Red Rat rides the music wave

Guyana Chronicle
May 26, 1999

'That girl ... that girl Shelly-Ann' -

These popular lyrics continue to rock the airwaves, sending lovers of dancehall and ragga music, particularly the youths, into a frenzy.

The man behind the music is slim-built Jamaican-born Wallace Wilson, known for his trademark infectious `Oh No' phrase, high-pitched voice and stylish Medusa `hairdo'.

"I use a phrase that everybody uses but don't realise that they use it - `Oh No'", he told the Chronicle a few weeks ago, giving a behind-the-scene look at what makes him tick in the music business.

It was natural that Red Rat should follow in the footsteps of family members, although he said they do not share a close relationship. His father was a guitarist for Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires, his brother, a bass guitarist for Diana King, and another male sibling plays drums and keyboards for the group KRU. But Red Rat claims his climb to international stardom was as much a fulfilling of destiny.

"I've always been in music and I've always known that this would be my destiny," he said.

Red Rat was born on January 17, 197? (he prefers that it remains a mystery), in a humble household in St Ann's Bay. He has four brothers and one sister.

As early as age four, he began dabbling in music and sang in hotels and at barbecues. While still a teenager, Red Rat caught the fancy of producer, musician and CEO of Main Street Records, Danny Brownie.

Together with the management of the Main Street impresario, Red Rat's music began transcending all barriers. He gained valuable experience alongside veteran performers such as General Degree, who actually came up with the nickname `Red Rat'.

Among his many successes, `Shelly-Ann', released in June 1996, is reported to be the ragga anthem of the year, `Dwayne' was a number one hit on the UK reggae charts for eight weeks and `Big Man Little Yute' (featuring Goofy) ranked high on the music list as well.

For his upcoming album, `I'm A Big Kid Now', Red Rat will be dishing out lyrics with Carl Wheeler from `Soul To Soul', and his managers are currently aiming to have him do a hip-hop song alongside Wyclef Jean. Red Rat is also being featured in the track with Machel Montano in `Rubber Waist'.

"I'm a dancehall artiste so I guess I have to stay in dancehall, but that doesn't stop me from trying other things," he offered. Once the recording process is over, he is off on international tours again.

"In Jamaica, as long as you have the hot song, you are quite loved. Since I got the break with `Shelly-Ann', I can sing it anywhere (and) anytime in foreign countries, but in Jamaica, I can't sing `Shelly-Ann' again because they don't want to hear that - they want something new," Red Rat said.

"People just love and respect how I got the break, but as an artiste, if you don't have the hot song now, it's hard for you to develop," he pointed out.

Coincidentally, the normal life-span of an entertainer in Jamaica is between one and two years and those in the limelight have to be really exceptional to last over four years.

In Africa, for instance, Red Rat is one of the biggest ragga performers and the only West Indian to have four songs on Africa's top ten billboard.

"I'm the only artiste in history that has four songs in the top ten in Africa. It's surprising to know how big I am out of the Caribbean and Jamaica," he said.

Back in Kingston, youths widely accept him and Red Rat believes the fascination stems from him having come at a point where the music business needed a change.

"There was a lot of big-voice artistes like Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton, so I came with a little difference, with a high-pitched voice - that made me different from everybody else".

Although his lyrics have more cheek than a mischievous schoolboy, Red Rat does not intend to capitalise on vulgar lyrics, and the tendency of being derogatory to women.

"Red Rat is definitely not a vulgar artiste. Red Rat is a fun artiste. When you hear a Red Rat song, you know that you're going to laugh.

"If an artiste is good in his field doing vulgar lyrics, I can't fight against that because that it what he does. I'm not saying I'm supporting it, but I can't fight against it because each artiste has his own space in the business".

What's the truth behind the song `Shelly-Ann'?

Red Rat bursts into uncontrollable laughter and finally simmers down.

"We all know `Shelly Ann'... Everybody who listens to this song knows somebody that acts like that. It's just my experience I guess ... there is a `Shelly Ann'".

After chatting with him about his work and life, it was clear to me that Red Rat loves to laugh.

"Red Rat is a fun person. I can be shy sometimes - I have to build the courage to talk to people sometimes because I'm shy. I'm a good person to hang around with," he boasts.

"What you see is what you get. Red Rat is not an act; Red Rat is Wallace Wilson".

When he is not on tour, Red Rat is either in the studios or listening to "all types of music". Shabba Ranks and Super Cat are his mentors.

A lot of companies are eager to sign him up, but this ragga entertainer is not too eager to put his name on the dotted line since some of these can put an end to an artiste's career once a single does not do as well as expected.

Red Rat advises potential dancehall artistes to first educate themselves about the music business, then "go into it and stay focussed".

He has remained loyal to Main Street for about seven years now, and although the odds of a Jamaican making it `big time' is only four out of every ten - Red Rat has no qualms about getting into that bracket.

Red Rat is riding the music wave and enjoying every bit of it. And, the `Shelly-Ann' fever is still sweeping the region, as is that slick `Oh No ...' line.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples