Isaiah Laing is the originator of Sting, Jamaica’s premier one-night live music event held on Boxing Day (December 26) annually since 1984. His preternatural ability to consistently populate the lineup with a perfect balance of talent has helped the show keep pace with constantly shifting tastes over the course of the past 28 years — but the hallmark of the show has been the clash. A built-in feature since the early days, it wasn’t until the Original Front Tooth Gold Tooth Gun Pon Tooth Don Gorgon (Ninjaman) delivered spectacular back-to-back wins over Shabba Ranks and Super Cat in 1990 and 1991, respectively, that the show achieved its current status as a cultural touchstone. Between the alleged tears provoked by Ninjaman’s mockery of Shabba’s “doo doo pants” and Super Cat’s bottle-to-the-face of an innocent patron coupled with threats to shoot indiscriminately into the bottle-throwing crowd, the events surrounding both clashes generated an unprecedented amount of coverage in the local media, providing endless fodder for arguments that still flare up every year. For die-hard fans of hardcore dancehall, Sting has been a can’t-miss show ever since, and for up-and-coming entertainers eager to break through to the big leagues or veterans seeking renewed relevance, it is the one event on the calendar that cannot be ignored.
Before Sting, Laing was a policeman. Active between 1976 and 1996 he was widely known as a rogue in the mold of men like Trinity, Tony Hewitt and Bigga Ford. A brush with mortality during a gun battle on Matches Lane early in his career led him to embrace a philosophy of duty based around a version of moral equivalency that would conveniently justify any activity outside the parameters of normal police protocol. Much like Texas Ranger John Coffee “Jack” Hays adopted the war tactics and fighting techniques of the feared Comanches along the North American frontier, in wild-West Kingston Laing became a bad man with a badge and a nine. Despite the potboilers overflowing with lurid tales of shootouts and battle scars (starring Laing as valiant crime fighter) that tend to litter the local news cycle around this time of year, his reputation on the street as a ruthless vigilante who has caught more bodies than bullets is deeply etched in popular memory. In 1991, when Tiger asked, “Whe di bad boy police name?” on his hit call and response record, “When,” everybody, including schoolchildren, knew the answer. Today, fully 16 years since he turned in his badge, the proper reply remains the same, “Laing!”
He only started promoting, so the story goes, because he couldn’t afford a car on his meager salary and, with each passing skirmish in the street, was increasingly wary of riding the bus home after work. And so, in 1983, after seven years on the force, Laing organized his first big dance — the now-classic Spanish Town Prison Oval sound clash between Junjo Lawes’ set Volcano Hi-Power and the People’s Choice sound system. 1983 was the last year that he saw the inside of a bus.
In 1984, on the heels of an incredibly successful Four Sound Clash (King Jammy’s, Black Scorpio, Youth Promotion International and Black Star) that he kept at Cinema II in the New Kingston Entertainment Centre, Laing began planning a one-night live music showcase to be held the day after Christmas. The auspicious choice of Sting as a name for the Boxing Day show was a manifestation of his continued proximity to the streets. During a conversation with singer Michael “Palma Dog” Palmer while on patrol, Laing picked up on the slang before it was mainstreamed the following year by Patrick Andy’s popular Jammy-produced song, “Sting Me A Sting, Shock Me A Shock.” Sting 1984 featured legends in the making, like Yellow Man, Half Pint, Charlie Chaplin, Brigadier Jerry, Peter Metro and Sugar Minott. Sagittarius Band provided the backing music and Laing even flew Shinehead in from New York. A franchise was born.
Inside his office at Supreme Promotions in Kingston, a random selection of posters from past shows prompts a cascade of off-the-record anecdotes spanning almost three full decades of dancehall history. The majority of the stories hinge on variations of three main interrelated themes: clashes, bottles and unpredictable crowds. It seems that Laing struck gold right out of the gate. Outside of a fresh lineup each year, a few venue changes and an amended bottle policy, the format of the show hasn’t changed all that much over the years. Though tag teams are slated to replace one-on-one combat, the clash will be front and center once again at Sting 2012. Current crowd favorite Tommy Lee Sparta, the recently released singjay Busy Signal and the Prodigal Son of Sting Ninjaman anchor a massive all-star lineup that features a wide assortment of veterans and newcomers, including the likes of Sizzla, Aidonia, Popcaan, Kiprich, Mavado, I-Wayne, Tony Matterhorn, Spice, Etana, Romain Virgo, Gyptian, Chuck Fender, Lutan Fyah, Konshens, John Holt, George Nooks, Errol Dunkley and many more. The legacy continues.