Usain Bolt Wants to Be the D.J. Khaled of Dancehall
A collaboration with a champagne company yielded a hit song that in turn spawned a new Jamaican record label run by the world’s fastest man.
In the 2016 documentary I Am Bolt, there’s a scene where eight-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt expresses hesitation about continuing with track and field. Sitting in a Beijing hotel room, “the world’s fastest man” leans into the camera and questions the rigorous training required to get back in shape after multiple injuries.
“Earlier this year I told you I am not having the same feeling, I am not motivated,” Bolt disclosed.
The film abruptly cuts away to a TMZ Sports clip with the hosts boisterously prodding Bolt’s (then) rival American sprinter Justin Gatlin to bring home the gold at the 2015 IAAF World Championships. Gatlin responds, “We are bringing the gold medal back, we are going on a tour of the USA with the gold medal around my neck.”
The documentary cuts back to Bolt in his hotel room. “As soon as I watched that video,” Bolt said, shaking his head, “everything changed. I am not saying I got back my full motivation, but I got that feeling that, what? He’s going to beat me? Hell, no!”
Bolt won the 100-meter race at the 2015 World Championships with a time of 9.79 seconds, one-10th of a second better than Gatlin.
Between 2008 and 2016, Bolt won 19 Olympic and World Championship gold medals in 21 events, cementing his stature as the greatest sprinter of all time.
Since he retired from track and field in 2017, Bolt’s business endeavors have exploded at a pace reminiscent of his record-setting sprints and left him with an estimated worth of $90 million. He’s launched his own electric scooter rental company, co-founded a company that makes high-end razors, and inked a slew of endorsement deals and contracts for everything from shoes to watches to beer.
But it’s Bolt’s collaboration with august French champagne house G.H. Mumm that landed him in a sector arguably even more competitive than track and field: the music business.
Bolt’s initial music endeavor was part of a 2019 publicity campaign for the first product from his association with G. H. Mumm, Olympe Rosé, a cognac-fermented champagne. Bolt introduced the champagne at his Kingston restaurant/nightclub Usain Bolt's Tracks and Records (there’s another Tracks and Records in Jamaica’s resort capital Montego Bay; the London location remains closed due to the pandemic). Then he revealed his role as producer of the Olympe Rosé rhythm track (or riddim in Jamaican parlance), a trap-influenced dancehall beat created by his cousin Rajah “Plugs” Nelson for the Mumm promotion.
A number of vocalists recorded on the Olympe Rosé riddim, including Bolt’s close friend singer Christopher Martin and dancer/artist Ding Dong, who created an accompanying dance routine.
Yet, despite his beloved, heroic stature in Jamaica and acquaintances with nearly every reggae/dancehall artist, many of whom cheered for him throughout his track and field career and have posted photos with him at various Kingston nightclubs, Usain Bolt, like any other hopeful in the music industry, it seems, will have to release a few hits before some artists will take his ventures seriously.
In a late July 2019 interview at his Kingston home, Bolt expressed disappointment in the reactions from other artists he approached, so much so that he was uncertain he’d continue in music. “I know almost all of the artists in Jamaica, so I wouldn’t have expected that when I call, they are going to give me the runaround,” Bolt told me.
“Some artists said they were too busy, some didn’t get back to me in time; others only wanted to work in a specific studio, and we had already paid for another studio. When we were ready to mix, the fine print to finishing the songs, and I told them who we were working with, some artists wanted to use someone else, then you call that guy and he’s not answering his phone,” Bolt sighed. “So, is it worth it to use your time and deal with these frustrations? If I have to go through that every time that I do a project, I probably won’t continue.”
After the release of Olympe Rosé riddim, Bolt and his manager and best friend Nugent “NJ” Walker consulted with music industry personnel, who convinced them that despite the challenges they experienced, they should persevere.
“We talked to many people and they explained that’s just how most artists are,” Bolt told The Daily Beast in a March 2021 Zoom interview. “We understand now that the more we do music, the more people will want to work with us. We are new to it, so we have to learn and push forward.”
Then came a call from producer Linton “TJ” White, who works closely with Bolt’s favorite artist, incarcerated dancehall superstar Vybz Kartel. He reached out to say if Bolt planned to release another riddim, he could adapt vocals Kartel had previously recorded to the project. (Serving a life sentence for murder, Kartel nonetheless remains as popular and prolific as he was before going to prison in 2011; since recording from behind bars is forbidden, exactly how Kartel continues to release new music remains a mystery.)
In November 2019, Bolt released the Immortal Riddim, again created by Rajah “Plugs” Nelson, featuring hit songs by Kartel, “Adiadiking” and Masicka, “Currency”; it was the first project released through Bolt’s new record label, A-Team Lifestyle.
