Island Connection

Risky Dice manager Diaba and crew at Lorna's Place in South Ozone Park, Queens
Marlon Bishop

This Saturday, the Albany Manor in Crown Heights will play host to New York's biggest dancehall reggae DJ competition, the Global Clash. During the event, sound systems—DJ crews, in reggae parlance—from five countries will vie for the title of world's greatest selectah, spinning deep cuts while hyping the crowd in hopes of winning a trophy and global recognition. In 2010, a Jamaican-American sound system from Brooklyn called King Addies emerged victorious, but this year, Barrier Free, a crew that represents the island nation of Japan, is a strong challenger.

For more than 10 years, Japan has had a robust reggae industry with its own dedicated clubs, festivals, magazines, and television shows. Today, there are more than 300 sound systems (or "sounds" for short) active in Japan—higher than the number in reggae's home turf of Jamaica. And Japanese groups have dominated at international soundclashes, or DJ battles, since 1999, when the Mighty Crown, Japan's undisputed number one crew, became the first non-Jamaican sound to win a World Clash, the predecessor to Global Clash.

For the Japanese sounds, a stay in New York doubles as a rite of passage. At any given time, there are about a dozen Japanese groups kicking around the city, living in Jamaican neighborhoods, and haunting outer-borough reggae clubs. They are here to cut their teeth as DJs and MCs while facing some of the genre's toughest crowds in one of dancehall's original milieus.

One such group, an offshoot of Japan's Risky Dice Soundsystem, holds court every Wednesday at Lorna's Place, a classic neighborhood bar with cartoonish palm trees painted on the walls, in southeast Queens.

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"When I get back to Japan, I want to play every place. I want to bust down the place. That's why me dere in Brooklyn," says Macky Jam, the sound's MC. For the past year, Macky has been living in East Flatbush and making ends meet by busing tables at a West Indian restaurant. He struggles to communicate in English, but when a local crowd starts rolling in around 2 a.m., he easily rattles off greetings in Jamaican patois. Shortly after, it's his turn to get on the mic. He lets the record play just long enough to get heads bopping before stopping it to fire off some hype lines in the deep baritone of a Caribbean radio jockey. "Big up all a di Jamaican inna di building! Everybody gwan enjoy themselves tonight!"

Macky's flawless impersonation might come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with New York's reggae scene. But the West Indians who frequent the clubs have long grown used to Japanese artists and aficionados forming part of the dancehall community.

Japanese reggae heads have, for the most part, been accepted into the community, but some tensions do exist. They come from a much wealthier society than their Jamaican counterparts and have sometimes been accused of appropriating and fetishizing dancehall as an exotic, sexy, and dangerous alternative to the workaday Japanese mainstream. They've also been accused of jacking up the price of dubplates—made-to-order versions of popular reggae hits with the lyrics re-recorded to praise a particular sound system, the secret weapons in a DJ's soundclash arsenal. The Japanese sounds defend themselves by noting the ways they're working to bring the genre to new places as well. Mighty Crown, for example, is among the first sound systems to make dubplates of hip-hop tracks, commissioning specials from the likes of 50 Cent.

One Jamaican-American partygoer, Akeel Nelson, says the Japanese can hold their own anywhere. "They really study the music's history," Nelson says. "I've seen one guy who has a book with all the artists and all the songs written down with notes. I'm listening to my aunt's records, my father's records, and I'm still not coming across some of the stuff people in the Japanese community have. And they shut it down. You have to respect that."

Miki Rooney, the leader of the veteran sound King Jam Unlimited, is originally from Yokohama, and he has been playing parties in the Bronx for the past 15 years. Years ago, his extended crew included Skerrit Bwoy, now the hypeman for Major Lazer. "When we first came to the Bronx, we were really intimidated," Rooney says. "We were the only Japanese guys in the club. And New York was rough back then. When a DJ played a wicked tune, people used to fire shots in the air. But the thing that made us really want to play here is that when you play good, the crowd will give you back the love. If you play bad, they won't even talk to you."

King Jam has been working to promote the art of the soundclash, which has diminished over the past decade as dance-centered events have taken center stage. But they also spin at larger venues such as Webster Hall, where one night, the DJs relax on the upstairs mezzanine with their expansive entourage before their set. Eriko Takehama, a longtime dancehall devotee, sips champagne and watches the crowd below. She wears big hoop earrings with tightly pulled-back hair, and sports a big tattoo of the pharaohess Nefertiti on her upper arm. "She was said to be a timeless beauty," Takehama explains. "And I plan on being hot when I'm 75 years old."

Just as the DJs and MCs pay heed to every nuance of sound-system culture, Takehama has dancehall street fashion down pat. But, she says, it's not because she's trying to be something she's not. "Japanese people are open to everything," she says. "I love being Japanese. It's not that we're ashamed of who we are. It's just that we want to communicate with other cultures, too."

For Rooney from King Jam, the allure of reggae isn't quite so complicated. "It's that rhythm, that bass line, I guess," he says. "I don't know. It just pulls you in and doesn't let you go."

Global Clash takes place Saturday at Albany Manor.


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