In a more just world, there’d be screaming fans at the airport when she arrived. There’d be brass bands, scuttling reporters, a ticker-tape parade through the streets.
Pioneering Jamaican vocalist Sister Nancy is performing in NZ for the first time this month, with shows in Raglan and Auckland. To some of us, this is a very big deal.
There’s a case to be made that this soft-spoken West Indian was the first female rapper, before rap even existed.
In Jamaica, she was known as a “deejay”, a “toaster”, an “MC” or “master of ceremonies”, though she preferred “mistress of ceremonies”.
Sister Nancy is the sister of esteemed Jamaican deejay Brigadier Jerry.
She would tag along with him to sound system gigs during the mid-70s, and by 15 was on the mic herself.
She’d let loose a flow of improvised lyrics over booming, bass-heavy instrumentals to an audience well-toasted on strong marijuana and Red Stripe beer.
Jamaica was, and remains, a particularly macho patriarchal culture. It was a tough place to be an outspoken young woman, especially a live performer in a male realm. Not everyone approved.
“People would boo at first,” she told New York radio station, HOT 97 FM earlier this year, “They would demand that me put down the mic. But I keep going.”
Now 55, she was born Ophlin Russell, one of 15 siblings raised in a modest two room Kingston home – the front room was a church and the family lived in the back.
Her father was a pastor and tried to stop her heading off into the night, shaming the family and putting herself in danger as the only teenage woman at dancehalls in tough parts of town.
She’d run away from home for months at a time, performing with Jahlove Music and Stereophonic Sound Systems. There was no limo to the venue, or even a bus.
When she got booked to play a show outside Kingston, Nancy had to thumb a lift ‘in the back of an old truck with chickens and goats’ to get there.
Afterwards, if she couldn’t get home, she’d ‘have to sleep there, on the rocks’ and beg local people to use their bathroom.
“Nobody pay us to do these things,” she said in a recent interview, “You just do them because you want to hear your voice on the radio.”
And eventually, she did. Already a seasoned live performer, Sister Nancy cut her first recording for producer Winston “Techniques” Riley in 1980.
She later became the first female deejay to perform at the famous Reggae Sunsplash festival, and to tour internationally.
Released in 1982, her most famous song ‘Bam Bam’ tales its bassline from an instrumental known as ‘Stalag 17’, the most sampled reggae rhythm ever made.
It’s so popular that the online Jamaican Riddim Database lists over 40 pages of songs made with this instrumental in Jamaica alone.
It tells you something, then, that Sister Nancy’s version remains the most famous, adored by reggae fans all over.
It’s a masterful performance, improvised in the studio when she had to generate one final track to complete her 1982 debut album, One, Two.
Shot through with sly references to earlier songs by Toots & The Maytals and Yellowman, the lyrics express her frustration that people keep questioning her about where she gets her drive, her power, her ambition.
It was ‘from creation’, she says; she was born this way. The ‘Bam! Bam!’ reference in the lyric is Jamaican slang for a ruckus, a confrontation, a tense situation.
She’s asserting her right to stand tall in the dancehall, speaking freely in a culture where men ‘run tings’ and women are expected to be primarily submissive or decorative.
“I’m a lady, I’m not a man.” she sings, for anyone that might have overlooked this crucial fact.
“MC is my ambition, I come to nice up this session.” And if you have an issue with that? “Bam bam!” – there’s gonna be trouble.
Sister Nancy was making it plain that she intended to fight for her right to tell a different sort of female story in the dancehall.
The One, Two album contained a couple of moderate-sized radio hits – the title track and ‘Transport Connection’, but the other killer on here is a song in which Nancy not only asserts her role as a female MC, but also slips in a plug for staying in school.
“Ass is ass and class is class,” she sings, trumpeting her own skill and educational credentials over a cut of Slim Smith’s ‘My Conversation’ rhythm.
It’s a sideswipe at those of lesser talent who nonetheless insist on grabbing the mic and boring the crowd in the dancehall.
Why is Sister Nancy better than most other sound system deejays in Jamaica? Because her swift tongue is driven by a sharp brain, she implies.
Sister Nancy made a couple of other albums and numerous singles during the 80s and 90s, toured widely and raised a young daughter.
