Not many artists can continue to put out new music across multiple decades and remain relevant, but such is the case for Mark Anthony Mayrie—known professionally as esteemed reggae artist, Buju Banton. Grammy Award-winner Banton recently returned to the airwaves with a new hit single “High Life,” a collaboration with Snoop Dogg that’s part of a larger offering for which he plans to drop later this year. For Banton, the album will mark his first since 2020’s Upside Down 2020, and will aim to once again capitalize on his uplifting and entertaining point of view.
When we connect by phone, Banton is eager to communicate his joy surrounding his upcoming work with the masses and sheds some insights into his early days of music, moving from dancehall to the studio, how he taps into his inner creativity, and why cannabis is the plant of the people.
High Times: Growing up in Jamaica, did you always know you wanted to pursue music?
Buju Banton: There’s no way for me to always “know” that, I wanted to pursue music growing up, and your inclination at a certain point will steer you in a certain direction. No one grows up wanting to be a policeman all their life or a soldier all their life. There’s a certain point in your life where you make a decision.
High Times: Would you say then that your inclination for music was stronger than any other inclination?
Buju Banton: It was just too much to resist.
High Times: Was there a moment or experience when you realized that the inclination could translate into a career path?
Buju Banton: Growing up, I used to make sounds about the community in which I resided, and people in the community would eventually love it, which would encourage my interest. My friends in school knew I had a knack for it and just kept encouraging me, you know?
Back in the day, you had to prove yourself in the dancehall. You had to go out with the sound system, face the crowd and deliver a new lyric every night. All of these things improved to what we have now. Years of dedication.
High Times: Coming up with a new lyric every night and having to constantly win over a crowd—do you think it forced you to create in a certain way?
Buju Banton: It didn’t force you, because it was a labor of love. You enjoyed doing what you’re doing, it motivated you, and you looked forward to creating something special. To want to dance in the night. You looked forward to having the people stimulated to the heights of euphoria. It wasn’t something like you were pushed, rather encouraged. It’s a good thing.
High Times: So it helped to positively shape you.
Buju Banton: My home has been shaped by my environment, and my environment is one that’s extremely musical. I love Jamaica, it’s tremendously musical. Rocksteady, mento, ska, reggae, dancehall—we have a very rich musical history and if you’re inclined to want music, you’ll be inspired and encouraged from a myriad of connections.
High Times: As your career continued, was there a first experience or moment validating that following your inclination was the right step for you?
Buju Banton: I’ve got many many many of those scenarios, but primarily for me, going out there and facing the music, facing the people, and introducing myself to the various communes was pivotal. Everybody embraced what I felt deep within musically, and I pursued it relentlessly.
High Times: So you had the initial feedback from friends and family that you had something special, and then you—
Buju Banton: I took it to the dancehall. I started on stereo sound systems and then it took me a while to enter the recording studio because we had a limited number of recording studios. It wasn’t like now, where everyone is everywhere and there’s so much abundance. It wasn’t like that. You had to prove yourself in the dancehall first.
High Times: Which meant getting studio time back then was a hallmark in many ways.
Buju Banton: Yes. When you got to the studio, that was the tip of the iceberg because you then had to get around the microphone. That was your next challenge [laughs].
My first time entering a recording studio I had no idea I was going. It was a rainy day and I was with a very famous entertainer at the time by the name of Clement Irie. He had a major hit song in London with Robert French, “Bun n Cheese.”
I remember getting into a taxi which was driven by a man named Henry and I remember we went to [the studio]. And when we got to [the studio], I remember French said, “Let me hear him!”, and they explained to me the process that when I go around the microphone I’ll put headphones on, and when the red light comes on, that’s my cue.
Upon the execution of my first time going to a recording studio, when I finished recording the song, I was like instantly in the studio [from then on], and that was 1986. Summer of ‘86 I recorded my first song and it gave me the impetus to keep on keeping on. I never stopped. It’s a beautiful feeling and a lovely experience.
High Times: Was it the same energy that you were bringing to the dancehall that you were bringing to the studio each time?
Buju Banton: My first time going to the studio, that’s what I brought. But upon going into the studio more frequently and becoming a master at the microphone, you realize it takes a lot more than that.
High Times: In terms of being in the studio, you have a new single out—”High Life”—with Snoop Dogg. How did that come about?
Buju Banton: I was sitting in my yard in Kingston beneath a mango tree. I called Snoop and he said he was chilling in his spaceship, which is what he calls his studio. I told him I had a beat and played it for him. I said I had a verse, too—I had a hook—let’s check it out. I sat right under the mango tree and we wrote the lyrics and I taught him how to flow in a Jamaican dialect—how to speak it the right way. I sent the track to him in Los Angeles and was on the phone while he was in the studio and he did his part. It worked just like that and was superb.
High Times: Is the single tied to a larger album?
Buju Banton: It’s tied to a larger project which is coming out [later this year]. I can’t give you the title yet because the title is still undecided, but it shall be a body of work that I’m sure the people of the music community are going to embrace and enjoy.
The album possesses something extremely rare, something extremely entertaining, something extremely uplifting and the masses are going to truly enjoy it.
High Times: In terms of creative influences, what role does cannabis play in your life and process?
Buju Banton: Cannabis means something different to everyone. We know from an earlier time that the plant can open the minds of men—not being controlled by any other force, whether visible or invisible. So much so, that they outlawed it. The wise men of the time knew of the potentiality of the plant to open the minds of men to the reality of his world.
When it comes to elders and treating marijuana as a holy sacrament, we choose not to deviate from that common practice of respecting the herbs. My dad used to be close with those guys and they’d beat the drum and chant Rastafarian. It was brotherly love, everyone was just irie mellow. When you’re making music when you’re irie and mellow, the masses are going to feel irie and mellow as well. It transcends.
High Times: Is there a particular strain you gravitate towards?
Buju Banton: Growing up in Jamaica, I was a fan of Indica and Lamb’s Bread. But herb is not the same anymore and I only smoke herb that I know has grown naturally and organic. It’s become too commercialized, and as a result, we’ve lost the spirituality. It’s not being shared, it’s not being partaken in. It’s being used. Anything you use, chances are, you might abuse it. And chances are, you run the risk of it abusing you.
High Times: Do you have times where you use the plant for music creation?
Buju Banton: We don’t use the plant. We partake of the plant, which is older than you, greater than you, wiser than you—you can only share it and partake in it.
I don’t believe in using anything to make music. I use my mind, my creative genius, my spirit. I use language, I use what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard. If I’m going to smoke, my herb’s only going to get me to think about these things more in depth, to peel back the layers. But it’s not to utilize herb to write music. If I need to have a spliff to be creative that would mean I’m an addict. I don’t live my life like that.
High Times: So weed just amplifies what’s already there.
Buju Banton: Of course. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
Follow @bujubanton and check out https://www.bujubanton.com/ for tickets and tour dates.