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I revisited Mavado's debut album this week and decided it's a classic. Here's why...

So, I revisited Mavado's debut album, Gangster for Life: The Symphony of David Brooks, this week. Released seven years ago this month (how fast has time gone?), the album is exactly what it says it is - a quintessential biographical gangster album. One of my favourite albums of all time. One of the greatest dancehall albums of all time. In fact, there hasn't been a dancehall album this good ever since.  I'm not sure this is certified and celebrated the way it should be. This is probably due to dancehall not being an album-driven genre, but also because we're a silent culture when it comes to celebrating classic music moments.

At the top of the album, the narrator announces "This CD is rated G for Gangster, it' audio contains graphic lyrics manifested and inspired by authentic ghetto experiences. Served with infectious melodies." Really and truly, I can end this post here. That is exactly what this album is. Gangster lifestyle anthems, introspective gangster anthems, aspirational gangster anthems, gangster anthems about girls… Everything is a gangster anthem.

Alas, I won't stop there. The next interlude is great anticipation builder. Some triumphant sounding shit with Mavado saying his catchphrases "Anywayeeee" and "Gaaangsta for lii-ife" with a couple gun shots and explosions thrown in for good measure. Then what happens? In kicks the punchy synths on the Anger Management riddim. This just carries on the build. All gun fingers are in the air now.

"Real McKoy" is the song which brought the young singjay Mavado to prominence. Anger Management is one of the last riddims featuring the Bounty Killer-led Alliance at their peak - including Vybz Kartel who delivered four cuts on the riddim.

Back to "Real McKoy," what a statement of intent this is for the first song on the album. "Dem nuh real McKoy/ They just some baby boy/ Them ah talk me nah've time fi chat bwoy/ Gun in a mi hand, prepare fi shot bwoy, yo." That's the chorus. First line is "You can't come pon man ends and tell me 'bout gun down/ You musty want your tabernacle get bu'n." (Slightly translated.) Quotable's like "No knowledge, no wisdom/ Tell him say fist-to-fist done." Yeah? "You can't charge badman pon no house bruk ins. Can't charge man for no  car scrapings." Weaponry shopping? "15 million mi bring go gun shopping/ You can't take 9 cah mi nuh fire small strappings." Punishment? "Last bwoy diss the big man we kidnap him/ Tie him round a light post, ah same place me gas him. Who tell him fi see Mavado and try fi test him/ Hollow point and black blunt laid fi rest him."

Man. That second verse is fire. Then as if that wasn't enough, they blend in "Full Clip" which featured fellow Alliance member Busy Signal. These two gelled so well. Better than I feel two singjay's are supposed to on paper. They both pick up where the other left off, really fluid interaction between them. Busy adopts a more hyper-aggressive stick up kid role, whereas Mavado is the laid-back head honcho.

"Full clip gonna stick when we run out/ Mi three-star me use and cut your fuxking tongue out."

"You want see how the youth weh step out inna black work/ When man a take it to the street just like a clockwork/ Push mi hood inna ya gal ah so mi cock work/ Bakka! Bakka! So mi block work, no stop work."

The second verse which Mavaodo uses more as a bridge "Do the crime not the time/ Mark Shields say these guns amaze him," is such a serious lyric.

So you're fully hyped right now, right? Thinking ok, let me calm down for a second cos that was too much. What do they hit you with? The international breakout anthem, "Weh Dem A Do" that put Mavado on the map everywhere. What is there to say about this song? One of the greatest builds in dancehall this decade. Great in its simplicity of rolling drums, some synth stabs provided by a 16-year old wonder kid, Stephen "Di Genius" McGregor. Mavado hollers the catchphrases "Anyway, gangster for life. Anywayeeee. Anyway, yeah." Dazzitt. But it gets everyone hyped. It drops and what does Mavado have the nerve to say?

"Weh dem ah do? Weh dem ah try? Marrow will fly-yiy-yiy into the sky." Who does that?! "Guns mi nuh burrow. Mi money buy. A boy will die-ie-ie-ie-ie-ie." What a chorus. The melody is so sweet yet, in contrast, the lyrics are so evil. Then something Mavado had on lock back then was the ability to hook you with a punchline right at the beginning. He doesn't let us down here. "Mi nuh take talk/ Send boy body to the grave park."

