It’s funny. When you train in any kind of aerobic activity, you hear music in your head. I’d hear songs in my head, and I’ve always loved music. At age 15, I thought I’d be a producer. I pressured my mom to buy me a broken keyboard that I saw, and she bought that for me in hopes that I would take piano lessons. But I stopped going to piano lessons. I wanted to play what I heard in my head. At age 17, I started rhyming and decided that I wanted to be an artist instead. I wanted to be a conscious artist who made people think. My focus changed once I did a party song—or a “girls’ song,” as we call it—and it blew up. It was called “Baby Girl.” It’s not on any album, but I was riffing on “99 Red Balloons.”
I read that you went to a Jewish school in Jamaica. How did that happen, and what was it like?
Hillel Academy. It’s funny. I would say it’s an upscale school, and they didn’t enforce Jewish laws, or you didn’t have to be a Jewish person to go to the school—even though you did get off on Jewish holidays, so everybody was like “Yom Kippur!” and everybody else was like, “That’s not fair!” It was a real melting pot for me. It was like “it’s a small world after all.”
You’ve had some incredible collaborations. Do you have favorites—and least favorites?
[Laughs] I won’t mention the not-favorite ones, but I do have those. Some of my favorites… I would say Busta Rhymes, because I looked up to him, and to be able to do two songs with him—“Gimme the Light” and “Make It Clap (Remix)”—he had Jamaican roots, and I just felt like I was entering into a bigger club musically. Rihanna was another favorite. At the time, if I was doing a collab with anybody, I would always have to go to where they are, but with Rihanna, I met her on tour and she was like, “Yo, I love Kingston. I want to go to Jamaica.” So, she came, and the first place she wanted to go was the Bob Marley Museum. She went there and soaked it all in.
You got to give Rihanna a tour of Jamaica. That is awesome.
Yah mon. Beach, club, studio. She stayed there for like five days. That was very memorable, because I never got to show anybody in the biz how we do it at home. That just felt special to me. That song [“Break It Off”] It went to No. 7 on the Billboard even though no label pushed it.
OK but what was the actual highlight of giving Rihanna a tour of Jamaica?
Smoking on the beach, mon! We have a cay called Lime Cay, so my friend has a boat, and he took us out there. It was good! The waves were choppy, and you know I had to get the jet ski going.
One of your most memorable collaborations was “Baby Boy” with Beyoncé. I read that she was a big fan of yours and started attending a bunch of your shows at that time.
She had a few hits with Destiny’s Child, and they would do the Caribbean, but we didn’t really hang out. I’d always admired her music and she’s beautiful. So, when I heard Beyoncé was stepping out on her own and wanted me to do a single, I was like “Hell fucking yeah.” I thought it was going to be R&B, but it ended up being dancehall, so that made me go off. That was a bangin’ track, mon.
“I’d always admired her music and she’s beautiful. So, when I heard Beyoncé was stepping out on her own and wanted me to do a single, I was like, “Hell fucking yeah.”
It also made you the subject of a very big internet rumor that you and Beyoncé were seeing each other.
We had to have a speak about it.
Yeah. So, we only performed the song three times together—ever.
That’s not a lot.
Exactly. It was huge. It was nine weeks at No. 1, all over MTV and BET, magazines, everywhere. I had some people who were working with me for years and they were like “Boss—I’m now a fan of yours.” I was like “Now?!” But we had just three performances, and one was at Reggae Sumfest. At the time, we were both on the Rock the Mic Tour. This was 2003. She wasn’t on it every day, but she would come on certain dates and do the song [“Crazy in Love”] with Jay. One day, we left to do the video and then played Sumfest. That was the first time. The second time was in L.A., and a strange thing happened—and I think that’s what started the rumors. Strange things started to happen at the performances, which was weird. We went to L.A. and I did my show and then she was performing, and they told me to stick around because we’ll do “Baby Boy.” We do it and I run out there and the crowd goes wild, but after a while it seems like I lost their energy. And it’s weird because I was going wild out there. When the song finished, I came backstage and my own band was all pissed off, like “Man, that’s fucked up. You heard yourself? We couldn’t hear you in the crowd. Your mic was off.” I was like, “How the fuck did that happen?”
Do you think that was sabotage?
I didn’t think so then. But then when the thing happened in Scotland, that’s when we had the talk, because the rumors got really crazy. I landed in Scotland and it was this MTV event, and there were paparazzi everywhere. We ended up doing the rehearsal and everything was good, and the performance was going to be where I come up from under the stage, and then we both walk to a big center thing in the middle of the stadium which was surrounded by fire. That all happens, and then it reaches my part—“You’re a top, top, girl”—and the track keeps going, “Baby boy, you stay…” “Baby boy, you stay…” Just repeating. I was like, “What’s going on here!?” She was pissed and was like “I need to speak to you.” So, we go back and talk and she’s like “What’s all these rumors about?” and I’m like “Yo, I’m not saying shit,” and she’s like “These rumors fuck with my career. I just want you to know that.” I was like “They don’t fuck with mine. So, listen: I met Jay before you and we was friends, so me and him should talk. If he feels a way about that, then we should talk, because it’s not coming from me.”