Best-of collections are to music what Cliffs Notes are to literature. So? They’re still fun for dilettantes and music nerds alike. No one knows this like a reggae fan: Only the ultra-devoted (and pocket-heavy) stay on top of the staggering musical output emerging annually from Yard, where music’s “next big thing” is over before it began.
Give thanks and praise, then, for two very different time-and-money-saving compilations. A ritual for over a decade, VP Records’ Strictly the Best series documents, well, strictly the best crop of current reggae songs. The latest volume, 31, serves up a diverse helping: nostalgic lover’s rock by Beres Hammond; sweet-and-conscious tunes by Sizzla; feel-good dancehall by T.O.K; pop reggae by Shaggy (who, trumped by undiluted dancehall, now seems positively old-school). Throw in the obligatory hip-hop remix—Wayne Wonder featuring Mobb Deep and Fat Joe—and voilà! a West Indian smorgasbord.
But there’s a rub. Track-based reggae “greatest hits” albums are only half the story, because dancehall devotees deal in beats, not songs. Dancehall is born when producers make a riddim (patois for beat) and artists—of statures big and small—write lyrics over it. The result is musical democracy (or, for the cynical, survival of the fittest): If the song is good enough, reggae DJs add it to their sets, which are back-to-back tunes over a series of riddims; if the riddim is good enough, VP or Greensleeves will release it on an entire CD devoted to just one beat—guaranteed to confound the uninitiated.
One beat can go a long way, though, and Jamaicans have long been resigned to producing something from nothing. When listeners didn’t notice that two recent hits (Sean Paul’s “Get Busy” and Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go”) had the same Diwali riddim, it exhibited what good dancehall artists do. Paul and Wonder both made a universally available beat their own.
Listen to the popular (and Diwali-esque) Coolie Dance riddim: hypnotic drumming punctuated by claps, the basis of two Strictly the Best tracks that couldn’t be more different. On “Girls Alone,” Sean Paul keeps up with the riddim, spitting lyrics in rapid fire; on “Genie Dance,” Elephant Man slows down the riddim with a nursery rhyme chorus. Or take the Fiesta riddim, an acoustic guitar riff (think George Michael’s “Faith”). Beenie Man—the most joyous man in dancehall—and Miss Thing milk it for a singsongy (and X-rated) pop melody called “Dude”; the hip-hop-styled Baby Cham chats over it gruffly to produce the brilliant “Vitamin S.”
Diwali, Coolie, and other riddims are material for the Greensleeves comp The Biggest Rhythms. Riddims sans songs reveal the recipe used by Jamaican producers like Don “Vendetta” Bennett and Stephen “Lenky” Marsden: deep bass (it’s dancefloor friendly), a dash of synth-born sound effects (the subtler and stranger, the better), and funky names (international connotations desired: Bollywood, Amharic, Egyptian). Some riddims have the tuneful feel of a movie score (Cordell “Scatta” Burrell’s C4 is for that scene in which the hero gets amped for his mission). Others—riding the Diwali wave—are pared down and clap heavy, consisting of simple guitar licks (Good to Go) or bass drum (Sign, which complements intense drumming with snapping and faint jungle sounds).
Pared-down riddims leave artists plenty of room for interpretation—and thus evoke the mantra of dancehall: Be original, or don’t bother. Dancehall artists can’t hide behind a hot beat or expensive producer; without unique personas or chatting styles, they’re out of luck.
“The Riddims Method: Jamaican Dancehall Has Arrived, Secure in Its Identity, Preposterous in Its Syncopation” by Tim Finney
Sterling Clover’s review of Sizzla’s Rise to the Occasion