Ok, so now it's time to calm down. A voice of a Godly character says some spiritual stuff. I always guessed it's meant to be his actual father who was murdered, but now I'm not sure if it's his dad or God. Either its that. Next song was one that was unfamiliar to me at the time, "They Fear Me". Again, hook at the beginning. "Mi know dem sit down and are dying to hear I'm dead… to laugh and nyam the fish and bread but/ I'm sipping Hennessy and smoking a big head/ And have them girl inna mi bed."

The Daseca-produced anthem introduces the next phase of the album - a more introspective, fearful and honest side. No gangster album can be classic without the vulnerable side. "They Fear Me" is aimed at those who were jealous (or in Jamaica they say "badmind") of his newfound success.

He claims "Mi album out now/ Everybody know me/ Corrupted cops out a road ah try them best fi slew me/ And ah say the same way mi daddy dead dem a go do me/ And a plan up with my enemies to put some copper through me." Quite fitting when you check what happened a few years later causing him to flee Jamaica after a friend was killed by an off-duty policeman. Mavado claims the police man really wanted him.

Being the spiritual guy most Jamaicans/dancehall artists are, he says a prayer, asking the father to forgive them. Really poignant

In comes the Father guy (that's what we'll call him. Either Father God or Father Brooks), providing segue into the next song. "A true gangster lives by these principles; we are now our elders. Protect our women and children, and respect the innocent. A true gangster's main focus is money. Money without respect in our business equals death."

Wanna know the relevance? Mavado's spoken intro is: "We've got to make the money. That's most of us hopes and dreams. Don't go out and bow for it. Go in the streets and struggle for it. Even if it means you have to smuggle for it." Next song is "I was dreaming that I'm floating on a thousand dollar bill/ And if you touch my paper/ And fuxk my dream up/ Then you're gonna get killed."

Money-by-any-means-until-the-ends-meet anthem. For me personally, I remember where I heard this song. Morant Bay as I was walking out of food shop, Mothers. I'd heard all the hype songs until this point, but this was the first I heard the character. I knew he'd be in the game for a long time when I heard this.

While the first verse is way to money-by-any-means ("Music is my money or ganja mi ah sell/ Or mi gone pon a robbery and left crazy spent shell") but don't sell out/compromise your morals (in a warped way this make sense) with lines such as "Some boy make true the money/ Them back part them go sell," the second, more important verse, explains why. "Mi need the money for daughter and son, because mi/ Try fi look ah work and them turn mi down." Explaining cause-and-effect is key in gangster albums.

Father comes in and breaks down the base again, "People fear what they don't overstand, and for this reason they will try to end your life. Beware my son."

"Mama even if them kill me/ Don't cry they could never take the G from me." is the chorus. Powerful hook in the beginning of the first verse: "Born pon the gully and we never choose it/ We never come see no riches/ Ah only music." Once again, cause-and-effect.

"Just like the African shaker and the Congo music/ The Rastaman them bu'n them fire, I do gangster music." Lines like these were necessary as they were endearing. At this point of him recording and releasing this song, many people only knew him for "Marrow will fly," type lyrics he'd become associated with. "I man have to make a living for my family/ Need to make give some money to my mummy/ But true mi sing, weh dem ah do? Dem try fi pressure me/ Unuh (You guys) lucky, unuh see the best of me."

Second verse expounds on the accusations of his violent lyrics and hoping they would come back to harm him (as it did when he cut his fingers during an altercation with police which he points out). Song ends with a mock interview addressing the critics about his lyrics, naming Government and heads of Government as people who can't tell him what to say. "If they want me to stop sing what I am singing they need to stop acting how they're acting," he says to the officials. Religious leaders weren't speared his fire either. "God says we shouldn't judge no man… How you go on radio and say I'm the son of the Devil and they're meant to be Christians?" (I'm paraphrasing and translating, by the way.) "Any hatred or anger that I big up inside of me it's them who made it happen. That means they are the devil then." Whether you agree or disagree, he's expressing realness.

