How Teejay Is Tapping Into Afrobeats to Design Dancehall’s Next Wave

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September’s Hip-Hop Forever show at Madison Square Garden in New York — part of the yearlong celebration of the genre’s 50th anniversary — brought the stars out. Alongside legends who helped build hip-hop’s storied past was a slightly more unexpected booking: Jamaican dancehall king Sean Paul. He tore the house down with hits like “Give It Up to Me” and “Like Glue,” reminders of a time, in the early 2000s, when dancehall records topped the Billboard charts — when Paul, who has now traded his trademark cornrows for a crisp, neat Caeser, effortlessly mixed dancehall’s infectious riddims with hip-hop sensibilities and aesthetics. Blending reggae and dancehall with other popular genres wasn’t a new idea when Paul did it, but no one else besides Bob Marley and Shaggy had done so to greater effect.

At least until now. That night, Paul wasn’t the only dancehall MC to bless the stage. One of the “special guests” teased on the show’s flier was a comparatively little-known 29-year-old guy from Montego Bay, Jamaica, that most audience members couldn’t pick out of a lineup if they were promised the numbers to the next Powerball. But though silence at first overtook the crowd when he stepped onstage, Teejay looked every inch the star when he arrived.

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Invited as a guest of Funkmaster Flex, the longtime Hot 97 DJ who oversaw the night’s proceedings, Teejay emerged dripped out in a Gucci jacket and matching sneakers. And when the opening chords of his current hit, “Drift,” blared out of the speakers, concertgoers slowly caught on: This was the guy who made the song that had taken over TikTok for a few months last year. As Teejay warmed up to the crowd, so did they, breaking into the signature dance that would help propel “Drift” to a No. 47 debut on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart three weeks after the Garden performance.

It was a big night for Teejay — one that affirmed that the hard work he’d been putting in over the past three years was finally paying off. So what if few can yet recognize him by face? They recognize his music. Well, sort of.

“Most people still don’t know what I’m saying,” says Teejay with a laugh, thinking back to the Garden show. We’re in Los Angeles, meeting for the second time at his Billboard photoshoot, and his fit looks as if it costs more than most people’s monthly income. “But they love the vibe. They love the music. They love the sound. So, I just work with it.”

This digital cover story is part of Billboard’s Genre Now package, highlighting the artists pushing their musical genres forward — and even creating their own new ones.

Born Timoy Janeyo Jones in Montego Bay, Teejay learned early on to just work with it. To most people from outside Jamaica, Montego Bay is an idyllic resort city, but it has a shadier side that doesn’t make travel brochures or TV commercials. One in which families of nine like Teejay’s — he grew up with his mother, uncle, five brothers and one sister — live in small board houses, in sometimes dangerous neighborhoods (like Glendevon, where Teejay’s family lived). His brothers were all musicians who as kids picked up digital production and recording software like FruityLoops and Pro Tools to produce music. Naturally, Teejay took to them as well.

“I started recording myself at the age of 9,” he says. “Every day, I would come home and see them recording with Pro Tools and I’d just sit there for hours, and when they’d gone, I’d just record myself.”

Teejay, Future of Genre
Teejay, Future of Genre

The autodidactic method worked. By the time Teejay was in seventh grade, he decided to leave school behind and focus on music full time. “My teacher asked me, ‘What do you want to be in life?’ And everybody in the class said they want to be a policeman, a lawyer, a judge, a doctor. I tell the teacher I want to be an artist. She said, ‘That’s not professional. Give me something else.’ I said, ‘Entertainer!’ ” When he was supposed to be taking notes, Teejay was instead tapping out riddims on his desk. His teacher told him that he needed to take that noise to the music class — so he did.

The way he saw it, he could help his family much more financially if he dedicated his time to growing into an artist like 2Pac or the Jamaican great Jah Cure — two of the MCs idolized in his neighborhood. “Growing up in my community, we listened to 2Pac every single day. Once you’re a Montegonian, you’re going to know about 2Pac and Jah Cure music.”

His focus paid off when Tommy Lee — fellow Montegonian and controversial mentee of incarcerated dancehall star Vybz Kartel — let Teejay rock with him and his crew, even helping the fledgling artist score his first live performance in 2010. The experience left Teejay feeling like he could actually become a star. But it would take a good while longer before the dreams in his mind materialized outside of his head.

