Shaggy and Sting: My half hour with a baffling duo
Good things come to those who wait. While none of us were particularly waiting for it, Shaggy and Sting have just released an album together. In anticipation of this newfound and slightly puzzling bromance, one of our journalists interviewed the duo for what ended up being a very surreal half hour.
I find myself singing the same line under my breath as I walk up the Champs-Élysées, notebook in hand, questions in notebook. Unusually for me (unusually for most people, I imagine), it's from a song by Shaggy and Sting. The duo have just released their unexpected new album 44/876. In the song, Sting sings about dreaming of swimming in the “Caribbean sea” and Shaggy responds with a generous: “Come and spend some time, family.”
The day before, my editor sends me the following message: “If you’re interested in doing an ‘experience’ article tomorrow, there’s going to be a round-table discussion with Sting and Shaggy at 5:30 pm. They are coming out with an album. Could be lols if you’re interested?”
All of a sudden, in a bizarre life twist, I find myself sitting at my kitchen table with the surreal task of having to prepare questions for Gordon “Sting” Sumner, former lead singer and bassist of The Police and a 16 time Grammy award winner, and Orville “Shaggy” Burrell, the man who brought the world “Mr. Boombastic” and “It Wasn’t Me”. (Cue moment of reflective silence for the other guy in that song, Rikrok, who featured without a namecheck. Nightmare for Rikrok.)
“Is this a joke?”
The story goes that Sting was originally supposed to lay down backing vocals for just one of Shaggy’s new tracks, but they got on so well that they decided to team up and make an album together. They barely knew each other a year or so beforehand. Sting, who has a history of impressive collaborations with artists like Mary J. Blige, Bryan Adams and Craig David, released his last record 57th & 9th in 2016 to mixed reviews. It was his first rock album in 13 years. Shaggy’s last album Summer in Kingston, released in 2011, peaked at 141 in the US charts.
After performing their new single “Don’t Make Me Wait” at the Grammys as well as the Superbowl warm-up show, Shaggy and Sting are touring Europe to promote 44/876. I’ll be joined by two other journalists, one from PureCharts.fr and the other from a reggae radio station called Party Time (neither of which I’ve heard of). We will have half an hour to speak to them, and I've got a day to prepare.
The first thing I do is Google their new single to see if anything has been written about this somewhat absurd collaboration. There is a fluff piece on Billboard's website, a behind-the-scenes-relaxed-dudes-at-the-studio feature in Rolling Stone, and two paragraphs on Spin pointing out that Sting's electric guitar is unplugged in the video as he sits strumming away next to Shaggy on the hood of a Jeep. “Is this a joke?” the article ends.
Lots of the reviews describe the music as “island-inflected”, or “Caribbean-influenced”, a euphemistic way of skirting round calling it reggae, presumably because no-one really knows how to categorise what’s going on. Namely, the confusing sight of Sting riding through the streets of Kingston in an open top four by four. Later, when I show the video to friends, their general reaction is either to cringe or to look away. I then go on to read the press pack. The photos are great. The two of them on motorbikes look like a real force to be reckoned with. And I don’t know what’s going on in the second this one.
There’s a great part in the press pack where Shaggy is described as “perhaps the definition of a renaissance man” and then as “humble”. I learn that 44/876, the country codes for the UK and Jamaica (which doesn’t stop it being a terrible name), is craftily scheduled to be released on April 20th, also known worldwide as International Cannabis Day. Sick marketing strategy, guys.
Top hats and white leather
I call my editor on the way to the interview. The brief is simple: stir things up, take the piss and ask left-field questions. Prod the two old codgers, basically, and see what they come out with.
There is a porter in a top hat and dark pea coat standing at the entrance of the Hotel Royal Monceau. It’s the kind of place where dads and teenagers take selfies with parked-up supercars, probably wearing gilets. A minute up the road is the Arc de Triomphe, which stands, quietly imposing, in the light of dusk. I walk up to the mahogany reception desk. The receptionist looks up from his screen and says: “Are you here for the Sting interview?” I smile. The whole place is chrome and deep-pile carpet. It smells of subtle, expensive cologne. I take a lift up one floor and, after passing through a hell-scape of wooden elk sculptures, come to a room with dark wooden walls, four white leather chairs and a matching leather sofa. It smells of carpet. There is a small drinks stand in the corner with an arbitrary selection of tea bags and sticks of sugar. Three men and one woman are chatting.