Sadly, I'm not sure the message comes across due to Nikki Z's bubbly personality. Would've been more poignant if they were cut samples and presented differently. Nikki Z has a light entertainment tone in the interview instead of a more serious one.

"No one knows my struggle/ They don't know my trouble/ Son you must go on/ Because your mother loves you," opens the next song. While "Dreamin'" was an important song to me personally, "Dying" is the true song to seal Mavado's legacy based on how popular it became. More people got to hear the message of this one, even reaching popular New York hip hop station Hot 97's playlist.

The re-vocalled version minus the 2Pac lyrics "Back in elementary I thrived on misery/ Left me alone amongst a dying breed/ Inside my mind couldn't find a place to rest/ Until I got that Thug Life tatted on my chest," bit wasn't as hooky, but I still think it's solid. "See I'm not asking for trouble I'm just asking, Lord/ When the enemies come to take me to the grave park/ Let the first shot they fire pierce my heart, Lord/ 'Cos I'd rather be a memory than a retard." C'mon, that's gangster 101. Slept-on because it wasn't as good as the first version.

To me, classics aren't just about the material. We'll get on to what made the material great a bit later because the material is the foundation, roots and stem for a classic. One thing that makes this a classic is the time stamps. The standout moments which lived away from listening to the album. The things that, even if you didn't buy or listen to the album, you were aware of and made an impression. This is crucial in separating undisputed classics from personal/group/niche favourites.

(Not in order of importance. More to help explain trajectory of his career.)

First moments were the Real McKoy and Full Clip on Anger Management. They introduced a new wave on the dancehall scene. A darker one than had been seen in the years leading up to. Before dancing pioneer Mr. Bogle's untimely death in 2005, dancehall was more about the happy vibe, dancing and girls. After his death came the one drop, introspective, conscious Noughties reggae revival. Enter Mavado, the whole thing turned dark and gunman centric. For better or worse, it's what happened.

Second moment is "Weh Dem A Do". This song not only further cemented his arrival, if not introduced himself on a wider scale, it also introduced the soon-to-be standout producer, Stephen "Di Genius" McGregor. The dark, faster, grimier sound matched with Mavado's dark content worked in perfect harmony as evidenced by album tracks "Amazing Grace", "Top Shotta Nuh Miss", and non-album tracks "Chat Too Much", "Warn Dem" and "How High". The BPM (speed/tempo) of Stephen's riddims were faster than dancehall and the album's prominent producers, Daseca's, so added contrast.

Third moment is "Last Night". Until this point, the old guard wouldn't have connected with Mavado's ability as the riddims weren't to their understand or taste. Daseca re-licked the omnipotent Showtime riddim. Showtime is a landmark 90s riddim by Dave Kelly, one every sound man has dubplates on, one every dancehall deejay must be able to handle to prove his worth. This has been re-licked and sampled on numerous occasions. Mavado delivered an anthem of anthems. One that lives longer and stronger than Beenie Man and Bounty Killer's best war tunes for each other this century that also feature on the riddim.

American director Mr/Little X made the video because he loved the song. I don't know for sure but I'm pretty sure this sealed him in New York. Straight Yardie badman anthem. "And a say them no want/ Thump me in the face but the fools the can't/ Me give them copper fi cha, mi no shoot to Jah/ Straight head shot bwoy get murder," leads to the chorus "Mi tell you 'bout the gun mi buss last night!" Remember I said about hooks in the opening lines of the verse? "Fuxking cops always after me/ Kill me if they could but I didn't let them catch me." Loveable, untouchable villain in two lines delivered with so much charm. You can picture the smile on his face upon escape then boasting to his mates.

Fourth moment is "Dying". Daseca managed to get most of the emotive tracks from Mavado. Not sure how they worked (whether the beat spoke to him or producers did), but I know it worked! This is to Mavado's debut album and career what "Many Men" is to Get Rich or Die Tryin' and 50 Cent. That's said without an ounce of hyperbole, full on real talk. The song that makes most of what preceded it even if only slightly more acceptable. The "Maybe he isn't this evil guy without a conscience" song proving they aren't one-dimensional.

Fifth moment is "Squeeze Breast", more to the point "(She say she want me) Squeeze her breast them like the trigger of my gun." Artists with the badman persona sometimes lose their edge when making girl tunes. They sound more like a song by numbers to get the most dominant audience when we want a gangster singing about women. And that's exactly what this is.