Steve Jobs famously said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Teejay watched the artists who were remaking dancehall in the early 2000s — artists like Movado, Aidonia, Busy Signal and Tommy Lee, who were all more different than similar — and studied what made them connect not only with Jamaican fans, but the throngs of dancehall fans around the world. He took bits and pieces from each one’s style, creating a dancehall sound that was fluid, melodic and, at times, lyrically crazy.

Over the next eight years, he produced a torrent of music, culminating in his 2018 regional hit, “Uptop Boss.” Though it didn’t make much noise in the United States, the slinky gangster dance track was a massive hit on the island; its official video has racked up over 16 million views on YouTube.

Then, tragedy struck: Two of Teejay’s close friends, who often appeared in his videos and lyrics — Romario “Grimmy Boss” Wallen and Philip “Afro-Man” Lewis — were gunned down in St. Andrew, Jamaica, on June 4, 2020. (The two were reportedly just hanging out on the block when a shooter pulled up and opened fire.) Condolences poured out from fans and fellow dancehall artists, with many posting photos and comments on Instagram. But Teejay went quiet: He deleted everything on his Instagram page except for two posts of his departed friends.

Wallen’s and Lewis’ deaths derailed Teejay’s momentum just as he was finding his footing as an artist — but they were also a wake-up call. He took time away from music, leaving the country for a bit and settling at a friend’s house in Miami to refocus his energy and clear his head. His friends’ deaths affected both his physical and mental health: He changed his diet and started to eat healthier, in turn losing a lot of weight. But the biggest change wasn’t what he was putting into his body — it was what he put into the world.

He no longer wanted to make music that was overtly gangster. “Hardcore music has a barrier,” he says. “It can’t be played in a Christian home or in certain homes. I decided that we’re not going to go violent; I want to do something happy.” To achieve that, he decided to make some changes — starting with who handled his business. “Jamaican artists don’t even know what a proper management is,” Teejay says. “As a Jamaican artist, we have to still go out there and look for a chauffeur ourselves and an interview, everything. Some people don’t even know that some people in Jamaica who say that they’re a manager are basically a booking agent.”

Sharon Burke, the leader of Teejay’s new management team since 2021, is much more than a booking agent. Co-founder and president of the Kingston, Jamaica-based Solid Agency, Burke has worked for years to bring reggae and dancehall music to a global audience. She has had a hand in the success of many of Jamaica’s biggest superstars, including Freddie McGregor, Barrington Levy, Bounty Killer and Aidonia. And her company produces the annual Island Music Conference, bringing the wider music world to Jamaica. When it came time to set up the Verzuz battle between Bounty Killer and Beanie Man — ultimately watched by over 3 million — it was Burke who Verzuz creators Swizz Beatz and Timbaland turned to.

Burke believes in Teejay — that he has what it takes to really leave a mark on the game much as some of her previous clients have — but she has impressed upon him that good music alone won’t take him to the top “I said, ‘Listen, if you’re just going to sit by and think it’s talent alone, I can’t work with you. It’s hard work. It’s about presentation. It’s about excellence. It’s about choreography in the way you move. So, if you’re ready for that journey, I will go it with you.’ ”

Teejay, Future of Genre
Teejay, Future of Genre

One of the first things Burke did was to connect Teejay with Panda, one of their in-house producers. While Teejay was in Miami getting his mind right, he began to think beyond the boundaries of the genre he’d worked within for so long. He loves dancehall — it’s the music he was raised on and the music that changed his life — but he understands that, right now, dancehall and reggae aren’t as popular as they once were.

Back in 2003 — when Sean Paul was hopping on remixes with Busta Rhymes, when LL Cool J jumped on Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go” remix, when Elephant Man had everyone ponning de river — new dancehall artists were making serious waves in rap and R&B music. Fast forward to 2021, when the bestselling reggae and dancehall artists in the United States were Paul, Bob Marley and Shaggy. No new artists broke onto the Billboard Hot 100 that year.

