Beenie Man was only 5 when he took the stage for his first performance, and at 10 he ran away from home and released his first album, “The Invisible Beenie Man, Ten Year Old Boy Wonder.”
Twenty years later, Beenie Man, born Anthony Moses Davis in a tough neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, is king of the dancehall reggae scene.
His trademark “zagga zow!” has spiced hits like “Girls Dem Sugar” and “Who Am I?”, even as dancehall — think rapid-fire reggae raps, not Bob Marley — percolated under the mainstream radar. But now that dancehall “riddims” have penetrated pop radio, Beenie Man has become a name-brand artist worldwide, working with everyone from Janet Jackson to the Neptunes.
Now comes his latest album, “Back To Basics,” which was released last week and includes the hit single “Dude.” The 30-year-old superstar spoke to The Associated Press by phone from his European tour about soccer, homophobia and being lost in translation.
AP: Do you feel dancehall reggae is finally getting mainstream attention?
Beenie: I feel like Jamaican music has been here and that people are taking notice of it. I feel like I have help now. There are other artists like Elephant Man, Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder who take the sound to people and let them hear. It is finally getting respect.
AP: Who has more hits, you or Sean Paul?
Beenie: What? That is no question. Sean Paul might be the man who many know, the one who take the music to that big stage. Beenie Man is the one who DJ (dancehall performers call themselves DJs) long time. The one when you say you dancehall, you say Beenie Man.
AP: Which artists do you listen to or enjoy seeing perform?
Beenie: I like R. Kelly. I think that he is a musical genius for this time. I also like Kanye West. I would like to work with them both.
AP: Is it weird that people love your music but often have no idea what you are saying?
Beenie: It’s all “riddims.” Rhythm is universal. They love the way Beenie Man sound. People know how to enjoy groove, no matter where you are. Jamaica, Europe, America, Asia — people feel good music in their spirit. It moves them. It’s something that connects.
AP: What’s the recipe for “Girls Dem Sugar”?
Beenie: Beenie Man is the recipe. My music make the ladies move and they look so sweet. They smell so sweet. They dance so sweet. That’s what my music is all about.
AP: What does “zagga zow” mean?
Beenie: It’s what I say when I DJ.
AP: Yes, but does it mean anything?
Beenie: Not really. It’s riddim, something DJ say in a song. It means it’s time to party. You hear that and you know it’s Beenie Man.
AP: What’s your response to the recent incident [in London] where a show was canceled after protests about homophobic lyrics in your songs?
Beenie: I showed up and the promoter said that it was canceled, no show. We wanted to do it. I didn’t cancel it. The powers thought it a bad thing.
AP: Do you feel like it was an overreaction?
Beenie: They have to do what they feel will make it best. I live in Jamaica. I can’t tell them how to live or what to decide. I just do the shows.
AP: Do you feel that your material or, for example, Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye Bye” (which talks about shooting gays) reflect cultural differences?
Beenie: The music reflects how Jamaican people see it. I think there are things that are a part of Caribbean culture just like any other culture in the world. Everybody has their way of life. People have beliefs and that comes from who they are. The music come from that.
AP: Where is your favorite place to vacation?
Beenie: I like to be at home, in Jamaica. I have my studio at my home, my chef. I go out and play [soccer] in the fields. It’s beautiful, make me never want to leave.
AP: What do you think about Freddy Adu?
AP: Freddy Adu, the 14-year old soccer sensation.
Beenie: I never heard of him. He play in America?
AP: He’s from Africa and plays for D.C. United, a team in America. He’s the highest paid player here and is only a teenager.
Beenie: I don’t think anything. I never see him.
AP: What’s the very first thing that you do when you get off the road?
Beenie: I like to be at home and spend time with my family.
AP: How many children do you have?
Beenie: Five children. The oldest one is 12; the youngest one is 3.
AP: How do they deal with you being gone so much?
Beenie: They don’t like it, but they know that this is what I do. They understand what my job is. I’ve been doing this so long, it’s all they know.