by Patricia Meschino
One of the most satisfying cuts on Canadian DJ Snow’s new release, Murder Love, is a tale of his love affair with Reggae music called “Dream.” Here Snow reminisces about his days in Toronto’s Allenbury housing project, where he first became acquainted with Reggae through the friendships formed with the many Jamaicans who had moved into his area: Listen Shabba Ranks playing faintly from the speaker/I would eat mi curry chicken, that’s my favorite supper/If you think mi joke or lie, gwaan ask me mother/I would living on the island sweet, sweet Jamaica/Fish with Coco Tea down in the river/Hanging at the ghetto with me boy they call Ninja/No, but it’s only a dream.
“Dream” goes on to describe imagined evenings spent at Kingston’s Godfather’s nightclub and sessions with the Stone Love sound system. If the song had more verses, it might have depicted other ambitions of the aspiring DJ, like performing at Jam World for Reggae Sunsplash and ripping up the crowd at Topline and other crucial Kingston dance hall sessions. Yet, something Snow could never have imagined was that his first album for Motor Jam/EastWest Records, 12″ of Snow (released in 1993), would go platinum and the first single from the album, “Informer,” would top the Billboard Pop Charts for seven weeks! “When I did that album, it was just for fun,” Snow recalls. “I wasn’t thinking this album’s gonna blow up. I didn’t really think nothing of it, I just loved doing it. When it did blow up, I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ Now, I look on my wall and I see these plaques and I think, ‘Yeah, they’re sure.'”
Snow’s introduction to Reggae came through live Dancehall cassettes friends brought up directly from Jamaica. Although he was a fan of all kinds of music, the raw Dancehall sound and “the wicked bass line” made Snow forget about everything else. He would practice singing like Tenor Saw and DJing like Nitty Gritty on his friend DJ Prince’s set, familiarizing himself with the Jamaican vernacular and DJ timing. Prince helped Snow secure his record deal, introducing him to New York City-based rapper MC Shan, who liked what he heard. Shan brought Snow’s music to the studio owned by Steve Salem and David Eng, who were greatly impressed by Snow’s versatility. “They called and said, ‘We want to manage you,’ so we signed with them,” says Snow. “Soon after that, we got the deal with Motor Jam/East West.”
It has been a stormy journey for the 25-year-old Snow, born Darren O’Brien, from the rough streets of Toronto to the dance halls of Kingston to the realization of his dream of becoming an internationally known DJ. Snow’s teenage years were rife with fighting, drinking and conflicts with the law. His criminal record began more than 10 years ago when he was charged with theft and possession of stolen property. One year later, he was charged with armed robbery, then assault, attempted murder, and breaking and entering. “At one time, I had 13 charges against me,” Snow admits. “I’ve been charged a lot, and the police charged me for stuff I didn’t even do.” It was while serving time (one year) for a murder that a friend committed that Snow wrote the hook for his platinum selling single, “Informer.” In 1991, Snow beat the charge, came to New York (where he had a fondness for singing on the streets, the subways “anywhere people would listen to me”) and got charged with assault. It was during the jail term for that charge that he secured his record deal with EastWest. Presently, Snow is not allowed in the United States, a judgment that took effect two years ago, but his lawyers are now working on an appeal.
On Snow’s latest release, Murder Love, the seemingly autobiographical track, “Charged For Murder” (with guest vocalist Junior Reid), is actually about his uncle Patty, who was charged with first degree murder. “It’s about an innocent man being charged; anybody who gets falsely accused of a crime,” says Snow. Working alongside Junior Reid (who is also featured on another of Murder Love‘s tracks, “Yesterday”) was a great thrill for Snow. Reid was one of the artists who made a tremendous impact on Snow back in his days in the Allenbury projects. Snow describes him as an artist who gives him “lots of vibes.”
Snow also collaborates on Murder Love with another of his Reggae heroes, the gold teeth, gun pon teeth, don gorgon, Ninja Man, on the appropriately titled “Bad Men.” “When I first met Ninja it was at Sunsplash ’93. He hardly talked, y’know, crazy Ninja,” Snow laughs. “Then I met him a couple of times after that and we just clicked, so now we always hang out. Everyday when I’m in Jamaica I hang with him. When he’s doing a track, he’ll always invite me to come on it with him.” Snow related another meeting with Ninja, a classic story of the Jamaican DJ’s outrageous, erratic behavior. “I was at a stage show and I said, ‘Wha ‘appen Ninja?’ and he said, ‘Come on stage with me.’ I said, ‘Nah, I don’t have the vibes right now,’ and he said, ‘Come up and sing ‘Girl I’ve Been Hurt’ because I love that song. If you sing that and the audience doesn’t go crazy, I’ll shoot everyone in the crowd!’ I said, ‘Alright I’ll come up.'” Fortunately, the crowd went wild for his performance and Ninja never had to make good on his threat!
Reggae Sunsplash 1993 was Snow’s very first appearance in Jamaica (as well as his first visit to the island), and he was visibly nervous when taking the stage at Jam World before thousands of discriminating Reggae fans. “Personally, I was very scared,” Snow discloses. “On our way driving there, I was sitting in the back seat and thinking, ‘Oh man, why me.’ I was doing it, but I was like, ‘Uh-oh.’ I didn’t know how the crowd would accept me.” Jamaican audiences are tough but honest; if an artist delivers something solid, they’ll be rewarded no matter who they are or where they come from. Snow’s apprehension impeded his stage work even though the crowd welcomed the live versions of “Informer” and “Lonely Monday Morning.” When his bredren, singer Coco Tea, joined him onstage and commented that “white men can sing Reggae well irie,” it seemed to bolster Snow’s confidence and rescued his performance. Snow concluded his set by telling the crowd: “Big up all Jamaicans because you put me where I am today.”
I saw him perform in Jamaica only four months later at a show at the University of the West Indies and at the popular Topline outdoor session in Kingston, and Snow was at ease, agile, and his lyrics flowed like Dunn’s River Falls. Snow has now become quite relaxed and looks forward to working before Jamaican audiences. “Now when I perform in Jamaica I really perform,” says Snow. “I sing, I dance, I joke around. Recently, I went into the Jaguar Lounge in Halfway Tree. The place was ram packed. I went in, took off my shirt, and just started singing and singing. I ripped the place up! Doing things like that, things like Topline, I love it. It’s a really big level for me to have reached.”
Snow would love to take on the fierce DJ competition at Sting, Jamaica’s annual Boxing Day (Dec. 26) concert, but refuses to be away from his family in Toronto during the holiday season. “Christmas is a very special time for me, and there’s nothing else I do but spend time with my family–my mother, my father, little sister, little brother and older brother.” And what does Snow’s Irish Canadian family think of his career singing inna Jamaican stylee? “They’re happy because it got me out of what I was doing before,” Snow states. “We never had nothing in my family, no big success, so they love it and they’re excited for me. Like when you’re a kid and you win an award for running a race, they’re really happy and that’s my award.”