity materials, 2001.
At birth Merrick showed no obvious signs of his later deformities, which began to emerge only after eighteen months. Disfiguring industrial diseases at that time produced a wide range of deformities, and this perhaps made Merrick's adolescent condition more acceptable. Certainly he was not so deformed as to prevent him from attending school until he was twelve. After that he worked for two years rolling cigars. However, the gradual deterioration of his right arm forced him to seek employment peddling goods from his father's haberdashery shop. Here his progressive abnormality worked against him, and Merrick entered Leicester workhouse ‘demonstrating his deformities’ to escape unemployment and his harsh stepmother. It was Merrick who decided to exhibit himself as a ‘freak’, turning his disorder to his advantage. The decision brought him to London and to the attention of the surgeon (later Sir) Frederick Treves, at the London Hospital; of the medical community; and of fashionable society.
Treves discovered Merrick in 1884 at a private view opposite the London Hospital. Appalled by the ‘most disgusting specimen of humanity’, Treves arranged to examine Merrick and presented his case to the London Pathological Society. Continuity was maintained: where Merrick had been exhibited to the public, now he was presented to the medical community by an ambitious Treves. The British Medical Journal felt Merrick was ‘a man who presented an extraordinary appearance, owing to a series of deformities’. His body was difficult to define (see figure). In his Reminiscences, Treves described Merrick as below average height with a limp caused by a childhood hip disease. He recorded an ‘enormous and misshapen head’ where a huge bony mass ‘like a loaf projected from the brow’ and ‘fungus-looking skin’ comparable to ‘brown cauliflower’. From the chest and buttocks ‘hung a bag of the same repulsive flesh’. Merrick's mouth was so deformed, with a jaw protruding ‘like a pink stump’, that he was unable to speak clearly. A trunklike growth had been removed while he was in the workhouse. The right arm was large, with the hand shaped liked a paddle and a thumb like a ‘radish’. Only his left arm and genitals were unaffected. In his early descriptions of Merrick, Treves was inclined to refer to him as ‘repellant’, ‘loathsome’, and ‘horrible’. From his appearance, Treves assumed Merrick was an imbecile, but he later discovered that he was intelligent and sensitive. Treves did not at that time rescue Merrick, who, with his self-exhibition hounded by the police, was bought by an Austrian who took him to Brussels. But he was too repugnant for continental tastes. Robbed of his savings, Merrick was abandoned to return to London, where he was admitted to the London Hospital in 1886 through Treves' intervention. A charitable appeal was made to pay for Merrick's care, and a room, known by some as the ‘Elephant House’, was provided in a quiet part of the hospital.
At the London, Merrick became a celebrity, an object of curiosity, visited by fashionable society women and royalty. Treves encouraged these visits to help normalize Merrick and arranged a trip to the theatre and a country holiday. In one sense, Merrick's time at the London can be seen as reflecting Victorian concerns to domesticize the savage. With cure out of the question, efforts were made to make Merrick comfortable. Daily baths removed the foul smell that had previously surrounded him.
In 1890 Merrick was found dead ‘lying across the bed’, with no signs of a struggle. His head had grown so large that he had to sleep in a ‘crouching position’ and at the time it was suggested that during an afternoon nap his head had fallen forwards onto his windpipe, suffocating him. Others, including Treves, argued that Merrick's head fell backwards, dislocating his neck when he attempted to sleep lying down: Merrick's urge to conform makes this probable.
Merrick was first described as a case of ‘congenital deformity’. In 1884 some speculations were made that he suffered from ‘dermatolysis’, a pendulous condition of the skin, combined with ‘pachydermatocele’, or tumours arising from an overgrowth of the skin, but no definite diagnosis was reached. It was not until 1909 that Parkes Weber retrospectively ‘diagnosed’ neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder where a failure of cellular control results in tumours of fibrous and nervous tissue. The disorder had been identified by von Recklinghausen in 1882, but in 1884 this was overlooked. Usually, however, neurofibromatosis produces relatively few visible signs. The diagnosis made Merrick extraordinary in degree but not in kind. Weber's view became widely accepted until 1986, when Tibbles and Cohen offered a different diagnosis. They suggested that Merrick exhibited signs of the ‘Proteus syndrome’, a term derived from Greek mythology and first used in 1983 to identify a disorder with varying and shifting manifestations. Tibbles and Cohen supported their diagnosis by explaining that there was no family history of neurofibromatosis, and argued that when Merrick was examined in 1885 there were no ‘café au lait spots’ — the patches of unusual skin pigmentation that are the clearest indication of neurofibromatosis, present in 99% of cases. For them it was evident that Merrick's condition was more grotesque than that associated with neurofibromatosis, while he had many features of Proteus syndrome; these include thickened skin and subcutaneous tissue; hypertrophy of long bones; and overgrowth of the skull. To press their diagnosis, a second case was described who was Merrick's double. The rediagnosis led to a remythologizing of Merrick, although those suffering from neurofibromatosis continued to be confronted with the stigma of the Elephant Man's disease.
Merrick was the Victorian ideal of a deserving cause: a man bowed down by a condition no fault of his own, willing to work and repay those kind to him with handmade gifts. He also challenged basic nineteenth-century assumptions about humanity and the divisions between man and animal. In the twentieth century his deformity came to symbolize something different, showing that it is mind that matters more than appearance.