From Chris Blackwell to David Rodigan to Sun Araw, Jamaican music has long been peppered with incongruous white men, the latest of which is New York-based producer Dre Skull.
With his generous beard and decidedly non-trustafarian shaved head, he looks like he might serve you a chai latte from a trendy coffee cart. Yet he's crafted some of the most emotionally rich dancehall tracks of the last few years, most recently creating the backdrops for Snoop Dogg's transformation into Jah-praising alter ego Snoop Lion.
One of the chief attractions of dancehall is the psychedelic chaos of its productions' overlapping airhorns, gunshots, and random toasting, but Dre's skill is in pulling back these deranged fripperies and drawing out the latent melancholy and moodiness of the genre.
He started in performance art, making collaborative live pieces that collaged audio and riffed on pop culture. But Dre soon became disillusioned with that world, and wanted to start making pop, rather than referencing it. "There's something compelling about song structure; maybe it taps into some sort of architect that humans are predisposed towards being," he says. His early productions – mostly rap music – wangled numerous meetings with the likes of Bad Boy Records, but nothing ever came to fruition. "I realised I wanted to not just wait for someone else to give me the blessing to be participating; I decided I really wanted to start my own record label and be the one in control of the music I was making."
The label is Mixpak, which puts out artists as varied as raucous house producer Dubbel Dutch, all-girl Japanese punk band Hard Nips, and – most successfully – recently incarcerated dancehall megastar Vybz Kartel. In 2009 Dre emailed Vybz his Smoke Machine riddim, and within 24 hours he'd turned it into the stunningly sincere Yuh Love. Dre flew out to Kingston to record more, and ended up with an entire album, Kingston Story. "It was amazing: we'd record four songs in six hours, and it was the first time he had heard the tracks," he remembers.
Dre has recorded with other big dancehall names such as Beenie Man, Mavado and Popcaan, the latter two appearing together on the Snoop Lion record. Dre was recruited for the project by Diplo, with the pair swapping sketches with fellow producer Ariel Rechtshaid before 17 days' writing and recording in Jamaica. So was Snoop in his element? "There did seem to be some sort of clouds in the studio, I'll say that."
Also forthcoming is a single with Moet laureate Pusha T, and potential production jobs for big-name pop and R&B artists. Not bad for a former performance artist who once straddled the line between Yoko Ono's sex-in-a-bag piece and celebrity sextapes.
The Snoop Lion LP and a Dre Skull Feat Pusha T single are out in the spring
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