Other notable moment is "Gully Side". "Mi no gone nowhere… Yo, the gangsta deh ya pon di gully side/ If you want know where fi find me/ Shoot informer make them hold the side," subliminally aimed at Vybz Kartel ("New name fi informer, Mister Palmer."). This is before the Gully vs Gaza beef really took flight. Gaza was known as Borderline back then. This song followed the Mavado vs Vybz Kartel war on Powercut riddim round 2 and the Drumline riddim. Some saw Mavado as the loser. This is probably a response to that. "Make we keep the music real, cos we no/ Want fi turn it in no battlefield because a/ If a real war we no response/ Gangster's a rise K's and beat up the six pants [M-16]," also leads me to that way of thinking. Once again, gangster with a conscience.

(P.s. I'm pretty sure this the first song he shouted out the Gully side. I'm struggling to think of an earlier one.)

Just to wrap the rest of the album:

"Touch Di Road" is just an out-and-out road anthem. Great build, solid intro ("Send bwoy to them resting place/ Haskel shot inna face"), big sing along chorus "When gangsters touch di road/ The clip them load/ Brain touch the cloud/ I'm very proud/ [sing along] ai-i ai-i i-i-i… When me done with him not even jancrow want him.) and hook opening line of first verse ("Tell them, mi nuh somebody fi them play with/ Mama warn your son 'bout the friend them that him stray with"). It's a joyous gangster anthem celebrating the erasure of your enemy.

(There's another line to Vybz Kartel on this. "The bwoy nuh stop drop word but me nah watch that/ Him father is a fish, so mi know say is a sprat that.")

"Me and My Dogs" is a thrilling gangster tale. One of the best storytelling songs in Mavado's catalogue which sets it apart from all the other gangster anthems. Leads with a spiritual chant asking for Selassie's protection before detailing his enemies reasons (badmind/jealousy/haters) for, well, being enemies ("Nuff ah grudge me for the songs them weh me sing…"), then involves his mates on a 'We're in this thing together' ("Me and my dawgs ever strapped/ Them stay beside me them no have mi back") then recalls the events of that day.

This song was so big, it took away from Damian Marley's song on the same riddim. Damian Marley was on fire with "Welcome To Jamrock" commercially and his talent is outstanding. That's how powerful Mavado was at that moment.

"Ah him first start it now him run go to the supe (Superintendent)/ When them see me make a mad step with me and my troops." You see, reason then action. "Plus the devil is a fuxking slave to my fuxking clique" is up there with the most evil lyric Mavado ever said. "The fuxkers get me cross and no me rise the evil stick." Again, providing action for his (over?)reaction.

"Heartbeat" is probably the only skippable song. It's the song I said gangsters usually make by numbers, but the girls them loved it when I saw him perform in Stratford Rex in 2008. More like an r&b-styled song.

"Sadness" is a fitting tribute for his father. Sits on a more roots reggae riddim produced by the man behind Sizzla's classic Da Real Thing, a lot of Shabba's classics and many other massive contributions. One of few times Mavado has been on a riddim like that to this day. Right sound for his superior as elders listen to reggae like it.

Rounded off by the "I'm a product of my environment, let me take you on a ride through my mind and area," track "Born and Raised". He spills his heart out on this one, sharing the ills of the society he sees around him and encourages the people living in situations like his that they can make it out. There's a way out. Even though the politicians don't want them to make it out, there's a way and their current situation will teach them the ways of life to get out.

See, all classic albums need turbulent times in life. Mavado's grew up surrounded by gangsters in the gully combined with his rapid rise to superstardom (he broke through in 2005 and was driving a customised Range Rover by 2007. (Now he has a mansion in the hills).), members of Government against him, smear campaigns by the media and badmind people on the roads helped shape one of the greatest moments. Put that with someone who knew how to express his feelings - both lyrically (honesty and punchy) and vocally (melodies and tone) - amongst top producers (Daseca, Di Genius, Don Corleon, Baby G and Bobby Digital) who were able to convey his message musically equals this beautiful, classic moment caught on record for us all to revisit forevermore.


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