The night before, for instance, in the courtyard of a studio I was told had been built by Shaggy and his former manager, I watched some of Paul’s associates smoke from a many-feet-long chalice pipe as they waited to begin rehearsals for a coming tour. When Paul drove up, he announced that he had brought a case of mangoes from his own orchard, and I was treated to the wholesome tableau of a group of grown men tearing into a cardboard box, each extracting a mango and biting in with sighs and groans of unadulterated relish. The rehearsal featured breaks to crack open bottles of industrial-strength white rum — and loud shouts of laughter, including at my saying I shouldn’t drink while working and at my frozen expression when I did finally try a sip. This jovial gathering of dad bods, dad shorts and dad jokes more resembled the vibe of an after-school band rehearsal than a multiplatinum recording artist preparing to play a sold-out arena — perhaps because some of these guys really have known Paul since his earliest days in music.
As Paul explained to me at Screechy/ie’s, for his life to become what it is now — that of a Grammy-winning artist with YouTube views in the multiple billions and a catalog of beloved classics — a series of extremely fortunate events had to occur. And a fair number of them, he didn’t have much say in.
Long before he became the bandannaed and cornrowed Sean Paul who entranced the American public, Sean Paul Ryan Francis Henriques was just another young offshoot of Jamaica’s famous Henriques clan, one of the oldest Jewish families on the island, who immigrated there from Portugal in the 17th century. Paul, who has British and Chinese heritage on his mother’s side, actually grew up Catholic in solidly respectable Uptown Kingston, watching the raucous parties thrown at his grandmother’s home by an enterprising aunt who ran a sound system. Kingston is a city that takes parties seriously, and the sound system was a key 20th-century innovation — a portable setup of amplifiers, turntables and mountains of speakers, all orchestrated by a D.J. and an M.C., who truck the equipment to makeshift venues and use its booming sound to draw crowds. Paul and his younger brother, Jason, were both enamored of this family business; Jason actually recalls falling asleep in a bass box as a child. It was both brothers’ earliest immersion in music, listening to the Uptown crowds dance to Michael Jackson beats blended with the dancehall and reggae rhythms of Kingston.
Despite the legacy Paul was born into, his childhood was shaped by absences — like that of his father, Garth, who would disappear for months at a time, leaving his wife, Frances, hunting door to door, asking neighbors if they had seen him. He would materialize, months later, perhaps having whiled away the time in Mexico, once having crashed a Cherokee 6 plane stuffed full of marijuana in the Everglades. When Paul was 13, his father was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison. This devastated Paul — not because his father had been much of a presence in his life but because what little he had of him would now be gone. It felt, he says, like “that’s forever — Oh, I’ll never see this dude again.”