Now, another type of Black diasporic music, Afrobeats, has assumed the position reggae and dancehall once occupied. Over the past three years, an increasing number of new African artists have broken onto the charts with big singles, like Wizkid and Tems’ 2020 hit, “Essence,” the first Nigerian song in history to appear on the Hot 100, reaching No. 9 on the chart. Now, mainstream American rappers like Drake and Future and singers like Chris Brown are tapping the genre’s ascendant stars to help them move units. Future’s first Hot 100 No. 1 as a lead artist, for instance, came courtesy of a song that heavily samples Tems’ song “Higher” from her 2020 EP, Broken Ears.

“They’re saying now that Afrobeats is bigger than dancehall,” Teejay says. “I was at a show where there was an Afrobeats artist on the stage — I won’t say any names — and he was saying ‘our music is your music’ because they took pieces of all the legendary [dancehall] artists’ music.”

He took to the makeshift studio in the garage of his friend’s Miami house, puzzling over a riddim he’d had in his head for close to three years but couldn’t quite figure out how to translate into a workable beat. He wanted to make something that was new but also paid homage to the warm dancehall feeling that radiated from songs made by legends like Supacat and Shabba Ranks. Then, one day in 2022, he received a batch of beats from Panda. “I called the beat-maker and said, ‘Bro. You got it. This is good.’ ”

What he got turned into “Drift,” the slick dancehall ditty that could easily be mistaken for an Afrobeats song if not for its decidedly dancehall drum programming and, of course, Teejay’s perfectly syncopated bars that swell into what has become an inescapable chorus.

“Me and the team, we created something called ‘Afro dancehall,’ ” he says with a laugh. “It’s more of an Afrobeats song with a dancehall artist on it. At the time, dancehall music was kind of slow and really toxic, based on everything that was going on in Jamaica. I was like, ‘We need to embrace happiness [in] the world. Something everyone can dance to.’ We created that old dancehall feeling where people just want to dance. It’s simple math. We used less words and more melody so people can remember it.”

That last, key idea came to Teejay from his mentor, Shaggy, the platinum-selling superstar who’s also one of Burke’s partners at Solid Agency. Combining reggae and dancehall with music from around the world and making it as simple as possible to sing along to has been a Shaggy trademark since he dropped the Marvin Gaye-sampling “Boombastic” back in 1995. “He has been telling me, ‘Listen: choice of words,’ ” Teejay says. “ ‘Try to say less, but make sure it’s effective and that people can understand it.’ ”

“[Teejay’s] incredibly talented. He’s a guy that is making music outside of the box and he also works extremely f–king hard,” Shaggy says. “And I think that is the formula that is needed to have a very long and successful career.”

A little luck also helps, and it was on Teejay’s side when it came to promoting “Drift.” He gave the song to a DJ who then leaked it on TikTok, and it took on a life of its own, becoming a top-used sound on the platform. Soon, celebrities like Jamaican Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt and Cardi B were making TikToks doing the dance from the music video. “Drift” became Teejay’s first Billboard chart entry, landing at No. 47 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay.

While the song took Jamaican and U.S. audiences by surprise, its success isn’t that shocking to Shaggy. “In the early days, when I played stadiums in Africa, the majority of the music they were playing was dancehall,” he recalls. “The traditional music that you might hear from Fela Kuti and some of these original artists over there wasn’t the type of music you would hear in the nightclubs. Dancehall is what you heard in the nightclub. Whether it be Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, those are the songs that were played — dancehall. It has had a very strong influence on the African culture. So, to me, it’s all one.”

What does the future of dancehall look like if one of its most popular artists is co-opting the sound of another genre to make waves internationally? “If you listen to dancehall from the 2000s, it’s a totally different dancehall than what we have today. The sound of it is different,” Shaggy says. “The dancehall they make today is more a trap kind of dancehall. That’s just evolution at the end of the day. With an artist like Teejay, it gives him the opportunity to experiment and try a different vibe.”

On Dec. 15, 2023, Teejay released an official remix of “Drift” featuring none other than leading Afrobeats artist Davido (the song also has a couple of rap remixes at this point). He sounds perfectly at home on the track; if you didn’t know any better, you might assume that Teejay was the guest feature. Its success, and Teejay’s own, are proof that there’s an audience for this new sound, one that keeps dancehall’s driving groove intact while mixing in the breezy and blithe feel of Afrobeats. And if anything, it proves dancehall is at its best when pushed to new limits.

“I hope [new artists] keep experimenting and keep finding new ways,” Shaggy says. In other words, they just got to work with it.

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