Nina from Polydor Records introduces herself, and points me towards the drinks. She seems nice. Pouring out fizzy water, I introduce myself to Judah, a tall, white guy with dreadlocks and a beanie. He introduces me to his mate Flo, who has shorter hair and a camera hanging round his neck. They are from Party Time radio, Judah says. He's French, but from his English it sounds like he's spent time in the Caribbean.
I sit down next to a blonde guy, the other journalist. His name is Yohan, and he’s from PureCharts.fr. He's gone all out for the big occasion, double denim, which I instantly respect. Judah and I are in the middle of explaining to him that 4/20 is International Weed Day when Shaggy walks in. We fall silent and look over at him. He's wearing a red and black checkered shirt that’s frayed at the bottom, big brown boots, and a black leather jacket. "Where's he at?" he asks. "He's coming." Shaggy rolls his eyes. "Fuck that guy!" he says, and grins. We all laugh. "Nice to meet you," Yohan says, extending a hand. "What's going on," Shaggy replies in his American accent. "Nice to meet you Shaggy," I say, which sounds ridiculous coming out of my mouth. He turns to Judah: "Wagwan general?" Judah, understandably, is well chuffed with that. The two reminisce about a wild night Shaggy spent with Party Time on a previous visit to Paris.
In walks Sting wearing a long grey cardigan, skinny jeans and those unbranded designer trainers celebrities wear. “Nice to meet you Sting,” I say, unable to shake the habit. He shakes everyone’s hands. The white leather chairs we settle into are thin, they smell new. Shaggy smiles at us: “This is gangster business right now.” He is jet-lagged, but clearly trying to put us all at ease. Nina stands in the back of the room. We sit on two sides of a low table, also white leather, and Shaggy and Sting share the sofa with their back to the street.
I check to make sure my phone is recording for a second time, sipping my warm fizzy water. The interview kicks off with banalities from both sides. I ask where they have had the best reactions to their collaboration. “Jamaica is all over it,” says Shaggy, “Canada is up on it now. We’re number one in Poland. I think we’re number seven in…” “Italy,” says Sting. They relax into their respective halves of the sofa while Sting fiddles with the long woollen sleeves of his cardigan. Shaggy crosses his legs.
And we’re off: “For those of us asking ‘what’s going on’,” I say, “what’s going on?” It’s the first question on my list. The idea is to get them comfortable then progressively start asking kookier stuff, rile them up a bit. They answer sincerely: “That’s the perfect thing because I love surprises,” says Sting. “If you’re not surprised, then you’re bored. That’s the opposite of surprised.” I’m distracted for a second because I’m not sure that is the opposite. "When you sit there and you check the reaction so far," says Shaggy, gesturing with his large hands, "...I'm sure you've done your research and you've seen it." “Yep,” I nod. But I haven’t. Apart from Billboard and Rolling Stone, I’ve only really read people laughing at Sting. I realise now that the other journalists aren’t asking questions, for some reason. It just feels like a chat between me, Orville and Gordon.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen our Grammy performance recently?” asks Shaggy, leaning forward, forearms on knees. I murmur an “mmmm”. It was a mash-up of “Don’t Make Me Wait” and “Englishman in New York”. Earlier in the ceremony they had featured in a video with James Corden in a New York subway edition of car pool karaoke. Shaggy continues: “They wanted to showcase us on prime time in the Grammys. Reggae doesn’t get prime time. The reggae Grammys has never been aired.” Sting muses: “Maybe next year.” There’s a disconnect between how they think the single is being received and what I’ve read, not to mention the reactions from my friends. Plus, their double appearance at the Grammys wasn’t all that well received. Neither had been nominated for awards, and several critics said that singer Lorde, the only female nominee in the ‘Album of the Year’ category, should have performed instead. Sting’s last Grammy came in 2006; Shaggy won the award once, ten years earlier, for ‘Best Reggae Album’. I'm probably not the only one gearing up to write mockingly about this collaboration, I think. I feel bad for a second. But then Sting starts talking about politics.
He has a soft Geordie accent and it sounds like he has a bit of a cold. “There’s a saying: ‘If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for everything.’ So at some point you have to speak out. That’s how you affect change,” Sting tells us. I ask whether the album has a big political message, trying to push for an answer I can mock in my article. The other journalists are still and silent, save the occasional laugh. Flo hasn’t taken any photos. “It’s certainly underneath once you’ve enjoyed the beat,” Sting says, pulling an inquisitive face, “'but what are they singing about?'” He goes on to say that he voted remain and talks about how “dispiriting” he found Brexit to be. We all snicker when he calls Donald Trump an “idiot”.
