The legendary reggae artist opens up about being a pioneering woman in her genre
and her now-won legal battle surrounding the rights to her breakout international hit
Sister Nancy on being a pioneering woman in her genre and her now-won legal battle surrounding the rights to “Bam Bam.”
“You hear it? Classic,” Sister Nancy said to me from across the table, a wide smile spreading across her face as the sound of her ringtone filled the small, sunlit conference room. The colorful tones were that of her international, time-tested reggae hit “Bam Bam,” and there’s perhaps no better word than “classic” to describe it. Originally recorded as a last-minute addition to complete the artist’s debut One Two, the song became immensely popular outside of Jamaica, and especially in the U.S., appearing in the opening scenes of Hype Williams’s 1998 street-tough opus Belly and, more recently, sampled by Kanye West on the Rihanna-assisted track “Famous.”
The 55-year-old living legend, who now resides in Paterson, New Jersey, was born Ophlin Russell and grew up in St. Andrew, Jamaica in a devoutly religious household. She took a liking to music early on, an obsession and passion she attributes to her older brother Brigadier Jerry. With his guidance and a pinch of resolve, Sister Nancy became the sole woman reggae artist of her time: performing at dancehalls as part of several sound systems, eventually earning the role of stable DJ, and gaining popularity. All of which allowed her the opportunity to record her first, and only, full solo album in 1982.
The album enjoyed modest success in Jamaica — its standout tracks were “One Two” and “Transport Connection” — but it wasn’t until Sister Nancy moved stateside in 1996 that she was made aware of the true reach and popularity of her music, particularly “Bam Bam.” Decades later, in 2014, after never having been compensated for the track’s success, as she watched a Reebok commercial that sampled her generation-defining hit, she decided to finally take action. “I was in my living room. And I said, ‘No.'”
On a recent afternoon this past spring, the Jamaican icon sat down with The FADER to chat about her soundsystem beginnings, being a pioneering woman in reggae, the full story behind “Bam Bam,” and what lies ahead.