Dancehall has been an extremely popular genre since its birth in the 1970s. It has developed and changed a great deal since its undeniably conscious roots in reggae and Rastafari culture, but its origins can still be identified in various dancehall songs throughout the subsequent decades.
A Brief History
The basis of dancehall can be traced back to the B-side on vinyl records; these were often the dub cuts of the original song, which was accompanied by lyrics on the A-side, and they paved the way for the phenomenon known as toasting. Toasting involved talking or chanting rhythmically over the B-side, acting as an early precedent to what we know would describe as rapping today. Toasters were referred to as deejays, and deejays who preferred to sing were, appropriately, called singjays. The extensive use of dub cuts and the versatility they offered to various deejays and singjays across Jamaica led to the birth of, and prominence of, riddims.
For dancehall, the riddims form the core of the sound; riddims are the instrumentals heard in each track, and it was commonplace for several artists to have recorded a song on any one particular riddim. The immense success of the 1985 song, Under Mi Sleng Teng, created by Wayne Smith and King Jammy – the latter being a frequent collaborator with the legendary sound engineer, King Tubby – is often credited with spearheading the digital revolution of ragga and dancehall music, with the Sleng Teng riddim itself being one of the first to ever be completely computerised (it was a pattern developed on a Casio MT-40 home keyboard). While this digitised approach was met with a great deal of criticism by several in the community at the time, with many deejays and engineers refusing to use Sleng Teng, this post-Sleng Teng period undoubtedly signalled the most prosperous and commercially successful era of modern dancehall music; an era fuelled by creativity from musicians, from Kingston to London, that would last well into the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Anyone who appreciates music will know how beautiful the art of sampling is, and it shows the artist’s respect for the original work. It can also bring older sounds to a new and younger, or simply unfamiliar, fanbase – sampling is, or has the potential, to be a powerful pedagogical tool. However, it is not all fun and games, as one can imagine.
As a massive dancehall fan myself, I find that a great deal of artists nowadays are enjoying samples of old-school riddims and vocals without doing enough to celebrate the craft of, or even the culture of, the creator. A very recent and contentious example would be the extensive sampling and use of dancehall sounds in Drake’s latest album, Views. Mr. Vegas, one of the long standing singjays and voices in the dancehall community, recently came out and delivered a great deal of criticism of Drake and his team, for actions that Vegas believed showed his disingenuous appreciation of the genre and its sounds.
There has been a great deal of confusion and conjecture surrounding the reasons for which Popcaan did not feature on the final album version of Drake’s hit, Controlla, with several suspecting that Popcaan’s initial appearance to be no more than a promotional ploy, and with the most cynical critics citing a simple lack of respect for dancehall artists as a possibility for him being cut. Mr. Vegas, as well as a large contingent of dancehall fans, expressed discontent for this cut, and considered it to be a lost opportunity to provide a platform to spread the name and work of Popcaan, and his affiliates, to a wider audience. This was further underlined more so by the fact that Popcaan’s extremely popular verse on Controlla had been replaced by a seemingly token sample of Beenie Man’s track on the Urkle riddim (1995), Tear Off Mi Garment, and that vocals from Popcaan’s 2014 song, Love Yuh Bad, were interpolated in a similarly strange fashion on his dancehall-inspired Too Good.
Views sold over one million copies in its first week, so this discontent is justified. Particularly when one notes the fact that Kyla and Wizkid were visibly credited with “featuring” on the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 Hit, One Dance, despite only having been featured or having provided minimal vocals; the same was not done for the likes of Popcaan, Beenie Man, Mavado or Serani; all of whom are reggae and/or dancehall artists whose samples are provided on the album. Drake somewhat redeemed himself by providing an exclusive, personalised dub cut of One Dance to Popcaan and the Mixpak sound crew at the recent Red Bull Culture Clash event, which helped Mixpak win the title at the Clash. Whether this means we will see an actual full collaboration between Drake and a dancehall artist in the future remains to be seen.
Only the real names of these artists were written in the small-print of the album credits; it is extremely unlikely that everyday listeners would even read these, let alone recognise those real names and subsequently make the link. What constitutes getting a name next to “featuring” on a song title is not totally clear to those not in the industry, and, if more visible credit could have been given legally, then the representatives of these Jamaican artists may be to blame for selling their artists short.
Mr. Vegas raised some very important points about the danger of “culture vultures”. His stance has been polarising, with some in the community believing that he is doing the right thing for the culture, while others maintain that he is only speaking out now because he is himself looking for more work. His motives have been called further into question, given that he provided a sample of his vocals from his 1999 track, Sucky Ducky, to Tyga, for his recent dancehall-themed song 1 of 1 (whose video has landed itself in controversy for its stereotypical depiction of Kingston as well as the fact that Tyga’s love interest in the video was not even a Jamaican woman, despite the video being filmed on the island); the tokenised nature of this sample (which itself draws on the iconic lyrics of Eek-A-Mouse’s 1981 track, Wa Do Dem) is similar to the cosigns of dancehall culture that Vegas himself criticised Drake for.