Shaggy looks you in the eye attentively when you ask him a question. Yohan asks the duo whether it was easy for them to work together, his double denim working nicely with the white leather surround. “He’s very, very meticulous,” says Shaggy. “Anal,” Sting chimes in. I laugh loudly, the French guys don’t. I sit back in my chair. Now it just looks like I find anything relating to the word ‘anus’ wildly funny. As if.
When they met, the pair says they quickly bonded over their mutual love of Jamaica. Shaggy, who has raised tens of millions for local charities, is a hero on the island. And Sting, who spent lots of time there in the 80s, wrote “Every Breath You Take” at Ian Fleming’s house in Jamaica, GoldenEye, at the desk where he wrote the James Bond books. In January they performed “Don’t Make Me Wait” together live for the first time at a charity concert Shaggy organised for a children’s hospital. Sting hadn't been back for 20 years.
“I always felt this kind of debt to the island,” he says, “Reggae was a major influence on The Police. Going back there was a way of repaying that debt.” He calls Shaggy ‘the Pope of Jamaica’. “What’s your favourite thing about each other?” I ask. Sting is ready to answer. “I love his energy… he cares about everyone in a room. You walk into a room and if anybody’s uncomfortable he will gravitate towards that person and make sure they’re OK,” he chuckles. “I’m usually that person.” It’s Shaggy’s turn: “For me, it’s humility. Dude’s a massive superstar. I’ve seen him in Jamaica walking with the people in Kingston and he’s engaging them, he’s not just taking pictures [with them]… You don’t find people that do that in his calibre.” Sting looks fondly at him, "thank you, Shaggy."
A reggae conspiracy theory
My penultimate tongue-in-cheek question has just turned into a pleasant few minutes of two friends complimenting each other. I try my last: “What's the symbolic thing you're trying to do by releasing it on 4/20?” "Oh, it's just a good date to remember," Shaggy answers, conspiratorially. "Ok, so it's not because you're both big weed smokers?" I ask. Sting smiles: “It’s a joint venture.” (Get it?) And then, out of nowhere, Judah – who has asked one question in the past 25 minutes – leans forward and comes out with this:
“I noticed a few signs,” he begins, slowly at first. “You both had big tracks with a female name in it, ‘Oh Carolina’ and ‘Roxanne’. Your last albums that were both huge successes have numbers in the title, this one too. They sent me some tracks by email, you know. There are seven tracks, so it’s kind of a golden number.” Judah is starting to get into the flow, he gesticulates: “ ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ is a love song… Bob Marley did a song called ‘Waiting in Vain’, and it’s his birthday this month. It’s another mystic thing you know… So, do you believe in mystic signs?”
There’s a moment of silence. “Today we just found out that this is both of our 13th studio albums,” says Sting, “we didn’t know that.” Invigorated, Judah goes on: “You see? Your first letter is the same: S.” Shaggy says “oh shit!” and bursts out laughing, slapping his thigh. By this point, Judah is really going for it: “There is a big festival in Jamaica called Sting.” Shaggy eggs him on, saying that his producer’s name is Sting (ed. Shaggy’s producer is actually called Sting International). "This whole thing has been conceived by Dan Brown," says Sting. I start laughing, so does he. Judah persists: “Shaggy is the only person who can bring The Police to Jamaica without getting touched, you know.” Shaggy really laughs. At this point, I think Judah is just free styling. Nice play on words, but he’s starting to sound a bit weird. Suddenly Shaggy shouts: “Babylon!” I think it’s at that very moment Judah realises our laughs are more directed at him than the wondrous insight of his theory. He falls quiet for a while (sorry, Judah). Shaggy kindly says: “You know what, there is something magical about it.”
And that's our half hour done. We stand up and take photos together, shake hands and file out. Next to the room filled with wooden mammals, the duo’s agents are chatting. I ask Nina why she specifically chose our media outlets. She says she handpicked us for our respective audiences, and that she wanted it to be intimate. I'm not convinced. It doesn't feel as though Le Monde is being turned away downstairs, and I doubt their readership are clamouring for this interview.
I wonder if part of it is down to Sting and Shaggy just being a bit uncool; people are unlikely to root for them by default. I can so clearly see them being the butt of the joke on a ‘2018’s Funniest Moments’ show; some smug, bearded, British comedian cawing “what were they thinking?” the studio audience in hysterics. “What do you think of their music?” I ask Nina. “I love it,” she says. I walk down the steps and out of the mirrored hotel, with its three inch-deep carpets and quiet, musk-scented men opening every door I pass through. Out on the Champs-Élysées, light spills out from the restaurants and the Arc de Triomphe looks fucking splendid.