Dancehall music is a derivative of reggae music that developed in the 1970s. Dancehall was originally based around dub versions of reggae tunes but in the mid 80s it moved almost exclusively towards electronically produced beats. Over the top of these tunes, or "riddims" as they are known, a DJ "chats" or "toasts". Dancehall is the most popular type of music in Jamaica and now its appeal is starting to cross international boundaries with artists like Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder topping the charts in the US and UK.
Dancehall music has its roots in the dub records pioneered by King Tubby
in the 1960s. Whilst King Tubby was developing the musical basis for dancehall Count Machuki
became the first man to speak over a record. He started out by literally chatting over the records, telling jokes and making comments but he developed it further and supposedly his first prepared rap
If you dig my jive
you're cool and very much alive
Everybody all round town
Machukis' the reason why I shake it down
When it comes to jive
You can't whip him with no stick.
Machuki had invented rap, while it would be around ten years before it was exported to the US to sew the seeds of the America's current dominant musical genre in Jamaica other DJs1
were already catching on. U-Roy
, a DJ with King Tubby's own sound system
, cut a number of records with various producers but there was little interest outside the grassroots dancehall movement. However in 1970 that would all change when John Holt
, one of the fathers of Jamaican music, turned up to a sound system party and heard U-Roy DJing over Holt's very own hit, "Wear you to the ball
". Holt hooked U-Roy up with producer Duke Reid
to record the single "Wake the Town
", the track shot to number one and a new style of music had been released upon the island of Jamaica.
Throughout the seventies Dancehall records did well in the Jamaican charts and by the late seventies the style began to eclipse reggae as the prominent style of music in Jamaica. Many felt that with the international success of Bob Marley reggae had lost its roots and no longer dealt with the life and problems of Jamaicans. The Dancehall DJs however used their tracks to chat intelligently about issues affecting many Jamaicans. Throughout the seventies records like U-Roy's Dread in a Babylon (1975) and Rasta Ambassador (1977), I-Roy's Ten Commandments (1978) and Big Youth's Natty Cultural Dread (1976).
The next breakthrough for Dancehall came in 1979 when Barrington Levy teamed up with producer Junjo Lawes and backing band the Roots Radics to record "Englishman". Lawes' production gave a whole new sound to Dancehall. No longer was dancehall based around existing reggae hits, it had a new sound. Many people credit this as the first true Dancehall album, referring to earlier records as DJ or Toastin style. Alongside Levy was a new up and coming DJ star also discovered by Lawes, Yellowman. An albino Yellowman provided the DJ chats for many of Levy's records. Levy dominated the Dancehall scene for most of the early eighties but it was around this time that the first digital beats were being produced.
Raga is the specific term for electronic Dancehall although it is used interchangeably. The first raga record was Wayne Smith's "Under me sleng teng" which was built around a beat supposedly found pre-recorded on a Casio electronic keyboard. The advent of electronic beats gave rise to one of the key features of Dancehall music today, the "riddim". Unlike other musical styles in Dancehall a producer will record a riddim and then a number of different DJs will rap over it. For particularly popular riddims it is possible that nearly everyone DJ in Dancehall will have a version of the riddim with their rap. Increasingly the concept of the riddim is catching on in other forms of music, particularly hip hop. A good example is 50 Cent's "In da club" which has been rapped over by stars like Beyonce Knowles.
As the musical sound of Dancehall has evolved so have the lyrics. In the early days a lot of the lyrics were characterised by "slackness", being sexually explicit, or "gun talk", shockingly enough focussing on violence. However as the music matured in the nineties and also looked towards a wider audience, with these motivations the lyrics of artists like Shaggy, Bounty Killa and Snow made the words more "acceptable". Whilst there is still a focus on violence and sex, largely due to the culture which the artists grow up in, it is not the explicit and excessively aggressive talk of earlier dancehall records. Recently with Dancehall's increased prominence focus has again returned to the lyrics, particularly the anti-gay sentiment of some songs. Elephant's Man 2002 record, Log On, featured a repeated line, "Step on chi-chi man". In chi-chi man is extremely derogative term of gay men. These lyrics must be seen against the extremely strong Christian culture on the island the widespread acceptance that homosexuality is wrong. It is interesting to not the difference between these lyrics and, for example, Eminem's anti-gay lyrics. Whilst Eminem generally uses homosexuality as an insult and insults gay people he does not say anything as strong as "Step on" all gay people.
The prominence of dancehall music in Jamaica is astounding and big dancehall stars are treated like Gods. Perhaps the most revered is Beenie Man but others like Capleton, Elephant Man, Bounty Killa and the emerging Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder are massively respected in Jamaica. This is partly due to the fact that a common method to fame in Jamaica is through talent shows which are broadcast on Radio and TV. The public get to know the stars at a young age through these shows, for example Beenie Man released his first record age eight and had a hit album aged ten.
I got into Dancehall music by listening to Chris Goldfinger's dancehall show on Saturday nights on BBC Radio 1. I fell in love with rhythmical sound and aggressive and lively lyrics and beat. I also love the sound of the Jamaican dialect and accent. It is a unique sound and it is a refreshing difference from US hip hop. It is easy to see the influence that dancehall has had on UK hip hop acts like Roots Manuva, Black Twang and Fallacy. In the UK as a whole dancehall has a massive following, in London alone there are a huge number of radio stations dedicated to just Reggae and dancehall, far more than hip hop, garage or drum and bass.
Some Key Artists
1 - In Dancehall the artists who rap over the record are referred to as DJs and the DJs as selectors. This is because in the early days of the music the DJ would themselves chat over the records as they played them.