Sean Paul's teenage obsessions: 'My Coventry grandmother cooked me bubble and squeak'

Ahead of two new albums this spring, the dancehall superstar recalls the poignancy of his first love, and how water polo took his mind off his imprisoned father

Swimming and water polo

When I turned 13 my father had just gone to prison, so without a father figure I looked for heroes in music and sports. Both my parents had been champion swimmers and when I was four or five they would throw me in the water when other kids didn’t want to swim. From the age of 13 to 21 I represented Jamaica in water polo, which my father had played. We trained a lot: 5,000 metres a day, 7,000 to 9,000 metres on Thursdays. It consumed my life but in a good way. It took my mind off my father being in prison.

Water polo is one of the most physically demanding sports, and there’s a lot that goes on under the water that people don’t see. Hitting, thumping, kicking, tugging … all while you’re trying to breathe and stay alive and catch a ball and shoot! It’s a really rough sport. In the national team, we were trained by a Hungarian coach who called us pimps. “You pimps don’t know anything!” His compliments would be stuff like: “Man, you’re swimming like a horse today.” So I was a pimp, but a horse [laughs]. Eventually my focus turned to music but, after my father died two years ago, I started to play water polo again, to feel closer to him.

Casio keyboard

When I was 15 I saw [reggae production duo] Steely and Clevie on TV talking about how they used a computer to programme the sounds. They didn’t need a big studio or a band. After that, I wanted to become a producer. I saw a keyboard with a crack in it going cheap in a flea market and begged my mother to buy it for me. I lasted one term in piano lessons, but could pick out a tune and play it. The Casio keyboard had one conga drum, a kick drum, a hi-hat and a snare, but that was enough for me to recreate the rhythms of people like Steely and Clevie or Sly and Robbie, and sing over them. I had a cassette player so would press “record” and use the keyboard to build a rhythm, play bass and spit lyrics. Primitive recording! Then my brother got in with a sound system. In Jamaica, on the back of the 45 single, they would have the “version” [dub]. So I’d sing over those. I was 16, 17, and, while I didn’t get a record out until I was 24, that’s how I started.

Nicole Wynter

In my teens, having a girlfriend was a big thing. I’d have one, break up. I’d have another, we’d break up. I don’t know if you could call it infidelity at the boyfriend-girlfriend stage, but in my late teens that’s what led to the breakups. When I was 14 to 15, though, my first girlfriend, Nicole Wynter, was the whole love and marriage thing, what you’d call puppy love. We’d go to the movies, start necking, find out stuff. After we broke up, we remained close friends, but sadly when we were both 17 she passed away with a brain tumour. I sing about her in the song Never Gonna Be the Same and there’s a picture of her in the video. When she got sick, I just didn’t know how to react. I always feel bad that I wasn’t there for her in the last stages, but I couldn’t handle seeing her like that. After she died, I saw her in one or two dreams and she was OK, smiling at me. I felt better after that. She was special to me.

Conscious lyrics

My teens were very up and down, with my father in prison and my girlfriend passing away. Between 13 and 15, I was taken out of private school and sent to Wolmer’s, the “ruffians’ school” in Kingston. When I was 17, my mother had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t walk properly, so I had a lot of responsibility. Music became my outlet. As a middle-class, uptown kid, I had always been told that dancehall music was not for us, but I just gravitated to it and became more aware of my surroundings.

Growing up, I saw poverty, people suffering unnecessarily, and I would think about people having a harder time than myself and that helped me cope. I started writing conscious lyrics, trying to show the differences between uptown and downtown Jamaica and highlighting prejudices. I’d be singing about that stuff, but later on producers would be like: “Bro, this doesn’t seem like you.” They wanted me to sing more about girls and partying, which I was into, too, but part of me got stifled by the party guy, who attracted the ladies and made more money. I was trying to establish myself, so pretty soon I thought: “I like this party guy.”

Bob Marley and the Wailers

I have known Bob Marley’s music all my life – in Jamaica, the Wailers are like our Beatles. We get played the nice songs, such as One Love, which are amazing, but between 17 and 19 I got more into the more conscious material – the revolutionary music, or sad songs such as Jah Live. I started to think about roots music. My favourite Marley song is Natural Mystic. I love the way the bassline starts out of nowhere, and it really feels mystical, like a supernatural power to me. I also love Mr Brown, a song from when Marley was younger, which is really funky.

We’ve lost a few people in reggae recently: Bunny Wailer, U-Roy, the great engineer Barry O’Hare, and Toots Hibbert from the Maytals, who hugged me every year on tour and really encouraged me. Those names were iconic figures to me. I shed tears for all of them and will try to keep their memory alive in whatever ways I can. Their times will be cherished and they will be missed.

English fish and chips

My grandmother is from Coventry, and when it was bombed during the second world war, she came out of the air-raid shelter to find that her home was one of only three left standing. They moved to Rugby and she got a job in a drawing office, drawing plane parts for the war, working when she was 14. She met my Chinese-Jamaican grandfather after he went to study in England, she came to Jamaica in the late 40s and has lived here ever since.

In my teens, she would cook me English food, such as bubble and squeak. She told me that fish and chips are best when served in a newspaper, smothered in vinegar, when the print comes off in your hands. When she told me stories about England, it always seemed so far away and we didn’t have the money for me to go there, but when I first went to Brixton it was just like Jamaica: spicy food and music!

She always told me that she would love to go to the pyramids in Egypt, so after I became successful, I made her dream come true. She said: “It was hot!” She’s 97 now and still kicking; an amazing woman.

Sean Paul’s seventh album, Live N Livin, is released 12 March, with another album, Scorcha, following in May.


As told to Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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