Bolt’s passion for Jamaica’s music and culture was evident long before his formal entry into the industry. Seconds after he crossed the finish line in the 100 meter race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, beating his own world record, Bolt performed two of the era's biggest Jamaican dancehall moves: Nuh Linga, created by Marlon “Ova Mars” Hardy of Ravers Clavers dancers, and Gully Creepa by David “Ice” Smith of the Black Roses Crew (Ice was fatally shot in Dec. 2008). Ova Mars and Ice introduced their routines at the various street dances that are vital forces in Kingston’s dancehall night life, and Bolt’s demonstration of those routines before 91,000 fans at Beijing's Bird Nest Stadium as well as millions of television viewers around the world instilled great pride in his compatriots while generating an unprecedented level of interest in dancehall choreography.
“Seeing Usain do Nuh Linga and Gully Creepa in his moment of triumph was the ultimate representation of a collective manifestation of Jamaican culture. It welled me up with pride because it placed in sharp focus the importance of Jamaicans reflecting ourselves, even as we triumph on the global stage,” says Ewan Simpson, chairman of the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA).
“No one had ever seen an athlete do something like that, show so much fun in the sport, so it drew so much attention to Usain and was a milestone in getting the culture to such a huge platform,” adds Ravers Clavers founder Ding Dong.
Usain St. Leo Bolt was born on Aug. 21, 1986, in Sherwood Content, a remote, quiet district in the rural parish of Trelawny on Jamaica’s north coast; he has spent millions improving the quality of life for Sherwood Content residents, which includes making electricity and running water available within the community.
Bolt was an outstanding cricket player and sprinter from an early age, but once his natural speed was noticed by school coaches, he focused on sprinting. Bolt has known Nugent “NJ” Walker since their days at Waldensia Primary School when they batted together for the school’s cricket team. NJ was a 22-year-old school teacher when Bolt asked him to be his manager, an offer NJ initially refused. But Bolt persisted. They have since traveled the world and prevailed in sectors neither could have imagined as children.
While in the recording studio late last year, NJ heard a riddim Rajah had built and began singing lyrics to it: “just a kid from the country living the dream.” NJ expanded that phrase into the song “Living The Dream” and demoed the song on his phone with the intention of the world’s fastest man singing it, but Bolt wasn’t interested. “Singing is not my thing. We were all vibing in the studio, NJ sang the song and his vocals were just perfect for it,” Bolt explained.
Or as NJ told The Daily Beast, “Usain has always encouraged me to step out of the shadows because I am the person behind him, and he said this song was the right opportunity.”
The catchy, motivational “Living The Dream” was released on Jan. 1—and was immediately dissed by one of Jamaica’s biggest rising stars. Dancehall deejay Popcaan told Bolt via a social media post to use his label to “help some youths with real musical talent.”
When asked about Popcaan’s statement, Bolt said, “Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but for me, it doesn’t mean anything. The aim for us is to get in the door, then we can help more people. I am who I am, but it takes time to get into the business. I know what we are trying to build as an empire and that’s my focus. People are really happy we did ‘Living The Dream.’ They know it’s something coming from my heart, it’s where I came from and where I am now. Many kids don’t feel like they can make it because of where they come from, but the message is, never give up. Just work hard, stay focused, and the possibilities are endless.”
The latest project released by A-Team Lifestyle is the Clockwork Riddim, created by Rajah “Plugs” Nelson, produced by Bolt. A classic ’90s dancehall tempo with a modern twist, the Clockwork Riddim is A-Team Lifestyle’s most ambitious project yet, with 10 artists recording on the beat, including Vybz Kartel, Bibi Gardner, Christopher Martin, red hot dancehall star Teejay–whose anthemic “From Rags to Riches” was the fifth most streamed song from Jamaica on YouTube for 2020–and sing-jay Charlie Blacks, whose single “Gyal You A Party Animal” became a global party anthem in 2016. Bolt contributes the intro to NJ’s “Timing,” an aptly titled party song because NJ’s timing and riddim riding skills have made impressive strides since he voiced “Living The Dream.”
“I never thought I would be singing but sometimes life happens, and you have to embrace all the challenges, all the naysayers that come with it; we believe in growth and applying ourselves and we are patient in the process,” says NJ, who will drop his debut EP in the summer.
Bolt brings the same discipline and competitive spirit to music that he brought to running. “You have to dream big. We are already thinking about winning Grammys; when you come into music you want to aim high,” says Bolt. “When I started out as an athlete, I didn’t understand dreaming big, it was just saying I want to win an Olympic gold medal until I got to that level, then the highest level is winning continuous Olympics. Now that we are in music, it isn’t just about getting a hit song, it’s getting a song that sells platinum and wins a Grammy. We are putting all of our time into music and aiming to be up there with the very best.”