Riddim Driven

Dancehall superproducer Tony Kelly pumps out the hits -- from Davie

"The one-riddim thing is unique," Kelly says. "You have one beat with a bunch of different artists and you say, 'Let me hear you interpret this.' It's like, you see brown right now; I see caramel. Somebody else come and say it's yellow. This is the same thing being portrayed into song. Somebody come and get a vibe off the snare. Or somebody come and get a vibe off the melody."

This week, Kelly is releasing a one-riddim album called Katana, named after a high-end motorcycle popular in Jamaica. (Not that he rides one. He speaks lovingly of his riding lawn mower.) Thanks to a freshly inked distribution deal, the album will be sold in major outlets across America, including Best Buy. It features top-ranking dancehall toasters Shaggy, Bounty Killer, Mr. Easy, and more. Whose version will become the hit? "If I could predict them," Kelly says, "I'd be rich. Usually, I come up with a vibe, and I say, 'Hmm, who this fit?'" he says of his creative process. "For example, Sean Paul's 'Deport Dem' -- I wrote that for Beenie Man. But when I finished it, it didn't quite fit Beenie Man. So I called Sean. I gave him the music and the lyrics. I wrote the song, the melody, everything. He rearranged a couple of stuff in it to fit his style."

At this point in his career, Kelly has worked with most of dancehall's major players. Recording with international star Sean Paul, he says, is "like a party. Silly." Bounty Killer isn't the tough guy he makes himself out to be. "You listen to him grumble on stage," Kelly says, "but he's very intelligent." And Shaggy? "A crazy perfectionist. We'll do a song a few hundred times and he'll go home and hear something else, and he'll be back!" That makes for "way wickeder tracks," Kelly says. "He'll push you to get better."

Tony Kelly, Grammy nominee for the Def Jamaica compilation
Colby Katz
Tony Kelly, Grammy nominee for the Def Jamaica compilation

"It's a chemistry thing between Tony and I," Shaggy says. "With other producers, when you don't like their track, they get offended, but Tony goes back to the drawing board and fine-tunes it and customizes his sound to yours."

Despite multiple requests, Dave Kelly declined to be interviewed for this piece. "He's very secretive, " Tony says. Dave lives near Miami, but the brothers rarely see each other. "It's real cool; we just do our own thing," Tony says. "We didn't have competition or anything. We never work together, though. I don't know why." In Jamaica, they grew up in separate houses but saw each other on weekends. "He was a crack kid," Tony laughs, "getting himself in some trouble! He was gangster!"

Dancehall artist Mr. Easy, who's worked with both, weighed in via phone from Jamaica. He suggests that their personalities translate to their music. "Dave has a darker sound," he says. "Tony is more poppy." Katana's smooth, synth-driven riddim is proof.

Currently, Tony and Leanna, along with partners Patrick Sullivan and Karamo Rowe, are working on a new project called LAP. The couple envisions it as an umbrella company, with K..Licious as its dancehall arm and gospel and hip-hop labels to come. LAP stands for "Loud As Possible," but it's also Leanna's initials. "You know Beenie Man's song 'Miss LAP'?" Tony smiles.

As dancehall continues merging into the mainstream, the wizard behind its curtain is content to leave the glamorous life to others. Five years from now, "[I'll be] at home with my wife," Kelly says. "I'll probably have more of the rest of the world's attention to what we're doing. I don't like clubs. I love home. I like cutting the grass."

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