In 1996, she emigrated to New Jersey, where her degree came in handy, landing her a job as an accountant in a bank.
She was amazed to discover that ‘Bam Bam’ was considered a classic in the US. At home in Jamaica, the song had been overlooked in favour of other singles.
But in America, it was featured on movie soundtracks, played on hip hop radio stations, sampled by dozens of other musicians.
“I couldn’t believe it!” she told HOT 97 FM, “I never hear (‘Bam Bam’) in Jamaica! Not once! But when I migrated to America, I found out how big it was.”
In 2004, after Nancy’s daughter heard ‘Bam Bam’ playing on TV in a Reebok commercial, she decided to seek legal advice to finally gain some income from her most famous song.
“I get no money from it for 32 years! In Jamaica, the producer usually get all the money. But then my daughter see it on TV, and I thought, ‘No! I have to rush at dem!’ and they settle out of court.”
The settlement didn’t include compensation for all 32 years of unpaid royalties, but she did receive royalties for the last 10 years, and 50% of all future earnings.
The timing couldn’t have been better. In 2014, ‘Bam Bam’ was featured in the Seth Rogan film The Interview, and blasted straight back up to the top of the reggae charts.
And Whosampled.com lists over 75 other artists who have sampled Sister Nancy’s song, among them Lauryn Hill, Chris Brown, Wiz Khalifa, Too $hort and Pete Rock.
Kanye West used ‘Bam Bam’ in his 2016 hit ‘Famous’, those unmistakable horns blasting out in the controversial video as the camera panned over naked lookalikes of Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian.
Just last year, The New Yorker declared Sister Nancy’s 1982 original ‘the song of summer’ and ‘a soul-hugging mix of horn dollops, crackly bass, and open space’, adding that it was ‘a reggae classic that only grows more lustrous with age. There is no wrong time to play ‘Bam Bam’. Every summer belongs to ‘Bam Bam’.’
And Jay-Z – considered by many the greatest hip hop MC alive today, paid tribute to the song with his own cover, ‘Bam Bam’, earlier this year, travelling to Jamaica to film the video, which features Sister Nancy alongside Bob Marley’s son, Damian. To date, the video has over 17 million views
Since moving to America two decades ago, Sister Nancy has largely concentrated on her day job, playing just a handful of festivals or club gigs each year.
The modern-day dancehall has become a ‘less spiritual’ place, she says, with fewer positive role models.
With no small degree of irony, this former ‘dancehall roughneck’ admits she has never allowed her own daughter to go to dancehall gigs.
But earlier this year, Sister Nancy retired from the bank to devote more of her time to her music.
Here she is, playing at a packed club gig at New York’s Boiler Room in February this year, claiming her seniority in the dance, now calling herself ‘Mama Nancy’ as often as ‘Sister’:
And now it’s our turn. Sister Nancy plays a Ruapeke Roots Festival Warm-up show at Raglan’s Yot Club on Friday, November 17, and Auckland’s Galatos on Saturday, November 18.
Both shows are backed by French sound system crew, Legal Shot, and assorted regional bass bandits including Red Robin (Raglan Community Radio) and Wellington’s DJ Atmosphere.
Auckland's Saturday night jamboree will also feature iconic local sound system Lion Rockers HiFi with their full sound and crew playing roots and rub-a-dub, with MC Ras Stone of Wellington on mic duties.
But the main event? That’s Nancy all the way, ‘the original deejay queen’, a woman whose influence upon hip hop is such that Kanye, Jay-Z and many more bend the knee in tribute.
It’s not often we get the chance to see a true pioneer of the deejay’s art, right here in our own backyard.
As Sister Nancy says: “I’m the first woman who did this. The first! I’m the first woman who took it internationally. I took it from Jamaica and spread it. And without dancehall, there is no hip hop, seen?”
Artist: Sister Nancy
Song: Bam Bam
Comp: Ophil Russell/ Winston Riley
Album: One, Two
Broadcast Time: 3’19”
Artist: Sister Nancy
Song: Only Woman DJ With Degree
Comp: Ophil Russell/ Winston Riley
Album: One, Two
Broadcast Time: 3’29”