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ele.jpgThe greatest entertainer in the history of ever

Hot 97 On Da Reggae Tip Elephant Man + Sizzla + Damian Marley + T.O.K. + Sean Paul + Vybz Kartel + Richie Spice + I Wayne Hammerstein Ballroom September 2, 2005

For a casual fan like me, dancehall's progression over the first half of the decade was a beautiful thing to behold: omnivorous ADD-driven producers snatching up shards of everything (the Cure, Bollywood, house) and grinding them into increasingly warped dance music, MCs rabidly dropping weird-sex entreaties, Sean Paul breaking through in the US without laming himself up like Shaggy, homophobic lyricists being called on their bullshit and sometimes actually apologizing. And then one of those cosmic sea changes came along sometime last year or this year, and all of a sudden the whirling anarchy of the music came to a grinding halt, and all anyone in Jamaica apparently wanted to hear was old-school one-drop jams. (Someone who knows a whole lot more than me would have to tell you why.) I wasn't real happy about this shift; it seemed like we'd be getting weak session-musician cruise-ship music and Rasta condescension. And we got some of that, but we also got "Welcome to Jamrock," my single of the year so far, a blast of scalding rage so grainy and intense that it seemed like a miracle whenever it poked its head up on 106 & Park. And so all of a sudden, this rush back to the old style started making sense.

So anyway, Hot 97 threw its big annual reggae jam on Friday night at the Hammerstein Ballroom, and it split its lineup right down the middle between dancehall and "conscious" reggae: Elephant Man and T.O.K. and Sean Paul and Vybz Kartel on the former side, Sizzla and Damian Marley and Richie Spice and I Wayne on the latter. (There were some other people, but I waited on line for 45 minutes to get in, so I don't know who. Assassin? I think Assassin played.) It seemed like a huge experiment into American/Caribbean culture consumption: would the polyglot New York crowd go for the headwrapped preachers or the shiny future-disco entertainers? (Or maybe it was just an amazing night of music from a group of artists who respect one another. Whatever. Grant me my concept.)

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I Wayne got a big singalong for his silky retro cautionary song "Can't Satisfy Her," churlish and possibly misogynist but undeniably pretty, sounding beautiful in the venue's wide-open echoey expanses. But the rest of his short set was too loose and low-key for an all-star revue; a cappella songs have no place at a show like this no matter how sweetly they're sung. Richie Spice bounded onstage to a big reaction, but his set didn't maintain that momentum. His stuff is big and blunted and heavy, but it's not particularly exciting.

The crowd perked up noticeably for Vybz Kartel, so score one for dancehall. But Kartel didn't work especially hard; he seemed to be talking more than rapping, stopping the beats after a few seconds, bringing a female MC I didn't recognize onstage to upstage him. I didn't catch too many of his lyrics (bad sound + thick accents = I barely understood anything anyone said all night), but he seemed to say the word pussy about 57 times. Sean Paul, the biggest-selling artist of the night, seemed like an odd choice to play halfway up the bill, but it made sense by the time he finished his brief set. Sean Paul had a more elaborate stage show than anyone who preceded him (female dancers who spent more time changing costumes than dancing, hypemen with louder mics than he had), but he seemed more concerned with proving himself relevant than he did actually entertaining the crowd. He had a supply of eight or nine songs that would've erupted the crowd, but he opted instead to stick entirely to unfamiliar new material, completely losing the crowd with an endless roots track to the point where no one cared when he trotted out his new single "We Be Burnin."

The night changed completely when the dancehall boyband T.O.K. came onstage to a recording of a deep-voiced white announcer intoning the members' names like they were a superhero team. The group rocked matching camouflage, busted out sort-of choreographed dance moves, and generally outperformed everyone who had preceded them. The group's sparkling light-speed future-disco songs broke through the murk of the venue's truly awful sound and incited the first frantic singalongs of the night. It was sad and chilling to hear a thousands-strong crowd singing the gay-burning anthem "Chi Chi Man," but it was also sort of understandable; that song's hook isn't easy to dismiss. But the group's biggest reaction came at the end of its set, when the lights went down and a crowd of people holding candles stood in a line behind the group onstage before the group started singing "Footprints," TO.K.'s biggest hit. The crowd's ecstatic reaction to the song (huge lighters in the air, singing along loud enough to drown out the group) transformed it from a pillowy, harmless piece of lite-reggae fluff into a cathartic, transcendent anthem of grief. The dancehall guys were winning.

Damian Marley changed that. I'd interviewed Marley earlier in the day, and he'd come off like a skinny stoner, proud of his work but not really aware of the effect that a song like "Welcome to Jamrock" might have on people. But onstage, he was a prophet, long dreads flying, military coat hanging, dude behind him waving a Rastafarian flag. He reminded me of Dan Higgs from Lungfish: furrowed brow, scraggly beard, the weight of his presence threatening to pull the entire venue into it like a black hole. The Hot 97 DJs who announced him said a lot of bullshit about the Marley family legacy, and it only served to highlight how much Damian must've had to struggle to carve out his own space, how "Welcome to Jamrock" is the equal of anything his father ever did. Of course, the crowd was just waiting for him to play that one song, but he did a good overcoming that reality, playing the only one of his father's songs that wouldn't seem like a cheap crowd-pleasing move ("War"). And when "Jamrock" did come, it was huge and volcanic, filling the air like napalm. When the song was over, the DJs did the only thing that wouldn't seem anticlimactic: they brought out Diddy, and then inexplicably Chris Tucker, wearing the same clothes he wore on TV at the Hurricane Katrina telethon, sounding ridiculous yelling "Respect" in that ridiculous amphetamine-helium voice.

I'd never paid much mind to Sizzla; he'd always seemed to me like Buju Banton or Luciano, someone who was always hanging around the edges of reggae but was never a focal point. I couldn't have been more wrong; the audience treated him like a hero, singing along with every word of songs I'd never heard. He readily soaked up its adulation, bouncing across the stage and smiling huge, jumping up on speaker stacks, bringing out Diddy again. After Marley, he seemed almost goofy but no less commanding.

But when Elephant Man charged out onstage dressed like a cowboy in a tasseled vest and six-shooters, half his hair dyed bright red and the other half bright orange, it was clear that this was dancehall's night, that no one else could've possibly headlined this thing. He didn't play songs as much as he lead the crowd in dances, and there aren't many sights that can cause instant joy as completely as a huge room of people signaling the plane or thunderclapping. Elephant Man had three hypemen onstage as well as his protégé Kiprich, but he didn't need any of them; he seemed like he could've rocked a bigger venue for hours just by himself. Near the end of the set, he demanded "three big fat ladies." Only two actually made it to the stage (with the help of about eight security guys each), but two were all Elephant Man needed. He brought Diddy out onstage again, bent one over and told Diddy to do the same to the other, and then frantically humped her when the music started. Then he picked up the girl that Diddy had been humping and got her to straddle him while he ran around the stage, grinding her up against speaker stacks and monitors, almost dropping her on her head at one point and basically proving himself to be pretty much the greatest entertainer in the universe. When he followed this ridiculous feat up by calling for help to flood victims and leading the crowd in the Our Father, it was like a Hold Steady song come to life. Looks like dancehall has some gas left in its tank yet.

Voice review: Baz Dreisinger on Elephant Man's Good 2 Go Voice review: Nick Sylvester on Sizzla at BB King's Voice review: Baz Dreisinger on Damian Marley's "Welcome to Jamrock and I Wayne's "Can't Satisfy Her" Voice review: Baz Dreisinger on T.O.K.'s Unknown Language Voice review: Elena Oumano on Sean Paul's Dutty Rock

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