So when you see Shaggy driving a Hummer down Nob Hill Road, you do a double take. Didn't that guy have the 2001 hit "It Wasn't Me"? When you bump into a dreadlocked Beenie Man at 2 p.m. and he mumbles "Good morning," you pinch yourself. Wasn't he just hollering "Sim simma! Who got the keys to my Bimmer"? And when you see a handsome, 30-something guy cruising his yard on a riding lawn mower, you wonder, "Could that be Tony Kelly, the dancehall producer?" Yeah, it is.
If you think you don't know Tony Kelly, flip on Power 96. Odds are you'll hear "King of the Dancehall" by Beenie Man, "Deport Dem" or "Like Glue" by Sean Paul, or " Everyone Falls in Love" by Tanto Metro and Devonte. Kelly made those songs. In fact, many of those infectious dancehall tunes that you hum but can't figure out the words to -- because they're full of Jamaican slang -- are Kelly hits. Right now, he's probably churning out another from the studio inside his Davie home.
At the top of a driveway jammed with three black Benzes, Kelly answers his door barefoot, in jeans and a plain white T-shirt. He's got close-cropped hair and soulful eyes and is generous with hugs. Inside, there's barely any furniture -- unless you count the seven Macintosh computers, the mixing board that eats up an entire room, and Kelly's constantly beeping BlackBerry. Sean Paul was supposed to record here today but had a scheduling conflict. Daddy Yankee and Enrique Iglesias are stopping by next week. Oops -- just missed Shaggy!
Instead, three studio musicians play with expensive toys like kids who just got home from school. It wouldn't be surprising if someone's mom came in and kicked everybody out. Instead, Kelly's wife, Leanna -- a natural, graceful beauty -- comes home and puts away groceries.
Kelly settles onto the brand-new couch in the living room. "Growing up," he says in a soft Jamaican accent, "I used to record songs off the radio. DJs talk over everything, so I'd try to edit it out, try to match the beat so it sounds like it's mixed straight through." Living in the Kingston ghetto, with his mom pulling shifts at the Salvation Army, he knew he wouldn't go the same route. "I don't want to work for nobody!" he says. "I decided music is the only way to do it."
After high school, Kelly went job-hunting at legendary Tuff Gong Studios -- the recording space founded in the mid-'60s by Bob Marley. Kelly didn't expect to get paid until he knew enough to be useful. "I learned how to mic a drum, an organ, piano; how to set up a vocal booth in a big studio room," he recalls. "It was like being an apprentice in a mechanic shop. Jamaican studios are like universities."
Soon, he was able to help several friends get a foot in the industry door. One of those feet belonged to the man who now rivals him as dancehall's biggest producer -- his three-years-younger half-brother, Dave Kelly. Although Tony has had more crossover hits in the States, Dave is just as huge in the industry. Shaggy, a platinum-selling, Grammy-winning vocalist, has worked extensively with both. "Bottom line is that Tony Kelly and David Kelly are instrumental in the evolution of dancehall," Shaggy tells us later via phone. "You can't say dancehall without saying either Tony Kelly or Dave Kelly."
Tony worked at Tuff Gong through the mid-'80s and then at industry-heavyweights Penthouse Records and Shocking Vibes Productions in the '90s. Along the way, he realized just how far his talent could take him. "A friend sent me All You Need to Know About the Music Business," he says. "That book enlightened me, man. I was like, 'So I'm getting robbed!' I didn't take it hard or anything. I just separated myself." Although he continues to do projects with other labels, he started his own, K..Licious, in 1998 and started working in the States around 2001 "for America to know me a little more." He moved to Davie two years ago because "it's quiet."
"In Jamaica, a lot of my songs are played on the radio," he says. "You go in the club and hear back to back to back to back my songs and then my brother's songs. That means we're doing something right. But it's not about the money. I'm for the progression, the advancement of this music. I know if I do good, money gonna come."
In dancehall, as in hip-hop, producers can rise to superstar status. Whereas Dr. Dre or Pharrell might come up with a beat for a rapper, Tony comes up with a riddim for toasters or singers. In the States, we're used to a singer releasing an album with ten different tracks. In Jamaica, it's common for a producer to release a CD featuring the same music over and over, with ten different singers doing their thing on top, each track with its own set of lyrics. Often, one riddim will spawn multiple hits. Sean Paul' s "Like Glue" was sung over Tony's Buyout riddim, but the same music was used for Mr. Easy's "She Drives Me Crazy" and TOK's "Money to Burn."
"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."
"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."