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Seani B speaks to unsung reggae hero, Sister Nancy

STAR POWER: JAY-Z, Sister Nancy and Damien Marley

THE saying goes that nothing happens before its time. There is another saying – that a quality piece of music can mature and get better with age like a fine bottle of red wine. Both of these are true and relevant to this week’s main subject for this column.

The one and only Sister Nancy has definitely cultivated herself a ‘classic’. 'Bam Bam' transcends the dancehall and can be heard everywhere from pop clubs, to hip hop raves and all points in between. Ophlin Russell grew up as a part of a large family, and music was most certainly in their views. Hr elder brother was none other than The General’ Brigadeer Jerry.

Jerry worked with the 12 tribes sound system Jah Love Muzik, and Nancy soon followed suit while still a teenager. Seeing and hearing women being involved in dancehall at that time was not a regular thing. Although her brother was involved in the business, her parents did not see it as an area that a young lady should be making herself known to.

However, she was making a name for herself, and in 1980 and 1981 ‘Transport Connection' and 'Money Can't Buy Me Love'. Then, in the following year, she recorded her biggest hit to date. "It was August 1982 - I remember everything about it,” she tells me from the States.

“That day it was me, Yellowman and Fathead sparring together. Yellow had to go to the studio to record and recorded a track called ‘Bam Bam’ with the producer Harry J. Yellowman and I were working together quite a lot, so I went to the studio with him.

“When we finished, I called producer Winston Riley and told him I wanted to record the final track that was missing from my forthcoming album, and the track we recored was my 'Bam Bam'. I was 20 years old.

"My career was in a good place when I recorded 'Bam Bam' because my tune 'One, Two' was number one in the charts in Jamaica and gave me the break which allowed me to complete an album." She went on to tell me that the track wasn’t originally a local favourite.

“I never heard the tune played in Jamaica – not at all. Not on the radio or anything. They played ‘One, Two’ and ‘Trans- port Connection’. It was when I went to America I heard it get played. In 1996 I migrated to the States. I continued my education, and got myself a 9-5 job and worked. I performed at the odd show now and then, but I never did ‘Bam Bam’ as it wasn’t in the repertoire. No one requested it."

But things were about to change, as Nancy explains. "It wasn't until 1998, when the movie 'Belly' was being shown on HBO that I started to feel the song making an impact. “My daughter was watching it and heard the track being played in the movie. I couldn’t believe it. I contacted the producer, Winston Riley, who said he had some funds for me based on its use. I went to see him and wait- ed for 12 hours – but he didn’t show, and I didn't get paid for its use."

The story of financial shortcomings in reggae is one we have heard before. However, it is amazing to hear some of the revelations that Nancy tells me. "I've never recieved a penny i royalties from anyone who has used or sampled the track. Never. I copy-wrote the whole album, but for some reason it was registered to a 'Nancy White'. not Sister Nancy - I have no idea who Nancy White is.

"After Reebok decided to use it in commercial, I had to do something. I got some lawyers and was planning on taking them to court, but in the end, they settled out of court. All I am asking for is payment for the use of my work”, she says firmly. It is one of the most sampled and recognisable pieces of work from the genre, a fact that isn’t lost on her.

“Last time I counted, it had been sampled and used 79 times - and there are probably a lot more times i don't know about. One of the people who used it was Stylo G. It was good working with him, and I did some shows in the UK alongside him."

Then came a big call. One of the stand-out cuts from Jay Z’s ‘4:44’ album was ‘Bam’, which also featured Damian Marley alongside Nancy. For most people, this would be a pinnacle moment of their career, and something that would ensure bragging rights for years to come.

However, this isn’t the case for Nancy – she takes it all in her stride. “Jay-Z flew me to Jamaica and he asked me how it felt to be in the studio with him and Damian. I just told him that a man is a man – it wasn’t really a big deal for me. I did what I had to do and then left.”

Just like that. B-A-M!

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