The perennial idea of putting a street rapper with a polished crooner probably dates to '60s Jamaica and U-Roy toasting over Melodians dubplates. But the latest hit to break that mold was conceived, written, and produced by two guys from Minnesota. "Street Life" takes its melody and rhythm from the Police's "Roxanne," substituting the word "gangsta" for that name in the chorus, and "you don't have to bust your guns tonight" for "you don't have to put on the red light." The singer in vocoder is R&B's Trey Songz, the barker reggae legend Buju Banton (though both rap and sing). The producers are Beatnick and K-Salaam, a.k.a. Nick Phillips and Kayvon Sarfehjooy of Minneapolis-St. Paul, now living and working out of the same Queens apartment after making the move to New York a few years ago with the help of Sarfehjooy's silent-partner brother, Kaveh.
The unlikely cast and source material at first make "Street Life" seem like a triumph of executive production above all else: K-Salaam suggested the Police riff (a reggae reclamation that nonetheless cost 90 percent of the publishing rights) and enlisted his connects to make it happen. But the track is simply a beautiful piece of cross-genre pop, complex without feeling busy. Both voices sound graceful over Beatnick's almost subliminal swirl of synthesizers, which keep up a rapid yet subtle call-and-response with everything else. On Whose World Is This?, the surrounding album by K-Salaam & Beatnick (released this week by reggae powerhouse VP Records), the track's peace plea carries the needed cache of militancy: Elsewhere dancehall and hip-hop singers of "the people's struggle" answer the album title in different ways: Dead Prez mourns "Fallen Soldierz," Talib Kweli references Gandhi and Do the Right Thing, Sizzla and Young Buck declare "Babylon (Must Be Mad)."
"We didn't do a hip-hop-reggae album," says K-Salaam, reached by phone in New York. "We just worked with artists we like. That's why it comes off as original and natural."
An activist of Iranian-American descent, Salaam had released a couple must-own DJ mixes in Minnesota before leaving town, the second one catching the ear of New York rap tastemaker Bobbito Garcia with its theme of Palestinian national liberation. Salaam later traveled to Jamaica to meet Capleton, charmed the reggae legend's family, and was introduced around. "The first time I was in Jamaica, I was in a studio chilling with Bunny Wailer," he says. "It was crazy."
That footwork paid off in Beatnick and Salaam's little-heard 2006 release The World Is Ours (Shining Star Music), of which the new album is essentially a reissue minus a couple of tracks, and plus four fresh ones, including "Street Life." For that song, the duo approached Banton despite warnings that he had a rep for being difficult. "Most of the people who say this are industry people who don't really respect the artists as human beings anyway," says Salaam. "Once you inspire artists, everything is downhill from there."
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