From underdog to platinum seller: Shaggy shares story of ‘It Wasn’t Me’

International reggae artiste, Shaggy

To say that Shaggy’s first platinum-selling single, It Wasn’t Me, almost didn’t see the light of day would be a gross understatement. Had it not been for divine accidents and illegal downloading, the track would have fallen under the radar as MCA record executives guessed when they first heard it on Shaggy’s Hot Shot album.

Ahead of the album’s release in 2000, Shaggy was under severe pressure to find a commercial record as he had been dropped from a million-dollar deal with Virgin Records in the late 90s. Hanging by a thread as the ‘island underdog’ at MCA, Shaggy teamed up with longtime collaborator Shaun ‘Sting International’ Pizzonia, who had produced his breakout hit Oh Carolina (1992) and bore production credit on his Grammy-winning album Boombastic (1995).

Shaggy also recruited young songwriter Ricardo ‘Rik Rok’ Ducent for the hip hop-influenced track, and found the storyline after watching an Eddie Murphy stand-up special.

“My aim at the time was to write adult content without being explicit because we’re thinking about airplay,” Shaggy said in a feature story with VICE. “We knew we had something special because we were all laughing as we were writing it.”

But Ducent was apprehensive. 

“I was worried about every single line,” he said. “I’m like, I’ve never written a song like this before in my life…’and she caught me on a counter…’ that’s what you want to say? Really? I was thinking to myself ‘good thing I ain’t singing it’.”

But he soon found out that he was indeed starring alongside Shaggy in this adulterous tale of the certified player and the philandering novice who freaks out when his woman finds out about his deeds.

High stakes

“At that time there was definitely a sense that the stakes were high,” Ducent said. “Shaggy had just been dropped from his previous label, whatever we did now had to be awesome.”

Shaggy added, “You have to strategically write these records because we’re thinking about airplay. You gotta have enough English in the record to grab people. Now you need to bring it back to the authenticity, straight hardcore dancehall. You’re not gonna understand what the f**k it is but it sounds great.”

But something was missing. Pizzonia wanted a balance in this conversation between cheaters, hence the melodious bridge where Ducent slams Shaggy for his rubbish advice, and decides to tell his woman the truth. It was also Pizzonia’s genius that inspired the song’s panicky, blockbuster intro.

Usually this is the part in the story where the song is released, becomes a megahit, and we draw the curtains. But not quite. Shaggy’s then manager, Robert Livingston, hated the track and didn’t want it on the album.

Then the universe intervened. 

The song was accidentally heard by MCA’s then director of A&R, Hans Haedelt, when he visited Shaggy at the New York-based Ranch Studio. 

“Shaggy and Sting International left the room…and It Wasn’t Me comes on,” Haedelt said. “I had not heard that song before, the vibe was instantaneous… They were not supposed to play that song for me, it just happened to be on the same DAT that had already been playing.”

Though informed that Livingston didn’t like the song, Haedelt told Pizzonia to have it mixed for the album. But the label didn’t like it. 

“The senior executives thought the album was a pile of junk, said there was not a song on there that they could release to radio and I should be thankful that I still had a job.”

The rest is history

In MCA’s attempt to ‘remedy the situation’, they contracted top production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to record predicted bangers including Dance and Shout. The single flopped when the album was released, and the other tracks (including Angel which featured Rayvon) didn’t fare any better. The label didn’t invest in promotion and Shaggy was depressed. To top it off, the accompanying album tour reaped scanty numbers, and Shaggy was on the cusp of being dropped from another label. 

Enter copyright infringer/ the hero in this story, Pablo Sato. The Hawaiian radio DJ was on Napster looking for new music when he came across Hot Shot. He illegally downloaded the album and was immediately drawn to It Wasn’t Me. So too were the people of Hawaii once he premiered it.

By the time Shaggy’s tour reached New Mexico, the crowd was so huge that the police were summoned.

“We played and it was f**king pandemonium,” Shaggy said. “When we dropped It Wasn’t Me we played it four times back-to-back. We couldn’t hear the song to how loud they were singing this record.”

The album went on to sell 10 million copies worldwide. Now is when we can say, the rest is history. 

Shaggy released Hot Shot 2020 this month, an album revisiting some of his classics with new instrumentation. It Wasn’t Me is among the tracklist, this time a refix replacing Ducent’s vocals with Rayvon’s.