Rexton Rawlston Fernando Gordon, better known as Shabba Ranks, is one of reggae-dancehall’s most notable icons, underlined by his two Grammy Awards for Best Reggae Album in 1991 for his ‘As Raw as Ever’ album and 1992 ‘X-tra Naked’ album.
Although his early influences included Charlie Chaplin, General Echo, Brigadier Jerry, Yellowman and especially, Josey Wales, he soon found his own voice. It was his deep, gravelly, staccato vocals alongside some terrifically danceable rhythms and contagious hooks that won him many admirers.
Despite not being the first deejay to be signed to a U.S. major label as Yellowman, Lieutenant Stitchie, and Super Cat, he is nonetheless regarded as the definitive artiste of the genre, regardless of the fact that he basically disappeared from the spotlight after the early 90s.
Although Yellowman’s 1984 10-track album, “King Yellowman” with hits like “Jamaica Nice” and “Wha Dat” is the first to be nominated for the Grammy’s, making him the first dancehall artiste to be nominated for such awards, it was Ranks who first won it for the fraternity.
Emerging as Co-Pilot, the boy born in 1966 in Jamaica’s St. Ann parish same as Bob Marley and Burning Spear, moved to the capital at the age of eight with his family getting raised in Trenchtown.
By 1985, Co-Pilot had offered his first single, “Heat Under Sufferer’s Feet,” but saw reason to rebrand to Shabba Ranks, and caught the attention of his idol Josey Wales, who took the young toaster under his wing. The rest they say is history.
The youth would start performing with legendary artist Admiral Bailey on the Roots Melody sound system in the early 80s; while fellow deejay Josey Wales introduced him to notable producer King Jammy.
By the end of the decade, Ranks had become a superstar in Jamaica, and soon enough, American record label ‘Epic’ signed him in 1989. His good fortune was that at his peak he was massive crossover success in the U.S. thanks to strategic collaborations which made him arguably the most popular dancehall toaster in the world.
Infusing commercial hybrid of reggae and hip-hop, he collaborated with Maxi Priest, Johnny Gill, and KRS-One. All of this brought him several hit singles and albums on the R&B charts in the early ’90s, and made him the first dancehall artist to win a Grammy. He is regarded as the one to have paved the way for even bigger crossovers by artistes like Shaggy and Sean Paul.
Singles such as “Peanie Peanie”, “Roots & Culture”, “She’s A Woman” ft. Shabba Ranks, “Trailer Load A Girls”, “Housecall” ft. Maxi Priest, “Just Reality”, “Love Punaany Bad”, “Mr. Loverman” ft. Deborahe Glasgow, “Slow And Sexy” ft. Johnny Gill, “Shine & Crisis”, “I Was A King” – Eddie Murphy ft. Shabba Ranks, “What’cha Gonna Do” ft. Queen Latifah, “Family Affair” ft. Patra and Terri & Monica all helped send him to the pinnacle.
However, a December 4, 1993, broadcast of UK show ‘The Word,’ would usher in a period of steep decline. In 1992, during an appearance on Channel 4 music show ‘The Word’, he was asked to give his thoughts on the subject of the hit song ‘Boom Bye Bye’ sang by Buju Banton. Shabba held a copy of a Bible which he carried with him and stated that the “word of God” advocated the death of homosexuals, and was subsequently condemned for his comments by presenter Mark Lamarr, who said “That’s absolute crap and you know it.”
Shabba would later issue an apology, but his career really never recovered– and saying sorry, along with his focus on the crossover market, meant that he was viewed as a watered-down apologist in Jamaica. He eventually moved from Kingston to New York with his family.
Though his offensive views caused Shabba to disappear from the public eye, his music has had staying power often still played at weddings and at nightclubs, especially ‘Mr. Loverman’ and ‘Twice My Age.’ In Jamaica, despite not offering no hit in over two decades, his tunes still enjoy following.
Shabba Ranks’ ladies-man image, signature Gumby haircut, flowing suits, manicured eyebrows, and gold jewelry made him stand out, but before mid-1990 he had virtually left the scene.
Shabba after mounting the Reggae Sumfest stage in over two decades and offering a memorable performance, brought his wife and sons on stage submitting “Not only gunshot can come out of the ghetto,” adding “I’m a natural proof of ghetto progress.” True words from a man who as a boy in St. Ann or even Trench Town couldn’t have imagined the great heights his music would rise too and that is ghetto progress. The 53-year-old is married to Michelle Gordon. They have Rexton Jr Ranks and Jahwon Ranks together.