Dancehall stars making an indelible mark on American pop music is nothing new. Shabba Ranks did it when his crossover smash, 1991's "Mr. Loverman," helped his name travel beyond Jamaica's Caribbean waters. Sean Paul did it when 2003's "Get Busy" topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. Popcaan did it when he reportedly signed a deal with Drake's OVO Sound label in 2018. But there's one name that often gets overlooked in this conversation: Busy Signal.
The Saint Ann, Jamaica native hasn't missed a beat since the release of his debut single, 2005's "Step Out." Since then, Signal has stretched his sonic abilities to include roots-reggae, soca, EDM, pop, reggaeton, Afrobeats and trap. Along with becoming a Caribbean household name with three albums and countless local collaborations with the likes of Damian Marley, Mavado, Bounty Killer and Elephant Man, Signal has become a staple on the international front.
He's appeared on No Doubt's 2012 single "Push and Shove," teamed with Major Lazer twice on 2013's "Watch Out for This (Bumaye)" and 2017's "Jump," and has dominated massive festival stages like Spain's Rototom in August. After touring the world and tossing around one-off singles like free sugarcane, Signal is now ready to share his new project with fans. Parts of the Puzzle, his first album since 2012's Reggae Music Again, is out today (Oct. 4) VP Records.
So why the seven-year wait? Signal points to the industry's current streaming era as the reason. "The world is more of a single-based [environment], just in terms of how music is flowing and selling. Albums are so short now, they're like EPs," he tells Billboard. "People's attention span now is way different from back then. They tend to just listen to the first three lines [of a song] and swipe. Unless you're a diehard fan of an artist, you're not gonna sit and listen for 20 tracks — you mix it up with playlists."
Below, the dancehall hero speaks to Billboard about the stories behind Parts of the Puzzle's highlight tracks, his impact on the genre and how he stays ahead of the curve.
Your new album is titled Parts of the Puzzle, but is there a piece you're still trying to find?
I started out as a hardcore dancehall artist, but I try to dabble in a bunch of things — why not? People get shocked that the same person who sings "Come Over" is the same one on "Watch Out For This." My story is never complete — I'm sure I'm going to find different parts. I'm still searching for my own puzzle, musically. I still have that hunger.
The album opens with “Stay So." That song was almost like a musical resurrection for you, it was inescapable.
People really relate to it, and the video propelled it to a whole 'nother level. You saw babies singing it — and they probably don't even know what they're singing, but the melody is so catchy. And I didn't pack up the song with a whole bunch of lyrics. [Sings] "One phone call it take fi make some boy wipe off of earth and drop down flat." There's a space after that so it's not compact. The timing with that song was just so perfect with maintaining who Busy Signal is.
It's more like a modern dancehall song that's aiming not just at the Caribbean crowd, but beyond that. I saw Cutty Ranks in Jamaica a few weeks ago with [fellow Jamaican artists] Chris Martin and D Major. We were all reasoning, and Ranks said, "Yo dat song bad!" You have to pay homage to all these people who paved the way before our time, and I try to do it in so many ways with different styles in my songs. Even with "Bedroom Bully" [in 2012], I was paying homage to Shabba Ranks' [1992 single]. So I like to highlight things from the past, but still try to modernize and put it in my own style.
With “One Way," you discuss how you built a foundation and stayed true to yourself.
I keep it grounded. I was brought up with a certain type of discipline and morals, and that never left me. We passed through the "young artist" phase years ago, and I still didn't switch up. So why should do it now? A lot of different artists probably change as time goes. When they get the flashy things, some of dem lose dem focus and dignity.
But at the end of the day, it's always good to be yourself. If you're going through a rough patch, hey, brighter days are ahead. Don't just give in because you'll lose your soul. When you see a "one-way" sign, you don't break it or else you'll get a ticket or cause an accident. Yeah mon!
What keeps you motivated after all these years?
I try to surround myself with great people. Some artists inna di Jamaican industry have a whole bunch of "yes" men behind them. They think, "I'm up here so nobody can talk to me." They don't have anybody to say they're wrong. I don't do that. Whoever I allow to be around me, you gotta be able to talk to me. Me personally, I don't have room for nuh mistakes anymore. We've been through the bagga stuff dem when we were younger. We can't just par with nine million men — that's like an accident in the making. And people look up to public figures, so if you don't set that type of trend where fans could really respect you, then you're not contributing the right thing to the world.
