Though hated by American critics, the "Rude" hitmakers have completed an unlikely crossover
For six weeks last summer, the Number One song in America belonged to a group of Canadian reggae fans whose frontman sings plaintively to a girlfriend's particularly impolite father who won't approve his earnest marriage proposal to her. "Rude," Magic!'s debut single, sold 3 million copies in the United States alone, but many objected to its syrupy take on a beloved genre. Time named the tune the worst of the 2014, and publications as diverse as Grantland and Jezebel brought similar ignominy. "America, we need to talk about our taste in reggae music," wrote Slate. They might also want to have a few words with the adoring crowd that earlier this year gathered in the north shore parish of Trelawny to see the band headline the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival.
In Trelawny, Magic!'s two hits – "Rude," which went to Number One in America, and "Let Your Hair Down," a follow-up even softer than its predecessor – were received by an enthusiastic audience that belted out every word. Both tracks are in heavy rotation on just about every FM radio station in the country: DJs enthusiastically introduce the group as "Canadian reggae band, Magic!" and their songs are often "licked back" – rewound to the beginning and played again – three or four times in a row.
"Jamaica has always been accepting of different genres of music," says DJ Wayne, one of the marquee names at IRIE FM, perhaps the most important all-reggae station in the country. "Back in the Fifties and Sixties we were listening to R&B from the U.S. and it connected with reggae." Wayne has embraced "Rude" in particular. "[Magic!] are good musicians and the music speaks for itself," he continues, referring to the song's rebellious love story. "It's the magic of the topic combined with the smooth reggae flow. It's a timely song that captured everyone's imaginations."
Although Americas often associate contemporary Jamaican music with the harder dancehall of artists like Beenie Man and Vybz Kartel, the Jamaican listening audience has an under-reported love for melodic pop and smooth flows. Downtown dances play Celine Dion, Kenny Rogers remains popular and local supergroup L.U.S.T. – Lukie D, Trilla U, Singing Melody and Tony Curtis – scored a hit with a cover of Air Supply's "Just As I Am." In Trelawny, Magic! are joined by Peter Cetera, the Chicago bassist whose solo career included a handful of Eighties and Nineties U.S. Adult Contemporary hits.
In fact, before Magic! even made it to Jamaica, dancehall artist Kiprich, one of the island's toughest lyrical battle champions, rang up guitarist Mark Pelli to ask if they could work on a song together. "That was an organic, seamless thing," says Pelli. "I just did some production and then he asked me to sing on a verse." Their session led to "My Own Holiday," a lumbering reggae tune buoyed by occasional bursts of pop energy, and four new fans: "Kiprich is an amazing artist," Pelli enthuses. "I've introduced him to the rest of the band."
American reggae producer Zeke Stern, who has worked Beenie Man, Chronixx and Collie Buddz, regularly travels to the island to produce new tracks, but even he didn't expect the Canadian group to cross over. "I was really surprised at how many Jamaican artists love it," he says of "Rude." "I hear a lot mention how catchy the hook was and that the song was well put together."
"Many reggae artists are great songwriters," says Magic! vocalist Nasri Atweh, attempting to explain both the music's appeal to him and his own appeal to Jamaicans. "Regardless of the genre, they write great songs." Although he grew up idolizing crossover stars like Bob Marley and the Police, his accessible, soft-reggae vocals were partially inspired by an orator with even wider appeal. "I aim for a good placement," he explains. "When you hear Obama talk, his words allow you to digest them. This 'Obama Effect' is what I try to do when I write – it's what we tried to do with 'Rude.' People respect good musicianship and good songs."