Orville R. Burrell, now more commonly known as the reggae artist Shaggy, served four years in the Marine Corps. He was an artilleryman in 5th Battalion, 10th Marines. ()
When Orville R. Burrell walked into a Marine Corps recruiting office in New York City, in 1988, friends were already calling the Jamaican kid and wannabe reggae singer Shaggy.
During his four-year tour in the Corps as an artilleryman in 5th Battalion, 10th Marines — including the 1991 liberation of Kuwait — he'd be known less for his hair than for his raucous cadence-calling and for missing formation all too often.
But he soon would be known for a lot more. Even before leaving the Corps, he recorded his first big hit, a dancehall remake of the old ska classic "Oh Carolina," which climbed to No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart while making inroads on the U.S. top 100.
Four years after shedding his Marine Corps blues, Burrell added a Grammy to his award case for his chart-topping hit "Boombastic." In the years since, he's sold more than 20 million albums. His 2001 album "Hot Shot" sold more than 10 million copies.
His latest collection, an eight-track EP titled "Summer in Kingston," includes an homage to his time in uniform dubbed "Soldiers Story." Just two weeks after its July 19 debut, the album became his fifth to top Billboard's reggae charts. "Sugarcane," his first single from that album, is already No. 6 on iTunes' top 10 all-time best-selling reggae songs, where his tracks reign second only to Bob Marley's.
OFFduty caught up with Shaggy in the midst of a hectic summer touring schedule.
Q. How does a kid from Brooklyn and Jamaica, destined for reggae greatness, end up joining the Marine Corps?
A. (Laughs) I wish I knew what I was destined for! I grew up in a single-parent family with my mom. It was a heavy drug time back in the late '80s. I was just hangin' with a bunch of Jamaicans that were heavily involved with it. It didn't take a rocket scientist when you see all your friends getting either locked up or shot to figure out, "I've got to do something." I remember walking down to the Flatbush Junction recruiting office. I didn't know what I was getting into, so I decided to go with the one with the good uniform — because I figured at least I could pull chicks in it.
Q. How that'd work out?
A. Ah well, there was never a problem in that department. (Laughing) Only later on did I find out that the Marines was the harder of the branches. I was like, ah man, if I had known that, maybe I would've done it differently. I ended up going into the artillery, and that whole structure of being in the military was good for me. I honestly think it was destined, to prepare me for what I had to do in music. The discipline that is required to do music, I could only get that from being in the Marines.
Q. How so?
A. In this business, you're always waking up in different time zones, getting up early in the morning, jumping on a plane to do a concert, meet-and-greets with the fans, running a business — all that requires a certain amount of discipline. You don't get that on the street. Plus, I didn't go through the whole situation where I was doing a bunch of dope, going crazy and losing all my money. The military definitely had a lot to do with that, too.
Q. What was going into the military like for you?
A. It was a culture shock. I kinda thought I was going into the Boy Scouts. (Laughs) And then the other shoe dropped, and I've got drill instructors screaming at me and their chewing tobacco hitting my face. ... I tried to push one of them off, and all of a sudden six of them came down on me. I quickly got the gist of it. I was like, OK, this is what this is about. (Laughs)
Q. What kind of Marine were you?
A. I was a skater. I was not your model Marine. I got out as a PFC [private first class]. I got knocked down [in rank] a couple of times. The highest rank I got was lance corporal. My big problem was being AWOL. I was driving up to New York every weekend to do music. Sometimes I got back late. And I'm a guy with a big mouth, and I mouthed off a lot. So, you know, things like that will get you busted.
Q. What was your tour during Desert Storm like?
A. We went in through Saudi Arabia. I ended up becoming a driver for our gunnery sergeant, so I got to go back to base a lot. It was nice — a lot of perks. I got to be around [female Marines] in the middle of the desert. I'd get some cigarettes and make a little hustle. It was all good. My gunny was a scrappy guy. ... He ended up getting into a fight with another gunny when we were in the desert. The other guy whipped him, literally took his pistol and pistol-whipped him. It was hilarious.
Q. How did you develop your music career while you were in the Corps?
A. I used to sing cadence all the time, but freestyle it, make 'em funny. "I don't know, but I've been told, my CO wears pantyhose." What I didn't know at the time, when I was singing and running like that, that it was voice training. It takes stamina to project a loud enough voice to do that. I didn't realize it was setting a pace for how I would work on stage.
And then every weekend I was going up to New York to record tracks. After Desert Storm, I recorded "Oh Carolina" in uniform at a studio called INS. I drove in and went straight to the studio and kind of knocked it out.
Q. There's a song called "Soldiers Story" on your new EP. What's the story behind that track?
A. A lot of my songs are about relationships. I wrote this one after I saw "Fahrenheit 9/11." There's this picture of me that pops up in the movie where the recruiters were using me to get kids to go into the military. There's a kid who wants to do music, and the recruiter is like, "You want to do music, well, Shaggy was in the Marines." And they pop my picture up. I was kind of moved in a way that they would use me as their poster child, when I came out as a PFC. I was so not your model Marine, and now I'm the guy they're using? Wow. It just dawned on me it's time to write a song about how people get into the military. I came in trying to get out of the inner city, other people because maybe they get a girl pregnant, or there's just no future or no money and the military is all they've got. Sometimes you feel like all you are is just a number. Sometimes you feel like there is a greater purpose. So, it's really a love song — the chorus is "If you wait for me, I'll be there." So many servicemen go through that experience.
Q. What's on your playlist now?
A. I'm listening to a lot of the old stuff. Right now I'm really into Bill Withers — he's got a really soulful voice. A lot of Peter Tosh, too.
Q. So If I'm in the military right now with aspirations to make it in music — maybe one of those Marines who was cajoled into the Corps with a picture of you — what kind of advice would you offer?
A. The main thing you can do while you're in the military is sharpen your craft. For me, especially with so little dancehall or reggae at the bases were I was stationed, the biggest challenge was keeping sharp. Pay attention to mastering the craft. Other than that, it's just timing. Keep soaking it up, and keep doing it. The technology makes it so much easier now, too. You can put a studio on your laptop. You can use the Internet now to build your buzz.
Q. If you could do it all over again, would you still go in the military?
A. I don't have any regrets. None at all. I couldn't imagine staying in the Marine Corps, but it was never something I was going to stay in. It was a means to an end. I knew what my goals were. I'm a big fan of believing in something. If you say you're going to do it, just do it. When I went in, I wasn't about to quit, whether I liked it or didn't. There were good times and bad times, and I met some great people, and I met some bad people. And that's what life is. It certainly molded me. I have no regrets. At the end of the day, I'm proud to have served.