While dancehall music was being popularized in America through the successes of DJs Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder, Elephant Man was making a name for himself in Kingston, Jamaica, as the genre’s freaky haired bad boy. Contrary to hip-hop’s connotation of a DJ—one who spins records as an MC delivers lyrics—the dancehall DJ presents the lyrics while the selector plays the music beneath his or her vocals.
Born O’Neil Bryan on September 11, 1974, in Kingston, Jamaica—the heart of reggae, dancehall, and dub music—Elephant Man began his career with childhood friends in the Seaview Gardens district of the city. Bryan’s somewhat larger-than-average ears caused a schoolmate to call him Dumbo, after the Disney elephant. Bryan was constantly surrounded and enraptured by music, tapping out rhythms on his desk at school. Despite his mother’s wishes, he began to follow his musical calling. Artists like Shabba Ranks and Bounty Killer took the time to mentor many of the youths in the depressed neighborhood where Bryan grew up. Groups cropped up quickly, as the youths were encouraged to develop themselves musically and artistically through Jamaica’s rich cultural heritage. “It’s one of the hardcore ghettos, where kids are growing up with knives, and there’s a lot of gunshots,” Bryan told Chris Mugan of the London Independent. “There was no money to buy no food and all dem stuff, but we could catch fishes and eat cane.”
At the urging of Shabba Ranks, the Dumbo nickname morphed into Elephant Man, and Bryan took it as his stage name when performing with his first dancehall crew, the Seaview Family. Encouraged by their community’s established dancehall heroes, the young artists set out to prove themselves to the genre’s elder statesmen. Elephant Man, Boom Dandimite (a.k.a. Donovan Stewart), Harry Toddler, and Nitty Kutchie (a.k.a. Andrew Reid) pooled their creative energy and began performing around town. As well as developing a unique vocal delivery, they had to create a stunning visual performance to attract the best crowds and ensure their victory over rival groups Monster Shock Crew, Shocking Vibes, and the Main Street Crew.
After Bounty Killer released his hit “Big Guns Scare Dem,” the Seaview Family changed its name to Scare Dem Crew. With much practice, and with support from their neighborhood, Scare Dem proved to be the most popular band in Kingston’s dancehall revival. The group’s profile rose steadily through the mid-1990s, as they played numerous festivals and released the 1999 record Scared from the Crypt on the TVT label. Along with the Scare Dem Crew, Elephant Man—also known to his fans as Ele and Energy God—began building his own over-the-top persona. Once, during a 1998 performance, Bryan jumped onto a moving TV crane and sang high above the audience, to an enthusiastic response. But the other members of the group began to question Elephant Man’s dedication to the crew, where typically no one member is more important than the others. As they all began recording one-off solo singles, and with American recording offers popping up all over Jamaica, Bryan left the group in order to play his music elsewhere.
Within a year of Scared from the Crypt, Elephant Man released his debut solo album on the Greensleeves label. Comin’ 4 You illustrated Elephant Man’s penchant for rough sounding vocals and his obsession with elements of American hip-hop culture. Writing in All Music Guide, Dean Carlson commented that, on Comin’ 4 You, “even a patois reinterpretation of the Spider-Man theme can’t divert rhythms that would be frustratingly experimental if they weren’t so infectious. A complete reversal of fortune, then. Expect America’s finest rap producers to rip this off as soon as it hits hometown soil.”
Late 2001 saw the release of Elephant Man’s second record, Log On. The record yielded a handful of hits in Jamaica, and for the track “Bring the War,” Elephant Man employed the tune of an already bona fide chart topper, Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On.” Reviewing Log On, Brian Whitener of All Music Guide claimed that Elephant Man “is no amateur, and pulling off an epic-length album like this takes skills. Quite rightfully, these skills have made him a staple of [record] crates around the world.”
Dancehall received its biggest push globally in 2003, when Sean Paul’s Dutty Rock got hip-hoppers, clubbers, teeny boppers, and rockers swaying to the same snappy tune. Alongside Paul came a great deal of attention for Elephant Man. He released his major-label debut, Good 2 Go, on Atlantic Records that year, and his anthemic “Pon de River, Pon de Bank” took even mainstream audiences by storm. “Sean Paul might be the acceptable face of the genre but Elephant, O’Neil Bryan to his mum, remains its beating heart,” commented Adam Webb on the BBC website. Two collaborations with Wu-Tang Clan’s Killah Priest also made the cut, as did “Far Dem Off,” containing more than a hint of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Like Carlson, Webb also warned that it wouldn’t be long before Bryan’s style was cribbed by U.S. producers. “‘Elephant Man Is’ is an obvious highlight.… Constructed around a slowly descending bass scale the track is punctuated by female screams and wildly arrhythmic clicks. Expect [hiphop producer] Timbaland to reproduce something similar soon,” he commented. “The sheer production ingenuity and Elephant’s delivery, a sort of comically menacing lisp, is—at its best—staggering.”
While Rolling Stone ‘s Kelefa Sanneh acknowledged that the DJ’s style hadn’t drastically changed since his earlier records, he still praised Elephant Man’s gift for transforming the indigenous genre into pop music. “Elephant Man knows how to sink a hook into even the most hectic backing track, and by the time he’s finished, his shamelessness (at one point, he remakes “Eye of the Tiger”) just seems like a healthy fearlessness,” Sanneh concluded.
Besides producing an impressive body of solo work, Bryan has also steadily contributed to American hiphop records. He appeared with Busta Rhymes on a remix of Lil Jon’s “Get Low,” on Mariah Carey’s Charmbracelet, and on Missy Elliott’s This is Not a Test! Regardless of his worldwide success, though, the much revered dancehall master, like Shabba Ranks and Bounty Killer before him, has dedicated plenty of his time to coaching and cultivating the talent of his hometown’s youth to ensure both the music’s future and his own artistic longevity. He is also committed to keeping the scene a peaceful one. He told the MTV website, “I wish for more unity among the artists. Everyone is arguing.… I want to change that through song and action.”