Tommy Lee, affectionately known as Uncle Demon, is easily the most talked about dancehall artist on the streets in Jamaica today.
Born Leroy Russell and hailing from the Sparta side of the notoriously rough community Flankers, the 24-year-old Lee was already a hometown hero with a loyal fan base by the time Vybz Kartel a.k.a. World Boss brought him into the Gaza crew in 2010. Releasing a steady stream of hits since, Lee’s career has taken off. Kartel, meanwhile, is stuck in prison with two murder charges hanging over his head. A known studio rat, Kartel has a back catalogue of songs unlikely to be exhausted, regardless of the length of his incarceration. But the power vacuum that his absence has created has led to occasional flashes of internecine warfare within the crew. Still, things today are looking good for Gaza. Portmore Empire, which Kartel disbanded earlier this year, has been reborn as PG13, and Lee seems poised to carry the torch into the foreseeable future.
Having just finished shooting infamous Sting promoter Isaiah Laing at Supreme Promotions in Kingston, we got a call saying Lee was on his way and that we should stay put because he was down to meet with us. Almost immediately his white Camry pulled into the parking lot. The heavy tint concealed the identity of the occupants, but the infectious chant of Lee’s 2010 street anthem, “Warn Dem,” which was rattling out of the trunk, left little doubt as to who was in the car.
As we made our way down the steps to greet him, Alexander (looking like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now with multiple cameras swinging from his neck) instantly caught his attention. Lee pointed at his 1965 Polaroid Land Camera from across the parking lot saying, “Lemme see dat spaceship camera deh.” It turns out Uncle Demon is a camera enthusiast. After quick introductions we talked shop for a few minutes. Lee played around with all of the cameras but seemed particularly interested in the GoPro, which he envisioned capturing the audience from the stage as he performed. We discussed possible ideas for the shoot and then jumped right into it.
Like his rocker namesake, one of the first things you notice about Lee are his tattoos. When asked about the significance of the ink on his arms, he explained simply, “Yah so a di bad side. Yah so a di good side.” This duality of existence is a theme just as evident in his music and his life as it is on his arms.
Flankers, where Lee spent his formative years, is a dense squatters settlement on Jamaica’s north coast. Located on the outskirts of Montego Bay (the island’s second largest city), the settlement sits directly opposite the main tourist port of entry, Donald Sangster International Airport. Stretching up a hill overlooking the coastline, Flankers is a frenzied landscape of zinc-roofed lean-tos interspersed with the occasional multi-level mansion — all set against the tranquility of a priceless view of the Caribbean Sea. To say that it is an area of extreme contrasts would be an understatement.
The rising property values that accompanied Montego Bay’s emerging status as a premier vacation destination (in the mid to late eighties) had the original owners of the land seeing a field of green. By the early nineties a shifting political climate provided them with the legal cover needed to pursue the policy of forceful eviction they had long been dreaming of. In the early morning hours of March 11, 1994, police inspector Steadman Roach led a team of bulldozers and a phalanx of officers into a section of Flankers known as Providence Heights. They began demolition, and the community erupted. The city was shut down with roadblocks; the airport was partially closed; the office of the landowner’s company was burned to the ground; and the Jamaica Defence Force had to be called in to back up local police, who had been quickly and easily overwhelmed. Lee was six years old at the time.
The 1994 riots ushered in an era of pitched battles over land-use rights, often punctuated by violent clashes — with Flankers as ground zero. Despite a compromise that was struck to provide a legal path to ownership of property, the situation remains virtually unchanged. Because employment opportunities within the legal economy are scarce, and the maze-like layout and lack of formal infrastructure in much of the community continues to provide convenient cover for criminal activity, an outlaw culture persists. Though the numbers fluctuate from year to year, Flankers consistently dominates crime statistics in Montego Bay.
With lyrics that he describes as gothic and a distinctive voice that sounds like a sharper, more melodic version of pre-motorcycle-crash Tiger (imagine Bizzy Bone singing “Wanga Gut”), Lee’s music trods territory previously unexplored in the genre. “Psycho,” currently in heavy rotation, makes casual reference to a harem of homicidal demon girls who he has at his disposal, for example. Adding dimension to the trademark darkness of his lyrics, however, are tracks like “Journeys"and "We Want Paper,” which hint not only at the pain of a life of poverty, but also the desire to escape it. Of course Lee’s oeuvre includes the requisite odes to women — which have been a staple of dancehall since its inception — as well as songs like the recent summer anthem, “Live Wi Life,” which prove that even gothic dancehall has to have some party tracks.
If recruitment by the World Boss provided him with the opportunity to gain national recognition, Lee’s show-stealing performance at this year’s Reggae Sumfest catapulted him into the big league. Playing to a home crowd and exhibiting the stage presence of the “Wicked-Inna-Bed”-era Shabba, he emerged as the clear crowd favorite on a night that featured the likes of Kiprich, Bounty Killa, Beenie Man, I-Octane, Konshens, Khago and sometime Gaza member Popcaan, among others.
All eyes now fall on Sting, the annual Boxing Day concert held at JamWorld in Portmore. Billed as “The Greatest One-Night Reggae Show on Earth,” it could well be the performance that cements Lee’s status as a dancehall superstar. And we won’t be surprised if there’s a GoPro camera capturing the moment from the end of his microphone.
As the day moved into evening, the parking lot teemed with crew members, friends and entertainers. As each new person arrived they paid their respects to Lee; spliffs were rolled and lit, and with tracks from his new mixtape now booming out of his car, a general party atmosphere prevailed. A devotee of the same vampire life championed by Kartel, Lee prefers to work while the city sleeps. His day had barely begun.
Man a psycho!
photography: Alexander Richter
words: Sean Stewart
design: Anthony Harrison