A crowd of music fans, including Fab Five Freddy, spilled out onto West Houston Street on a clear night last week. The occasion was the record release party for Kingston Story Deluxe Edition, the latest album by Jamaican dancehall superstar Vybz Kartel, a k a the World Boss, a k a Gaza Don, a k a the Teacher, a k a Adija Palmer.
The event featured two DJ sets—one by the album’s Brooklyn-based producer, Dre Skull, and another by Max Glazer—made up of bumping Kartel remixes and “dub plates” streamed live on the restaurant’s internet radio station. The album, which originally received a digital release on Mixpak records in 2011 but had been repackaged with additional tracks by Vice’s Noisey Records, was for sale in CD and vinyl formats, as was Mr. Kartel’s recent memoir, Voice of the Ghetto, a heartfelt jeremiad directed against the forces of “Babylon,” the powerful interests who seek to enslave the rest of us. Little buttons bearing the word Gaza, one of the two sometimes warring musical syndicates that dominate Jamaican music, were also available, though as one attendee pointed out, the logo “could be misconstrued.”
So what was missing?
There appeared to be no Vybz premium handcrafted Jamaican rum on hand, for one thing. Mr. Kartel’s self-branded Daggering Condoms were nowhere to be found, nor was any of the Vybz Kartel cake soap the recording artist marketed a while back, after claiming that he used a similar product to lighten his skin. (Mr. Kartel’s unabashed defense of bleaching has sparked a soul-searching debate throughout the Caribbean—though cake soaps, which are used for laundry, are not actually effective for the purpose.)
Perhaps the most conspicuous element missing from the proceedings was Mr. Kartel himself. The DJ, who is widely considered the most talented and prolific performer to emerge from the dancehall scene, has resided at the Horizon Adult Remand Centre in Kingston for 11 months, awaiting trial in connection with two murders.
It’s an awkward situation. Mr. Kartel’s influence in Jamaican society is hard to overstate. Olympic runner Usain Bolt flashed a “Gaza Empire” hand sign after his 200-meter run, and a number of other Olympians adopted the gesture. Not only does Mr. Kartel’s music and that of his protégés dominate West Indian radio, he is a beguiling provocateur—a little like Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol rolled into one.
“He’s truly a conceptual artist, in my mind,” said Dre Skull, the album’s soft-spoken, impressively bearded producer, who studied critical theory at Penn before entering the music business. “He still dictates the cultural discussion in Jamaica. In terms of what pop stardom can be, he is pushing it beyond what’s been done anywhere.”
Dre Skull and Mr. Kartel recorded the album in Kingston, and they were set to produce a video when the singer was arrested. “I didn’t have even the remotest sense that it could be something serious,” he said. “And when it came out that there was a murder charge, I was just totally shocked and surprised.”
Like most of the party attendees The Observer spoke to, Dre Skull said he had no idea whether there was any truth to the accusations. The Jamaican criminal justice system is notoriously corrupt, and there is no shortage of conspiracy theories claiming the charges were invented to silence a critic of the island’s power elite (a k a Babylon).
In any case, there seemed to be little question about Mr. Kartel’s musical output. Vice cofounder Suroosh Alvi said he became “obsessed” with Kingston Story while in Jamaica earlier this year making a documentary about Snoop Dogg’s new reggae-inspired album which Dre Skull helped produce. “Kingston Story became the soundtrack to my life,” Mr. Alvi said. “I just thought, ‘This guy Dre Skull is incredibly talented and has made a gem of an album—poppy and melancholic and so different than a lot of dancehall—and it needs to be heard by more people. So I suggested we do a rerelease.”
Mr. Alvi recalled his first encounter with Mr. Kartel’s oeuvre during an earlier visit to the island. He had landed at 5 a.m., “unaware of Vybz Kartel’s mythology,” he said. But during a four-hour drive to his destination, the driver blasted Kartel the whole way. As Mr. Alvi became hooked on the music, the driver grew wistful about the incarcerated superstar.
“I miss him so much,” the man told Mr. Alvi.