Buju Banton - Biography
Buju Banton is one of the most significant DJs to come out of the Jamaican dancehall scene. Born Mark Anthony Myrie, he was inspired to pick up the microphone (and choose his monkiker) at Burro Bantons’s sound system dances. In turn he went on to inspire DJs who followed like Mega Banton and even Anthony B, who began his DJ career as Anthony Banton. Buju quickly developed a style all his own; scoring big first at dances and then on disc. With rude boy lyrics about guns, girls and ganga, he went straight to the top of the charts while still just a boy. During this period he recorded a song which stirred up enough controversy to haunt his career to this day.
Buju was born in 1973. By his early teens he was hanging out at the sound system dances, toasting when given the opportunity. He was thirteen when he cut his first record and by the dawn of the ‘90s he’d recorded for Striker Lee (“That A the Lick”), Digital B (“The Grudge”), Rude Boy Kelly (“Parafin”) and several other producers before ending up on Donovan Germain’s Penthouse label where he went on to enjoy his greatest success. One record “Love Mi Browning,” implied a preference for light-skinned women and provided Banton with his first controversy. In response, Banton released “Love Black Woman.” Mr. Mention (1993 Polygram) collects singles from this period which range from the sensual (“Look How the Gal Dem Flex”) to the naughty (“Dickie”) to tracks like “How the World A Run” and “Who Say” (with Beres Hammond) which give provide a glimpse of what was to come.
The Jamaican music industry is no stranger to youth exploitation where artists like Max Romeo and even Bob Marley recorded some pretty dicey material when they were boys. Whether they were taken advantage of by producers simply looking to market kids singing adult themes is debatable. What happened next is not. Just as Buju Banton was booked to play a large festival and make an appearance on the Tonight Show, an older recording made when he was sixteen was re-released, “Boom Bye Bye,” immediately stirred controversy with its lyrics about murdering homosexuals. Activists in England and the US responded immediately.
Buju Banton wasn’t the only artist caught up in this controversy. Shabba Ranks (who rushed to defend Banton) and Capleton added fuel to the fire with their own homophobic lyrics and inflammatory remarks. Buju’s international appearances were canceled. Buju made a public apology and attempted to make amends in the form of an AIDS benefit. A pro-safe sex song, “Willy (Don’t Be Silly)” was offered to little avail. The vehemence of the original song and questionable handling of the crisis (interviews given in Jamaica seemed at odds with statements made in America) opened a wound that arguably, still hasn’t fully healed.
Banton re-emerged more mature, thoughtful and introspective. It was in this guise (that of a dreadlocked, Ethiopian flag-flying spiritualist) that Buju Banton made another bid for international acclaim. He recorded the three greatest successive dancehall albums ever issued (comparable to Dylan’s triumvirate of “Highway 61,” “Blonde On Blonde” and “Nashville Skyline”). Voice of Jamaica (1993 Mercury), ‘Til Shiloh (1995 Island) and Inna Heights (1997 VP) were all produced by Donovan Germain. It’s no coincidence the first of these discs opened with a song called “Searching” and (though there are a couple of throwbacks to the sexual innuendo of old in the form of “Good Body” and “Wicked Act”) new songs like “Commitment,” the stunning “Deportees (Things Change),” “No Respect” and “Operation Ardent” are powerful blasts that combine Germain’s seductive rhythm tracks with the early nineties DJ style Buju developed to perfection.
Til Shiloh was even better. “Untold Stories,” “Til I’m Laid To Rest,” “Complaint” with Garnett Silk and “Murderer” are among the all-time great reggae songs in any style and Banton’s voice and delivery are impeccable. His use of melody is so strong that to this day Banton-influenced DJs in Jamaica combine singing and chatting in a manner referred to as “sing-jay.” What Banton did on this disc is comparable to what Bob Marley did in his music and if ever a museum is set up to celebrate dancehall, Buju Banton should be represented somewhere very near the entryway. Buju Banton may not have been one of dancehall’s inventors, but his innovations influenced all that followed.
By the release of Inna Heights (1997 VP) Banton had moved into the Jamaican mainstream where his duets with Marcia Griffiths, Beres Hammond and others were on heavy rotation on IRIE-FM. His shows created excitement wherever he toured. The album itself blew apart the world of reggae with songs like “Destiny” (a genius re-working of a song snippet from Bob Marley & the Wailers’ ska days), “Hills and Valleys,” “Give I Strength” and “Close One Yesterday.” If one album was needed to show to show all that’s good about dancehall, this was it. Reissued recently in a Tenth Anniversary Edition (2007 VP) and featuring duets with Toots Hibbert, Jah Mali and Morgan Heritage (as well as the contemporaneous single “Politics Time Again” among the bonus tracks) this album has yet to be topped by Banton’s peers.
In fact, not even Buju could touch it though he made an excellent attempt with Unchained Spirit (1999 Epitaph). It featured Penthouse productions from Donovan Germain, Tony Kelly and Buju himself (among others). Guest artists included Gramps of Morgan Heritage (on the excellent “23rd Psalm”), Beres Hammond (with the huge hit “Pull It Up”), Luciano, Wayne Wonder (on “Reunion”) and Stephen Marley. Other inspired songs include “Sudan,” “Law and Order” and a stunning Buju-ization of “Better Must Come.” The disc was also a good representation of the quality of his live performance at the time. One particularly beautiful track is “No More Misty Days” with guest stars Rancid.
If Buju’s story had ended there it would stand as an example of considerable intellectual, spiritual and artistic growth as well as the unifying power of love. But many of Banton’s fans still love him for the songs that first established him like “Love How the Gal Dem Flex,” “Good Looking Gal” and “Hotness.” Even as late as 2001 “Boom Bye Bye” was included on anthologies like The Early Years 90-95 (2001 Penthouse). Misleadingly, early work was repackaged with later photos on Gonna Bring Ya (2000 Remark).
Friends For Life (2003 VP) was co-produced by Donovan Germain and Buju Banton. It has some nice tracks like “Mama Africa,” “Up Ye Mighty Race” and “Spectacular” although they don’t match the genius of his best work, as may be expected. After all, other DJs from this era have had an even harder time sustaining careers. The sheer vocal stress created by shouting for a living puts a dent in the impact of even the most striking voice after ten years. Compare some of Sizzla’s recent albums to his early records for Phillip ‘Fatis’ Burrell’s Exterminator as another example.
But Buju Banton is an artist with considerable resiliency and the proven ability to bounce back. Too Bad (2006 Gargamel) marked a new triumph when Banton recorded for his own, newly established label. It should come as no surprise that earthy songs like “Waistline,” “Try Offa Yuh” or “Girl U Know” appear alongside conscious material like “Fast Lane” and “Better Day Coming” in a move designed both to showcase his versatility and appeal to his varied audience.
Buju Banton: The Ultimate Collection (2001 Hip-O) is a nice gathering of the artist’s work that balances dancehall hits with some of his more introspective tracks. Even better is 2003's Best of Buju Banton for the same label as it draws liberally from the classic Germain productions and includes the superb duet “Give I Strength” with Ras Shiloh. An excellent CD single, “Magic City” (Gargamel) from the forthcoming album Rasta Got Soul indicates we have not heard the last (perhaps not even the best) of Buju Banton.