Ever since the 1970s New York City has been home to the world’s biggest Caribbean community outside of the West Indies. From the time of Super Cat and Shaggy, New York has been known as the city that breaks Dancehall hits. In legendary venues like Brooklyn’s Biltmore Ballroom, Act III in the Bronx, and the Q Club in Queens, Jamaican dons and donnettes who moved to America in search of a better life would turn out in their freshest fashions to catch the latest sounds from Kingston—or to see stars visiting from the island, some of whom would eventually settle in NYC.
For the first time since those glory days, New York has its own Dancehall star, a 24-year-old from Jamaica; Queens named Kemar, better known as Kranium.
Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Kemar Donaldson emigrated to Florida at age 12. There he spent time with his uncle, a former dancehall star known as Screwdriver who recorded a string of catchily controversial Jamaican hits during the 1980s and took the youth under his wing. “My uncle told me ‘You can sing, but you have some problems.’” Kranium recalls. “I used to go there every weekend, and this man taught me everything. I learned about breath control. I watched him play piano, guitar, saxophone, and flute.”
After graduating from Screwdriver’s music academy, Kemar relocated to Queens, New York where he gravitated to the reggae scene that was thriving amongst the large Caribbean population in New York City’s outer boroughs. That’s where he recorded his breakout hit “Nobody Has to Know.”
In a very short time Kranium has established himself as one of the hottest international dancehall artists with hits like “Nobody Has to Know,” “Lifestyle,” and “History.” Everything started for Kranium in the house parties and nightclubs around his area in Jamaica, Queens and the overall NY dancehall culture. He started to record in New York around 2008, earning the name Kranium for his ability to record songs “straight off the head” with no pen or paper. “I knew every single DJ that was playing out every night, and I would never stop giving them new songs,” Kranium says. “Every summer in Queens I had a hot song.” In 2013 he joined the Frequent Flyers label and management team and his music began to make waves internationally.
Expanding his network, one day Kranium stopped by the home studio of a mild-mannered producer named Lamar Michael Reynolds aka LMR Pro. “Funny thing,” Kranium recalls, “I’ve known him for probably six, seven years, and we spoke maybe once. Then we started working and it was like a natural connection.” The second song they did together was the big “buss” they had both been waiting for.
“I never got that feeling before,” he recalls. “I knew it was something special. I didn’t know it was gonna be such a major song but I knew in my heart it was bigger than anything I’d ever done before. The riddim was different—I don’t know what to call it. It was like a magical thing. And the way it happened… that song was done in 45 minutes.”
Drake has sung it on stage during live performances. Amber Rose has danced to its slinky rhythms on Instagram. The song has pushed its way onto the worldwide iTunes Reggae charts, nestled in between cuts by the likes of Bob Marley and UB40. The tune’s irresistible melody and seductive lyrics have racked up 5 million plays on Soundcloud and 10 million on YouTube, catapulting Kranium’s career from New York’s underground dancehall scene to performing on BET and now becoming the latest signee to Atlantic Records, the same renowned label that brought the chart-topping Grammy-winning Jamaican dancehall star Sean Paul to a worldwide audience.
“Nobody Has To Know” tells the taboo tale of a secret love affair, from colorfully explicit descriptions of bedroom escapades to all the naughty negotiations that go down behind the scenes when friends with benefits keep their dirty deeds on the D.L. “I would have thought that song would be loved by guys,” Kranium remarks, “but it’s actually loved more by women.”
The song’s widespread success has helped Kranium make history as the first New York-based dancehall artist to score a major international hit since Shaggy—and he’s just getting started. His first release from Atlantic is a new version of “Nobody Has To Know” featuring his label mate, L.A. singer Ty Dolla $ign. Not a remix but a revised and expanded version of the original—making full use of LMR’s infectious rhythm track—it’s a strategic musical merger intended to extend the reach of this phenomenal hit. “Ty genuinely loves the record,” says Kranium “When he was approached he was excited about the whole situation.”
Far from a one-hit wonder, Kranium has followed up his initial success with songs like “Lifestyle” a tune for all striving ghetto youths that’s become a major hit in the dancehall. “I’m trying to record as much as possible,” says the major label signee, who’s working mostly with LMR and Billboard producer Ricky Blaze from Brooklyn.
Although he continues to field questions—especially from the Jamaican media—about whether he can be a “real” dancehall star while living in the United States, Kranium himself has no qualms about the issue. “Due to the fact that I keep my music pure, there’s no going around it,” he explains with confidence. “When me sing, you gonna hear the authenticity of the record. I leave Chris Brown to be Chris Brown. I leave Trey Songz to be Trey Songz. I’m just me—a proud Jamaican raised in New York. And whether I’m performing in England or Jamaica I get love same way.”
That level-headed approach will serve him well as he deals with the pressures of stepping his game up on a major international label. Kranium recreates his love and passion for the lost and misunderstood “dancehall” genre with his upcoming debut special project Rumors, which is AVAILABLE NOW, across all digital retail providers. Rumors finds Kranium laying down the truth to all the rumors that have continuously surrounded him both past and present.
“To be honest, I’m just gonna be myself and make music to the best of my ability,” he says. “I’m taking guidance from the right people. I’m here to work and I’m happy to have a platform like Atlantic Records to push it further. I’m here to stay not just to come and go. The rest is in God’s hands.”