It was 1982 in Kingston, Jamaica, and Sister Nancy – the first ever female dancehall DJ – realised that she needed one final song to complete her debut album. Recording at Channel One Studios with a band that included the legendary Sly and Robbie rhythm section, she went to the mic and freestyled ‘Bam Bam’ over Ansell Collins’ ‘Stalag 17’. It’s fair to say she nailed it.
‘Bam Bam’ went on to become one of the most influential reggae songs of all time, sampled at least 80 times on tracks including Kanye’s ‘Famous’ and Jay-Z’s ‘Bam’. More importantly, ‘Bam Bam’ itself has stood the test of time. Almost four decades on there is still almost nothing that sounds better played loud in the sun.
Yet Sister Nancy saw little reward from the song’s success. Contractually cut out from receiving any royalties, she left music behind and moved to New Jersey where she took a job in a bank. It was only in the last four years, after the song enjoyed another resurgence, that she was finally able to get her hands on some of her backdated royalties and return to playing live. Ahead of her European tour this summer, Sister Nancy shares her remarkable story:
How did you first get involved in making music when you were growing up in Jamaica?
“It was always a part of me. Music is a part of us, but it was my bigger brother Brigadier Jerry who motivated me to do something with it. I went to see him DJ, and I thought if he could do it then I could do it as well. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. It was always a part of my family. It’s not that my brother was encouraging me with words, I just followed what he was doing because I liked it.”
You became the first ever female dancehall DJ – were there other women working in music in Jamaica at the time?
“There weren’t many of us. There was one, Muma Liza, who was a harmonizer with Kojak, but I was the one who came and took it to the dancehall. I started off with three tracks: ‘Papa Dean’, ‘Money Can’t Buy Me Love’ and ‘Proud A We’. Then I did a couple more singles: ‘One Two’ and ‘Transport Connection’. After I did those, ‘One Two’ started to take off and was doing well so that’s when I was asked to do an album. So that’s how my album ‘One, Two’ came about.”
Is it true that ‘Bam Bam’ was a late addition?
“Yes that’s right, ‘Bam Bam’ was the last track I put on the album. I had nine songs done and I needed to do one more but it was very hard for me, you know? There was an older song called ‘Bam Bam’, so I decided to do a ‘Bam Bam’ too. So that’s how I did the last track and finished the album. I freestyled it, I only wrote it down after. It’s timeless. It’s been 36 years, and ‘Bam Bam’ is still there. It’s not going anywhere.”
Despite the huge success of ‘Bam Bam’, you initially didn’t see much money from it. Are you getting properly paid these days?
“Yes, I’m getting the royalties now. I wasn’t getting anything for 34 years, but in 2014 after they used it in a Reebok commercial I decided to sue them. Now I own 50% of the ‘One, Two’ album. At least I’m getting something now, I never used to get anything.”
So when Kanye sampled ‘Bam Bam’ for ‘Famous’ in 2016 did he have to ask your permission?
“No, he didn’t have to ask me because I don’t own the song. The song is owned by Westbury Music, who are based in England. Kanye would have had to go through them, and then they gave him authorisation to use it. Then they make sure I get my royalties from the sample too.”
That’s good. What did you make of ‘Famous’?
“It’s not the first time I’ve heard someone sample ‘Bam Bam’. When I heard him do it I just thought: ‘Well, that’s good for me.’ Whatever way he takes it, it’s very good for me because it keeps me moving. Do you know what I’m saying? It keeps me working. Then Jay-Z did the same thing. It’s a blessing.”
You went back to Jamaica with Jay-Z, didn’t you?
“Yeah that’s right. He wanted me to appear in the video for ‘Bam’ that he was making with [Damian] Marley. I spent three days down there with him. It was nice, but a man is just a man. Jay-Z is just a man, same as you. He’s no different.”
You’re playing the Positive Vibration festival in Liverpool this summer. At your shows do you still see a lot of young people getting into your music?
“It’s always been like that! Sometimes I wonder how they know about me after so long. I’ve been doing this for 41 years. I don’t know how they hear about me, but it’s mostly young people at my shows when I’m performing all over the world. There’s a few older folks like me, but mostly it’s younger people. They’ll have the ‘One, Two’ album or a couple of singles and they bring them to me to sign.”
What is it about your music that keeps connecting with new generations?
“I don’t know what causes it, but I’m going to say that they’re in love with the songs and they’re in love with me… or my voice! I think it’s my voice, and ‘Bam Bam’. You can’t not love ‘Bam Bam’. I don’t know what to say about it. ‘Bam Bam’ is just ‘Bam Bam’! Whatever it is, I’m grateful.”