There are a million stories in the ghetto. And yet there’s only one “Ghetto Story.” And like the song says, it’s a survival story.
Drawing inspiration from daily life in their troubled homeland, Cham and The Stranger created a dancehall masterpiece called “Ghetto Story” which hit the streets like a bomb at the end of 2005, Jamaica’s bloodiest year on record with over 1,600 slain. Blending the vivid street narrative with trenchant political analysis and Cham’s emotional delivery, “Ghetto Story” became an instant classic, summing up all the pain and loss. “You can’t say we’re inciting violence,” says Cham. “It’s just a memory. If I grow up any different I would have a nicer memory.” Every street dance, country bus, and radio seemed to be blasting Madhouse’s nasty new digital throwback riddim, the “85,” and the number-one tune for this year and next was Cham’s “survival story.”
Neither glorifying nor preaching against violence, “Ghetto Story” coldly examines the root causes behind the chronic brutality that has plagued Jamaica for a quarter century. “And when you check it,” says Cham, “it’s not just Jamaica. If you check the movie City of God, ah the same way Brazil run. If you check New Jack City, ah the same way New York run. If you check Boyz N Da Hood, ah the same way L.A. run. That’s every ghetto. And that won’t end unless we deal with it. It’s a part of our history and the story have to be told for us to know where we are and where we’re going.”
Look into any ghetto and you will see tragedies and triumphs, lives lost and fortunes won, epic struggles that play out every day, invisible to most prosperous citizens. Yes, there are a million stories in the ghetto. And Cham recognizes how important it is that the Ghetto Story be heard.
We interview Cham!
HIP: Are you happy if people just bounce to the songs or do you want them to understand the message and dig underneath?
CHAM: I want them to see what is underneath. Because you have to understand what I’m all about—but that is just one of the elements of the story.
People might just rock it in the club without truly listening.
They need to listen. They’ve got to be pumpin’ it in their car. It’s gotta be played at home so they can really listen.
With so much meaning in the songs, does writing come naturally or do you think about what you want to write first?
It comes out natural. That’s music. Sometimes I think about a lyric and other times it just comes. You know? Sometimes ‘boom’ and it comes.
I watched the video for “Ghetto Story” and I was wondering if you had any forethought about writing that story.
I knew what I was writing about. I was writing about my personal life. But at the same time I didn’t know people would accept it like that. [And] that my life and other people’s lives are just the same all over the world. It shows that people are facing the same struggles.
What artists did you listen to growing up?
Whoa. I listened to a lot of Whitney Houston and Bob Marley. He’s from where I’m from.
What artists did you listen to where you felt like they were talking to you and living with the same struggles?
When I first started to listen to Public Enemy’s stuff like “Fight The Power” and that reminded me of what was happening in Jamaica at the time. And Chuck D. was being so real about the streets.
Did you know you wanted to get into music?
It was just an entertaining thing. Because I used to listen to music all the time I didn’t know that was the road I wanted to take. But I wanted to tell my story at the end of the day. I’ve been through so much stuff that its not just oppression and stuff like that—it has a lot more elements like love.
It’s everyday life.
Yeah. I think—an artist is like a mirror. Whatever society reflects we reflect back with words, melodies and beats. So whatever is going on the streets we try to paint that picture that way it easier to relate.
Did you write a lot of songs?
[Dave Kelly] “Stranger” made all the beats and he would make like five or six beats at a time and I would pick two or three and we would knock those out and do that over and over again. That was all the ammunition that we needed.
You have a great flow to your voice—when did you get that?
I’ve had that from day one (We laugh). I’ve been raised around music and the technique of delivering on a track I learned as a little kid. My uncle had a sound system in Jamaica called Studio Mix and would work with cats like Supercat and John Wayne. And that is where I got my love for music. I had the flow from day one but it was about finding the right one who believed in you.
What are you listening to right now?
Everything from Gnarls Barkley to Whitney Houston. Everything. Rap, jazz, I just love music. One day I feel a hip-hop vibe and then the next day maybe some deep reggae like Bob Marley.
Where are you going next?
(Cham starts to rap) I’m on the grind son/ I didn’t get a dime son/ if it wasn’t for music I would surely be in the nine son/ I don’t mean nine to five I mean crime son.
[Get Ghetto Story in stores now!]
+ Charlie Craine