Spliff Competition

Heads know that reggae dancehall is Jamaican hip-hop, and hip-hop with its template lifted from old-time Jamaican sound system dances is American reggae. The NYC party for hip-hop video director Hype Williams's '98 Belly feature film debut—like the tropical action in any sweat hole worth its salt—underscored that fact. When Hype's fiancée, Ki Ki, requested some Filthy, Joyride, and Bookshelf—top dancehall riddim tracks hotting up Kingston's Cactus and Asylum clubs that season—she set off a Dionysian win'-up-'n'-skin-out frenzy. Even Iron Mike Tyson, profiling next to Jamaican dancehall producer Tony Kelly, didn't miss a head bob. Dancehall's borrow-and-shred, cut-and-paste on the "one drop" has been ramming the party for nearly two decades. And indie American releases (notably Jamaica, New York-based VP Records' annual Strictly the Best compilation) cull the choicest selections from the Niagara of vinyl needed to quench Jamaica's gargantuan musical thirst. Yet except for one-off hits like Ini Kamoze's "Hot Stepper" and Beenie Man's "Who Am I," mainstream American acceptance is like a closed safe with the key locked inside.

If the Jamaican music biz has colluded with U.S. major labels, commercial radio, and rampant piracy in sentencing dancehall to a long term in the underground, it's done so by recording an infinity of artists over and over again on the exact same instrumental track, churning out tunes as fast as Red Stripe bottles beers. But not all riddims are created equal, and the Strictly series, along with compilations devoted to a single riddim, proves that this commonplace recording-studio economy can work. Hundreds of singers and deejays climbed on the Sleng Teng, the primal digital riddim that spawned more than one eponymous CD. Like the Punany, another seminal '80s riddim, the Sleng Teng lives on today through countless mutations. Dave (brother to Tony) Kelly's Joyride, a riddim and a CD with the happily disoriented charge of a spliff-enhanced fugue-drive to anywhere, completes a trinity of classic riddims that have yet to wear out their welcome. The past year or so added another winning riddim trio, Dave Kelly's Bug, Tony Kelly's Unda Watta, and Steely & Clevie's Street Sweeper. Each yielded a bumper crop of hit tunes.

Dave Kelly's still waiting on the perfect U.S. distribution deal, so his Bug tunes remain confined to seven-inch vinyl singles, not yet corralled on a CD. But Tony's Unda Watta runs through VP's two Triple Spin CDs, and appears in track three of Strictly's deejay-oriented Volume 23, where the riddim's digital sweat shines beneath a clutch of seven top mic-rockers, including Buju Banton and Trinidad's Machel Montano. Each projects his own tense lyrical plumb line into a less-is-more riddim that manages to drop its beats at the precise crossroads between hip-hop, reggae, and soca. On one end of dancehall's pum-pum-to-politricks spectrum, you have singjay Mr. Vegas giving away bedroom secrets and false friends in a clear, bright cheerleader's singsong. On the other, Beenie Man's rhymework strips the lies from Jamaica's warring parties.

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Strictly the Best 23
VP
Street Sweeper, Round 2VP

The Comeback of the Year award goes to Steely & Clevie for the Street Sweeper, a terse snaredrum-led track shot through with synth-chord drama that dominated '99 by recalling '80s dancehall charms. Even its lusher accents hit with a sharp military snap that reins in MC excess while giving them plenty bounce to work with. Round 2, the second of VP's Street Sweeper compilations, leads with a vivid match of toaster and riddim in Burru Banton's "Boom Wah Dis." The gravel-voiced veteran paces his mic boast to the Street Sweeper's precision and builds to a powerful in-yo-face confrontation. Burru's turn here is a tough act to follow, but the chronically vex bad "Fireman" Capleton delivers a tour de force of derangement and sense in "Final Assassin" that overrides any failure of eloquence by raising the rage stakes to a vein-popping high. Buju (no relation) Banton's innate mic-sense precludes the need for Street Sweeper discipline, and his "Probation" stokes the set's heat with a searing slice of ghetto livin'.

All involved rise to the Street Sweeper challenge—even Shabba's ancient "X-Rated" gets a tougher backbone. Captain Barkey, with new partner Malibu, likewise rides a second career wind in "Ochi We Gone," and Zebra puts a wicked spin on Tiger's patented yowl in "Unfair You Know" 's cantankerous meditation. Round 2 also highlights artists mysteriously overlooked in the past by too many urban American heads. But no one can miss Spragga Benz's superior skills in the controversial bad boy anthem "Shotta." Same goes for Buccaneer's muscular dancehall-opera rant, "Kill a Sound Boy," and deejay-wilding-as-singer Anthony B in "Flesh Don't Get Weak."

The problem is not, as some opine, indecipherable Jamaican patwah lyrics. Patwah's hodgepodge of English, African tongues, and Ebonics possesses all the rich underclass expressiveness and wit of Yiddish—they both indicate entire worlds. But Jamaican patwah's got a rough, intoxicating poesy and glamour all its own—derived, in part, from that outsider allure. A working understanding may smart up dancehall's pugnacious juju, but patwah simply sounds so good. And, as a young audience member commented during a heated '91 public discussion between Angela Davis and a 22-year-old Ice Cube over the latter's lyrics, "I don't listen to the words anyway."

On the other hand, maybe there's no problem, mon. Right now, Vegas's '98 "Heads High" ethnic arena hit is threatening to bum rush r&b charts, and Stephen Marley's Chant Down Babylon—"duets" featuring Bob and hip-hop's finest—is already there. Beenie Man is preparing his Virgin Records debut, and Tanto Metro & Devonte are signed to Sony. America's longtime reggae romance may turn out to be more than a secret summer t'ing after all.

VP, 89-05 138th Street, Jamaica, NY 11435.

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