Queen of dancehall and Mama Saw are two of numerous titles accredited to Marion Hall, best known as Lady Saw. Her influence and impact as a female artist in dancehall remain unrivalled, with a glittering career spanning two decades. Her latest album, aptly titled My Way, marks a departure from long-time record label VP – now she’s writing all the songs, working from her own studio – and is the debut release from her own independent label Diva Records (distributed by Fontana/Universal).
‘Me no need no makeover, no butt-lift, no belly tuck or face lift. Mi ting sort out… Every way me go man ah ask me, how me look good so?’ is from opening track ‘Every Way Mi Go’, an anthem for women in their 40s. Keeping it in the family, she worked with her nephew/adopted son and tries to seduce Jamaican dancer-turned-artist Ding Dong on ‘I Can’t Wait’. The sound is dancehall with a crossover appeal. ‘He’s At My House’ serves as the second part to popular 2008 hit ‘I’ve Got Your Man’, with a feature by US rapper Eve.
International collaborations are something Saw is familiar with – Foxy Brown, Missy Elliott, Vitamin C and No Doubt a few of the artists who have requested her inimitable dancehall flavour, the latter resulting in ‘Underneath It All’ from No Doubt’s reggae-infused triple-platinum album Rock Steady, which won Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group at the 2004 Grammy awards – the first Grammy won by a female deejay (Jamaican term for rapper).
Saw rose to prominence in the early 90s as a member of the Shocking Vibes Crew alongside then relative newcomers Frisco Kid and Beenie Man. At the time, there weren’t any household name female deejays, bar Lady G. Anthems such as ‘Good Wuk’ and ‘No Long Talking’ exhibit a raunchy, X-rated style that shocked and made her a force to be reckoned with among hardcore dancehall fans.
‘I decided to do the raunchy stuff when all the female deejays weren’t getting enough recognition and the boys were getting away with doing raunchy stuff that wouldn’t uplift women,’ she says. ‘They’d do it in a derogatory way. I have a song now called “Am I losing you darling?” Who wanted to hear that back then? Or “Mama don’t worry I’m going to buy you a house”? So I ended up trying what the boys do and it worked.’
She acquired the name Lady Saw because her early style was reminiscent of her inspiration, the late Tenor Saw (‘Ring The Alarm’, ‘Lots of Signs’, ‘Roll Call’). (She name-checks Ce’Cile as her current favourite female). Not only do most femcees in the dancehall arena reference her as an influence, hence Mama Saw, there’s reason to suspect US counterparts Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim were also inspired, using sexually-explicit themes, tight dancehall queen outfits, Jamaican accents, and Kim made use of coloured wigs. ‘I wouldn’t say that,’ she says, ‘but a lot of people do. Who am I to say that? But yes, I hear Foxy do a Jamaican accent and a line from a Jamaican song here and there, Kim the same, but I wouldn’t say they’re influenced by me, unless they say it. It could be just dancehall music.’ On new queen of hip hop Nicki Minaj, she says, ‘She does some Jamaican stuff too; she was in Jamaica the other day.’ Unlike the aforementioned females, Saw is pro-Minaj. ‘She’s doing her thing, so more power to a woman.’
Criticism for being negative role models or positive influences on impressionable females regularly crops up. ‘People tell me all the time about role models, but I’m not a role model for anybody,’ she says. ‘I am like a teacher to others; I’ll tell a woman how to please their man, so I hope children aren’t hearing and want to have sex. I tell them, “I hope you’re listening to the good songs and not the raunchy ones, because I did those songs for the dancehall”.’
With age comes maturity. Beyoncé channels the feisty energy of Sasha Fierce, Lady Saw’s alter ego reverts to Marion Hall on the uplifting ‘I’m A Woman’ for an almost unrecognisably laid-back roots reggae song to close the album. ‘I’m grown up now, so not every day do I want to be hardcore. I want to experiment. I want to show people the other side.’
As with many Jamaicans, she grew up listening to country music. After an acclaimed performance at the Jazz and Blues Festival there’s been speculation. ‘My music hasn’t changed, just sometimes I don’t feel to go too hardcore, because I’m grown up now; but then my fans will complain and say, “Why you ain’t giving us no hardcore?” So I hit them with something.’ As evidenced on My Way with Lady Saw’s reply to Gyptian’s reggae smash ‘Hold You’. We’d transcribe the lyrics but we’d have to put a Parental Advisory sticker on the front page…
Words by Marvin Sparks