Reggae dancehall discovered before hip-hop that a turntable and mike-rocker can be as potent as the conventional spectacle of vocalist, background singers, and band framed—and therefore certified as entertainment—by a proscenium arch. But it took hip-hop’s translation to turn dancehall’s revolutionary template into big music business. Jamaica has been struggling to catch up ever since, brainstorming for the right formula to seduce urban audiences without forsaking the jealous reggae massive. Shabba Ranks and Patra, meticulously groomed and marketed by their American label, Epic, surfaced into mainstream awareness for a spell, as have one-off dancehall hits by Shaggy, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Beenie Man, Ini Kamoze (remixed by Salaam Remi), and Capleton (revamped by Lil’ John & Paul). Yet each time the door cracked open, it seemed to slam shut once again.
Dancehall 101, a new double-CD compilation of the virtual weapons that determined victors in planet Jamaica’s ’80s sound system clashes, proves that if r&b and pop radio didn’t get it, it wasn’t the music’s fault. That era’s giddy mix of swaggering narcissism and crackling menace was, in its own way, as much a reggae high point as the One Love idealism and martial lion heart of Marley’s time. One or two decades later, Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam,” Pincher’s “Bandelero,” Super Cat’s “Boops,” and virtually every other delirious anthem on Dancehall 101 are still bubbling up from the underground, blasting alongside current boomshots from car stereos, tape peddlers’ boomboxes, and in clubs, and continuing to deepen the genre’s niche in the urban American consciousness. As the summer of 2000 winds down, it seems the door to the mainstream never did close completely—that, in fact, it’s been revolving to accommodate the back-and-forth traffic created by an ongoing dialogue. A full-scale Jamaican invasion has yet to push through to the other side, but today, a clutch of frontline warriors threatens to bu’n dung the barriers that keep dancehall separate and not equal.
More tunes from Yard camped out on the r&b and rap charts this past summer than ever before: Beenie Man’s Neptune-doctored “Gal Dem Sugar” reconstitutes the burst-in-your-mouth flava of Beenie’s hit “Who Am I” by reshuffling a few phrases and pushing a steady-booming bass drum up front. The rich synergy of Sean Paul’s triple-tongued attack running alongside Mr. Vegas’s vocal luster has kept “Hot Gal Today” going strong for over a year, and Paul’s “Deport Them” boasts equally long legs. Hot Shot, Shaggy’s latest set, improves on his durable, “boost from the best” m.o., with Mr. Boombastic’s smooth basso flow slippin’ and slidin’ through dense production crafted around already proven samples. Even virgin ears can’t confuse these staunchly individualistic stylists, so it’s not like anyone’s discovered some secret balance; if dancehall is ‘parring side by side with hip-hop more, it’s mostly down to time and technology. All Jamaican music comes out of the dance hall, but since the ’83 release of “Under Mi Sleng Teng” by Wayne Smith, “dancehall” has referred to reggae’s next progression, a computerized riddim contagion that slips easily onto hip-hop playlists. The island’s wiring for cable TV in the ’90s has rendered that fit seamless by home-delivering Jay-Z, DMX, and Busta. For the past few years, they and other American MCs and singers have been crossing the Caribbean regularly to flex live and direct at shows drawing equally mixed mobs of Jamaicans and vacationing African Americans.
Distinctions aren’t simple, either. Reggae signifiers are still buried so deep in hip-hop that they’re often not recognized as such, but on The Ecleftic, Wyclef Jean outs himself as a Jamaican sound-boy wannabe and styles his record like a sound system armed for the clash with the wickedest specials, a/k/a shout outs, he could get. Likewise, if urban-American ears can take the full measure of Capleton’s skills, it’s because his fire burns with a dread POV that grows ever closer to that of America’s Five Percenter mike generals.
Today’s hip-hop heads can appreciate Sizzla springing the catch on dancehall’s singsong, rocking his judgments and prophecies instead to hairpin melodic twists and turns. If the shock of the N-word out of Beenie Man’s mouth no longer discombobulates Jamaican rude bwoys, it’s because they get the hip-hop vocab switch; if Sean Paul’s taut verbal drill—evoking the nasal urbanity that made Super Cat the ’80s rapper’s favorite Jamaican spice—takes the twentysomething further into the fraternity than that original don dadda, it’s because Paul was raised as much on rap’s percussion as dancehall’s lilt. He’s just doing what comes naturally. As is Vegas, whose half-sung/half-rapped “singjay” approach picks up where the late Tenor Saw left off to spin contemporary tales of oral sex in the city—be it Kingston, Miami, or New York. And there are plenty more urban-ready Jamaican warriors lined up. Ky-Mani Marley’s ’99 debut, The Journey, may have dropped through the cracks created by label upheavals, but his twin Jamerican roots make for a convincing translation of his father’s suffrah-blues for the stateside inner city.
“Cook,” off Lexxus’s debut Mr. Lex set, is tearing up the U.K. airwaves, where genre divisions count for little to nothing. It’s too soon to tell if veteran singer Wayne Wonder’s latest CD, Da Vibe, will reach beyond the reggae audience, but in a more equitable world, everyone could turn on their radios and tune into this quintessential dancehall vocalist—no one, anywhere, holds, tapers, and lets go of a note with sweeter rhythm instincts. Radio programming less bound to demographic surveys would help. But especially since BET and MTV took over the island and commenced to quicken the inexorable march of history, urban America and Jamaica have been finding their own ways to party with a shared turntable.