Some examples of reggae and dancehall samples in popular music:
Kanye West – Famous (feat. Rihanna and Swizz Beatz) (2016) : features a sample of Sister Nancy’s 1982 classic, Bam Bam.
Kanye West – Mercy (feat. Big Sean, Pusha T and 2 Chainz) (2012) : famously samples vocals from Super Beagle’s Dust a Sound Boy, 1986.
Why are we not seeing more dancehall stars reaching the worldwide mainstream?
Despite the varied views surrounding the art of reusing and interpolating older sounds in newer productions, there are far more worrying and problematic phenomena, with which the defenders of the dancehall genre must grapple. Firstly, we note that artists with a larger, stronger following, and a more established brand, are evidently more able to find success by making use of the same dancehall sounds that smaller artists also utilise. On first glance, it may certainly be argued that it is actually very good that the bigger names, like Rihanna and Drake, are invested in bringing new sounds overseas. On the flipside, we see that many DJs (excluding those in the Caribbean or in areas with a large diasporic presence, such as London, Miami, New York, and Toronto) often refuse to play reggae or dancehall by upcoming artists – and even well-established ones, for that matter – from the Caribbean, but will happily play the likes of Sorry by (the anti-black!) Justin Bieber. While a lot of that is due to the fact that DJs are under pressure to play songs by more well-known artists to maintain their listenership, it clearly shows that these so-called “unpopular” Jamaican sounds do indeed sell and are indeed loved by the masses. Why are these DJs not willing to open the door to new, fresh talent bringing the content the people want? It is frustrating for hardworking Caribbean (mainly Jamaican) dancehall and reggae artists to be constantly rebuffed by DJs on one hand who claim that the music is not marketable to the mainstream, but then to see, on the other hand, how the same quintessentially Jamaican beats can push Bieber to a number one on Billboard Hot 100, and Drake his first-ever No. 1 with One Dance.
Tropical House? Are you joking?
Another particularly pernicious development is characterised by the attempts to whitewash and appropriate the culture via the rebranding of undeniably Caribbean sounds, predominantly dancehall, under a new umbrella term, “tropical house”. For example, Rolling Stone magazine described Rihanna’s Work as “a tropical house-flavoured track”, despite its clear, well-established, black cultural roots, and the same term has been used to categorise Bieber’s Sorry and Major Lazer & DJ Snake’s Lean On, which actually uses the same beat pattern featured on the iconic and defining Santa Barbara riddim of Chaka Demus and Pliers’ Bam Bam and Murder She Wrote (1994), pioneered by producers Sly & Robbie in the early 1990s; years before Lean On hit the charts. Dancehall, as a genre, as well as its original black patrons, has been stigmatised for decades in many countries around the world, but its sound is *somehow* (no surprise) palatable and acceptable when performed in a manner appeasing the white consumer, whose market then proceeds to leech off and parasitically absorb the work of creative black people, a significant number of whom rely on music as a way to earn and provide for themselves and their families in poorer communities. Let it be clear: tropical house is not a real genre. Period. It has been drawn up as one in an attempt to steal and erase the years of rich black history and black ingenuity. Do not support the use of this misleading terminology in any way.
How has the dancehall brand evolved over the years?
So, while there are external forces which restrict the growth and spread of authentic dancehall music, the community could do well to look inwards too. It is important to underline the fact that the sounds that these modern US and Canadian artists are recycling in their songs are predominantly those of the iconic, seminal riddims from the late 80s through to the 90s; arguably the height of the genre’s popularity, with the largest proportion of the hottest and most memorable dancehall songs and classics coming from that era. The new sound of current dancehall deejays and singjays, such as Vybz Kartel, Spice, Mavado, Alkaline, and Popcaan, filtering into what many refer to unofficially as “bashment”*, is clearly big in various territories across the Caribbean and among its diaspora, but the new formula and brand does not appear to be either as popular or as marketable as the dancehall riddims of decades past. It is also a problem that the few who do manage to burst onto the mainstream with a few hits do not put in a concerted effort to feature new, upcoming artists, meaning that the modern scene does not realise the potential of building as strong a basis and support network from within as should really exist. Even when the popular names in dancehall do get a worldwide hit, most find it extremely hard to travel and promote their work, because it is notoriously difficult for Caribbean people to obtain visas to visit and tour in places like the US, Canada, and the UK, where their largest non-Caribbean based fans and a huge number of potential new listeners are concentrated.
*The term bashment, from its origin in the 90s, is used in dancehall culture as an adjective to refer to an extremely good dance/rave.
We see in every way in modern music exactly how dancehall has shaped the world, and it continues to mould how we party and enjoy ourselves. As a vibrant genre created in Jamaica, it is imperative to not forget its history, its worthy place in today’s music scene, and how necessary it is to tackle external influences, both deliberately and inadvertently caused, which restrict the growth of homegrown artists, as well as the poisonous new trend of whitewashing under the guise of “tropical house”.