Let's talk about “Dolla Van" — that song is dominating all the Jamaican parties right now.
That's all inspired by New York, and the dollar vans in Queens and Brooklyn. It was part of Jamaican history back then. I remember General Trees' singing [on 1985's "Mini Bus"]: "It name mini-van people control Jamaica/ One driver a dozen conductor." From dem time when mi ah likkle youth, mi ah hear dem songs pon di radio. When I came to New York, I saw di movements. Everybody was hustling and trying to get to work. Sometimes it doesn't even make sense to have a car, because every minute your mirror get bruk off or you can't even park it because you don't have a garage. So I was inspired by how people go about their daily life.
I think you were on the Afrobeats wave way before it caught the mainstream's attention, starting with 2014’s “Professionally” and "Up In Her Belly." You also worked with Tiwa Savage on 2016's "Key to the City."
[Nigerian R&B duo] P-Square, Tiwa Savage and [Ghanian artist] Stonebwoy all told me: "Yo Busy, you ah di first one to bring African music to dem side ah di world." Even Machel Mantano told me that in Trinidad. But I don't walk around and beat mi chest with self-praise. When you're hearing it from somebody else, it makes you feel good. Like I said before, I always try to be versatile and think about what I want to do next — even if the world is not ready for it yet. The world is packed with artists and wannabe artists. Some engineers make artists in the studio. You put them on the stage and you want your money back, plus the money I spent to get in, for my outfit, the toll — everything! [Laughs.]
Speaking of stages, you're hands down one of Jamaica's best performers. I think your suits are a secret weapon!
Yeah, it just mash up! You know, as a ghetto yute you cut off di pants foot, have di hair pull out and di dark glasses on. But depending on the show that I'm going on, I have to get di ting correct and get sharp. When I'm on stage, I'm in a whole 'nother zone. It's like the Most High's power just lifts and puts me at a different level.
With the album's "Fat Under," I was trying to remember what old-school song that it came from. It immediately reminded me of my childhood.
Yes that was the plan! I got inspiration from [dancehall deejay] Admiral Bailey's "Mi Ah God Pickney" [from 1987]. I like doing that stuff. As soon as you hear it, it just go back inna yuh system. Even with people older than us, it's going to bring them back to that time. I love paying homage to artists and adding my little twists to classic songs. And the respect goes across the board. I was driving the other day and I heard HoodCelebrityy's new song "Bum Pon It." In the hook she says "Tip tip tip pon yuh toe" and that's from my song "Stamma." So if you're gonna do it, do it good!
Talk to me about linking again with Bounty Killer on “Nuh Weh Nuh Safe." You guys have great musical chemistry.
Killer is like a big brother to me. We share a different reasoning. We don't just link up to bun weed and drink Hennessey — it's beyond that. We're real brothers, and we don't even have to talk to each other every day. We've been friends since Nokia 3310 days. From the Alliance days [Killer's now-defunct dancehall collective that included Signal, Mavado, Vybz Kartel, Wayne Marshall, and Bling Dawg]. I'm probably one of the only ones who never disrespected Bounty Killer, and that says a lot.
Sometimes artists get a hype and feel like dem pon top ah di world. They start getting ungrateful and disrespectful to the person who helped them come up. Killer really helped me when I migrated here. I never knew what to charge for dubplates or shows. He taught me everything, and you can't pay for that.
You've definitely influenced dancehall's path throughout the years, but do you think you don't get enough credit?
Mi just let the work fi speak for itself each time. Some people might hold back the credit and not give you that shit, even though you well deserve it. Remember Bob Marley started his career in Jamaica, dem send fi kill him but him never dead. He ran from Jamaica to live in Philly and drove a forklift on the night shift. When him dead, people appreciated him. Thank you lord that nobody nuh shoot me. Mi just beg di Most High to bless me each day to give me the strength fi just do this work that mi born fi do. You can feel that energy when you're chosen to do something.